Jerusalem’s Old City Finds Twin in Girona


 

With their narrow passageways and cobblestone streets, picturesque Girona and Jerusalem’s Old City share more than just a certain outward appearance.

As early as the 12th century, artists from this Catalan city portrayed Jerusalem and its Jewish residents in a magnificent tapestry depicting the creation story. And Girona’s most illustrious Jewish resident, Moses ben Nachman, also known as the Ramban or Nachmanides, traveled to Jerusalem for his dying days. In letters to his kin, the Ramban describes his longing for his family and rich Jewish life in Girona in the face of a desolated, 13th century Jerusalem left in ruins.

These are just some of the many fascinating bits of information served up by the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, a leading educational and cultural foundation named for the Ramban in Girona’s restored Jewish Quarter.

The Call, as the quarter is known in Catalan, dates back to the year 890 when 25 families from the surrounding region moved into former houses of clergy near the city’s large cathedral. Over time, the Jewish district expanded to include a larger area that once housed more than 300 Jews. In return for financial tribute, the Spanish kings protected the Call, as it did all other Jewish communities under the Crown of Catalonia and nearby Aragon. The quarter’s main thoroughfare was Carrer de la Forca, or La Forca Street, which is where the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta now stands.

The Centre represents recent efforts to reclaim the region’s Jewish heritage. Located about 40 minutes north of Barcelona, the Centre is also the headquarters for the Network of Spanish Jewish Sites-Roads of Sepharad. It coordinates a wide spectrum of activities, run almost entirely by and for non-Jews committed to furthering awareness of a lost community that left deep impressions on Spain’s culture and economy.

Until recently, Spain had preserved relatively few examples of architecture that testified to the presence of Jewish communities in Catalan cities throughout the Middle Ages. But in the 1970s, private investors began renovating some buildings within the Call. And by 1990, the Girona City Council had managed to purchase the various buildings that now make up the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta. It was another 10 years before part of its permanent exhibit opened to the public in July 2000.

Within its walls, you’ll find exhibits and cultural activities, concerts and theater productions. There are also lectures, round-table discussions, classes for tour guides, courses on medieval Spanish Jewry and kabbalah, relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims and modern Hebrew. You can also take guided tours through the Nachmanides Institute for Jewish Studies, which hosts visiting scholars, and the Museum of the History of the Jews. This relatively small museum depicts Girona’s Jewish history, including its tragic fate with the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

Despite popular understanding, the terror actually began 100 years earlier with a pogrom on Tisha B’Av 1391. It led to innumerable conversions, seizure of property and the closing of synagogues throughout Spain well before final expulsion.

Although Girona was once home to two synagogues that were easily identified, its last synagogue’s location is disputed. It was positioned intum callum judaycum or within the Jewry, in a discrete spot inside the Call that was maintained until 1492. Some say it was based in the very building now occupied by the Bonastruc ca Porta Centre, where Nachmanides may have himself prayed and studied Kabbalah. A bill of sale signed by the Council of the Jewry in 1492 shows the building was a fairly large structure containing two batei midrash — one for men, another for women — as well as mikvahs and a hospital.

That is just one of the more than 1,200 documents pertaining to Girona Jewry that the Centre has identified in two city archives. Other papers include manuscripts written by the Catalan kabbalists, many of whom lived in Girona, commentaries of Ezra ben Solomon on the “Song of Songs” and treatises of Ariel of Girona on prayer.

The Centre also preserves archaeological remains from tombs and long-abandoned funeral stones that were left on the city’s Montjuic, or Jewish mountain, where the cemetery once stood. You’ll see such treasured remnants of Girona’s lost community within the museum. Some are poignantly exhibited on a dramatic latex floor displaying photos of green fields and yellow wildflowers — exactly how they were found.

For more information on Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, visit www.ajuntament.gi; for Spanish Jewry in general, visit www.redjuderias.org/index_en.php. The Centre Bonastruc ca Porta is affiliated with a nonprofit organization, the American Friends of the Girona Museum and Institute. For more information, contact the Friends at 501 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017; (212) 583-3181; shihorn@aol.com.

Lisa Alcalay Klug, a former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, writes for The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and other publications.

 

Get Lost in Girona


Girona (pronounced heh-row-na) is a small, culturally rich town in Catalan, Spain — and is the perfect place to get yourself gloriously lost. Old Town Girona will toy with your sense of direction until you find yourself happily meandering through medieval alleyways, Gothic churches and the remains of what was once the center for mystical Jewish thought.

Founded as a Roman settlement, and later developed into an important medieval trade center, Girona’s location in Northeastern Spain situated it perfectly to become a major gateway to the rest of Europe by land and Asia by sea. Due to its business traffic, Girona became one of Europe’s most culturally diverse and peaceful settlements: Arabs, Christians and Jews lived peacefully together for long stretches of time.

Today, most visitors to Girona come to explore the town that, in the 12th and 13th centuries, was a hotbed for the most influential and lasting thought in the development of kabbalah. The rabbis of Girona were internationally respected for their dedication to creating a holistic view of the world through intuitive interpretations of the Torah. While the rabbis were breaking new ground in Jewish mysticism, their community underwent many periods of extreme success followed by, and punctuated with, imprisonment and decline.

The Jewish community in Girona, like all Jewish communities loyal to the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon, held an especially precarious position in society. In return for financial tribute, the Jews received protection from the king. The king’s protection included freeing the Jews from the rule of city government at the same time that the city government was required to protect them from harassment. This arrangement easily separated the Jews from the rest of the city and sowed the seeds for conflict that was destined to arise.

Tolerance and acceptance of the Jewish community in Girona fluctuated. When relations between the Jews and the rest of Girona was good, there was intermarriage, joint business ventures and religious freedom. However, when relations soured, it was easy for the city to “protect” the Jews, for example, by locking them into their homes or neighborhoods or having them wear special clothing. Jews were also attacked and killed at times.

The Jews in Girona lived in a small area in the center of Old Town Girona called El Call, from the Hebrew root kahal, or community. They clustered their homes together and built winding alleyways, private gardens and a synagogue that moved locations so many times, no one is exactly sure of its final location.

Today, Girona is separated into two distinct towns separated by the River Onyar. New Girona is a modern Spanish town complete with sprawling parks, department stores and dance clubs, while Old Girona remains much as it was during medieval time — a maze of stone buildings that seem to have grown out of the hill of their own volition. There is even a Jewish museum in El Call.

There are a series of bridges that cross the River Onyar leading from one side to the other. The main bridge (Pont de Pedra) will lead you first into the commercial district of Old Girona — a street lined with trendy shops, gelaterias and restaurants. As you pick your way along the winding cobblestone streets the shiny commercial district gives way to the heart and soul of Old Girona.

Girona is the perfect town to wander in — you’re sure to stumble upon something interesting, delicious or downright awe-inspiring.