In the charming port town of Castello d’Empúries, municipal guide Paul Andreu tells Jewish visitors about the “call,” the town’s Jewish district — “Sepharad is your home.”
Catalonia is indeed a Jewish home. While the physical evidence of vanished Jewish life is slight in such towns as Castello, Figueres, Tortosa, Besalu, Cadaques and Barcelona, Catalonians are proud to tell you about their strong commitment to reclaim the Jewish heritage of their community.
The heartbeat of this effort is in Girona. “No other city in Spain is doing this,” says Assumpció da Hosta, director of the city’s Centre Bonastruc ca Porta. By “this” she means furthering the discovery, exploration, restoration and revival of the religious and cultural heritage of Catalonian Jewry.
This enterprise is being carried out principally by non-Jews. Except for the few visiting professors or diplomats in the region — and the relatively small but vibrant Jewish community of Barcelona — there are no Jews to undo what centuries of anti-Semitism and decades of oppressive rule by Francisco Franco accomplished: the suppression of the region’s rich Jewish past. (Franco was nondiscriminatory; much of Catalonian language and culture was also quelled.) And, says da Hosta, the history of Girona, of Catalonia, and of Spain is incomplete without the history of its Jews.
The “voices of the Jews were silenced by force for 500 years,” she says. Now, with freedom, she and her colleagues “must bring that voice to life.”
That voice emanates strongly from Girona — named by the Romans who founded it in the first century BCE, it was one of the most important towns of the kingdoms of Aragon and Catalonia. It is a cosmopolitan city of 75,000, with a picturesque, walled Old Quarter across the Ter River from the city’s “new” section. “The pearl in its oyster” — its medieval section — “is the call,” according to da Hosta. Its Jewish quarter, one of the best-preserved in Europe, is a warren of steep stone stairways, dark alleys, mysterious courtyards, and ancient buildings that remains essentially as they were 800 years ago. (The Catalonian word call may be derived from calle, Spanish for street, or kehila, Hebrew for community. Whatever its origins, it denotes a Jewish district alone and is used nowhere else in Spain but Catalonia.)
The genesis of Girona’s Jewish community dates to the ninth century. Over the next 700 years, it flourished, becoming one of the most significant centers of Jewish philosophy and study of Kabbalah in Western Europe, earning it the name “Mother Town of Israel.”
At the height of its prosperity, Girona’s call was home to 1,000 Jews — artisans, merchants, doctors, bankers, moneylenders, poets, and philosophers — representing 10 percent of the city’s population.
By the middle of the 12th century, the call was centered around the Carrer de la Forca, a winding street leading to the cathedral in the oldest part of the city. The call’s proximity to the cathedral is not atypical; protection offered by the clerical authorities — in exchange for exorbitant taxes, of course — was key to the Jews’ security. This location, however, often gave rise to laws forcing the Jews to seal windows or doors that opened onto routes taken by Christian worshipers. Documents provide the locations of vanished landmarks, including the town’s three successive synagogues.
It is on what is believed to be the site of the city’s last synagogue, built in the 14th century, at the head of a dark, narrow climb up Carrer Sant Llorenc, that one finds the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta. (The name, meaning “door of good fortune,” refers to Girona’s — and Spain’s — most prominent Jewish scholar and rabbi, Moshe ben Nahman, Nahmanides, the Ramban.
Home to the Nahmanides Institute for Sephardic Studies and the Museum of the History of the Jews, the large, well-appointed facility has a foliage-adorned inner courtyard, with a huge Star of David embedded in its stone floor. This serves as an occasional gathering place for the center’s scholarly workshops and seminars.
The several outbuildings that form the complex served the ancient Jewish community as a school for women and as a mikvah.
The center’s exhibits illustrate the region’s Jewish daily life, religion, and culture from the ninth to the 15th century. Among its treasures are 27 Hebrew gravestones — the most important such trove in Spain — from the medieval Jewish cemetery on Montjuic outside the city walls, where only scattered fragments were found. Their Hebrew inscriptions reflect a touching poignancy as they recall the Jews who lived and died in the call. One lovingly designates the resting place of “Zion, a pleasant child of delights. May he rest in Eden.”
The center’s vast collection of manuscripts includes those written by noted Catalonian kabbalists: Nahmanides, of course, Ezra ben Solomon, and Ariel of Girona, among others.
Interest in Spanish Jewry has been growing since the death of Franco in 1975, and particularly since 1992, the 500th anniversary of the expulsion. (Earlier this year, Spain passed legislation offering dual citizenship to those with Sephardic ancestry.) The infamous aspects of Spain’s past regarding its Jews inform the center’s commitment to furthering study and research. “If children know about history,” says da Hosta, “they won’t repeat the mistakes.”
To further that educational effort, the center conducts research, sponsors scholarly symposiums, mounts cultural exhibits, organizes programs on the arts, and provides guided tours.
The museum thoroughly covers the history of Girona’s own Jewish community — a dizzying chronicle of alternating periods of persecution and relative calm and freedom.
The benchmark year of 1391 saw pogroms throughout the region; Girona’s Jewish community was essentially destroyed, forcing many to leave, others to convert. Following the decree that expelled the Jews of Castile and Aragon in 1492, the last remaining Jews of the city departed.
Girona is an ideal base for further explorations of Catalonian Jewish heritage. Destinations for those seeking Catalonia’s — and Spain’s — Jewish past are well mapped out on the “Red de Juderías de España-Caminos de Sefarad” — a route through the centers of pre-expulsion Spanish Jewry.
Each Catalonian call has its own timeline of prosperity and hardship, persecution and acceptance, forced conversions and expulsion.
What distinguishes the call in the jewel-like village of Besalú — reached by a magnificent Romanesque stone bridge over the Fluvia River — is its ancient mikvah, the only one of its kind in Spain and one of only a very few in Europe. Discovered by chance in 1964 by a homeowner digging a well, the ritual bath was authenticated only after a rabbi came from Paris and confirmed its halachic specifications. Built in the 12th century, the mikvah is reached by passing through the Plaça dels Jueus to a flight of stone steps leading down to the cavern-like, Romanesque-style underground chamber.
Medieval Besalú had a community of 250 Jews — among them Dr. Abraham d’Escallar, identified by a surviving record as physician to King James I — and was served by one synagogue, built, according to a 1264 document, with James’ permission.
By papal bull, a wall was built around the Jewish quarter in 1391 in response to pogroms that were decimating other Jewish communities. The end of Besalú’s community came in 1436 when most of the town’s Jews left; the few remaining families were exiled in 1492.
In Tortosa — embraced by the Beceite mountains and the Ebro river — Mayor Joan Sabate I Borras tells a group of Jewish visitors, “We are proud of our Jewish history and past. We teach with an open mind,” as he offers an historic survey of the Jews of his ancient and beautiful city.
In Tortosa’s Remolins district is the medieval Jewish neighborhood, one of the most important in Catalonia. Little more than street names reflect its Hebraic past, but the antiquity of its Jewish community is attested to by the important find of the trilingual tablet dating to the time of the Visigoths. The Hebrew, Latin, and Greek inscriptions on the stone memorialize Meliosa, a young woman who lived in the sixth century and died at the age of 24.
Just outside Catalonia in the adjacent province of Navarra, Tudela is an important stop on a quest for Spain’s Jewish past, as it was the home of the famous Benjamin of Tudela, the “Jewish Marco Polo.” The lovely Plaza de Fueros shows remnants of the Judería, the Jewish quarter that began when craftspeople arrived in the ninth century and founded a community that prospered until the 12th. Some of Tudela’s 900 Jews managed to remain past the expulsion year of 1492; in 1498, the king moved them to the cathedral area for protection.
Because of its rectangular shape, raised platform, and balcony, Tudela’s 15th-century Christ school, an outstanding architectural echo of the Middle Ages, is thought to have served as a synagogue.
Most evocative of Tudela’s vanished Jews is a cache of Hebrew documents lovingly preserved in the municipal archives.
In Hebrew and Catalan rendered in Hebrew script, the documents mark business transactions, marriages, and other milestones in the lives of those who hid the parchments or used them as book covers to conceal the religion they were outwardly forced to abandon. Some still retain the shape of the books.
One ketubah records the marriage of “Dr. Maestre Natan de Narbona with the daughter of Semu’el Alisbili (el Sevillana) in Borja near Tudela 1 March 1482,” another between “Moseh, son of Levi, son of Gabbay and Solbella, daughter of Semuel Sar Salom in 1487.”
Examining these fragments that so vividly recall lives lived, loves consecrated, children born, and souls departed, dramatically underscores the enormity of the loss of the Jewish world of Catalonia.✦