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A Cross-Cultural Trinity Brings Sephardic Art to the National Cathedral

At the outset, the trinity of groups coordinating a new exhibit seems unique to our multiethnic, globalized society; the embassy of Spain, in cooperation with the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, is presenting an exhibit on Sephardic Jewish culture at the Washington National Cathedral.

And yet such cooperation is indicative of medieval Spain’s unique intersection of Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures, according to the organizers of “Remembering Sepharad: Jewish Culture in Medieval Spain.” The exhibit, on display at the cathedral through June 8, emphasizes themes of harmony and peaceful coexistence among the “big three” monotheistic religions of medieval Spain. One prized example of the tolerance and creativity that flourished at the time is a facsimile of the beautiful Alba Bible, a translation of the Hebrew scriptures, with Jewish commentary, transcribed by Rabbi Moses Arragel of Guadalajara for a Christian audience.

More fascinating, however, is that “Remembering Sepharad” also offers a glimpse at a country confronting a complicated and painful history. Since King Juan Carlos of Spain’s belated apology, in 1992, for the expulsion of the Jewish community —500 years afterward, to the day — interest in Sepharad, the Hebrew name for Spain, continues to rise, from flourishing Jewish studies programs to increasing tourism at newly uncovered Sephardic sites.

“Spanish Jews played an important role in transforming Western culture,” said Juan Sell, a counselor at the Spanish embassy. “We are proud of that history — although we know it includes shadows of conflict and unfair things that were done at the time.”

Produced by Spain’s State Corporation for Overseas Cultural Action, a government organization known as SEACEX, “Remembering Sepharad” is a fraction of a 300-piece exhibit displayed last year in Toledo, Spain, which drew some 80,000 visitors. “That was the first exhibit in which we had sold out the catalog,” said Genevieve Fernandez, an embassy representative. The second edition sold out again, she said.

Wanting to bring the exhibit to an American audience — and, specifically, an American Jewish audience — SEACEX contacted Altman in early February, in hopes of securing space at the Klutznick museum. None was available, but Altman dug deeper and deeper into her Rolodex until she found the cathedral space available.

The exhibit, said Reverend Peter Grandell, the senior canon at the cathedral, “is an opportunity not only to pay homage to a remembered time of legendary cooperation and respect, but to recall with deepest regret the intolerance expressed in the desire for a homogenous Christian state.”

Prepared by Spanish cultural emissaries, “Remembering Sepharad” treads fuzzy ground somewhere between shock and, well, awe. “It’s not a confessional exhibit, it’s a historical one,” said Felipe Garin, president of SEACEX. “Respectful, but historical.”

At times, the exhibit’s view of Spanish Jewry is romantic. In one corner, a delicately re-created model of Toledo’s Samuel Halevi synagogue rotates slowly. Another installation offers a “virtual theater” — a combination of video, sound and miniature stage — showing a synagogue service. Under the title, “Passover,” a glass case displays household silverware “which may have belonged to a dinner service used on such a solemn occasion,” according to the accompanying text.

While the exhibit plaintively describes the tragedy of 1492, it also makes a concerted effort to place the expulsion in the context of similar tragic events for world Jewry. The expulsion of the Jewish community, said Garin, “was not only a Spanish circumstance. In all Europe, the conflict happened around the same two centuries. ‘Antisemitism,’ or whatever you want to call it.”

“The intention to celebrate and recognize the Jewish past in Spain is wonderful,” said Jane Gerber, director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at the City University of New York, who was hired as a consultant for the American showing of “Remembering Sepharad.”

Still, Gerber noted the tendency of the exhibit to refer to the expulsion as “the conflict,” “as if there were two parties in conflict. It’s as if the expulsion just happened, without analyzing that religious intolerance, persecutions, ultra-nationalism and greed were all part of the story of the expulsion.” Prior to 1492, the Spanish Jewish community “was the most vibrant, the most dazzling” of world Jewish communities, Gerber said. “The destruction of the Jews in Sepharad, because of their love for it, had unusual resonance for hundreds of years.”

“The significance of the Jewish community in Spain was enormous when you compare it to the Jewish community in France or Britain,” said Sell, noting that medieval Spanish and Jewish cultures are inextricably linked. “There’s not such a thing as ‘Britarad.’”

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