Staking A Claim In Spain
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Staking A Claim In Spain

A family’s journey in search of its Sephardic roots.

A Jewish street sign in Girona.  Photos courtesy of Gerald Eskenazi
A Jewish street sign in Girona. Photos courtesy of Gerald Eskenazi

always wondered about Spain. What was my connection to it?

I used to hear my father speaking Ladino — the medieval form of Judeo-Spanish — to his mother, who lived in a dingy walk-up on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. She had carpets hanging on the walls, and a picture of her late husband wearing a fez. They had come to the States from Turkey at the beginning of World War I.

Now, 100 years after that migration, I decided to find what I could of my long-lost roots as my 80th birthday approached. A few years ago, the Spanish government offered citizenship to Jews who could show that their families had been in Spain before the Inquisition and the expulsion of 1492. My three children thought it was a great idea — why, their own kids could become Spanish citizens, have European Union rights such as unfettered travel, an ability to work anywhere in the EU, maybe get a break on schooling — and still remain U.S. citizens. So Ellen, Mark and Mike began the process, hiring an attorney in Barcelona, checking with a genealogy maven in Israel, looking up immigration records in the States.

Me? The United States is all I need. But I thought it would be fitting to honor my kids, my grandchildren (and, of course, my wife). Thus, I recently took our family of 13 to the old country — Roz, my wife of 53 years; daughter Ellen and her family of four; Mark and his similar brood, and Mike, the most recently married with a 1-year-old. It turned into a wonderful combination of “Roots,” adventure and fun. For Spain is a family-friendly place, and if you’re Jewish, it yields some fascinating finds. Of course, you have to ask questions and look carefully.

The Eskenazi family at the Codorniu winery’s cellar in Barcleona.
The Eskenazi family at the Codorniu winery’s cellar in Barcleona.

The excursion began in Costa Brava on the Mediterranean. It is less than an hour’s drive from the key city of Girona, home once upon a time to one of the most important Jewish settlements in Europe.

There are no Jews there now, but it was easy to imagine them — about 800 at its maximum, 1,000 years ago — living in a ghetto named the Call. For much of the Call’s exterior remains untouched: those narrow, cobblestone streets are so evocative of the Middle Ages. Old stone buildings. Ancient street names. It is a time warp. The grandchildren were fascinated to think that ancestors lived here, in a place so different from the towers of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the mini-mansions of Boca Raton, Fla., where the descendants live now.

Look closely, and there remains one building in the entire area with signs of a mezuzah. Carved into a stone doorway is a diagonal slash that, said our guide, was where a mezuzah had been nestled. Funny, but that small, gouged-out hole made me feel as if that could have been my family living there all those centuries ago.

We also found the sites of several synagogues, although none has stood there since the 15th century. There is, however, the Nahamanides Center, the only formal Jewish site in the city. It houses tombstones which were found in a Jewish cemetery located on nearby Montjuich (not to be confused with the hill of the same name in Barcelona). The center also has a gift shop. I was surprised at the interest everyone in the family showed. Actually, they all speak Spanish (except 1-year-old Zac and me), so Spain was a natural for them.

I suspect that today’s generation growing up in the States, children of parents born in the States, has less curiosity about its European roots. At least, my children and grandchildren never asked me much about our heritage. But then, in the midst of this faded Jewish ghetto, the grandchildren perked up, and I was happy to see their interest in what before could only have been some abstract concept.

A surprising aspect of our visit to Girona: our guide said that virtually no Jewish history is taught in the local schools, although she did say that the Jews of the city had been an unusually successful group, with scholars and teachers and scientists and the ability to read, unlike most of the gentile locals. But, chillingly, during one of the many assaults on the Jewish population, they were required to wear red-and-yellow armbands signifying their religion.

Along with the gift shop, museum and that indentation in the stone doorframe, a lonely reminder of the area’s Jewish history is a dried mikvah, visible 10 feet below ground.

Overall, the visit gave me a sense of my Sephardic history more than anything I had experienced before. And those moments also reinforced our family closeness.           

Contrast this with a different family experience we had the next day: a Mediterranean sail on a catamaran. It was big enough to hold all of us and our captain, Mark. You can’t do much walking around, though. There are two large strips of canvas between the hulls. There is no “below” there, so we sat on the hulls or on the canvas. But it was a free, open feeling as we made our way in a light breeze. And then we anchored near some caves for snorkeling, kayaking and swimming, having lunch that Mark had “catered” and stored in the smallish holds in the hulls. A bit of advice on kayaking: You get into the thing from the water, not stepping onto it from the boat. Granddaughter Jane did not master the technique, though, and when she tried to hop on, everyone came off, splashing.

After the Costa Brava we made our way to Barcelona, stopping off to visit one of the great centers for making cava, Spanish sparkling wine. So we went to the Codorniu winery. I’ve been to wine-making regions and had tastings in Champagne, in Beaujolais, in South Africa, Napa Valley, Chile and Argentina. But the Codorniu complex housed the most interesting buildings I’ve been in to taste wine. Beautiful 19th-century architecture made us feel quite regal. Codorniu is the oldest family business in Spain (dating to 1872) and claims to be one of the oldest in the world.

Our hosts weren’t looking at birth certificates, so the 15-year-olds were able to try some of the excellent cava. And even more of a treat was the tram ride we took in the cellars, whisking us from one giant room to another, taking right and left turns with aplomb.

The highlight of our Barcelona stay was the half-day La Sagrada Familia tour from Context Travel, which included the iconic Gaudi-designed basilica (it doesn’t have a bishop, as distinct from a cathedral).

Although it has been something of a tradition that the Sagrada Familia never will be finished — construction began in the 19th century — we saw virtually all of the inside and outside. Just a few years ago, much of it was covered with scaffolding. It is considered the most important tourist site in Barcelona.

Our guide also took us to several squares, as well as the waterfront. Barcelona, with its many wide boulevards, has more of a European flair than much of Spain. But we ended our trip on a homey Spanish note: a cooking class. It was hosted by a chef from Cookandtaste.net. We spent five hours, first traveling by van to the huge local market to pick up tomatoes and other veggies, as well as bread and goodies for dessert.

Then each of us contributed — Roz and I made tomato-bread, and the others were more daring — gazpacho, paella and flan, caramelizing the dessert with a blowtorch.

Again, this was a great bonding experience. And as we split up at the airport the next day for various destinations, everyone hugged and kissed and talked about the wonderful time. Of course, I loved the whole experience. Yet, Monday morning, back home, I walked across the street to my supermarket and bought Hebrew National franks. I was back in the New World. 

Gerald Eskenazi is a former longtime New York Times sports writer.

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