October 22, 2019

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 (beitrambam.es), 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 (jewishsevilla.com) 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.