Jewish landmarks are enjoying a dramatic comebackNewsweek | July 17th, 2006
Toledo, Spain’s mythic city on a hill, has sold its cultural lucre to tourists for years: the Roman Catholic past, the Arabic past, the Visigoth past and El Greco past. Now travelers are coming to embrace another long-lost heritage: the Jewish past. They are flocking to El TrÃ¡nsito, the majestic 14th-century synagogue with ornate rafters and Biblically inscribed walls that many never even knew existed. It’s part of the sightseeing rage taking hold across Spain as locals and visitors alike set out to rediscover the country’s Sephardic history. “There’s greater interest now in learning about Jewish culture,” says Ana MarÃa LÃ³pez, director of the Sephardic Museum that adjoins El TrÃ¡nsito Synagogue. LÃ³pez has seen the number of annual visitors double to 300,000 over the past decade. “Practically everything remained unknown about the Jews for so many years,” she says.
From Noah Gordon’s international best seller “The Last Jew” to the 2005 hit Spanish comedy “Only Human,” Sephardic culture is enjoying a curious comeback in the country that converted, expelled and murdered its Jews more than five centuries ago. Since the late 1990s, restaurants serving Sephardic cuisine have mushroomed. Ar-cheologists are digging for Sephardic remains as conferences delve into Sephardic history, festivals host Sephardic music and language schools increasingly offer Ladino, the medieval Sephardic language. But perhaps the most notable addition is the government-sponsored initiative Caminos de Sefarad, or Sephardic Routes, a network linking 15 medieval Jewish cities on the first-ever travel itinerary through the Diaspora in Spain.
Why now? Unlike in Berlin, Prague and other European cities where a lost Jewish heritage is still visibly felt in the culture, in Spain that history has been largely buried. In 1995, AssumpciÃ³ Hosta helped found Sephardic Routes in the medieval Catalan city of Girona, whose narrow, cobblestone streets of the Call, or Jewish quarter, are among the finest preserved in Europe. The motives for marketing the country’s Jewish heritage are largely economic: “The hotels are happier,” says Hosta. “The restaurants are happier.” But it’s also part of the country’s attempt to “rehabilitate the physical space and memory of Spain’s Jews,” she adds. “Through the Franco dictatorship none of this rediscovery was possible. Now there is a lot of curiosity.”
After its bloody Civil War in the 1930s, Spain largely missed out on World War II and the Holocaust – an event that still gets only a cursory mention in Spanish school curricula. The decades of religious repression that followed further distanced the country from its Jewish heritage. It wasn’t until King Juan Carlos’s now famous 1992 speech at a Madrid synagogue – when he used the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition to welcome the “return home” of Jews to Spain – that the country began engaging with its Sephardic legacy. Today Spaniards can turn the dial to “Radio Sefarad,” read the quarterly Jewish magazine RaÃces and even catch a weekly news and culture TV show called “Shalom.”
For some historic sites, it’s too late. The medieval synagogue in Avila has been converted into a chic hotel called HospederÃa La Sinagoga. And in Segovia, not only was the old synagogue remade into Corpus Christi Church, but about 100 Jewish homes were leveled centuries ago to make way for the Gothic cathedral.
Still, new places crop up every month in an effort to revive that past. In 2004 the Jewish Quarter Education Center opened in Segovia, just down the street from the Menora CafÃ© and El FogÃ³n SefardÃ Restaurant. “Even people from Segovia never learned about the Jewish quarter,” says Marta Rueda, who leads a popular tour through Jewish Segovia. “Now people want to know their history.”