Rooted in Spain

I was understandably excited when I discovered that, as part of the New York Youth Symphony, I would travel to Spain and perform Mozart and Beethoven as the cellist with my trio. I knew this would be a unique experience, one that would help me mature as a musician. I did not anticipate, however, that the trip would allow me to connect to my family’s roots in Spain and help me understand the fascinating, but tragic, history of Jews in Spain.

Sivan performing with his trio (supplied)

Our first concert was in Toledo and my grandparents were able to come hear me play. They had traveled to Spain not only to support me but also to explore the remnants of my grandmother’s Sephardic heritage. The following day we went on a walking tour of Toledo’s historic Jewish quarter. As I walked over the cobblestones leading to ancient synagogues, I felt that I was in a time machine to the past, a time when Jews represented 15% of Toledo’s entire population.

Sivan with his grandparents (supplied)

In this 600 year trip into the past, I virtually made the acquaintance of Samuel Levi, a major figure in Jewish Spain who lived from 1320 to 1360. Born to a noble family, he became the treasurer to the King of Spain, Pedro I of Castille. My grandparents and I visited the remains of his house, which is now the El Greco Museum. Why? Because two hundred years after Levi died, the artist made Levi’s house his home. In Levi’s era, though, it was a great estate with an unusually large synagogue on the grounds. At that time, synagogues were required by law to be shorter than churches, but Levi was given special permission to build a synagogue larger than all others. That synagogue is still standing today. While inside, I could almost hear the sounds and envision the sacred atmosphere of this hall at a time when my ancestors may have prayed there. As moving as this was, it was painful to realize that for centuries there has not been a single Jewish service held on this site.

Eventually King Pedro began to feel threatened by Samuel and ordered that he, and his family, be tortured and killed. During the Inquisition, his synagogue, like others in Spain was converted into a church. Some elements of the synagogue, though, refused to die. The synagogue’s roof, for instance, is still adorned with passages from the Book of Psalms. In addition, part of the synagogue’s original floor, long buried under a Christian altar, was rediscovered. Remarkably, the original floor has maintained its color over the centuries, a metaphor for Jewish survival — no matter how hard our enemies try to eliminate us somehow we live on.

Today, the synagogue houses the Sephardic Museum, the only museum in Spain dedicated to the history of Sephardic Jews, at least for now. It contains artifacts with immense historical significance, such as a crate that was onboard one of Christopher Columbus’s ships. There is also a replica of the keys to the Jewish quarter of Seville, which the head of the Jewish community gave to Fernando III after he recaptured the city from the Moors. This gesture showed that the Jews were placing their trust in their Christian rulers. Sadly, less than 150 years later, a pogrom wiped out half of Seville’s Jewish population. To my astonishment, while I was touring Seville with the New York Youth Symphony, I came across the real keys in Seville’s main church.

The Inquisition began in 1492 when Queen Isabella decided to make Spain exclusively Christian by forcing all Jews and Muslims to either leave, convert, or face death. What a horrible choice: to stay and forget what you have believed in since you were born, to die, or to leave the place that your family has lived in for hundreds of years and journey to a foreign country with nothing in your pockets. This is a decision that no one should have to make, yet thousands of Jews were forced to make it. Just imagining this and thinking of what my choice would have been, made me feel very fortunate that my ancestors had the courage to leave and continue practicing their Judaism. There have been no Jewish inhabitants of Toledo since the Inquisition. This is not surprising when you consider that Spain did not officially end the Inquisition until 1834, and Jews continued to be executed for their Jewishness as late as 1826.

As we toured Toledo and the Sephardic Museum, my grandmother told me stories of our family’s Sephardic roots. About half of the Jewish population of Spain, including the ancestors of my maternal grandmother, Alberte, left Spain and immigrated to places such as Ottoman Turkey and North Africa. The other half converted to Christianity and stayed in Spain. These Jews were known as Conversos. Some Conversos continued to practice their Judaism in secret. In certain churches, for instance, Conversos said the Shema instead of Hail Mary. Over time, they lost their Jewish identity but some traditions stayed active. Even today there are people in Latin America who do not know why they maintain a family tradition of lighting candles on Friday nights. Those who did not convert or were suspected of practicing Judaism in secret were tortured until they confessed their “wrongdoings.” Many Jews died during the torture or were burned to death after being tried by the courts of the Inquisition. Despite the Inquisition’s best efforts, though, the Jewish history of Spain still lives on in families like mine.

My ancestors were among the more than 200,000 Jews that lived in pre-Inquisition Spain. They resided in Girona, a small town near Barcelona in modern day Catalonia. During the Inquisition, they fled to the city of Edirne in Ottoman Turkey, where they remained for over 400 years. What drew my family and many others to Turkey was a decree issued by Sultan Bayezed II welcoming Jews into his nation.The journey from Spain to Turkey was treacherous and sometimes fatal. Tens of thousands of Jews died en route. Spanish ship captains often charged absurdly high prices for the journey and sometimes threw Jews overboard during the trip. The seamen had their money and felt no obligation to keep their Jewish passengers alive. In response to rumors that fleeing Jews had swallowed their gold and silver, hundreds of Jews were stabbed to death by Spaniards looking inside dead Jewish bodies for valuables.

Once Jews reached the safety offered by Sultan Bayezed II, many became merchants and soon enough the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire was thriving. This population multiplied when Jews who had left Spain for the Fez Kingdom in modern day Morocco experienced persecution by both non-Jews and the local Jewish population. Many of them decided to flee again and ended up in Ottoman Turkey. Some Jewish refugees settled in the North African portion of the Ottoman Empire, while others, like my family, settled near the capital, Istanbul.

My family was typical of the Jewish population. They were merchants who found a new life but chose not to abandon either their Judaism or their Spanish culture. They continued to eat Spanish food, such as borekitas (spinach pie), apio (cooked celery and carrots) and, my beloved, albondigas (meatballs). They also continued to speak Ladino, the language my great grandparents spoke when they did not want my grandmother to understand them. During the late 19th century, antisemitism spread throughout the Ottoman Empire forcing members of my family to leave Turkey for Italy, Greece, and France.

There are now ongoing efforts to educate the world about Spanish Jewry before the Inquisition. One example is the work of the Fundacion HispanoJudia whose goal is to recover the memory of the Jews of Spain and to promote intercultural dialogue between Europe, Latin America, and Israel. David Hatchwell, the president of the Fundacion, described the mission of the organization to me as “building a world class Jewish Museum in Madrid” and “building bridges between the Spanish speaking and Jewish worlds.” The museum is planned for Madrid, but its construction has not yet begun. The plan is for it to have ten sections, each one focusing on a different aspect of Judaisim — such as the Jewish diaspora, the founding of the State of Israel and Jews in the history of Spain.

The Fundacion has also placed golden plaques all over Spain on buildings of Jewish significance. The only obvious word on each of these plaques, written in Hebrew, is Sepharad, the name for the Jews who originated from Western Europe and North Africa. I saw many of these plaques while in Spain, and it turns out that these plaques contain a hidden message. If you look closely between the letters that form the word Sepharad, you will see other letters. These new letters spell out the word Zachor — Hebrew for remember. This is a call for us all to remember the stories of the Jews of Spain.

About the Author
Sivan Nemirof is a sophomore at the Bronx High School of Science.
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