November 21, 2019

The last Jews of Spain

I was in Spain the day before Simchat Torah when my Israeli friend suggested we honor the holiday by walking through Sevilla’s Jewish quarter – La Juderia de Sevilla.

It was a terrible way to celebrate.

Sevilla’s Jewish quarter – or, rather, what once functioned as Sevilla’s Jewish quarter, before pogroms, massacres and expulsions – is bring-your-meds depressing.

A map outlining places of interest lists several sinagogas (synagogues), abruptly followed by the explanation, “actually,” this is now Iglesia [church] de Santa Maria la Blanca or Convento de Madre de Dios. On one side of the map is a quaint little reconstruction of an enclosed area that was once home to the second largest Jewish community in the Kingdom of Castilla. Today, all that remains are a few dinky pieces of the wall that delineated the quarter, and I probably don’t have to tell you what’s left of the Jewish cemetery.

The story of Spanish Jewry is now a story of remnants. It is the story of much of Jewish Europe, defined mostly by what is missing, by exclusions and absences.

Sevilla’s Jewish museum, if one could call it that, is but a room with few artifacts and some text on the walls. It is a poor testament to the rich history of Spanish Jewish life, a once-thriving medieval culture that produced some of Jewish history’s most honored philosophers and poets — Maimonides, Nachmanides, Yehuda Halevi and Solomon ibn Gabirol, among them. Oddly, more wall space is devoted to Susona Ben Suson, the reputedly beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant and Jewish converso (convert) who fell in love with a Christian nobleman and then betrayed her father and her people.

The dirty little secret about the Spanish Inquisition is that even after Jews converted to Christianity to save themselves, they were subject to “estatutos de limpieza de sangre,” discrimination and reprisals resulting from their lack of pure Christian blood. When a group of Sevillan conversos hatched a plot to take back their city and halt these reprisals, the pretty Susona Ben Suson told her lover, who then dumped her and had everyone else killed. According to one legend, Susona died a recluse, having asked that her skull be nailed to the doorpost of her house in order to remind others of the consequences of betrayal. Another legend says the Inquisitioners burned her alive.

The story Spain tells about Sephardic Jewry can sometimes seem schizophrenic, oscillating from the glories of the Golden Age to the ignominious Inquisition. It carves Spanish Jewish history into distinct chapters, suggesting one period was good, and the other, bad. 

But Moisés Hassán-Amsélem, a Sevillan native of Moroccan and Algerian Jewish descent, tells another story. “Life for the Jews in Spain was never that great, as some historians would say,” Hassán-Amsélem told me during an interview.

The 48-year-old educator (and a non-practicing attorney) is Sevilla’s go-to tour guide for the Jewish quarter; he is a Jewish history autodidact and lives in an apartment of wall-to-wall books. He also lectures on Holocaust studies and anti-Semitism at the local public university, Pablo de Olavide. He scoffs at the notion that there ever was a Spanish Jewish “Golden Age” when Jews prospered and three religions co-existed in peace and harmony – “This is a myth,” he said.

Hassán-Amsélem became a tour guide because he wanted to introduce visitors to a different perspective than that of official Spain. In the 1990s, eight cities decided to work together to create a network of Jewish quarters – Red de Juderías de España – in order to encourage and promote tourism. “Jews became an attraction,” he said wryly. And it worked: Today, there are 24 cities in this network, and Hassán-Amsélem said he conducted more than 220 tours last year.

“But how many of these cities have something to show? Hassán-Amsélem asked. “Not many.”

Hassán-Amsélem is bothered by how the official record romanticizes the past. “You realize there’s not that much to see [in these quarters] because after 500 years, so much has been destroyed.” In Barcelona, for example, a Jewish cemetery was turned into a quarry – a cheap place to buy stone, which then became the building blocks of the city. “You can still see a façade with Hebrew letters carved into it,” Hassán-Amsélem said of one of Barcelona’s Jewish-tour stops.

Today, official statistics suggest that where once there was a Jewish community of 200,000, only 40,000 remain. But even that census, Hassán-Amsélem told me, is probably exaggerated: “I don’t see it,” he said, suggesting the actual population is probably somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000, with the biggest communities in Barcelona and Madrid.

After generations of living in exile in North Africa, Hassán-Amsélem’s parents decided to return to their ancestral home in Sevilla. In 1963, his father organized all the Jewish émigrés into the “Israelite Community of Sevilla,” which today claims between 100 and 120 families – the size of one very small synagogue in Los Angeles.

“I am not very optimistic,” Hassán-Amsélem said of the future of Spanish Jewry.  “The number of Jews in Spain is not growing. I don’t know for how long the communities will survive. Places like Sevilla? I am quite pessimistic. I don’t think there are enough Jews to be able to go forward.”

Spain’s recent repatriation efforts – an offer of citizenship to Jews whose ancestors might have been expelled – are a lovely gesture, but the requirements of new potential citizens are not demanding enough to tip the scales of Spain’s Jewish future. 

Spain is also, after all, a Catholic country. And the continuing weakening of its Jewish presence is akin to the general languishing of the Jewish presence throughout Europe.  “There is still a lot of prejudice,” Hassán-Amsélem said. “People are still very ignorant of what being a Jew means – a lot of people [still] think that Jews killed Jesus, and that the Jewish expulsion from Spain happened because Jews were controlling all the finances.”

So the Spanish-Jewish homeland was never totally glorious or golden. And now, when the Jews have their promised land, Israel, even there peace continues to evade them. In every iteration of Jewish history, bounty and blessing are punctuated by violence and loss: Loss of cities, quarters, whole communities, countless artifacts and millions of lives.

“Sometimes I feel myself like a dinosaur, like I should be in a museum from 500 years ago,” Hassán-Amsélem said. “I don’t know if there is any future, but there is a present. And I try to open the eyes of the people; it’s like ‘You see? I’m Jewish. I look like any other person. I have no horns.’”

But he also said that even his very best efforts as an educator are challenged by the situation in Israel.

“Nobody cares that every day a Jew is stabbed in Israel – that doesn’t count, that’s not part of the news. The problem will be when [days from] now, Israel will bomb spaces in Gaza and the whole world will say ‘Jews are all like the Nazis.’ And Spain is part of that, unfortunately.

“This is what Europe has become.”