My recent trip to Spain reinforced my love of local history museums. Local museums typically orient broader historical developments around their own. In so doing they add new perspectives to historical developments that are otherwise usually seen from a different vantage point. In Barcelona I visited the city’s museum as well as the Catalan museum (and the Maritime museum which ended up being of less interest to me). They did a brilliant job highlighting the extent to which Catalonia once was an independent nation for a very long time, something which is still reflected in their unique language and culture.
Today’s Spain is made up of several previously independent kingdoms including Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Catalonia. The story of these many Spains is told in Bernard F. Reilly’s handy ‘The Medieval Spains.’
The significance of this earlier Catalan independence relates to several episodes in Jewish history. They are borne out at the fantastic Jewish history museum located in the old Calle (Jewish quarter) of Girona, just a 30 minutes high speed train ride from Barcelona. The most famous Jewish resident of Girona was the towering rabbinic figure, Moses Nahmanides, Ramban. He lived in the thirteenth century during the period following the migration of Andalusian Jewry into Christian ‘Spain.’ Culture clashes then ensued throughout the region between philosophically and mystically oriented Jews concerning the recent philosophical writings of Rambam, Maimonides. It was only through the mediation of Ramban that the ‘Maimonidean Controversy,’ as it is often called, subsided.
According to the Jewish museum, so distinct was the Jewish culture of Catalan that following the Spanish expulsion Catalonian exiles in parts of Italy and Salonica even established their own ‘Catalonian’ synagogues. These synagogues even existed alongside Aragonese, Portuguese and Castilian synagogues. Jonathan Ray demonstrates in his wonderful work ‘After Expulsion’ that it took about a century for these disparate communities to mostly merge with one another and finally create a more cohesive ‘sephardic’ or ‘Spanish’ Jewry. This merged Sephardic tradition finally took form through R Yosef Karo’s sixteenth century legal code ‘Shulhan Arukh.’
I wonder whether the Western Sephardic tradition can in fact be traced to one of these earlier Iberian regions, and maybe even from Portugal itself (via Italy). However, perhaps like the Eastern Sephardim it is a homogenisation of various ‘Spanish’ traditions, simply with a post-expulsion Western European evolution which distinguished it from the Sephardic traditions in the east.
On a sadder note, anti-semitism in the region took on a unique form as well. Catalonia is home to many infamous forced religious disputations. Most famous is the disputation between Ramban and Pablo Christiani in Barcelona in 1261. It ultimately led to Ramban being exiled, upon which he traveled all the way to the Holy Land to live out his final days. The most devastating forced disputation occurred in 1413-14 and included the noted sage Yosef Albo, author of Sefer Haikarim on matters of Jewish faith. This ‘disputation’ resulted in mass conversions with many fearing for their lives. In fact, while the riots and forced conversions of 1391 began in Castilian ruled Andalusia, they quickly spread to Catalonia. There, many Jewish were killed or were converted. This took place, however against royal opposition. Indeed, some even claim that the Spanish blood laws (first established in Toledo), the Inquisition, and the ensuing 1492 Expulsion of all remaining Jews from throughout a recently unified Spain, were fundamentally Castilian (Queen Isabella) initiatives.
Despite their sad endings, it was a pleasure to walk the narrow streets of the former Jewish sections of these two cities. Girona is exceptionally well preserved and the former locations of its Jewish institutions are well documented. Barcelona still requires further study, leaving room for some more dubious claims of earlier ‘synagogues,’ and only a small Jewish museum run by the city (which was closed when I arrived). Still, visiting these places was an exceptional experience. I left with a richer understanding of ‘Sephardic’ history, and with new ideas to consider!