Throughout much of history the Iberian Peninsula was divided amongst numerous kingdoms. In a sense, even today Spain remains not one but many different countries. I’ve previously visited Spain’s Catalonia and Basque regions, each of them with their own cultures and histories, as well as their own distinctive Jewish histories and experiences. However, I’ve been meaning for some time to visit Andalusia, the cradle of Sephardic (Spanish) Jewry. In Andalusia you can discover the beginning, middle, and end of Sephardic Jewry. The comfortable Fall season coupled with my needing a post Jewish holiday rest, finally provided me with the perfect opportunity to do so.
It was in this Moorish southern portion of the Iberian Peninsula that the Jewish culture and religious traditions of the Sephardim crystallised over 1000 years ago. While Jews may have arrived as early as during Roman times, it was only after the Muslim conquest of Spain that substantial numbers of Jews settled in this area.
The Jews of Muslim Andalusia engaged in a wide spectrum of pursuits, including politics, the military, the arts, the sciences and philosophy. This degree of freedom in pre modern times is so unusual that there is a term, covivencia, that is often used to describe it. While Jews were officially still second class citizens, they prospered under these conditions and created a lasting legacy.
The ‘Golden Age of Spain’ lasted until 1148 when the Almohad invasion introduced an uncompromising Islam into the region. Andalusia’s Jews were forced to flee north to Christian Spain or south to North Africa. However, they began to return to the region following the Christian reconquest of Sevilla in 1248. Jews remained there until they were expelled from parts of Andalusia in 1483.
Amazingly, a unique Moorish culture is still palpable today in the architecture, music and food of modern day Andalusia. Indeed, many of the old medieval streets and buildings remain. And if you know where to look, there are still even a few traces of the long absent Jewish presence. It was therefore thrilling during my trip to try to imagine what Jewish life might have once been like in that particular cultural, religious, and physical setting.
Most major cities in Spain contain a museum about Sephardic heritage, another about the Inquisition, and a statue of a Sephardic sage. Prior to my trip I was a bit cynical about them. I believed that they were attempts to lure Jewish tourists, and not manifestations of ernest Spanish interest in their Jewish histories. After visiting them, I now maintain a more nuanced understanding of them.
For the most part, these Jewish sites are privately funded. In other words they do not reflect government support or interest in the subject. In fact, Granada’s Inquisition museum is called ‘The Forgotten’ and Seville’s Jewish heritage is hidden behind plastered over walls, in underground garage parks, and beneath repaved roads. My conclusion is that the Spanish government is unfortunately still somewhat indifferent about Jewish heritage. In fact, most Spaniards no little about the Jewish history of their country.
The tours at the Jewish museum in Seville and in Cordoba both stressed the surprise of nineteenth century Spanish diplomats when they ‘discovered’ Spanish speaking Jews in the Ottoman Empire and in North Africa. They were clueless (the Inquisition was so successful) about their country’s rich Jewish heritage. While Sephardic Jews never forgot their origins, Spain did.
Sephardic retention of Spanish heritage deeply touched some of these diplomats, who then reported about it back to Spain. This prompted Spanish academic interest in their story, though 150 years later it is still not widely known. Tragically, most Ladino speaking Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and today that culture is primarily only preserved in universities.
Whatever Jewish heritage is preserved in Andalusia is because some private individuals wish to educate their fellow Spaniards. It isn’t about profiting on Jews on holiday. Indeed, many of the museums do not even include English language panels, only Spanish ones. In other words, the purpose of these sites is to inform Spaniards. I was touched to see Spanish speaking people huddling around the statue of Maimonides, discussing who he was.
Over the past one thousand years descendants of Sephardic Jews lived in many different lands and amongst various cultures and religions. As any living community does, they’ve continued to evolve. Therefore, the Sephardic ‘diasporas’ of today are culturally, geographically and religiously diverse. Still, the Andalusian experience continues to be a reference point and prism through which Sephardim, and many Ashkenazim, consider their religious expressions and values.
While Jews were expelled from Spain over 500 years ago, and many Sephardic cultures are now lost, ‘Sepharad’ remains. Sephardic Jewry remains alive in the cultural and religious traditions of their spiritual descendants. Sephardic culture reflected an openness to ideas and aesthetics that originated outside the Jewish community, whilst also maintaining a commitment to preserving Jewish values and traditions. In other words, Sephardic Jewry found a way to incorporate those ‘foreign’ elements, or to recast them, into distinctly Jewish expressions.
The design of the Cordoba synagogue is inspired by the designs of contemporary mosques. Note the shared shapes, and the Hebrew script around the border.
The poetry of Sepahrad is inspired by the Moorish gardens. They celebrated their symmetry, order, and beauty – a value shared by both religious communities. Ibn Gabirol of Granada wrote (translation Peter Cole):
As it passes over the garden you notice – the beds now coated in silver, – and then when the day declines it lines – their border with a shimmering gold.
We likely don’t live in the exact manner which those Sephardim did 1000 years ago, but we continue to be inspired by their example. My visit reinforced that. Throughout Andalusia the ability to embrace difference whilst not losing one’s own identity can still be seen on every culturally diverse facade, plate of food, and strum of the guitar. Indeed, Shelomo ibn Gabirol wrote Arabic poetry, Yehuda ibn Tibbon studied Astronomy, and Rambam read Greek philosophy – all as Jews.
A visit to Andalusia inspires visitors to recommit themselves to those ethos. It is in the air! Sometimes, you go to back to the beginning to know where you wish to go. Though, personally I’m not too interested in poetry, philosophy or astronomy! Thankfully, Abraham Ibn Daud wrote history :).