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Around the Jewish World in the Land of the Spanish Expulsion, Jewish Life Has Both Past and Present

June 7, 2001
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When Spanish King Juan Carlos received leaders of the European Council of Jewish Communities at his palace in Madrid earlier this month, he greeted them with a powerful message.

He welcomed the Jewish presence in Spain and said he could not understand why his predecessors had signed the 1492 order expelling Jews from the country.

Spain — Sefarad — holds a special meaning for Jews today.

It was in Spain that medieval Jews enjoyed a golden age of commerce, medicine, scholarship and court life. And next to the Shoah, the expulsion from Spain is remembered as the most traumatic historic event to shake European Jewry.

This symbolism is one reason the ECJC held its second General Assembly here over the weekend, drawing from all corners of the continent some 700 Jews committed to building a new European Jewish identity following the destruction of the Holocaust and the collapse of communism.

“There is a moving significance of convening in Spain,” said G.A. chair Diana Lazarus, of Britain. “Five hundred years after the expulsion, here we are again.”

Underscoring this symbolic character, the central session of the G.A. was held in Toledo, the ancient political, intellectual and spiritual capital of Spain that by the 12th century was home to 12,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in Spain.

Hundreds of Jews from Russia, Romania, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria and beyond crowded beneath the horseshoe arches of the Santa Maria la Blanca synagogue. Built in 1203, the synagogue was used after the expulsion as a church, dance hall, military warehouse and a home for reformed prostitutes.

“It is really an amazing feeling to be here,” said Argentine-born Alberto Senderey, Community Development director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Senderey’s relatives emigrated from Salonika, Greece, to Ukraine and eventually to Latin America, but their roots are in Toledo.

“There are tombstones here with the Hebrew version of my family name,” he said.

After the expulsion, Jews weren’t allowed to return to Spain openly until the late 19th century. Only in the past three decades — particularly since the 1975 death of longtime fascist dictator Francisco Franco — has Jewish life been able to rebuild and expand.

In 1978, Jews were again recognized as full citizens.

Some 30,000 Jews live in Spain today, residing in Madrid, Barcelona and 10 other cities.

Community members include Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe and Jews from the former Spanish colonies in Morocco, many of whose ancestors were Sephardim expelled 500 years ago. There are also a number of recent emigres from Latin America.

Juan Carlos has taken a personal interest in backing a Jewish revival. In 1992, he visited the synagogue in Madrid as a sign of reconciliation during a series of nationwide events sponsored by the government to mark the 500th anniversary of the expulsion.

And on his travels around the world, the king told the ECJC, he encountered many Sephardic Jews who told him they still kept the heavy iron keys to the houses in Toledo their ancestors had been forced to flee when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Even non-Jewish Spaniards have begun taking an interest in the Jewish history of their country.

“If we don’t show and teach the past, we can hardly create the future,” said Assumpcio Hosta, a non-Jew who helped create a Jewish museum in the town of Girona, where no Jews live today, along with a series of Jewish historical itineraries around Spain.

Hosta said her museum draws some 100,000 visitors a year — only 5 percent to 7 percent of whom are Jewish.

Likewise, there is no Jewish community in Toledo today, but, as Jewish travel writer Alan Tigay put it, “Toledo probably has the world’s largest stock of Jewish memories and, on any given day, the largest concentration of Jews. Jewish sights are an important part of Toledo’s legacy; Jewish souvenirs are as common as in New York.”

Jews settled in Toledo as early as the fourth century, and by the middle ages the walled, golden-toned city was a flourishing center of Jewish intellectual and scholarly life.

It was a city, Judah Ben Schlomo al Harizi wrote in the 12th century, “filled with the enchantment of domination and adorned with the sciences, showing its beauty to the people and the princes. There are so many synagogues of incomparable beauty!” Among famous Toledo Jews of the time were the biblical scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra, and the physician and philosopher Judah Halevi.

Only two synagogues survive — the Santa Maria la Blanca synagogue and the magnificent 14th century synagogue known as El Transito. Both have long been revered as national monuments and today are major tourist attractions.

El Transito synagogue was built as the private synagogue of Samuel Levi Abulafia, who served as treasurer to King Pedro the Cruel. Its magnificently ornamented interior, featuring rich geometric and floral carvings and exquisite Hebrew calligraphy, serves as a witness to the glory of Sephardic Jewry’s Golden Age.

A Sephardic museum, incorporated into the synagogue complex, illustrates the history of Sephardic Jews and draws as many as 200,000 visitors a year, most of them non-Jews. Souvenir shops throughout town feature plates, painted tiles and other keepsakes decorated with Stars of David and menorah motifs.

This month, as the ECJC delegates were meeting inside the Santa Maria la Blanca synagogue, a local tour guide was taking a group of English tourists through the medieval Jewish quarter.

She was clearly unaware of the ECJC conference — but her spiel to the tourists echoed a similar message.

“There aren’t any Jews in Toledo,” she told them, as she led them under arches and through small alley ways. “But they are coming back. There are apartments for rent and houses for sale. There will be a Jewish community here again.”

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