Seeing Seville

In Spain’s fourth-largest city, Seville, the Juderia (Jewish quarter) is a vibrant maze of brightly painted buildings, vest-pocket-sized parks, sidewalk cafes, flamenco-show venues and boutiques. 

While this should come as no surprise — it is the area’s social and commercial epicenter — all of the paint, flower boxes and souvenirs conceal a darker history that, over time, nearly rid the city of Jews entirely. 

According to the Bible (I Kings 10:22), Jews were in contact with southern Spain during the days of Solomon. Historical records, however, suggest the time of their introduction in Seville — now capital of the autonomous community called Andalusia — was between the fifth and seventh centuries. 

When the city came under Moorish rule in 712, a Jewish guard was formed for its defense, making a harmonious period during which Jews, Moors and Christians co-existed. In the Middle Ages, Seville’s Juderia was a bustling Jewish community that was second largest after Toledo. At its peak in the mid-13th century, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Jewish families lived in the area.

During those times, Jews were engaged in banking, law, commerce, medicine and the dyeing industry. After the 1013 Berber conquest, Seville served as a refuge for Jews escaping from persecution in nearby Córdoba. 

The protracted decline of the Jewish community started in 1378 — more than 100 years before the final expulsion from Spain in 1492. Following a Christian reconquest of the city, a local archdeacon, Ferrand Martinez, launched a campaign of violent sermons against the Jews, and, according to Stephen Birmingham in “The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite,” led an armed mob in 1391 that “massacred more than four thousand Jews, looted and burned their houses.” Although many Jews converted, the Jewish problem became the Converso problem. 

Today, about 130 Jews are trying to restore Jewish life and tradition to Seville. According to local tour guide and historian Moises Hassan-Amselem, the Orthodox community (consisting of Moroccan Jews and more closely resembling the American Conservative denomination in practice) was created officially in 1966. Although some Moroccan-Jewish families had lived there for a couple of generations, others arrived in the 1960s and ’70s to attend the local university. 

This community — about 30 families— stages services for Shabbat, even though getting a minyan can prove challenging. There also are services for the High Holy Days. 

The Reform community (, which also identifies itself as Progressive, was organized a few years back by Jews from Andalusia seeking an alternative. Its 25 to 30 families include expats from the United States and elsewhere in the Americas, converts and other members of mixed marriages. They celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat once a month, but do not have a permanent shul, instead using offices and hotel rooms around town as needed. A member of the community teaches Hebrew once a week to children of both congregations.

The Centro de Interpretacion Juderia de Sevilla, a museum in Barrio Santa Cruz, one of the sections that make up the Jewish quarter, houses artifacts from the Juderia’s glory days and downfall. But Hassan-Amselem ( prefers telling Jewish history by hitting the streets. 

“I take my clients to small corners of the quarter where they can see a piece of history that provokes conversation about how Jews live in Spain today,” he explained upon our meeting at the Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia. “My job is to let people know that the strong historical roots of the Jewish community are still important. I want to connect Jewish history to the present and prove to visitors that it is still possible to live a Jewish life here, even if it can be challenging.”

Although the hotel lobby is quite beautiful, Hassan-Amselem is quick to point out the building is not representative of the Juderia as it existed 600 years ago. Our tour takes the form of a scavenger hunt, tracking down finds hidden in and around Barrio Santa Cruz, Barrio de San Bartolomé, Calle Santa Maria la Blanca and remnants of the quarter’s wall originating from Calle Conde de Ibarra.  

Our first stop is the Church of Santa María la Blanca, where one wall section embellished with vividly colored and gilded Christian imagery is peeled back to reveal the spare architectural hallmarks of a medieval synagogue. Although there is no signage to point out the building’s former use, the architectural contrast stands as a visual reminder of how Martinez galvanized his flock to erase any trace of Jewish presence. 

Later, as we walked through a beautiful garden park, Jardines de Murillo, Hassan-Amselem told me it was once the site of a Jewish cemetery. And inside the Church of San Nicolás, he showed me its most visited shrine, memorializing a child, whose signage was changed around 2005 to remove a declaration that the boy was killed by Jews. (Local historians believe, according to Hassan-Amselem, that the story was a myth planted by clerics to support pogroms.) 

In addition to these larger landmarks, there are small Hebrew inscriptions posted in random walls and archways around town that remain enigmatic centuries after they were placed. Hassan-Amselem said they may have been written by non-Jews — one captions a picture of the Virgin Mary stepping over a snake, reading “hu yeshufecha rosh” (“[S]he will strike you in the head,” from Genesis 3:15, a reference to the enmity that is said to exist between humanity and the snake after the incident in the Garden of Eden). 

Essential sites beyond the Juderia include the Castillo de San Jorge/Spanish Inquisition Museum in the Triana neighborhood; Plaza de España (built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929); Jerez, the cradle of sherry production; and the Tio Pepe bodega, known for its acclaimed kosher sherry.

Community Seder round-up

Discover the eternal meaning of the haggadah and enjoy a seder complete with hand-baked matzah, wine/grape juice and your favorite traditional meal at Chabad of Simi Valley. RSVP by April 9. Suggested donation ($30 adult, $18 child). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 4464 Alamo St., Simi Valley. (805) 577-0573.

Join Chabad of Beverly Hills for its traditional Pesach seder. No one will be turned away due to lack of funds. RSVP by April 7. $50 (adult), $26 (child), $126 (family). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 409 N. Foothill Road, Beverly Hills. (310) 859-3948. 

Traditional seders on the first two nights of Passover at Hillel at UCLA will be interactive celebrations incorporating the recitation of the haggadah, a festive holiday meal, study and song. They will be led by Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan. (A liberal seder on April 14 will take place at 6:30 p.m., led by Rabbi Aaron Lerner and student seder captains.)  Students, parents and community members from all backgrounds are welcome. April 14 and 15. 8 p.m. $54 (adults), $36 (UCLA students), $27 (children 3-6). 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081. 

Rabbi Zachary Shapiro and Cantor Lonee Frailich celebrate another engaging and memorable seder at Temple Akiba. RSVP by April 7. Space is limited. April 15. 6 p.m. $70 (adult members), $80 (adult non-members), $20 (children 12 and under). 5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 398-5783.

Married? Single? Lots of kids? No kids? This seder at Temple Beth Am is for everyone! April 15. 7:15 p.m. $50 (members), $55 (non-members), $25 (children 4-12), $10 (children 2-3). 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7354, ext. 217.

Imagine jumping inside the haggadah and experiencing the seder from the inside out. This is “2nd Night: Not Your Zayde’s Seder” at Temple Judea. Have an adventure you could never have if you stayed at home. April 15. 5 p.m. $45 (members), $60 (non-members),  $25-$35 (children 12 and under). 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800.

Jar, the highly acclaimed restaurant by chef Suzanne Tracht, plans a special Passover dinner designed to bring families and friends together. This multicultural seder offers an opportunity to meet three teens visiting from Israel and listen to their experiences with Ultimate Peace, a groundbreaking program that unites Jewish and Arab youth using the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. Tracht, who was a 2009 contestant on “Top Chef Masters,”  features a four-course dinner that merges her family’s holiday traditions with the flavors of Jar’s modern chophouse style. $130 (adults), $55 (ages 12 and under). April 15. 5:30 p.m. Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 655-6566.

The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) invites you to its annual women’s seder, “Experience the Seder Through the Eyes of Women,” with Cantor Mimi Haselkorn. Men are welcome. Space is limited. RSVP by April 8. $40 (members), $50 (non-members). April 17. 6 p.m. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8512. 

Glimpses of Jews’ Past in Andaluc­a

Spain’s Andaluc­a is romance. It’s orange blossoms perfuming the air. It’s golden drops of sherry sliding down your throat in a smoky bodega. It’s fingers dancing on the strings of a flamenco guitar.

This southern wedge of the Iberian Peninsula, known for whitewashed villages skirting the Mediterranean Sea, was once the center of a vibrant Moorish kingdom whose link with Jewish history is bittersweet.

When this Muslim region was known as al-Andalus, it was home to thousands of Sephardic Jews, who settled here after the fall of the Second Temple. Jewish and Islamic cultures entwined to produce a legendary golden age beginning in the 10th century, during which time Jews thrived as diplomats, physicians and poets. After Christians conquered Moorish realms, Jews found themselves expelled from Spain in 1492; the ordinance was not officially rescinded until 1968.

A tour of the region offers some tantalizing glimpses of the Jewish past, set against Muslim and Christian landmarks of incomparable splendor. But traces of modern Jewish life in Andaluc­a are harder to find.

At the heart of historic Cardoba, Spanish architectural traditions overlap and blend in impressive fashion. The huge Mezquita (mosque), built between the eighth and 10th centuries, is pierced at its center by a soaring gothic cathedral, added in the 16th century once the Christians had consolidated their power.

Not far away is the tourist-friendly La Judera quarter. A modern statue representing Maimonides, the great 12th-century scholar and physician who was born into a distinguished Cardoban rabbinical family, stands guard outside one of Spain’s few medieval synagogues, its stucco walls still etched with Hebrew phrases.

Seville, Andaluca’s largest city, is known for its enormous cathedral, flanked by the graceful Giralda bell tower that was once a minaret. Preserved in the cathedral’s treasury are, quite literally, the keys to its Jewish past. Two intricate iron objects on display are the ceremonial keys to the city’s Judera, as presented in 1248 to the conquering Ferdinand III of Castille by his new Jewish subjects. An inscription in both Hebrew and Spanish reads: “The king of kings shall open, the king of all the earth shall enter.”

Public buildings in Seville are painted in brilliant shades of yellow and red. After a visit to the opulent halls and lush gardens of the Alca¡zar palace, the traveler can slip through a narrow covered passageway into the quaint Barrio de Santa Cruz. Despite its very Christian name, this is Seville’s old Jewish quarter, now home to fine restaurants and the city’s best flamenco show. Where once Jewish scholars swayed over sacred texts, you can now hear the staccato beat of high-heeled boots on wooden floors, punctuated by shouts of “Olé! ”

Granada can boast one of the world’s architectural masterpieces, the breathtaking Alhambra. This hilltop fortress and palace complex covers a variety of styles, but its crown jewel is the 14th-century Nasrid Palace, a fantasia of vaults, domes, graceful columns and stucco friezes embellished with elegant tile work and swirling Arabic calligraphy.

Interlocking patios reveal a series of enchanting vistas. None is more delightful than the Courtyard of the Lions, whose central fountain is rumored to have come from the mansion of a powerful 11th century Jewish courtier, Joseph ibn Nagrella.

Off the Courtyard of the Lions is one of the palace’s most exquisite rooms, the Hall of the Ambassadors. Standard guidebooks don’t mention that this was the site where on March 31, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella signed the decree banishing all Jews from Spain. Some commentators believe that the tragedy of that edict continues to haunt the Spanish people, many of whom have long-denied Jewish roots.

It’s heartening that King Juan Carlos, who ascended the throne in 1975 after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, has been a staunch defender of religious tolerance. He freely displays his fascination with Spain’s Sephardic heritage, and his wife, Queen Sophia, attended a well-publicized service at Madrid’s modern synagogue.

Most visitors to Andaluc­a travel from Madrid by car or by rail, a trip of about three hours. A worthwhile stopover between Madrid and Cardoba is the magnificent walled city of Toledo, which contains two of Spain’s best-preserved synagogues (see sidebar). These historic landmarks, however, have not functioned as Jewish houses of worship since the time of the Inquisition.

Of functioning synagogues, Spain has only a handful, but Andaluca can claim two of them. One is in Ma¡laga, the seaside capital of the Costa del Sol. The other, a charmingly decorated building that includes its own mikvah, is just down the coast in the upscale resort town of Marbella.

Jaén, a small Andaluc­an city that calls itself the olive oil capital of the world, contains no synagogue. But in a quiet square far off the tourist route, the traveler to Jaén will stumble onto an unexpected sight. Atop a square column stands a seven-branched menorah, erected to commemorate the Jewish families dispersed from Spain after 1492. Below is a plaque, written both in Spanish and Ladino. Its message is poignant: “The footprints in which they walked together can never be erased.”