It takes patience and a little imagination to explore the narrow, hushed streets of Barcelona’s Jewish District. Deep in the Gothic Quarter, the medieval heart of the city, more than a thousand years of Jewish history reveals itself in tiny fragments here and there, like a scavenger hunt.
Clues abound for alert passers-by. There is a Hebrew inscription etched into the stone along St. Ramon Street. The silent, narrow alleys fill suddenly with the chatter of Hebrew as a tour group rounds a corner. Small blue signs appear discreetly at intersections, with trilingual explanations of a street’s significance in pre-Inquisition Catalonia.
But there are no grand structures, no majestic temples or monuments. Barcelona’s four active congregations are all uptown, leaving the place where Catalan Jewry was born as a labyrinth of faint historical memories.
Indeed, Spain’s second-largest city has less tangible Jewish heritage than many smaller towns on the Caminos de Sefarad, the Sephardic historical route being promoted by Spanish tourism authorities. But while little remains in the way of structures, the mystical atmosphere of these damp Gothic alleys – just a stone’s throw from the famous Ramblas — reveals a piece of Barcelona well worth discovering.
The ancient Jewish district of Barcelona, like others in Catalonia, is known as El Call (rhymes with sky). It was probably set up around the 11th century, although evidence of a Jewish presence dates back centuries before that, to the era when Barcelona was a Roman city.
Sephardic Jews spoke Hebrew in the synagogue, and Latin and later Catalan in the street under the protection of the Crown of Aragon (of which Catalonia was a region in pre-Spanish Iberia). By the 850s, Barcelona was established as a center of Jewish learning, a tradition that reached its zenith in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Banker-turned-rabbi Salomon Ben Adret was perhaps the most distinguished of Barcelonian Jews during that era, as an exhibition reveals inside the City History Museum-Interpretation Center of the Call.
The son of a prosperous Catalan family, Ben Adret was a religious prodigy who eventually became a Talmudist authority; his jurisprudent opinion was requested by Jewish communities from Northern Europe to North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The exhibition is small but engaging, with Middle Age ritual objects — Hebrew-engraved rings, Sabbath dishware — alongside Ben Adret’s texts and modern explanations of his scholarship. The rabbi consistently came down on the side of tradition and divine authority, affirming an Orthodoxy that defined Barcelona Judaism until its demise.
The museum’s permanent exhibit is a helpful overview of the history, scale and geography of Barcelona’s Jewish community, providing much-needed context to an otherwise elusive entity. Under the glass floor, excavated walls of the home of a 14th-century Jewish merchant are illuminated for viewing. Several Hebrew tombstones are also on display from Montjuic, Barcelona’s scenic green mountain (literally, “Hill of the Jews”) and the medieval site of its Jewish cemetery.
I tried to imagine nearly 4,000 Jews living in the few square blocks surrounding the museum plaza, which sits at the center of the medieval Call. At their peak, Jews formed 10 percent of the urban population, leading to the creation of a second Call — with its attendant institutions — to house the overflow.
“Welcome to the oldest synagogue in Europe,” a receptionist greets visitors to the Antiga Sinagoga on Marlet Street. Age claims aside, there are surely few temples located entirely underground. The entrance — off an unassuming side street — is down a short flight of stairs into a dome-ceilinged cavern.
Until the mid-1990s, I was told, the building housed street-level merchants before being excavated to reveal the subterranean synagogue complex. The Antiga Sinagoga opened as a visitors’ site in 2002, during the early phase of Spain’s national project to revive its Jewish heritage.
With more glassed-floor excavations, Sephardic menorahs and vintage Torah scrolls, the synagogue packs a lot of atmosphere into its two tiny rooms. Guests pay a small donation that covers both entrance and a short, informative lecture in a choice of English, Hebrew, or Spanish. (The synagogue also arranges guided tours of the Jewish Quarter for 25 euros per person; more information at calldebarcelona.org.)
I wandered outside, where daylight was muted by high, narrow walls. Grand synagogues once stood along streets like St. Domenec, where by day, 13th-century Jews participated in the public life of Barcelona as weavers, merchants, and money lenders. By night, they had to sequester themselves behind the locked walls of the Call.
Feeling glad to live in the 21st century, I crossed Call Street, left the quarter behind and stepped out into the sunshine.