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Exhibit’s Dramatic Tales Shed Light on Jewish Survival in Medieval Spain

June 2, 2003
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For many people, a mention of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry tends to evoke images of learned rabbis like Maimonides or Judah Halevi, who lived in the intellectual centers of Cordoba, Tudela and Toledo.

But Samuel Aben Hayon lived in a frontier outpost near the southern Spanish city of Murcia. And he was the kind of person who today would feel right at home in the Israeli or U.S. special forces — or perhaps the Mossad.

Aben Hayon was an “alfaqueque” — an adventurer who was part mercenary, part spy, part contrabandist. He was hired by local rulers to liberate captives in foreign lands and to do a bit of wheeling and dealing on the side.

The life of Aben Hayon is one of the personal stories highlighting an exhibit in Murcia’s Almudi Palace about the daily lives of Jews in medieval Spain. It is being held as part of the “Murcia: Three Cultures” festival aimed at promoting tolerance among Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The exhibit, with the Hebrew title “Gvulim,” or Borders, is meant to show how Jews in that period crossed all sorts of boundaries — political, commercial, cultural — said exhibit organizer Jose Ramon Ayaso.

The jewel of the items on display is a decorated codex of the Tanach with a full commentary by the 11th- century French rabbi known as Rashi. The Hebrew lettering on the cover page imitates the florid Arabic script of medieval Islamic calligraphers.

As was the custom, the book was bought in France and illustrated in Spain, according to Ayaso, who is a professor in Hebrew and Aramaic studies at the University of Granada.

Unlike many other exhibitions commemorating medieval Jewish life — which are being held with increasing frequency in Spain — this one also emphasizes secular objects that Jews would have used in their trades.

Next to the saga of Aben Hayon is a large wooden crossbow of the type he would have carried on his forays.

Under contract to the ruler of Murcia, which at the time was a self-governed kingdom, Aben Hayon rescued Christian captives across the border in Granada, which was the territory of a Muslim sovereign.

“I wanted to show that Jewish life in this period was very cosmopolitan,” said Ayaso.

“Of course there were laws and walls creating separations,” he said. “But having a different creed didn’t always prevent Jews from enjoying the privileges of commercial prosperity and bureaucratic office.

But judging from the character’s stories — which were written for the exhibit but based on historical information — it often did. Becoming a “converso,” a convert to Christianity, could be a fast track to success.

In the early 1400s, Alfonso Yanez Cohen was appointed by the Murcia City Council to be in charge of verifying prescriptions and credentials of the region’s pharmacists.

“Baptism has opened many doors for me,” the story says. “But when I look in the mirror, I see a frightened Jew — a Jew who has witnessed terrible happenings lately in our dear ‘Sefarad.'”

Another character in the exhibit is Luis de Torres, a converso who went on Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. Ayaso said Torres was taken as a translator because of his knowledge of Hebrew, Arab and Aramaic and because Columbus wasn’t sure what he’d find — perhaps the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Aben Hayon’s story in the exhibition, written as if penned in 1492, the year of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, fondly recalls a life “living in the wild, scoffing at the law and hairy escapes down narrow gorges and dark alleys.”

But he concludes: “My world is the world of yesterday . . . I’ve packed my backs and I’m getting out of here before the July 31 deadline.”

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