Five Hundred Years Later, a Shabbat in Cordoba’s Jewish Quarter

Walking the streets of Spain with a kippah
Walking the streets of Spain with a  kippah

I can’t say much more, except that it all happened

in silence and peaceful simplicity, and something that felt

like that bliss of a certainty and a life lived

in accordance with that certainty.

I must remember this, I thought, as we fly back

to America.

Pray God I remember this.

– Mary Oliver, “Varanasi”

“Tonight, we pray with the window open,” Chaim Casas directs. What comes to mind as we sing Yedid Nefesh Friday night in Cordoba’s Casa de Sefarad is the line הקדש ברוך הוא מצילנו (the Holy One, Blessed be He, redeems us). Walking through Spain, where the Jewish absence overwhelms the occasional memorial or museum, I feel robbed of the brothers and sisters who abdicated faith, or who clandestinely pursued it and ultimately failed to prevent their flames from being extinguished. I imagine what would have been if Velazquez and others hadn’t forfeited their Jewish identities for social success. One tour guide in Sevilla, whose grandparents identified as conversos, tells us about baptism in “my religion, Catholicism,” and I feel the Jewish community stripped of another soul. The grand Prado and Palacio Real of Madrid, the Toledo Cathedral, and the Cathedral of Sevilla, the third largest in the world, hide the tragedy of Spain’s past for the Jews. And the only visible sign of the existence of the Jewish quarter of Toledo are tiles on the streets inscribed with חי, “life.”

In Cordoba, the birthplace of Maimonides, once the center of the Jewish world but now a city of 700,000 that struggles to gather a minyan on Shabbat, I should feel equally robbed as I did as I walked through Granada’s Alhambra, knowing that Jews once served in courts and even commissioned the construction of the Alhambra itself before the Judeophobic attacks began (Granada was actually founded by Jews, whose entrance into the Iberian Peninsula is estimated to be around 500 BCE). Passing through Spain, I walk through a graveyard, where Judaism exists almost exclusively in museums behind protective glass, the guns of security guards, and iron gates. In Toledo’s Santa Maria la Blanca, singing Ana B’koach, I envision the mobs swarming the synagogue, Jews aflame on the stake. It feels right to recite kadish, the mourning prayer, as I look towards the ceiling.

But in Cordoba, what calls to me is not kadish; it is this song proclaiming God’s redeeming us.

הקדש ברוך הוא מצילנו
(the Holy One, Blessed be He, redeems us)

Jewish life is beginning again; expelled Sephardic Jews are reclaiming citizenship, and our guide, Chaim Casas, will soon become the first Spanish rabbi since 1492.

We read from the Torah, and I know that people passing by this space can hear our language proudly spoken, our songs sung, our prayers prayed. We do not exist solely in textbooks or display cases; we are a living, breathing, struggling, yearning, and creating nation. Window open, we begin to welcome Shabbat; we breathe life into Jewish memory.

ידיד נפש אב הרחמן משך עבדך אל רצונך
(Lover of my soul, Father of Mercy, bring your servant close to Your will)

Pray God I remember this.

About the Author
Jonah Glick-Unterman is a KIVUNIM gap year student living in Jerusalem and traveling the world while learning about Jewish history and identity. Originally from Evanston, Illinois, next year, he will enter Stanford University possibly studying either aerospace engineering or international relations.
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