Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Iyar 5764 - April 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Jewish Sites in Spain Today

by M. Samsonowitz

Part III

The first part discussed Besalu and Gerona. The second part discussed Barcelona and the history of Toledo. The visit to Toledo is described at the beginning of this last part.

The Two Remaining Synagogues in Toledo

It was an hour's travel out of Madrid into the mountains to reach Toledo. This towering city was the seat of government as far back as the year 500, even before the Visigoths living on the Spanish peninsula converted to Christianity. The city is ancient and the old walls surrounding it for over a thousand years are still in existence today. Many of the buildings and homes go back 800 and even 1000 years and the narrow streets are cobblestoned. One right away feels he has entered another historical era.

Jose parked his car and we commenced to walk across the small town. It turned out that Jose knew the city back and forth, having visited it dozens of times over the years. We walked across town and passed a majestic cathedral in front of a large plaza. Jose mentioned that this cathedral had been converted from a former mosque. Autos-de-fe (burning at the stake) had been celebrated in the Toledo Plaza in front of it, and we can only imagine how many Jews went up in smoke at that very spot, Hashem yeracheim.

It was in this same plaza that several years ago the Spanish government apologized to the Jews for the Expulsion that had taken place 500 years before. However, King Juan Carlos did not participate in that event.

Our first destination was the Transito Sinagoga, which was converted into a Museum of Sephardic Jewry about ten years ago. They carried out extensive renovations recently and it had just recently been reopened to the public when we were there.

As we passed through a narrow street, I stopped in my tracks. In one store window was the largest variety of medieval weaponry that I had ever seen in my life. Displayed in the window were daggers, swords, spears, javelins, sabers, guns, muskets, crossbows and battle-axes. (Looking up these words in my thesaurus, I discovered there is actually a kind of weapon called a "Toledo.") I had never seen such a collection.

We carried on, and to my consternation I found another such shop on the next street. A few doors down there was yet a third shop. I asked Jose in amazement, "Do they butcher each other all day long here?"

He explained that Toledo is a city for tourists and most of the stores are gift shops for tourists. Tourists relish buying some dagger or medieval sword, and they go home and hang it on their wall as proof that they have visited Toledo. I quickly noticed that the prices for everything were sky- high. Mugs with the name "Toledo" on them were tagged with the exaggerated price of 12 euro ($15).

I found this a riveting confirmation of our portrayal of Eisov -- the quintessence of shfichus domim. If you want to take home a memento of Christian Spain, what could typify it better than a dagger or sword?

I had the same experience when we were searching for a simple mug to take home as a memento of Barcelona and Spain. To our surprise, we could find nothing we were willing to bring into our home. Every one of the hundreds of mugs we saw had on it either a church, a bull (bullfighting), or a Spanish dancer. As one friend wryly commented to us -- the three are the symbols of avodoh zora, shefichas domim and gilui arroyos.

The other touristy item which one sees all over Toledo are their famous gold- filled jewelry and plates with stunning geometric designs, similar to the old Muslim architectural style which was popular here in the 10-11th centuries.


We headed for the old Transito Synagogue which is today the Museum for the History of the Jews in Spain. The building was originally built by Don Samuel Halevi Abulafia, the king's treasurer, around 1357 (5117) and was distinguished for the beauty of its arches, high ceiling and elaborate wall engravings. It is decorated with passages from Tehillim and beautiful dedicatory inscriptions to the benefactor and builder of the synagogue. Don Samuel also has a street in the city named after him.

This distinguished courtier met a sad fate: He was suddenly arrested in 1360 at the order of King Pedro, and removed to Seville, where he died at the hands of his torturers. His house is still in existence and was inhabited for a while by the famous Spanish painter El Greco. The house is today houses a museum of El Greco's paintings.

After the Expulsion from Spain, the synagogue was converted into a church.

In 1964 (5724) it was returned to the Jews of Spain, who restored the women's gallery and other rooms and turned it into a museum. There are no Jews living in Toledo today.

When you enter the museum, you are in a cavernous room which was the original beis knesses. The building is immense, and one can see that hundreds must have been able to pray there.

The museum has several floors, with each room containing displays covering a different period of Jewish life in Spain. Some of the displays involve Jewish history and others describe Jewish living. All kinds of interesting Spanish Jewish artifacts are displayed, including publications such as Mei'am Loez in Ladino, which all the Spanish Jews spoke at one time. There are even the ancient grammar books of Donash ibn Labrut and an original Kuzari.

I was not happy that the displays were all in Spanish, although they had cards in a folder on the wall of each room which provided English, French and German translations. For an extra fee one can rent headphones that provide simultaneous translation next to the displays.

It was interesting and I regretted that we didn't have more time to spend looking over the displays.

Our next step was the Santa Maria church which had formerly been the Ibn Shoshan shul. The Inquisition had taken the shul over even before the Expulsion. For centuries it was a church, but in today's secular climate it is no longer in use.

The design clearly followed a Muslim style. The Spaniards demolished the aron hakodesh and replaced it with Christian scenes. This shul was also wide and spacious, testifying to the large number of Jews living in Toledo.

Jose pointed out a cross. The handle of the cross is located high up, giving the appearance of a sword. He explained that this particular kind of cross was the symbol of the dreaded Inquisition.

Then Jose led us to the edge of the Jewish Quarter. Down below the slope of the mountain was a gurgling brook. The opposite fertile hills showed verdant fields and stately haciendas. It was a pastoral scene that aroused feelings of serenity, calm and contentment.

Jose pointed to a large building next to where we were standing. It was the somber and silent San Juan de los Reyes Monasterio, another building no longer in use. He pointed to black chains hanging on the walls. He explained that during the pogroms of 1391 (5151), the Christian citizens captured Jews and hanged many of them by their wrists from the walls, watching them writhe in agony, and suffer dislocated limbs until they died. A dead Jew wasn't enough; the Spanish wanted to be sure they died a lingering, painful death. He said that those chains were used on many occasions in the century leading up to the Expulsion in 1492 (5252).

I stared gloomily at those walls, trying to imagine how many Jews had ended their lives writhing in agony there. How many of the Rosh's grandchildren had ended their lives on this wall? It seemed to me that the Spanish could compete with the Nazis. I wondered that the conscience of no one in Spain today is sufficiently bothered to remove this evidence of earlier Spanish barbarism.

Jose mentioned that the miserable night of murder in 1391 gave birth to a famous Spanish idiom. When one is feeling miserable and unwell, he is said to be suffering from a "nocha Toledana" (Toledo night).

It was time to go. We still had to go back to Madrid, and with the terrible congestion for which Spanish roads are known we had to make sure we would be back in time for Shabbos. On the way to our car we passed the Sucodovar Plaza. The plaza was humming with people eating in cafes, conversing with each other, walking around.

Jose told us that in this plaza, too, a number of autos-de-fe had been celebrated. This plaza, too, had seen its quota of Jewish Conversos burned at the stake. (Note that until the Expulsion, both Jews and Conversos lived in Spain. The Jews practiced their religion openly, though they were subject to decrees and persecution. The Conversos were officially Christian, but they were under constant suspicion, threats and occasional riots, later known as pogroms in Eastern Europe.)

Toledo -- what a beautiful town! Yet as I left I felt the taste of the Inquisition in my mouth.

Potential tourists looking for a tour guide can get in touch with Jose , who said he would be willing to take tourists to Toledo. You can get in touch with him at +91-478-1086. He speaks Spanish and a little English.

The Shuls of Madrid

We davened at the main Sinagoga Beit Yaakov in Madrid that night.

We met there Rav Shimon Toledano, a famous chazan from Rishon Letzion, who had come to Madrid for a hachnosas sefer Torah celebration that would be held at the shul on Sunday. Telling him about our visit to Toledo, he told us of the unusual closeness and spirituality which he feels when he visits Toledo. Unlike those of us whose roots are in Eastern Europe, to him this is the home of his ancestors. He can recount his lineage going back to his original ancestor, Rav Daniel Toledano, who of course lived in Toledo.

Who is living in Spain today?

It appears that most members of the Spanish Jewish community today originally came from Spanish Morocco. Many don't realize that for many years Spain had sovereignty over several cities at the tip of North Africa, including Tangier, Tetouan, Melilla and Ceuta. For instance, Rav Ben Dehan is from Ceuta, his wife is from Melilla, and the secular head of the Jewish community, Mr. Yisraeli, is from Tetouan.

Today, all these cities are under Moroccan sovereignty and only Ceuta and Melilla are still retained by Spain. (These two cities daily tempt many black and Arab inhabitants from the African continent to smuggle themselves to the European continent to find their fortune there. Many of these end up as corpses floating on waves.)

Together with the Spanish Moroccan Jews are a large number of South American Jews who have recently left the increasingly lawless and economically nonviable South American countries for what they hope is a better life in a Spanish- speaking country. South American Jews whose parents had European passports were able to make the transition without much difficulty, although it should be noted that the rate of unemployment in Spain is double that of the rest of Europe.

The Jewish community is traditional or at best modern Orthodox. The Jewish elementary school is a rather wishy- washy affair, and anyone who is truly religious sends his children out of Spain for high school to the Jewish high school in Gibraltar (where Spanish and English are both spoken).

A small beachhead of Torah in Madrid was made two years ago, when Rav Nahon, a talmid chochom from Bnei Brak who also studied in Strasbourg and Gateshead yeshivas, opened his beit midrash with funding from a Venezuelan Jew. He offers a wide range of shiurim and private chavrusa study to the locals, and is in essence their only contact with authentic, solid yeshiva-study learning. He has made several baalei tshuva and has sent several students to study in yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel. Rav Nahon is also from Spanish Morocco, and he is the son-in-law of a previous rav of Tetouan.

The Beit Midrash is located next to the Peron shul, located 45 minutes away from the large shul. We went to the Peron shul for minchah, and were left with the impression that the religious level of its worshipers was considerably higher than the mainstream one.

There is another shul in Madrid on the other side of town, which was formed primarily by Jewish Yuppies who see their Jewish identity as an important defining characteristic. On the facade of these shuls, too, there is no identification that it is a Jewish house of prayer.

Here too is the standard problem afflicting small Jewish communities all over the world: the moment someone becomes more religious, he seeks to move to a stronger Jewish community.

We noticed that, similar to the pattern all over Europe, Jews in Spain marry late and generally have only one or two children.

The governments throughout Europe are so eager for their citizens to have children, and they provide generous government incentives and tax exemptions for those who will have them. Despite all these incentives there are not many takers, and studies predict that Europe will have 90 million fewer citizens within 25 years. At the same time, Muslim immigrants are having children at record rates.

By Sunday afternoon, we were back in Jerusalem, bearing warm memories of one of the Jews' most notable exiles in their long trek through history.

Judeophobia in Spain

Spain is rife with Judeophobia, similar to most European countries. When I went for a walk with Rabbanit Nahon on Shabbos, she kept an eagle eye on the streets around us, wary of approaching hoodlums. She also mentioned that her husband -- who looks like a typical rov from Bnei Brak -- is careful to go out mainly during the two o'clock lunch break when the streets are empty.

A recent study that appeared in the Jewish Political Studies Review 15:3-4 ("Naive Spanish Judeophobia," Fall 2003, by Gustavo Perednik) concludes that one of the countries in Europe most infected with Judeophobia is Spain.

The article quotes a study on Judeophobic attitudes in several European countries, that was released towards the end of 2002 by the Anti-Defamation League. Spain came out the worst, both among the five countries under study and among another five countries considered two months earlier. In the Spanish survey, 21 percent of those interviewed were Judeophobic. A Gallup survey found that only 4 percent of Spaniards empathized with Israel regarding the conflict in the Middle East.

The article says that Spanish traditions, media, and vocabulary, even among intellectuals, point to a rooted hatred about which Spaniards are utterly naive and unaware. They believe this can be traced to a national obsession about unity and homogeneity, which is canonized in law.

Consider these indications of Spanish Judeophobia:

* Although few Spaniards had seen a Jew with their own eyes, "killing Jews" was widely considered an innocuous children's game. In some traditional fiestas and rituals passed down from generation to generation, the effigy of a Jew is derided and beaten, or even symbolically murdered.

* In 1999 a newspaper published a nonchalant article dealing with an Easter tradition in the province of Leon, where cafeterias offer special lemonade in bottles that "will be used to kill Jews."

* Spaniards' vocabulary includes many striking examples of Judeophobic expressions, which in other languages were eliminated by modern political correctness. The accepted dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy (twentieth edition, 2001) includes under "synagogue" -- a meeting for illicit purposes, and under "judiada" -- evil action. "Jew" has always included a figurative definition of "miser, usurer." (The Academy does not publish in its dictionaries the widespread negative meanings attributed to the word Nazi.)

* Of the two blood libels which are still celebrated worldwide, one is in Spain. It commemorates the confiscation in 1415 of the synagogue of Segovia and the execution of its Jewish leaders, after an earthquake was interpreted as a divine punishment for Jewish blood rituals.

* There are almost thirty popular sayings in the Spanish language in which the word Jew is used in a derogatory way.

The article also explains that Spanish Judeophobia is unique in at least six ways from its parallels in the West:

1) Its antiquity. In his classic book on Judeophobia, Edward Flannery cites that Judeophobia in Spain began in the year 589 with the Third Council of Toledo, after the conversion of King Recaredo to Christianity. Even before this conversion, Spain could boast of the first reported case of compulsory baptism which took place on the island of Minorca in 418, as a result of Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since then, Judeophobia has had an ongoing influence on Spanish society.

2) Its virulence. In 1391, during the riots stirred up by Ferrant Martinez, hundreds of Jews were murdered and entire communities were forcibly Christianized.

3) Conversos in Spain. Spanish Judeophobia was fed by the phenomenon of the Marranos, which developed in Spain as a tragic sequel to the forced baptisms. Spanish Conversos continued practicing Judaism secretly until after the eighteenth century.

4) Intellectual basis. Spanish Judeophobia was rife even among the country's foremost intellectuals. With the outstanding exception of the bard Cervantes (on whose Jewish ancestry leading historians agree), the main authors of the Golden Age of Spanish literature (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries) gave uninhibited vent to their Judeophobic inclinations. They attacked alleged Judaizers, and even complained about Jews plagiarizing them although Jews had been expelled from the country more than a century earlier. In contrast to German and French Judeophobic writings, the Spanish Judeophobic literary output includes not only fiction but also essays and political platforms.

5) Government backing. Judeophobia was more "official" in Spain than in other countries. Blood libels and sermons to the Jews were not an exclusively Spanish practice, but they were supported by the Spanish state, as they would be in Russia six hundred years later. The first Spanish blood libel took place in 1182 in Saragossa. As with the expulsion from England, Spanish Jews were banished after public opinion had been poisoned by blood libels.

6) Expulsion. Last but not least, Spain can boast of the most thorough and well-known expulsion of Jews ever. In 1492 hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled. The greatest Jewish community of the time was annihilated and remained so for almost half a millennium.

Following the Inquisition and the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, Spain remained officially Judenrein until 1869, when a new constitution, implicitly revoking the Edict, allowed private religious practice. Attempts to have this revocation made explicit failed for another century.

Spain and the Jews Today

Spain has been rebuilding and developing its ancient Jewish ghettos throughout the country, reclaiming the glory of the medieval Jewish community. Yet most of its population persists in perceiving Jews in a negative light.

The general media line is staunchly anti-Jewish and anti- Israel. The most important Spanish newspapers and TV channels unanimously bash Israel, demonizing the Jewish State in the same way the Spaniards demonized the Jewish people over centuries.

The Spanish media run according to a distinct double standard. Among the political Left, Israel-bashing comes under the rationalization that they are pro- Palestinian (namely pro-Arafat) and feel solidarity with the underdog. The fact that they do not support the Chechnians against Russia does not call for a redefinition of their standpoint. Nor does the fact that their solidarity does not leave room for other stateless peoples (Kashmirians, Kurds, Tamils, and so on). Nor does the fact that there is no solidarity with the Palestinians when Israel cannot be blamed for their misfortune, such as when they were murdered by Jordan in 1970 or evicted by Kuwait in 1991.

When Israelis are victims in terrorist attacks, Spanish newspaper editorials condemn Israel and not the attack. For instance, the news in El Pais on March 6, 2003 announced: "Eleven Palestinians die due to an Israeli operation," and only a small subtitle referred to the bus attack against Israelis that prompted the operation. The newspaper's editorial piece was entitled, "An Eye for an Eye," and claimed that the suicide attack reproduced a previous Israeli attack in which nine Palestinians had been killed. The editorial in Catholic ABC, while attacking neither the victims nor their government, affects moral equidistance by stressing that killing "from both sides" has not abated.


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