Fives Years of Spanish Sephardic Tourism

Fives Years of Spanish Sephardic Tourism

Due to the good fortune of being able to travel to Spain six times in the last five years, I’ve been able to revisit some of my favorite sites, allowing me to observe changes and developments in specific cities in the last half-decade. I am fascinated with Sephardic history and the tourism industry, and the sites that interest me the most are the remaining monuments to Spain’s Golden Age Jewish communities and culture, especially those scattered throughout Andalucia and Castilla-La Mancha.

 The Tránsito   Synagogue in Toledo.

The Tránsito Synagogue in Toledo.

Five years of revisiting cities such as Granada, Córdoba, and Toledo — cities that contain the most tangible, well-preserved Sephardic structures — has revealed one very apparent trend: an extreme influx of tourists. During my first visit to Toledo in June 2013, I simply walked into the El Tránsito synagogue on the edge of the city. In June 2017, lines stretched around the block, tourists swarming to the shade cast by the buildings that lined the cobbled street to avoid the summer sun. In 2014 Córdoba, a modest door off of a narrow pedestrian road lined by stucco-white walls opened into the courtyard of the synagogue built in 1315. In 2017 Córdoba, velvet ropes sectioned off the courtyard to organize the lines of people waiting for entry. The languages I heard while waiting ranged from English and Spanish to Hebrew, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Russian and Portuguese.

In 2015, the Spanish government began to offer citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews worldwide. Sephardic Jews are those whose ancestors left Spain when the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando passed the 1492 Edict of Expulsion during the Spanish Inquisition. Madrid cited reconciling with their dark past as the motive for the law, which would be in effect for a three-year window.

I observed a noticeable tourism boom to the peninsula resulting from the government’s new attention to its Sephardic past. Suddenly, visitors to Sephardic sites were required to wait in lines, and tourism companies promoted Jewish heritage tours of cities. Guides led shuffling crews of tourists through old city quarters, toting small neon flags that bobbed two feet above our heads. While on a train one afternoon, I noticed multiple ads to visit the Jewish quarter of Ávila, a town more commonly known for having the highest number of Gothic and Romanesque churches in Spain. The country’s synagogues and Jewish museums were gleaming and bursting with visitors wishing to experience the remnants of the heyday of Spanish Jewish life. However, despite renewed attention and commitment to the promotion and preservation of these sites, there exist fissures in the image that Spain attempts to promote of its Sephardic history. The country publicizes distinctions of its golden past yet commits many oversights.

 The Jewish necropolis outside the city walls of Segovia.

The Jewish necropolis outside the city walls of Segovia.

Signs in Segovia distinguish old Sephardic sites such as a former synagogue and the Jewish museum and mark the edges of the Jewish neighborhood. Streets bear names such as Calle de la judería vieja (Street of the Old Jewish Quarter), and restaurants claim to serve authentic Sephardic cuisine, which usually is just Middle Eastern food. Yet other inseparable aspects of Sephardic community life remain neglected. Getting to the Pinarillo — the old Jewish cemetery outside of Segovia’s city walls — proves almost impossible. It requires traversing down unmarked, quiet residential streets outside one of the city’s main gates, crossing a busy street with no a crosswalk and approaching a small hill to find the footpath that leads to a dusty switchback.

At the top, a marker and information plaque finally identifies the necropolis. Cemeteries in Judaism are considered consecrated ground and are usually the first tracts of land that a community purchases and establishes. Showing respect for the deceased (kevod ha-met in Hebrew) is an essential part of Jewish law. At the cemetery in Segovia, while I was happy to find stones piled on the edges of the necropolis — stones left by visitors following a Jewish tradition of leaving pebbles on graves to symbolize the permanence of memory — I was disquieted that I had to leave the walls of the city to find information about this important aspect of its past Jewish community.

Spain has also omitted or altered more unpleasant facts from its Inquisitional history. At the Alhambra palace in Granada, one of the most beautiful spaces is the throne room is the Salon de los embajadores, or all of the ambassadors. It was in this room where Isabel and Fernando established their thrones and held court after the conquest of Granada in 1492. This ended Islamic rule in Iberia. In that same year and space, the Catholic monarchs also signed the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews. However, this historical fact is not included in tours, plaques or pamphlets.

 The Salón de los Embajadores   in the Alhambra, Granada.

The Salón de los Embajadores in the Alhambra, Granada.

Other methods of accusing and reprimanding judaizing heretics, such as the auto-de-fé, are immortalized and fetishized in Inquisition museums scattered throughout Andalucía. These museums display rusty torture devices alongside information tabs relaying how the instrument was used during trials. Sometimes, they are depicted with stuffed dummies in demonstration. These museums appear to be a strange attempt by Spain to recognize the Inquisition’s horrors, but they come off as gaudy and disturbing. They highlight the gruesome torture methods instead of memorializing the victims of such horrors.

Gaps in the historical memorialization of Spain’s Sephardic past suggest that perhaps the Spanish government’s motives for offering citizenship to Sephardic descendants span beyond its desire for historical reparation. If these motives were indeed pure, one would think that the country would prioritize historical accuracy and avoid sensationalizing its dark past. I can only hope that in future visits to Spain I will experience such historical exoneration.