Fives Years of Spanish Sephardic Tourism

Fives Years of Spanish Sephardic Tourism

Every time that I have traveled to Spain in the last five years, I have made it a habit to visit and revisit my favorite sites around the country, allowing me to observe in real time the changes and developments in specific cities in the last half-decade. I find the sites memorializing the remnants and historical memory of Spain’s Golden Age Jewish communities and culture to be the most fascinating, as pockets of past remnants preserve the glory of a forgotten past are scattered throughout Andalucía 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 — which contain the most tangible, well-preserved Sephardic structures — has revealed one apparent trend: an extreme influx of tourists. During my first visit to Toledo in June 2013, I strolled into the El Tránsito synagogue on the edge of the city on a whim. 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 a narrow pedestrian road enveloped 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 but were not limited to English and Spanish to Hebrew, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Russian and Portuguese.

In 2015, the Spanish government began to offer dual citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews worldwide who could provide proof that their ancestors left Spain during the Spanish Inquisition when the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando passed the 1492 Edict of Expulsion. Madrid cited reconciling with their dark past as the motive for the law, which would be in effect until the end of 2019.

I observed a noticeable tourism boom to the peninsula correlating to the government’s new attention to the Spain’s Sephardic past. Suddenly, visiting Sephardic sites required waiting in long lines, and tourism companies began promoting Jewish heritage tours throughout the country in big cities and tiny towns. Guides led shuffling crews of tourists through old city quarters, toting small neon flags that bobbed two feet above the crowds. While on a train one afternoon, I noticed multiple advertisements to visit the Jewish quarter of Ávila, a town more commonly known for containing the highest number of Gothic and Romanesque churches in Spain. I wasn’t aware that it possessed a notable, visible Jewish quarter. The country’s synagogues and Jewish museums were newly-polished and bursting with visitors wishing to observe 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 projects 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 turns out to be Middle Eastern food. 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 lanes outside one of the city’s main gates, crossing a busy street with no a crosswalk and approaching a small hill to find the overgrown footpath that leads to a dusty switchback.

Only at the top do a marker and information plaque identify the necropolis. Cemeteries in Judaism are considered consecrated ground, and Jewish communities new to cities usually dedicate the first tract of land they purchase to this purpose. Showing respect for the deceased (kevod ha-met in Hebrew) constitutes an essential part of Jewish law. At the cemetery in Segovia, while I was glad to find stones piled on the edges of the necropolis — left by visitors following the Jewish tradition of leaving pebbles on graves to symbolize the permanence of memory — I felt disquieted that I had to leave the walls of the city to learn this information about Segovia’s 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, the Salon de los embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors). It was in this hall where Isabel and Fernando consolidated their power and held court after the conquest of Granada in 1492, effectively ending Islamic rule in Iberia. In that same year and space, the Catholic monarchs also signed the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews, decreeing that Spain’s Jews must convert to Christianity or flee the country. However, I could not find this fact in tours, plaques or pamphlets around the palace.

The Salón de los Embajadores   in the Alhambra, Granada.

The Salón de los Embajadores in the Alhambra, Granada.

For all the information absent at tourist attractions, bizarre facets of the Sephardic historical narrative have attained preservation at peculiar sites throughout Spain. The Edict of Expulsion dictated that so-called “New Christians” – recent Christen converts from Judaism – found to be privately following Jewish customs or law were subject to an auto-de-fé (act of faith), a public condemnation of heretics, many of whom were accused of Judaizing. Once indicted and found guilty, the penalty was often burning at the stake.

A gruesome feature of the Spanish Inquisition, the crime of Judaizing and auto-de-fé trials find immortality at Inquisition museums scattered throughout Andalucía. These museums fetishize the horror experienced by thousands throughout the found century-long tribunal through displays of rusty torture devices alongside information tabs that relay how each was used during trials. Stuffed dummies encased within or speared by the instruments demonstrate their different functions. Perhaps such museums are an attempt to recognize the Inquisition’s horrors, but they come across more as gaudy, disturbing tableaus that highlighting torture methods than a condemnation of past injustices. They highlight the gruesome torture methods instead of memorializing the victims.

Gaps in the remembrance of Spain’s Jewish past beg the question of whether the Spanish government’s motives for offering citizenship to Sephardic descendants go beyond its desire for historical reparation. Perhaps, with citizenship being granted to the descendants of Iberian Jews, prioritizing historical accuracy and absolution will eventually replace sensationalizing a dark past.