Sephardic Culture Enjoys a Renaissance — in Spain


By Michael Levitin

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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Forty-seven years ago, when Moroccan farming engineer Jacobo Israel Garzón immigrated north to Spain for work, he found a country fiercely opposed to discussion — at least a discussion with anything positive to say — about its Jewish past.

“In 1959 there wasn’t a book about Jews in Spain that wasn’t antisemitic,” said Israel Garzón, who is the president of Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities. “Under [General] Franco, we were never treated as equals.”

These days, though, Israel Garzón and the other 40,000 Jews living in Spain are experiencing something quite different. Since fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 — and especially over the past decade — the country has started to recognize and celebrate its Sephardic heritage in ways it never did before. From books and films to conferences and music festivals, Sephardic Jewish culture is becoming a booming interest. Now, Spaniards can turn the dial to Radio Sefarad; read Jewish magazines like Raíces and Segell; take courses in the medieval Sephardic language, Ladino, and even catch a weekly television show called “Shalom.”

Indeed, more than five centuries after Spain expelled its Jews, Israel Garzón said, people’s attitudes here “have changed from night to day.” Perhaps the biggest splash has been a government-sponsored initiative called Caminos de Sefarad, or Sephardic Routes, a network linking 15 medieval Jewish cities on a first-ever travel itinerary through the Spanish Diaspora. Unlike other European cities, like Berlin and Prague, in which Jewish heritage is still embedded in the culture — and where synagogues, cemeteries and old Jewish quarters are essentially required stops for tourists — in Spanish cities, the resurgence of Jewish sites has turned into a recent and unexpected hit. “This network is about bringing patrimony to light; it’s about rehabilitating the physical space and memory of Spain’s Jews,” said Assumpció Hosta, general secretary of Sephardic Routes —The Network of Jewish Quarters in Spain, as it’s called in full. In 1995, Hosta helped found Sephardic Routes in the medieval Catalan city Girona, whose narrow, climbing cobblestone streets of the Call, or Jewish quarter, are considered among the best preserved in Europe. Strong economic motives, Hosta admits, are driving Spain’s small and medium-sized cities — from Jaén in the south to Tortosa in the northeast — to promote their Jewish heritage. “The hotels are happier. The restaurants are happier.”

In Segovia, a city of 50,000, 60 miles northwest of Madrid, the Jewish cemetery is unmarked, the old synagogue became Corpus Christi Church and about 100 Jewish homes were leveled centuries ago to make way for the gothic cathedral. But despite the bare remnants visible today, Segovia has started to market its Jewish legacy aggressively — with restaurants like the Menora Café and a suave new museum and gift shop located in the Jewish Quarter Education Center. And it’s drawing waves of tourists as a result.

“Even people from Segovia never learned about [the Jewish sights]. Now people want to know their history,” said Marta Rueda, who runs tours through Segovia.

“Everything remained unrecognized about the Jews for so many years,” said Ana Maria López, director of the Sephardic Museum that adjoins Toledo’s masterful 14th-century synagogue El Transito. Annual visitor numbers to the synagogue have doubled to 300,000 in the past decade — a surge of interest that López says signals deeper changes in the way Spaniards perceive their past. “People realize there were others besides them, and that they were important,” she said.

There is also, inevitably, some disappointment for those travelers on Sephardic Routes expecting to see a richer legacy than what actually exists. In the great walled city Avila, for example, the medieval synagogue has been converted into a chic hotel called Hospederia La Sinagoga, where rooms rent for 80 euros a night. The Asturian capital, Oviedo, saw its Jewish cemetery covered over by the Campoamor Theatre more than a century ago.

At the same time, some criticize Routes for focusing too much on the “archaeological Jew” while not drawing enough links to the Spanish Jewish community alive today.

“They talk about Jews without [there being] any Jews around,” said Nily Schorr Levinsohn, media representative for Catalonia’s Barcelona-based Jewish community of 6,000. Schorr Levinsohn believes that Spain, burdened by its guilty history, truly wants to understand what it lost. But, “the fact is, Jews today aren’t a part of that process.”

Indeed, surveys by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Democratic Council consistently rank Spain among the most antisemitic — or, as they say here, Judeophobic — countries in Europe. A recent Gallup Poll revealed that only 4% of Spaniards empathize with Israel in the Palestinian conflict.

But some hope that the recent revival of interest in all things Jewish, fueled as it may be by kitsch and commercialism, will spur a change. “Most Spaniards have never, never seen a Jew,” said Aida Oceransky, who is president of a 130-person Jewish community in Asturias. “What we want is that the people come to know us — to know what Jews are and to understand the marks Jews left here.”

Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist living in Berlin.

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