Modern-Day Spanish Jewry

In July, my wife, Roberta, and I led a group from Beth Am on an 11-day Mission to Spain, organized by the Conservative Cantors Assembly. Forty cantors from North America went, bringing 300 congregants with us (no other Baltimore groups went). I was personally interested in the mission’s goals: to learn the history of Jews in Spain, firsthand, on-site; and to connect with Sephardi culture, and specifically, to support modern-day Jewish communities in Spain. We found the experience informative, meaningful, but also somewhat disturbing.

We visited Jewish sites in Barcelona, Girona, Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Cordoba and Seville. We went on guided tours of the respective Old Jewish Quarters — they are more for tourists, since virtually no Jews live there — historic sites that defined the relationship between Jews and Spain and general cultural and architectural sites. Lectures were delivered by experts, and the group took part in direct meetings with leaders of the Jewish communities of Madrid and Seville.

The cantors presented concerts for the community  and mission participants in Barcelona, Madrid (attended by the Israeli ambassador) and Seville, featuring lively music, both solo and ensemble, with sing-along opportunities. The Seville concert included a moving prayer for Jews who were tortured and expelled during Muslim and Catholic monarchies, and again following the Spanish Civil War in the mid-20th century. We knew that the music we brought was hardly ever heard and the services larger than any locals could find in Spain, and it was personally gratifying to participate. The meaning to locals was underscored when a Barcelona resident boldly came up onto the concert stage, asking that we sing “Hatikvah.” In retrospect, omitting “Hatikvah” was an error, immediately fixed, and one we did not repeat in Madrid.

Jewish leaders in both Madrid and Seville shared observations about living in a country still dominated by Catholics — by some counts, 95 percent of current affiliated residents. At this time, Spain is trying to alter its image and welcome back Jewish families who show roots dating back to the Expulsion in 1492, along with those who were forcibly converted.

The group came away appreciating the culture lost to the Iberian Peninsula from the 12th through 19th centuries and again in the 20th century, along with challenges faced by the small numbers of Jews.  As one leader noted, Jews are neither unwelcome nor entirely welcome.

For those interested in hearing more, I will be presenting  pictures and videos from the  mission on Oct. 19 at Beth Am.

Ira Greenstein is cantor at Beth Am Synagogue.

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