Slouching Through Catalonia, One Jewish Site at a Time

A Winding Tour of Barcelona and Girona Stirs Up Memories And Some Anger Too

Getting Lost: The author and his son take a break from their travels in Barcelona’s Jewish quarter.
Courtesy of Joshua Furst
Getting Lost: The author and his son take a break from their travels in Barcelona’s Jewish quarter.

By Joshua Furst

Published September 04, 2014, issue of September 12, 2014.

This summer, my wife and I spent our vacation in Barcelona, Spain, because a friend had offered us free lodging in the apartment her family had held onto after they fled Franco’s Spain. I’d longed to visit the city for years, mostly because of the romantic notions of the Catalan people’s anarchistic spirit that had been instilled in me by “Homage to Catalonia,” George Orwell’s memoir of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. But being the kind of traveller who lets opportunity and happenstance define his destination, I never had reason to go.

Except for the mid-century politics, I didn’t know much about the place. There was Gaudí. There were tapas. Picasso, Dalí, Miró. There was the Mediterranean and its topless beaches, topaz seas and throngs of sunburnt Brits and Germans drinking themselves silly. There was a strident, vocal separatist movement, like the Basques but with more stylish clothes, which appealed to my hope that Catalonia would be a uniquely unrepentant bastion of leftist dissidence. Since this was Spain, there was of course the Inquisition, and I knew that Nahmanides had taken part in the disputation of Barcelona. Six hundred years later, however, I didn’t expect to find much of Jewish interest in the city.

As always, when I travel, I’d purchased a guidebook and, as always, I was confronted with the existential conundrum guidebooks provoke: Do you slog through the sites, checking your map every third corner, struggling to memorize every placard and turning what was supposed to be a relaxing sojourn into an intensive, ad hoc study abroad program, or do you amble around, missing half the sites you’ll later wish you’d seen, but uncovering the city’s rhythms and textures in a way no guidebook can convey? It’s best to split the difference and outline some quests that might provide narrative and thematic heft to your travels.

Skimming the book, my wife and I noticed that Barcelona and much of Catalonia seem to be fairly obsessed with memorializing its Jewish past. The book listed numerous sites of Jewish interest in Barcelona, and 60 miles north of town, the walled city of Girona’s attractions consisted almost entirely of Judaica.

This provoked a slew of questions, chief among them: Why? What interested parties were funding these memorials and to whom were they catering? Jewish tourists? The homegrown Catalan population? Catalonian Jews? Were there any? Or like the citizenship the government offered to ancestors of the Inquisition’s refugees, were they meant to sway international public opinion, to tell the world that Spain — and Catalonia in particular — were willing to confront their ancient crimes and work toward renewing a relationship with the Jews? Most pressing to me, and most far fetched to my wife, was the question of whether there was a connection between all this and the rebellious spirit of the Catalan people, and the way they were crushed by all sides in the war.

On our second day in town, we set out to the Gothic Quarter, where the Call (pronounced cay-yay), the old Jewish section of town, once stood. Our first stop was the Barcelona City History Museum, Barcelona’s museum of the history of the city, partially housed in the royal palace of King James I, home to generations of Aragon kings. I wandered from room to room wondering in which one Nahmanides had schooled Pablo Christiani, his Dominican adversary.

“Look. Jews,” my wife said at one point. She was standing in front of a display containing mounted shards of pottery and disk-shaped oil lamps accompanied by explanatory text, none of which I could read. Luckily, we had audio tour devices, and learned that at its height, Barcelona’s Jewish population was the largest in Spain; that the Jewish people were often money lenders; that they worshipped in a place called a synagogue and visited ritual baths called mikvehs; that they didn’t work on Saturdays; that the men dedicated themselves to study and the women looked after the children; that they were persecuted and many of them fled Spain. I wondered briefly at the disjunctive sensation of hearing my own people described in the anthropological tones usually reserved for exotic, extinct tribes like the Visigoths or the Huns.

The desk clerk at the museum had given us a pamphlet mapping out a walking tour of the Call. Once we’d exhausted the museum without my having succeeded in finding the location of the disputation, we set out to wander its streets in search of the Great Synagogue, touted as the oldest in Europe. We wandered among the municipal workers in Plaça de Sant Jaume and down Carrier de Ferran in search of the narrow bent streets that would signify we’d arrived.

Turning into a maze of streets that seemed like it might take us in the right direction, we inevitably got turned around. Except for the major thoroughfares, all the streets of the Gothic Quarter are narrow and bent. It was difficult to figure out which were bent in a Jewish way and which were just bent in the standard medieval way. We wandered in circles, wondering where the Jews were. When we saw a numbered metal placard mounted on the wall of a building explaining that the stone inscription above it read “Pious Foundation by R. Samuel Ha-sardi. His light burns forever,” we realized we’d managed to stumble on the Call despite ourselves. I consulted the pamphlet and the map. We’d walked right past the synagogue.

Tracking back, we found a nondescript doorway placed like an afterthought into one of those edifices made of so many differently shaped stones that you can almost see the hundreds of masons throughout the centuries building and rebuilding and patching it together. Inside, sunk below street level, was a dark, cool cavernous space lit by dim bulbs. The floors and the walls were constructed of very old stones and the space was roughly divided into two rooms, a curtain hanging between them. The front room had been set up as a humble gift shop selling the same glittering Judaica I’ve seen in most Jewish themed gift shops: menorahs, hamsas, cups and books. For a small donation, the two shyly hospitable women working at the synagogue let us enter the back room, where the sanctuary had been, to study the ark in which a replica of a 14th-century Torah was kept, as one of them gave a short presentation.

She told us how the ruins had been discovered underneath an electronics warehouse and identified, through tax records, as having been the major synagogue of the Barcelona Call, built in 1257. After pointing out a few architectural features — apparently, no synagogue had been allowed to be larger than the smallest Christian church — she launched into a rehearsed history of Barcelona’s Jews, and how they were driven out of the city. The problem, she said, began with the black plague, during which, because of their practice of ritual cleanliness, the Jews managed to mostly escape death while their Christian counterparts fell. This led to rampant conspiracy theorizing among the Christian population that the Jews had poisoned the water supply or cast some nefarious spell, which, along with the fact that the king owed the Jewish moneylenders a lot of money, was capitalized upon by the churches, who had been looking for an excuse to throw the Jews out. In 1391, a hundred years before the Inquisition, a pogrom drove the Jews from the city.

The guide seemed proud of the fact that that the city of Barcelona opposed the Inquisition. She mentioned this numerous times in her presentation. But of course, why wouldn’t it have? The city had killed all its Jews a century earlier. The one Jewish family left, which may or may not have been living in the synagogue (this information was hard to pin down), had converted some time earlier. They fled to France when it turned out Barcelona wasn’t as opposed to the Inquisition as it had claimed to be.

There are 1,000 Jewish families living in Barcelona now, 4,000 people total, she said, and I could tell by the way she said it that she counted herself among them.

As we left, she pointed to a large old stone near the door and told us that this was the remains of an early Roman synagogue. “We know,” she explained, “because of the XIIX carved on it. Number 18 — that’s how they wrote it then. It’s a very important number in Kabbalah.” She handed us two long strips of paper, one with the names and numbers of the synagogues and Jewish cultural centers in town and the other with names and addresses of the five places where you could purchase kosher food. She also told us that there was a store called Oliver a couple blocks away where they’d discovered an ancient mikveh in one of the back rooms.

As we set off in search of the mikveh, my wife pointed to a group of kvetching seniors following a squat woman with a clipboard around the Call. “Those look like Jews,” she said and I realize it was a tour. We could have taken a tour. That would have been so much easier. But then we’d have been trapped in the earnest vice of the tour. Better to get lost and see what we could find.

Oliver, it turned out, was a kind of Spanish Pottery Barn, filled with wicker chairs, candles, throw pillows and diaphanous women’s blouses. I wandered the entire length of the store five or six times in search of the mikveh before finally asking the woman working the cash register. She pointed toward the back, where excess furniture was stored among boxes of overstock. The plaster had been stripped away here, exposing the stone walls; peering through the stacks of merchandise and potted plants, I could see there were some archways and staircases leading to what might, I guess, have been a pool. I took a photo and slunk out.

A few days later, we headed to Montjuïc, the castle-topped hill at the south end of town on which numerous museums and cultural institutions, as well as the city’s Olympic Park, have been established. Montjuïc means “Jew Mountain,” and was home to the ancient Jewish cemetery. We couldn’t find it, of course, but we pretended we could, looking out across the slope of the hill in the vague direction of the restricted area where we’d been told the cemetery had once been, before giving up and continuing to the citadel where first the communists and then the fascists had imprisoned and killed their political prisoners.

Except for the Interpretive Center of the Call, the outpost of the Barcelona City History Museum dedicated to Barcelona’s Jewish history that was only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., except, weirdly, given its subject matter, on Saturdays, we’d tapped out the Jewish sites in Barcelona.

I suppose we could have done some actual research, called a few experts, or set up a lunch with one of the leaders of the Jewish community listed on the slip of paper the women at the synagogue had given us, but that seemed like a lot of work and we were on vacation. Instead, we rented a car and headed to Girona, warring with the GPS system the whole way and nearly wedging ourselves intractably into one of the paved goat paths that they call streets.

Girona is a gloriously well-preserved medieval town filled with arcades and bleached white plazas and surrounded on three sides by an intact defensive wall. It’s Girona’s Call, which is tiny, barely four blocks long and a mere two blocks wide, that not only houses a Museum of the History of Jewish People .

There’s also a bar down the street from the museum called the House of the Rabbi, which claims to be the actual house of a rabbi, though which one is anybody’s guess — every house in the Girona Call had been the house of a rabbi at some point. We visited the museum but not the bar.

Here, finally, was an institution dedicated to Jewish Catalonia that did the community justice. From the swelling of the Iberian population following the destruction of the Second Temple through the creation of the Call and the flowering of Jewish communities along the coast, the museum leads the visitor through the history of Jewish Catalonia. Rooms are dedicated to the intellectualism of Jewish Spain, including the Kabbalah Circle that had developed in Girona, as well as explorations of the lives of Nahmanides and other important thinkers who’d lived there. Almost the entire top floor is dedicated to the Inquisition.

Throughout most of our visit to the museum we had been the only people there, but while we sat in the room that detailed the anti-Jewish violence in 12th- and 13th-century Spain, reading from the reinforced boards on which the English translations of the wall placards were printed, a great rumbling came from downstairs, and a herd of people of all ages trooped past us, waving Israeli flags, looking at nothing, marching toward the veranda in which a shrine to Nahmanides had been erected. There, they formed a circle around the pudgy bearded man who was their leader. He spoke to them in a language I couldn’t understand and then led them in prayer, after which, wiggling their flags above their heads like torches of liberty, they shouted and cheered and sang nationalist songs and posed around him for pictures in a Star of David configuration. My blood pressure soared. I felt vertiginous.

Did they not know that there was a war going on, that world opinion, especially in Europe, was harshly critical of the way Israel was conducting this war, that despite whatever justification the IDF may claim, it was dropping bombs on Palestinian mosques, schools and hospitals? Of course they did. And this knowledge must have played a role in their decision to stage this defiant display of pride.

I wondered, not for the first time, why people like this had to tie every landmark of Jewish persecution in the most reductive, self-justifying, and arrogant way to the state of Israel and its fulfillment of the Zionist dream. As though every single moment in Jewish history was Masada. As though all of human history had only one meaning: Israeli triumphalism.Embarrassed and enraged, I hid out in a room full of sarcophagi excavated from Girona’s own Montjuïc until they finally left.

Up a curving staircase, in a space on the top floor of the building that is separate from the museum, is the Nahmanides Institute for Jewish Studies, which is basically a library filled with books on Jewish subjects. The books are mostly in Spanish and Catalan, with a smattering of Hebrew and English here and there.

“Who comes here?” I asked the smartly dressed but academically rumpled woman working the desk.

“Many people,” she said. “We do lectures and discussions with knowledgeable people. Forty people or more come, which is the capacity of the room. We have events for the children.” She told me that these events were conducted in Catalan. Girona has no living Jewish community and this didn’t sound like the sort of thing that would appeal to foreign Jewish tour groups. I asked her who funded the museum and the institute.

“We’re part of the city’s cultural council. Many important people lived in Girona and we take great pride in its Jewish history.”

No Chabad funding. No funding from any of the usual organizations that make it their business to promote Jewish culture and cultivate sympathy for Israel. I explained to her why I found this so fascinating and asked her why the Catalonian people, unlike so much of the rest of Spain, care so deeply about preserving their Jewish history.

“Foreigners ask me this question often,” she told me. “It’s hard to explain. We were oppressed under Franco. We were persecuted. We began to imagine ourselves as Jews. We felt we had something in common with them. When the opening came after Franco’s death, we took pride in the Jewish heritage of our cities. Their history tells us something about ourselves.”

“Like a metaphor,” I said.

“Yes. The Jews are a metaphor for our suffering.” Yours and everyone else’s, I thought. But after the events I’d just witnessed downstairs, I wondered if that metaphor still held.
Back in Barcelona, we finally woke up early enough to visit the Interpretation Center of the Call. This time, we managed to not get lost finding the Placeta de Manuel Ribé, the small plaza in which the museum was located. The museum consisted of a lobby where, under a glass floor panel, we could see some ancient, presumably Jewish cornerstones, and upstairs, a cramped one-room exhibit on the Barcelona Orthodox rabbi, talmudic commentator, and anti-Maimonidean Solomon ben Adret.

Working the desk, a bright, friendly dude with fashionably shaggy hair and an elegant face strove to make us feel welcome. I asked him the same questions I’d asked the woman at the Nahmanides Institute.

“People from all over the world come here to learn about the Jews of Barcelona.”

I told him what the woman had said about Franco and suffering and metaphoric resonances.

“That’s a load of Kabbalah,” he said, and I knew he was probably right.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but people tell me I speak very good English.”

Joshua Furst is a contributing editor of the Forward.



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