With Israel’s help, Spain’s Jewish quarters attempt a return to the ‘Golden Age’
Inside the Old Synagogue in Toledo Photo: courtesy
After centuries of decline, a Spanish NGO is working to revitalize the country’s Jewish quarters, remnants of the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry.
“We have to use those parts of the cities, because if we don’t start, if no one is doing anything for these sections of these cities, they will be destroyed by time,” said Assumpceo Hosta, secretary general of the “Red de Juderias,” or Network of Jewish quarters. He lives in Girona, one of the first cities to begin the renovations.
Today, Spain’s small Jewish community is concentrated in its biggest cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona, but during the Golden Age the Jews lived in distinct quarters in cities all over the country.
However, after they were expelled in 1492, those quarters fell into disrepair.
“It was a bit lost. It was forgotten,” Barcelona Mayor Katy Carreras-Moysi said of the Catalan city’s Jewish quarter. “We want the people to know about this special area.” She spoke to The Jerusalem Post in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
A delegation from Red de Juderias arrived in Israel earlier in the day to meet with municipal officials in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Acre, visit sister cities, learn more about Jewish history in Israel and the Diaspora, and publicize their revitalization efforts.
Red de Juderias was founded 12 years ago and now has 21 member cities. Representatives from 15 of those cities came as part of the delegation.
The organization has three goals: to introduce Spaniards to this part of their country’s history, to make the Jewish quarters a part of tourists’ itinerary, and to attract Jewish tourists from around the world, Carreras-Moysi said.
All the cities hope to showcase their achievements for the Israeli and Diaspora communities. This was more difficult for the smaller cities because their names were not well-known, Carreras-Moysi said.
Spain’s Jewish quarters, largely unknown two decades ago, are now home to Jewish music, film and literature events, cultural centers, museums and international conferences on Jewish history and culture. Old street names have been restored, as have many of the private homes.
The Jewish quarters are located in the oldest sections of Spain’s cities and people no longer want to live there because of the lack of space and amenities, Hosta said. The organization doesn’t want the quarters to be merely open museums, although sharing the history is a top goal.
“It’s about trying to make the cultural life around the Jewish neighborhoods. We don’t want them to be just a nice place to visit but empty of everything else,” Hosta said.
The organization has performed extensive research – the Jews’ religious practices, culture and Ladino, a mix of old Spanish and Hebrew that they spoke.
The Jewish community of Medieval Spain was very influential. The Jews and Muslims were pioneers in medicine, art, literature, philosophy and science, and they shared their knowledge and achievements with the broader community. Many Jews held positions in the Spanish courts and Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and philosophers in history, was a part of this community.
“The knowledge was on the side of Judaism and Islam,” Hosta said. “The weight and power of Jewish civilization was very important and very powerful.”
In Barcelona, the modern Jewish community has joined in the efforts to revitalize the Jewish quarter. They provide much of the necessary knowledge and cultural guidance. However, many of the cities have no Jewish community left to help.
The lack of knowledge about Judaism is one challenge the organization faces, Hosta said. However, many of the cities have established sister relationships with cities in Israel (Barcelona already is paired with Tel Aviv) or hope to do so during this trip, and that will help.
The money for the revitalization projects comes mostly from the municipalities, which have taken great interest in the projects, as well as some federal agencies and private organizations, Carreras-Moysi said.
At 7 p.m. on Sunday at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the organization will present a book it has published on the Jewish quarters of all 21 cities. The book, written in Spanish, is being translated into English.
Spaniards are already well-aware of other cultural and historical influences, Carreras-Moysi said. By revitalizing the Jewish quarters, the Red de Juderias hopes to educate them about the Jewish influence as well.
“You feel that you are in a special city,” she said. “This was one period that was very important for our history. We all have a past in the Jewish period.”