Thursday, August 14, 2008

In Spain, Jewish History But Few Jews (The Jewish Week, August 14)

As we observed the fast of Tisha b’Av last weekend, we focused on the destructions of the two Temples in Jerusalem. But it is important not to neglect the myriad of other calamities that have also been connected to this fateful anniversary, including the sin of the spies in the Bible, the end of the Bar Kochba revolt; the expulsion from England in 1290, the beginning of World War I, and most recently, the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Center in Argentina.

This gloomy list must also include arguably the most catastrophic — and underappreciated — episode of all: the Expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Historians have long understood the seismic implications of this event in the subsequent development of Jewish culture, particularly Kabbalah. But I don’t think we’ve come close to understanding the true magnitude of what happened to the Jews in a place that had once nurtured an incomparable Golden Age.

I thought about that recently on my first visit to Spain. As I waited in the departure lounge at JFK to board my Iberia flight to Madrid, the European Cup soccer championship was blaring at the bar: Spain vs. Germany. I had no real rooting interest in the match, other than a desire not to board a plane with hundreds of devastated Spaniards, so I filtered my choice through the most dependable determinant I know: “Which one is good for the Jews?”

It wasn’t an easy call. These two countries perpetrated perhaps the two most notorious anti-Semitic acts of all time. While the German crimes are incomparable, the Spanish atrocities were carried out over the course of centuries, including pogroms and expulsions, employing methods of torture so horrific as to rival the most sadistic Nazi carnage.

This game of picking the Germany-Spain “winner” is more than a mere intellectual curiosity, because it highlights the precariousness of the Jewish journey. Most Jews trace their cultural heritage to the very two nations that murdered us most ruthlessly (Ashkenaz and Sepharad are the Hebrew terms for Germany and Spain). It is astonishing, when you think about it, that Jews are content with this branding. Imagine a Native American claiming proudly to hail from the cultural heritage of Wounded Knee. It’s one thing for us treasure the classic works written in Yiddish or to pass down Ladino ballads, but we can maintain a healthy nostalgia for Shalom Aleichem and “Ochos Kandelikas” without labeling ourselves as German or Spanish in origin.

Ashkenaz and Sepharad were simply places where we unpacked for a while and did some amazing things before being butchered and chased out. Our cultural heritage originated long before we reached either the Straits of Gibraltar or the Rhine, and it has continued long since.

I’m told there are 50,000 Jews living in Spain. They are hard to find. But I did find everywhere the remnants of a toxic hatred that became so ingrained in Spanish life as to be rendered almost unnoticeable. There may be few Jews, but pigs — the original Marranos — are everywhere. Apparently, one reason pork products became so ubiquitous in the Spanish diet was to flush out hidden Jews during the 350 years of the Inquisition.

Speaking of the Inquisition, if you want to end a conversation abruptly in Spain, ask about it. Spaniards talk openly about Jews, but, while Germany now has several Holocaust museums, the most notable Inquisition Museum is located in Peru. Nobody in Spain utters the “I” word, but the Spanish are anxious to showcase the remnants of those few synagogues that remain from the Golden Age (all three of them), for the many Jewish tourists, sifting through this ghost-like landscape for signs of previous flowering amidst the ruins.

It was positively eerie to visit the old synagogue in Cordoba, which centuries ago was converted to a church — the crosses are still clearly visible — but now has been restored as a Jewish landmark. A few steps away is a square named for Maimonides (complete with statue), who was forced to flee the town at age 13, never to return. The nearby museum details beautifully the richness of the Sephardic culture that germinated right there a thousand years ago, but the guide who took me around — she was lovely and well informed — was not Jewish and has never lived among Jews.

The cradle of Sepharad, and not a minyan to be found.

It is almost impossible to name a famous Jew from that period of several centuries — a Golden Age of Jewish achievement and acceptance — who died in the same community in which he was born. They were constantly being booted out and moving on to greener pastures. But no pasture remained green for long. As I walked through this museum paying tribute to a people long-since-departed, I sensed echoes of the Precious Legacy, the exhibit of items stolen from Czech Jews for Hitler’s planned museum to an extinct people.

The walls of the synagogue in Cordoba are filled with Hebrew inscriptions, primarily from Psalms. The Sephardim were the original Zionists; as their fate became increasingly perilous, and even when things were good, all eyes were on Zion. On one wall, we see inscribed, along with the dedication of the building, “So return, Oh God. Hasten and return to Jerusalem.”

After leaving Spain, my family and I traveled to Israel, where we added to our itinerary a visit to Maimonides’ grave, in Tiberias. He had fled his birthplace during a Golden Age and was buried in his people’s shattered homeland. Now his remains reside in a vibrant, resurrected Jewish state — while his birthplace has become a ghost town.

Sephardi? Ashkenazi? Spain and Germany were nice stopping off points until they became mass graveyards. We accomplished wonderful things there, they called us swine and we moved on. My cultural origins are neither Spanish nor German.

“Just Jewish” works fine for me.

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