Zelda Harris
Five on the 100 aliyah from UK list!

It wasn’t the Jews who kept the Shabbat but the Shabbat that kept the Jews

My late wonderful friend Tsvi (Tzitsi) Gera a man whom I admired both as a consummate artist and a wonderful human being, showed me his set of paintings which featured cameos of the lives of Jews in Spain at the time of the inquisition or later crypto or converso Jews and Marranos from the 15th century.

Later I saw his paintings in Beit Hatfutsot and now do not know where they are? The exhibit was entitled “It wasn’t the Jews who kept the Shabbat but the Shabbat which kept the Jews”.

He depicted for example in his inimitable style, someone bending down on a stairway to the cellar,  his hand raised to silence or warn the family celebrating Shabbat in secret. Indicating the possibility of interference from an outside source, ostensibly the inquisitors.His paintings tell the story…we must find them.

I have just returned from an intense and stimulating heritage tour of Spain and Portugal. It was organised by a friend Benita Raphaely and many members of the group were associated with the Masorti Movement.

From the moment of meeting at Ben Gurion Airport, it was evident that we would get along. This was going to be a challenging trip.When we got to our first destination Malaga we were met by a few more fellow travellers who had come from the States.

Our magical journey started in Seville’s Santa Cruz Quarter where Jews had lived and prospered till 1391. I had only thought of Seville oranges which were used to make the marmalade of my youth, the very sound of the word excited me, I was actually there.

From there to Cordoba the home of Moses Maimonides, the Rambam.Just to stand near the synagogue in the courtyard where stands his magnificent statue was enough for me. Ever since Adi Assabi a young Rabbi of blessed memory who was almost formed in his image, taught a small group of us in Netanya about the Rambam, I have never needed any other sage to guide me.

After that, we walked through enchanting squares and piazzas until we came to the Mesquita an outstandingly beautiful and ornate example of the inter-changing Christian and Islamic presence in the region.

Early morning and we were en route for Grenada via Lucena which until the 12th century was a major cultural centre of Andalusian Jewry.

At night in Grenada in the caves of the Albayzin Quarter, we were overwhelmed by the most amazing Flamenco performance any of us had ever seen. On the bus, the following day we discussed the meaning of Flamenco dancing and that in itself was fascinating and enlightening.

In the morning we visited one of the Seven Wonders of the World the Alhambra.

Next Toledo (gold steel and knives) one of the most important  Jewish cities in Europe during the Middle Ages, then on to Madrid where in adjoining Alcala de Henares we embraced the cultural atmosphere where Cervantes was born.

That evening in Madrid we met the current “Jewish” community. members of the Masorti Synagogue “Beit El.

This was not any shul this was packed (maybe our attendance was also an attraction).  They had prepared a Sabbath Eve dinner which we shared.  I found the service so moving especially when the Rabbi made reference to the fact that most of the members were reclaiming their heritage and bringing Judaism into their daily lives.Most were not officially or halachically Jewish. Some were in the process of conversion many were young and all were so warm and friendly and interested to hear about life in Israel.The enthusiasm of those converting to Judaism who have traced back families who were persecuted and expelled or forcibly converted is stunning.

I was moved to tears. I also felt humbled. We take our country and our heritage for granted, they are positively claiming it back.

Not only was the tour itself extensively researched by the tour organizer but the interaction we had with remnants of the families whom once had lived in the Jewish Quarters and some even have returned to live there, was unbelievable.Meeting Jews not only in the synagogue but actually in those in places where there was once a thriving Jewish presence was absolutely stimulating.

I wish that  I could take many young Israelis who are looking over their shoulders thinking that the grass may be greener on the other side, on a trip like this.To meet up with the young people of this emerging society, not all of whom are planning to come to Israel.  It is varied and exciting and full of surprises which make us dig deeper into our own identity. The Ministry of Education could play a part, but the Orthodox establishment is not interested and it is expected that those families who have come back to Judaism through the Masorti movement will not even be welcomed in Israel with open arms, in some circles.

Driving through Spain and Portugal is a delight. They are truly beautiful countries with magnificent landscapes, high and verdant mountains. In Portugal where recent arson attacks have destroyed vast areas of foliage, the scenes were reminiscent of those of the Carmel Range fire only a few years ago.

In the “Jewish Quarters’ we visited,  carved on the stone portal of the houses there were signs that conversos had lived there.  A cross was interspersed with the letter SHIN for Shaddai. They used other innovative methods to fool their persecutors.They created meals similar to those eaten by Catholics but without pork or any ingredient that Jews do not eat.It was not unusual for the inquisitors to barge into a household at any time, so their lives were lived by subterfuge and innovation.

Standing in a charming  “main square” of a village or small town, we saw where Jews were tried and sentenced to death when they refused to convert. They were then, forcibly moved to other places where they were burned at the stake. One could only be inspired by the courage and dedication of these brutally abused and dehumanised people. The years of horrific persecution which in fact continued for hundreds of years after the reign of Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinand.

For me personally, this tour has made me think again about whom I am. I come from an English and Ukranian background I told everyone that I was doing my late husband Leon’s “roots”.  His mother was of a Spanish Portuguese family whom fled to Holland and then to England.

I could never understand why she had no knowledge of Yiddishkeit as we called it. The house was like any English gentile home where bacon and eggs were served almost every morning. My husband did not even have a bar mitzvah and yet, he was the reason that I came to Israel aged 18 to join him in 1949 after he volunteered for MACHAL(overseas volunteers). Our other friends from traditional Jewish homes and members like we of the Golders Green Synagogue Jewish youth club, who had all said that they would “go and fight” in the War of Independence, did not.

Leon was an example of one who found his Jewish roots once in the British Army with the Lincoln Regiment, who had recently returned from Palestine.It was when he heard them raucously flaunt their treatment of the Jews in Palestine that he became revolted by the thought that he could continue to serve “King and country” while his own people, the Jews were being so cruelly abused.

In Belmonte, Portugal, we actually found a house in the Jewish quarter with the name DaCosta (his mother’s maiden name) engraved on the wall so he would have been pleased. Also, it happened to be his Yartzheit while we were there and on that very day by chance, were at an ancient Jewish cemetery where graves had been discovered but were nameless.   The kindly, warm people in our group including a wonderful Masorti Rabbi from the States said Yiskor with me and sang prayers.

At the end of the day, we have cause for resentment. We have endured immense suffering as a people and survived. As such we should be compassionate to others, deploring any kind of inequality and bigotry.

I could not bring myself to hate today’s Spaniards any more than letting my feelings of a child of World War Two colour my judgment of today’s Germans, some of whom are my friends.

This tour has empowered me as a citizen of Israel to work harder to bring an end to the conflict which is destroying the fabric of our society in the land we have all yearned for and in which we are privileged to live.This tour has fired me to demand more from our politicians and leaders to improve the lives of many in our society whom through no fault of their own, are not getting a fair deal.This tour has made me proud to be a Jew and an activist in Israel.

To all my friends in Spain and Portugal, my precious family and friends around the world I send my best wishes for the coming NEW YEAR-Taf Shin Ayin Chet and a prayer for Peace in every corner of the Universe.

Shana Tovah, Shnat Shalom ve Shalva!

About the Author
Zelda Harris first came to Israel 1949, aged 18. After living through the hardships of the nascent state, she returned to England in 1966. She was a founding member of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry. In 1978, she returned with her family to Israel and has been active in various spheres of Israeli Society since. Together with the late Chaim Herzog, she founded CCC for Electoral Reform, was the Director of BIPAC in Israel, and a co-founder of Metuna, the Organisation for Road Safety, which received the Speaker of Knesset Quality of Life Award for saving lives on the roads and prevention of serious injury. She is now a peace activist, blogger for Times of Israel and is writing her life story.