Ghost Town

Letter From Montjuïc

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published October 06, 2006, issue of October 06, 2006.
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Just how (unconsciously, breezily) Catholic is Barcelona? Contemplate, for a moment, the ultra-popular 11 a.m. Saturday exercise class led by Xavi, a step-aerobics guru at the Club Natació Atlètic-Barceloneta. Barceloneta is a beachfront neighborhood that is slightly more than 100 years old and was originally built for dockworkers — once famously painted by Picasso — and now slowly gentrifying. Xavi, like a significant proportion of the club membership, is gay, and to all appearances not concerned by the particulars of weekend liturgy. But when he directs his class in a set of pectoral workouts, what he yells out is, “Okay, boys and girls, lie down on the cross!”

Among the cosmopolitan set of Euro-trendy residents that Barcelona now boasts, there are notably few Jews. How few, I fairly randomly ask Nuria Baulies, a designer of fashion accessories who recently moved her base of operations from Rome to Barcelona. She raises an eyebrow and displays a hand with three quizzically raised fingers.

In terms of a discernible Jewish vibe, Barcelona is clearly not New York. It is also not Paris or London. It is not even Berlin, where Jewish ghosts inhabit the place with as much force as some of the living. You cannot tour Berlin and remain ignorant of the fact that it once was a great Jewish city; you can, however, tour Barcelona and be excused for departing with the impression that the first Jews to alight at its shores are the recent pile of Ashkenazic Jews from Argentina seeking improved economic prospects.

What Barcelona does have, however, is Montjuïc (pronounced mont-juik), a striking deep-green and rocky bluff forming the southwestern neighborhood where the Olympic Games of 1992 were hosted. In old Catalan, the word Montjuïc — which in Barcelona is thrown about constantly with ease, like “Beacon Hill” is thrown about in Boston — means Hill of the Jews.

With my cousin Dan Arenzon (a Web designer who is one of the newbie Argentines), I set out for the hill. The oldest part of Montjuïc is its cemetery, which according to popular lore was constructed upon the debris of an ancient Jewish burial ground. Dan evinces deep skepticism as we trudge upward toward what seems to be a massive graveyard incongruously wrapped across the southern facet of a pretty major mountain. He finds it difficult to believe that Montjuïc means what I have been told it means. It seems too unsubtle, too eccentric. Also, as a kohen, or member of the priestly caste (albeit a kohen ignorant of whether it is as prohibited for him to enter a gentile cemetery as it is for him to step into a Jewish one), he is reluctant to enter. We stop by a security booth and pick up a map.

What does Montjuïc mean, Dan asks the amiable guard. I have no idea, the man replies. Come on, Dan presses. Well, it means the hill of the Jews, the guard smilingly allows. Why would anyone name a place “Hill of the Jews,” my cousin asks. I have no idea, the guard replies.

The place is chock-a-block with elaborate mausoleums and imposing marble gravestones, an impressive number of which have been hacked apart and violated by robbers. One mausoleum appears to have been recently occupied by squatters. With Giosafat, Dan’s spouse, we spend the better part of a hot afternoon inspecting the place for a single Jewish name, but find none.

What we find, instead, are masses of Pujols and Puigs and Roigs and Valls — all Catalan names. We find one gentleman interred during the era of Francisco Franco, a swastika replacing the more traditional Catholic cross at the head of his tombstone.

It is at this stage that Dan announces, as if after months of research, that this is a seriously goyische place. Five hundred years later, what might have become of the Jewish graves whose presence gave the place its name?

The few remaining can be seen as flagstones that surround the current Archive of the Crown of Aragon, which was a 15th-century palace, the Palau del Lloctinent. That’s it. That, and the wines still produced on Montjuïc, possibly a remnant of ancient Jewish viticulture. It’s been so long, there is almost nothing left to censure. What in almost any other metropolis might be a minor horror — a synagogue become a beer hall — in Barcelona is a blessing, because at least its past is named. But in the last lazy days of September, ice cream is talk of the town. Specifically, Gelaaati! di Marco, on the calle Llibreteria, which at two months of age is fast becoming Barcelona’s most popular ice cream joint. The owners are Marco and Dana Di Consiglio, formerly of the famous Aldo’s ice cream parlor in Tel Aviv. Dana, a mother of two young children, sweetly complains that all the anti-Israel protests have been held at a plaza just down the street. “But any Jew you find here,” she said, “will be on this street. All the Argentineans.” Across from her is a novelty shop called Sukot.

Noga Tarnopolsky is a cultural correspondent living in Israel.

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