Finding Hope In Spain’s Jewish Community

Franco is still dead!” If you remember Saturday Night Live from 1975, you remember the gag line. When Beth El travelers arrived in Madrid on Oct. 24th, Franco’s body was being disinterred from its resting place in the grandiose Valley of the Fallen. This was not to prove Franco was still dead, but a measure to cope with the painful memories of the Civil War and the Francoist era. Spain thought it was possible to forget by law – Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting). But memory persists. We discovered that Spain is not only coming to terms with its recent past but beginning to grapple with its more distant history including the expulsion of Jews and later Muslims from its borders in 1492.

As we traveled between the magnificent cities of Granada and Cordoba, we stopped in the small town of Lucena near a traffic circle. We were told we’d see a Jewish cemetery. We encountered a dusty space with stones covering graves holding the skeletal remains of Jews from 1000-1050 CE. Discovered while the municipality was building a ring road, the cemetery brought the question of what to remember and what to forget before the municipal government. What happened? Construction was stopped, rabbinic authorities were consulted and plans to rebury the bones and create a memorial were initiated.

Touring the site, we were struck by our guide’s knowledge of the Jewish community’s intellectual and commercial achievements and her sensitivity to our desire to study and recite kaddish. Placards that explain Jewish burial practice and the history of Jewish presence in the city are directed to a non-Jewish Spanish audience. Lucena has decided to remember.

Everywhere we went from Segovia in the north to Granada in the south, we touched physical remains of the pre-expulsion Jewish community. Rabbi Alexander Davis and our accompanying Jewish studies scholar, Prof. Marc Epstein of Vassar College, taught from Sephardic luminaries. We heard the music of Sepharad and sang z’mirot and t’fillot composed by Sephardic poets. Prof. Epstein dazzled us with the visual creativity of Sepharad when he lectured on the notable illustrations of women in a 14th Century Barcelona Haggadah. On Shabbat, we attended local synagogues in Madrid and Barcelona where the Moroccan and Sephardic melodies threaded through the t’fillot. We met congregants who trace their history in Spain back before the expulsion; and we met Jews seeking to reconstruct their ties to the country by building a Jewish community for the future.

Remembering Spanish Jewish history could be disheartening: a thriving, creative Jewish community was thrust out of their homes and destroyed. Instead, as we puzzled together our impressions with our new learning about Sepharad, we departed with hope. Our visit brought the heritage of Sepharad alive as we remembered. We sensed the revitalization the contemporary Jewish life and created our own joyous community through song, t’filla, and learning.