Jewish History Amid The Olive Groves


Olive oil is astoundingly cheap in Spain. When I visited the family olive farm of a friend in Provence a few years ago, the father was horrified and disbelieving when I told him how much I’d paid for a liter of the extra-virgin stuff back in Barcelona: about $3. “That’s impossible,” he sputtered, as he stuck $15 price tags on his hand-picked specialty oils.

It’s possible because so much of Spain is devoted to the elixir — and nowhere more so than Jaén, a provincial capital in the Andalusian highlands that is considered the world capital of olive oil. With a population of about 120,000 and many more students at its university, Jaén (pronounced ha-EN) is perched amid the Santa Catalina Mountains at the geographical center of Andalusia.

Jaén also boasts history aplenty — including centuries of Jewish presence that have placed Jaén on the official Spanish Sephardic itinerary route (Red de Juderías Españolas). Amid the vertiginous alleys are views from plazas where Jewish merchants gathered a thousand years ago, gazing over the same olive groves that have brought Jaén renown. (Those alleys are also useful for working off calories consumed at local eateries, where oil is employed in wanton quantities.)

A view of Jaén with the Cathedral in view. Wikimedia Commons

While Jaén was bombed by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War, more and more travelers are discovering the treasures that remain. Among them are a towering fortress-castle, Santa Catalina, an icon of the city with views over the plains for miles. Jaén is also home to Europe’s largest and best-preserved Arabic baths, which date to the 11th century and were reportedly used by medieval Jews before Shabbat.

To get to the baths, you cross a sunny, palm-fringed plaza and enter the Vilardompardo Palace, a Renaissance landmark whose excavation unearthed the earlier structures. The Palace itself houses a kind of ethnographic museum; white stucco, wood-beamed rooms showcase the traditional Andalusian lifestyle with vintage furniture, pottery, and so forth.

The palace and baths are located in the heart of Jaén’s ancient judería, or Jewish quarter. Jews lived and worked in the tangle of medieval alleys between Santa Cruz (why is Santa Cruz so often a Jewish street in Spain?), Rostro, and San Andrés Streets and particularly along the tiny, dark alley known as Gato — a passage useful for a community that kept its head down.

Today the Jewish presence is tangible but subtle; nearby Plaza de los Huérfanos, surrounded by prosaic modern high-rise buildings bears, a Star of David at its center, along with an inscription memorializing the lost Jewish community. Less subtle is the proud menorah, an homage to the diaspora, that delineates the point where the Baeza Gate once welcomed residents to the judería. Jaén is in the process of restoring its Jewish quarter, which could include more ruins thought to be ritual baths and foundations of what may have been a cemetery.

And throughout this neighborhood, more than one Catholic church has synagogue roots, including one on San Andrés, whose distinctive arches strongly suggest Sephardic temple architecture. The atmospheric stone Chapel of Saint Andrew bears a Star of David in its sanctuary, and the Santa Cruz church, part of a convent complex, was long referred to as the “old synagogue.”

Farther south, outside the judería, many visitors orient themselves at Jaén’s magnificent Renaissance-era cathedral; with its twin-domed spires, it is one of the prettiest churches in Andalusia. The ugliness lies in the details — in the nasty depictions of Jews amid the artwork within, and on the square outside where Inquisition brutality reached its zenith, prompting the flight or conversion of Jaén Jews.

Their ancestors had settled here as early as the 600s or before, reaching a population of 1,500 during the golden age of Al-Andalus, when Jews enjoyed a cosmopolitan lifestyle under tolerant Moorish rule.

The most famous Jew of Jaén was a doctor and community leader named Hasday Ibn Shaprut, who was born here in 910 and who cultivated close ties between local Jews and the ruling Caliphate. His family home, off the Plaza Magdalena on one of Jaén’s oldest streets, is marked with a Star of David.

Ibn Shaprut would have been sorrowful to learn of his community’s demise — but happy to feel the lively energy of his hometown in the 21st century, as locals increasingly rediscover a storied, multiethnic past. He would doubtless recognize Jaén’s ancient plazas, cool stone alleys, and the timeless sight of green mountains rising over a terracotta cityscape.

And if he bit into a tortilla — the iconic Spanish snack that translates as “omelet,” but is made with enough olive oil to fuel a Prius — he might feel right at home.