Onetime Sephardic Towns See Euro Signs in Revival of Lost Jewish Heritage

Hopes High for Legacy — and Lucrative Tourism Trade

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By Cnaan Liphshiz

Published April 10, 2014.
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(JTA) — In the center of the medieval Portuguese town of Medelim, two newlyweds in Sephardic wedding clothes are serenaded by a musical ensemble performing Ladino music.

Nearby, several members of the knights Templar march in white capes and chain mail while a harlequin on stilts prances around carrying a pole topped with a Star of David.

The scene may have been familiar to someone living in Medelim 500 years ago, when the town had a large population of Sephardic Jews. But today there are no Jews in Medelim, their memory evoked solely by actors hired to play period roles during the municipally organized “Jewish and Christian Passover,” an annual cultural event held for the second time last month.

Occurring just months after both Portugal and Spain introduced legislation to naturalize Sephardic Jews, the festival is part of a growing embrace of Iberian Jewish heritage. Both countries have seen a surge in festivals celebrating Jewish culture, often timed to Jewish holidays such as Passover and Sukkot.

“In Portugal, there is much ignorance on how important Jews have been to our cultural roots, so events that familiarize people with Jewish traditions are welcome,” said Jose Antonio Oliveira, a geography lecturer at the Lusophone University of Humanities and Technologies in Lisbon who participated in a panel discussion at the Medelim event.

But there is also a financial aspect to the embrace of Jewish heritage. Local officials hope the events will raise the town’s profile and attract tourists.

Medelim’s tourism department hired Mor Karbasi, an Israel-born rising star on the world music scene, to perform in Ladino. Kosher wine, cheese and matzah were on sale in several stalls of the medieval-themed market set up around the festival compound. A boutique hotel called Sefarad had its grand opening.

“This Jewish holiday and the popularity of restaurants and artisans are ideal for distinguishing Medelim in the region, which will generate economic value for our populations,” Albano Pires Marques, the president of Medelim’s local council, told Portuguese media at the event.

Medelim’s Passover event was one of several Jewish-themed celebrations held recently in Iberian towns with no Jewish populations.

In October, the towns of San Juan and Rio Jerte in northwestern Spain held their first Sukkot festivals featuring Jewish foods, a crafts market and a fake Jewish wedding.

Last year, the Spanish town of Ribadavia hosted its first kosher Passover seder in centuries. Led by a Jewish historian, the dinner was attended by a mostly non-Jewish crowd and organized by local tourism officials who charged guests $40 a plate.


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