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Around the Jewish World Spanish Kids Learn Jewish Heritage by Baking Matzah — in September

September 8, 2006
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It doesn’t look like matzah. It doesn’t feel like matzah. And it certainly doesn’t taste like matzah. But for dozens of non-Jewish kids, the doughy patties that they made with flour and water — and then fried on an electric hot plate — represented the unleavened bread Jews eat on Passover.

At least, that’s what they were told on a recent Sunday morning at a matzah-baking class in this city that was a hub of medieval Jewish Spain, a place where Jews both thrived and suffered.

The class was held last weekend on European Jewish Heritage Day, when cities across Europe seek to honor their once-vibrant Jewish cultures.

In Spain, 23 cities and towns take part in the annual day. The main events were in the cities that have preserved their juderias, the quarters where Jews lived until the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Visitors today can see ancient synagogues restored and turned into museums of Jewish culture and history. In some juderias, doorposts still have holes where mezuzahs once were affixed.

The Network of Juderias sponsors tours, seminars, concerts and Sephardi culinary tastings on Jewish heritage day. In Toledo, the city with the biggest juderia, participants were offered tours of the district on Segway scooters, and free admission to the Sinagoga del Transito — the old Samuel HaLevi Synagogue that, like many others, still bears its post-expulsion name.

“I wanted my children to know the culture of their city,” said Luisa Ruiz, one parent whose child was learning how to make matzah. “And Jewish culture formed — no, it forms — part of their city, because when we walk through the city, we walk through areas that used to be Jewish.”

The instructors conceded that the matzah was far from authentic — and that, yes, the class was held nowhere near Passover.

Instructor David Calvo said they were adapting the baking process to make it easier for Toledo’s kids to get a feel for a Jewish custom.

“It’s a nice custom with plenty of history and importance in Jewish culture, and in Toledo the Jewish heritage is one of the most important that we have,” he said.

“I suppose that we Toledanos all have Jewish ancestors. I probably have Jewish blood,” said instructor Juan Carlos Villacampa, with dark curly hair pulled back in a ponytail. “It’s important for people to know the past so that in the future they will understand that cultures are mixtures of people and that they should be tolerant.”

Jewish communities in Madrid advertised the event, but not a single Jewish child was to be found at the baking class.

As he mashed the dough with his hands, Ivan Izquierdo, 11, showed that he had at least listened to the explanation about what matzah is.

“It’s like bread, but without yeast,” he said. “The Jews eat it.”

After kneading the dough, the children were told to roll it flat and season it with herbs, poppy seeds and sesame seeds, then place it on the greased hot plate. The final product bore a greater resemblance to a pizza base than the Israelite bread of affliction.

Victor Manuel Martin, another instructor, said organizers do try to use kosher ingredients, so that no one feels “uncomfortable or offended.”

Bemused might be a better way to describe the reaction of an American Jewish tourist who stepped out of the Transito synagogue and stopped to watch.

“It doesn’t strike me as a piece of authentic Jewish culture, but perhaps that’s what you would expect” with no significant Jewish community left in Toledo, said Ed Frankel of Cincinnati.

Frankel said he also happened to be in Europe last year on Jewish heritage day. But then he was visiting Amsterdam, a city that still has a significant Jewish community, where he said “the non-Jewish community was able to get a better sense of what it means to be Jewish.”

Indeed, Jewish Toledo never recovered from the expulsion five centuries ago. Though the city’s juderia was the biggest in Spain, most of Spain’s remaining 35,000 Jews are concentrated in Madrid, Barcelona, the Costa del Sol and the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast.

While the synagogue museums attest to the vibrant Jewish life that once existed in Spain’s biggest juderia, they also are a reminder of the many anti-Jewish riots and massacres that occurred here. One of Europe’s worst anti-Semitic myths — El Nino de la Guardia — involved a Christian child who supposedly was abducted here by Jews and crucified. As a result, Jews were tortured and the boy was sainted, even though his remains were never found.

“We don’t tell the children these things because they might be frightened,” said Martin, the instructor. “We try to focus on it from a more cultural and more positive point of view. There’s really no point in talking about those black legends, at least not with children who wouldn’t understand very well.”

“They should have fun and get their hands messy making unleavened bread,” he continued, “and then they should eat it.”

Which they did. And though it wasn’t matzah, it actually tasted pretty good.

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