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Arts & Culture 3-d Display at Spanish Museum Sheds Light on Jewish ‘golden Age’

December 23, 2002
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The silhouettes of men in hooded white robes praying in the synagogue looked like ghosts from the past.

They removed a Torah from the ark and carried it around the sanctuary decorated with Islamic-style arches.

A rabbi ascended to the covered pulpit in the center chanting Hebrew hymns.

The phantom figures may not have been real, but their heritage is.

They are part of an animated, three-dimensional display at a major government-sponsored exhibit on the life of Jews in medieval Spain.

There are more than 300 works of art and relics from Spain and abroad in “Sefarad: Memories of a Lost Land.”

It is one of the most comprehensive attempts yet undertaken in this country to recreate the “Golden Age” of medieval Spanish Jewry — or Sefarad, as it is commonly referred to in Spain.

People have been standing in long lines to get a glimpse of the free exhibit at Toledo’s San Marco Cultural Center.

According to organizer Ruth Fernandez, more than 40,000 people have already visited the exhibit.

Exhibition curator Isidro Bango said the exhibition was important because “it’s our own culture. Sefarad is part of Spanish culture.”

Bango, an art professor at the University of Madrid, said the exhibit was designed with non-Jewish Spaniards in mind, and not only because of their widespread ignorance about Spain’s history before the expulsion of Jews in 1492.

The bearded, deep-voiced lecturer said Spaniards should get to know “Sefarad” because it is in their blood.

“All of us probably have some Jewish blood in our veins, but our ancestors had to hide it, and this was a tragedy,” Bango said.

Despite the universal nature of the exhibit, it is also fascinating for Jews and others more familiar with Jewish history.

Bango found sources in Spanish archives on the type of prayer robes worn by medieval Jews.

That’s why the clothing shown in the holographic display is different from what many rabbis wear today, which is based on what Jews wore elsewhere in Europe, he said.

“If we had listened to a rabbi, we would have been wrong,” Bango said.

At the entrance to the exhibit, the visitor is welcomed with a wall-sized panoramic video telling how Jews are thought to have come to the Iberian Peninsula as far back as 2,000 years ago.

A fictional Jewish immigrant describes his delight at finding a lush land of sun, hills and gleaming shores that reminds him of his historic homeland.

Inside, the exhibit is peppered with artifacts of Jewish life — kiddush cups, wedding contracts, rare manuscripts, a Star of David belt buckle, a brass case for phylacteries and an astrolabe an astronomical measuring device with Hebrew lettering.

One highlight is the famed Codex Hilleli, on loan from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

It is thought all other copies of the Hebrew Scriptures created in Spain were once corrected against this codex.

Another treasure is a 500-year-old Torah scroll — flakes of parchment precariously held together at the edges — from the provincial archive of Huesca in the Pyrenees Mountains.

A visitor who has been to the magnificently — and expensively — reconstructed Halevi synagoge in Toledo’s Jewish Quarter might be startled by the model of the synagogue in the exhibit. In the actual synagogue, the intricate patterns and Hebrew lettering on the walls are all white or light brown, whereas in the model, they burst forth in many colors. Bango said the synagogue’s colorful decoration was another example of research for the exhibit revealing new information on medieval Jewish Spain.

As Toledo resident Javier Casado, 28, inspected the synagogue model, the strains of “Shalom Aleichem” could be heard from speakers in the ceiling.

“The Jewish community played a very important role in Toledo’s history,” said Casado, a researcher at the National Archive.

He added that he hoped the exhibit would be reminder “that what happened 500 years ago should never happen again.” Spanish-born Angel Maranon of San Rafael, Calif., toured the exhibit while visiting his native land with his American wife.

“This was a very dark period in our history. The more that is exposed, the better,” he said. Maranon said he believes anti-Semitic attitudes still exist in Spain, noting the country’s foot-dragging before it finally established diplomatic relations with Israel in the 1980s.

“What they’re doing is right, but I think it’s still too little, too late,” said his wife, Sandra Ponek.

While the exhibit celebrates the flourishing of Jewish cultural and religious life, it also doesn’t shy away from the bitter ending — beginning with riots and forced conversions in the century before the expulsion.

The “crucifixion” of the Holy Child of La Guardia — a fabricated story about a Toledo boy killed by Jews and Marranos for morbid ritual purposes — is shown in a painting from the Madrid National Historical Archive. Bango said he wants to challenge this story; he says belief in it is still prevalent among many Spaniards, including senior Roman Catholic clergy.

A painting of a 1656 Auto da Fe, a mass execution of “Judaizers” and other supposed heretics, leaves the visitor haunted by the enduring power of the Inquisition. But visitors can also study Queen Cristina de Bourbon’s 1834 decree disbanding the tribunal.

And at the exit, a wall map shows places where Sephardic Jews fled and built new lives, from Goa, India to Savannah, Ga. and Newport, R.I.

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