When I first moved to Spain over 15 years ago, I knew very little about the “Golden Age” of Jewish Life in the Iberian Peninsula (current Spain and Portugal).
Though interrupted from time to time with conflict, the Golden Age lasted from the flourishing of Jewish culture during Muslim rule from 711 C.E. through the 13th century and the brutal expulsion of Jews and Muslims, followed by the infamous Spanish Inquisition. I certainly did not expect to find the vital Jewish culture I left back in New York City.
I began my exploration of Jewish life in the Catalan region around Barcelona. I learned that there was a Jewish presence from as early as the first and second centuries C.E. following the diaspora created by the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem. A Jewish population that immigrated from France thrived in the Middle Ages in and around Girona and the mountain village of Besalú.
Over the last 15 years of living in Spain I have not only discovered the rich cultural and religious history of Jewish life here, but have also seen the Spanish government, citizens and tourism industry warm to facing the good and bad of its Jewish history, as well as specifically begin to connect many elements of Spanish culture and tradition to that golden Jewish/Muslim age. DNA studies in 2008 showed that 20 percent of the current population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry and 11 percent have Moorish DNA signatures. This is largely attributable to the conversion to Catholicism of some Jews and Muslims in the 13th and 14th centuries, which was the only way they could continue to live in Spain.
Many Spanish cities had Jewish districts, known as “calls” derived from the Latin word for street—callis. The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona has an ancient synagogue that can be visited in what was the Barcelona Call. North of Barcelona there is a significant Jewish Museum in the town of Girona and preserved remains of a synagogue and Jewish bath in the Catalan village of Besalú. Toledo is noted for the preservation of its Jewish heritage.
There is a beautifully preserved Jewish merchant's home in Córdoba in southern Spain, once the home of the famous Jewish scholar Maimonedes. This Jewish house museum's permanent exhibitions include a dynamic depiction of current Spanish culture and tradition that emanated from Jewish life before the expulsion. Similar Jewish heritage and historic threads can be found in Portugal and Morocco.
After hosting my own celebrations of Jewish holidays and festivals with friends in Barcelona, I began exploring how visitors with either Jewish heritage or interest in Jewish heritage could discover roots and connections in Spain, as well as observe their own celebrations in these historic venues. We began including Jewish heritage tour options and special events in our Adler & Marlow custom itineraries. We have also planned Jewish Holiday observances that fell during clients' trips including Passover, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Last winter my Aunt Vicki in New York inquired about holding a Bar/Bat Mitzvah observance for two of my cousins in August. They had observed the Bar Mitzvah of my cousin Samantha’s oldest son in Israel three years ago but wanted to explore how the next two of my Aunt’s grandchildren could celebrate this milestone in Spain. I worked with Samantha to not only plan this special observance in Barcelona, but to create an itinerary for a three-generation family group including younger siblings that touched on Jewish heritage along the way, but also included activities and fun for the entire group.
Their itinerary included several days and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah in Barcelona (in the former home of a Jewish merchant), tours of Jewish heritage sites north of Barcelona and beach days along the beautiful Costa Brava, followed by several days in Madrid with a side trip to Toledo to see important Jewish heritage sites there.
Everyone had a fantastic time!
Let Adler & Marlow help you experience the rich cultural history of Jewish Spain including your own personal celebration!