Every Day, A Jewish Celebration


There is so much raucous nightlife on Ibiza that it can be a challenge to appreciate how very tranquila this island can be. Best known for its international D.J. scene and jet-set parties, Ibiza — the liveliest of Spain’s Balearic islands — is also a paradise of limpid turquoise coves, sun-baked villages and stunning Mediterranean vistas.

Centuries of Byzantine, Roman and Catalan history color the winding lanes of Eivissa, as both the island and its main city are known in the local tongue. While nightclubs take a hit from the austere economic climate, local officials are encouraging visitors to discover the island’s history — and stay, of course, for nights of dancing.

The faded white buildings of Ibiza Town seem to shimmer atop the winding fortress walls that plunge into a sparkling blue sea. Sant Antoni de Portmany, on Ibiza’s western coast, is the island’s other urban center; it is home to a large concentration of nightclubs (and to my mind, less historic charm). But in between — and all around the island’s craggy periphery — are numerous medieval forts, classical necropoli, frescoed Byzantine churches, and other vestiges of the island’s ancient past.

This summer, the Ibiza tourism office is hosting guided bus and walking tours on alternating Saturdays through August. The bus tour, which ends with a gastronomic tasting of local cuisine, winds through the Phoenician settlement of Sa Caleta and the Punic village of Ses Paisses, which boasts Roman tombs and an ethnographic museum. The walking tour includes a visit to the dramatic mountain at Puig des Molins, site of a burial ground from the seventh century B.C.E., and ends with a drama performance near the archaeological museum.

While modern-day Ibiza may be for the young and youthful of spirit, tradition is still very much a part of life here. Every June, the entire island gathers on the beaches for the Feast of Sant Joan, an age-old Catalan ritual marking the summer solstice. Bonfires are lit; guitars are strummed; wine is consumed; and dancing goes on, as it will every night all summer, until well past dawn.

The joyous spirit that draws so many from around the world to Ibiza finds its perfect expression in chasidism — or so says Rabbi Yoel Kraus, a.k.a. the “Dancing Rabbi,” who has led the Chabad-affiliated Ibiza Moshiach Center for nine years.

This being Ibiza, the Center’s website features a link to its own dance mix. The Moshiach Center also has a resident yogi and Judaica artist, sacred dance workshops, “spiritual life coaching,” and the ever-popular kabbalah classes — all of which draw not only local Jews and summer visitors, but also non-Jews interested in Ibiza’s spiritual dimension.

“It’s a center that’s open to all people,” said Rabbi Kraus. “The original message of the chasidut is very relevant to Ibiza. Celebration is not only Shabbat; we celebrate every day.”

And celebrate they do: reliable numbers of sun-starved Northern Europeans, of course, but also Jews from the Americas, more and more Russians, and Sephardic families from around the Mediterranean who are embracing their roots (frequently evident in last names like Matute and Mateu) are part of the jubilation.

With more Israeli clubgoers each year, you hear a lot of Hebrew on Ibiza — though that’s hardly the language of the historic Jewish community, which has existed in the Balearics for well over 1,000 years. Ibizan Jews spoke Ladino, a variant of Spanish, along with Catalan dialects particular to these islands.

While there’s evidence that Balearic Jewry may have persisted after the Inquisition vanquished mainland communities, the Jewish presence over the last few centuries has been minimal. But as Kraus attests, a wave of expat Jewish settlers to the island has renewed interest in the Ibizan Jewish legacy.

Ibiza’s other well-known legacy is its artistic one, one that flowered in the 1950s and ’60s, as painters and bohemians flocked to the free-spirited island. In addition to the galleries and glass tallers (workshops) of Ibiza Town, Ibiza’s art scene is celebrated in a major summer exhibition, “Contemporary Ibiza 2013,” slated for July 12-18 at the central yacht marina.

At the end of a long, sunny day, though, Ibizan summer is about beaches and parties. Many of the loveliest beaches are on the island’s south side; Ses Figueretes and Platja d’en Bosses are among the most popular, but there are numerous calas (coves) where you can sunbathe in total solitude, and others that are popular with the gay and nudist crowds.

If hedonism frequently tips over into excess, locals take it in stride and see the world through rose-colored Mediterranean lenses. “In Ibiza there is a special magic,” said Rabbi Kraus. “Even in the islands around it, there isn’t the same kind of magic.

“In the Kabbalah we know that in the body there are points of joy, points of energy. The whole world is like one big body, and Ibiza is like one big divine center of joy. It helps to move a lot of joy around the world.”