Spain: Selling Culture to Jews or Selling Out Jewish Culture
is a new article, a similar article based on a similar paper was
published in the Heritage Florida Jewish News, September 28,
tourism is the fastest growing market segment of the tourism industry
worldwide. Today many tourists are looking for authentic places that
put them in touch with their own unique history and culture. For many
Jews, Spain is one of the primary destination hot spots. Spain is a
beautiful country, one that with each visit allows the traveler to discover
something new. Many Jews, specifically Sephardim, have a great desire
to visit Spain as it was the ancestral homeland of their forefathers.
Many Jew travel there, usually out of a deep-rooted curiosity, to experience
the sites where their families once lived.
Today barely a
scant remains of the old Juderias (Jewish quarters) in most of the Spanish
cities. Yet, the Spanish government spends an incredible about of money
to advertise the Juderias to descendants of the people who once lived
there-the Jews. Marketing culture for tourism is not inherently bad,
but there is a fine line between marketing culture to draw tourists,
and selling-out culture for tourist money.
The Spanish government
considers Jewish culture so important, they market the many Juderias
on their tourism website like precious gems in a jewelry store. On one
official Spanish government website you will find the word "Jewish"
mentioned near twenty times, even having a multimedia movie on important
Jewish settlements in Spain. Cordoba, Girona, Ribadavia, and Toledo
are all mentioned, still, it is interesting to note that there are no
presentations targeted towards Muslim tourists on the website, though
Islam was the foremost civilization in Spain for more than half a millennia,
with the Jews making up only a tiny minority during the same period.
This raises many
questions. How much of this is intrinsic? Does the Spanish government
really desire modern Jews to walk through their lands, or do they just
want the money in their pockets. Do they promote the Juderia as gems
in their holy tourism crown because they truly want people of the world
to learn about the Jews who once lived in their country-the ones they
themselves expelled centuries ago?
Step into the Juderia
of Cordoba and you can walk the same winding narrow streets that Maimonides
walked as a young man. Stroll the orange tree lined lanes surrounding
the old city walls while breathing the sweet Andalusian air; there you
can make the obligatory visit to an empty shell of a once vibrant synagogue
of the great Jewish community of Cordoba. Of course while you are in
Cordoba, you should not miss seeing the old Sefer Torah. However, you
won't find it in the synagogue, nor a museum. You will find the ancient
scroll of Jewish law lying in a box underneath the cash register at
a shop that caters to tourists. But this is no Jewish tourist item-this
is a real Torah scroll, and it is for sale for the equivalent of $18,000
U.S. dollars. While false reproductions do exist of all types of art
and religious articles, this was the real deal. It was allowed to be
examined only after telling the shopkeeper the examiner was the agent
for a potential buyer in the United States.
This most holy
Jewish item rests not in the possession of the Jewish community either
in Spain, Israel or elsewhere, but in a tourist shop. One has to ask,
why has the Jewish community not purchased it, rescued it? Why is it
not in a Jewish historical museum, or even more properly laid to rest
in a manner consistent with old sacred Jewish documents. There are stories
of cemetery workers in Eastern Europe digging up buried Torahs that
had been hidden during WWII and then selling them for profit back to
the Jewish community, is this an analogous situation?
But this is not
unique. A small antique shop in Granada, Spain contains a large glass
box placed up high on a pedestal near a back wall. When the sales person
was asked what it contained, she said she was not sure, she only knew
it was "something of the Jews." When she opened it, unlocking
it with a key, it was none other than another genuine Sefer Torah. She
didn't know how much the shop owner was selling it for, and when asked
how long they had owned it, she said ever since she could remember.
In Toledo, the
city that was once heart of Spanish Jewry, stands an ancient Jewish
synagogue known today as the 'Santa
Maria la Blanca.' Next door to the synagogue is an antique shop
selling large pieces of the wood lattice that had been once attached
to the exterior of the thirteenth century house of worship. This same
shop also sells an old scroll the Jews read on Purim, a Megilla,
complete with hand carved wood handles.
Jewish people had
lived in Spain for over 1500 years. This begs the question, could it
be possible that every single Jewish ritual item has been destroyed
over time? Couldn't some of these items survive? Is there a mass of
Jewish books, and holy items hidden somewhere? Harry Stein, a Sephardic
webmaster whose wife is a descendant of the great Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel
told the following story to this writer:
I was in Madrid assigned to the United States Military Advisory Group.
Many weekends my family and I would tour the countryside. On one occasion,
we decided to visit Toledo, the once capital of Spain and the home
of a large Jewish population prior to the expulsion. Taking the main
road to Toledo from Madrid, we were stopped by road construction,
the site of a tunnel collapse. We parked the car and strolled into
an antique shop to keep us occupied until the road could be made passable.
On one of the shelves, much to my surprise, I found what appeared
to be a wrought iron menorah, which was found in the tunnel. I asked
the proprietor how old it was. He said that the menorah was made in
the 17th or 18th century. I smiled at him and stated that the menorah
made during in that time was impossible. He smiled in return and said,
'Yes, it is impossible.' He then explained that there were tunnels
through out Spain that were used by Jews to go to the synagogues and
by secret Jews after the expulsion as a place to pray. I later found
out that others have heard of these 'Jewish tunnels' throughout Spain."
Over thirty years
has passed since this occurred yet almost nothing has been written about
Jewish tunnels in Spain. It is not unheard of, even in the Old City
of Jerusalem, the Sephardic refugees from Spain built underground passages
to safe rooms where they could hide in an emergency. It's known that
Jews interconnected their houses underground for the purposes of communicating
with other Jews to have a minyan and share in communal events, but this
has never been seriously investigated.
Those who take
history seriously would lament over the endless amount of souvenir shops
selling the same mass-produced ceramic star of David plate holders,
menorahs, and kiddish cups all targeted towards the numerous Jewish
travelers visiting the newly fangled Juderia. Many of the shops and
restaurants, some with names like Judah Ha-Levi Café and Patio
de Juderia, have a Jewish star on the front of the door, and a statue
of their Virgin Mary on the back. Cafes and even entire communities
sometimes hold concerts of "Sephardic" music. Dr. Judith Cohen,
an international Jewish music expert reported that local songs have
come to be seen by some (some rather cynically) occasionally presented
by local officials, as "Sephardic" simply because they are
sung by people who happen to live in the area designated as the "Old
Jewish Quarter" even when the songs in question are part of the
Christmas season repertoire or ballads from the late nineteenth century.
Several towns that have created festivals containing components related
to Jewish culture in neighborhoods and remnants of building that were
once home to Jews many centuries earlier. In regards to this, Dr. Cohen
has said it was "a rather mystifying logical leap" how they
have led many visitors to conclude that the people who live there now
(and by extension), their songs, are also Sephardic.
Spain is a warm
welcoming country with friendly well-meaning people, but targeting Jewish
tourists for their money, selling their cultural treasures and exploiting
their traditions does nothing to continue to sooth the centuries old
wounds that have been carved into the Jewish hearts and minds. There
are many issues here, and each one deserves attention. Considering the
Jews were not allow to take near anything with them when they left in
1492, it is quite reasonable to consider there may be a surplus of Jewish
ritual items and objects still left in the country which were not destroyed.
The United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) consider
many cities in Spain to be protected World Heritage Cities (including
Cordoba, Toledo, and Granada). They have a strong global policy of stopping
the illicit exploitation of cultural resources. Nonetheless, there is
no interaction between the mainstream Jewish community, and UNESCO regarding
the Jewish ritual items, which apparently survive in Spain. In 2000
with the cooperation of the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Eliyahu
Bakshi-Doron, the Syrian Jewish community managed to smuggle out many
ancient Torahs and Jewish manuscripts from Syria, an adversary of Israel.
Considering Spain is an ally of Israel and both are members of the United
Nations, it seems the rescuing of Jewish holy items could be done easily
with proper representation and dialogue between the two governments.