We certainly weren’t the first Jews to Iberia.  They probably arrived over 1700 years ago during the Roman times.  Judaism arrived and was practiced at the same time as Christianity.  By the time Islam conquered the peninsula, Jews had a long history there. But under the Islamic rulers Jews flourished in the professions, in philosophy and in communal life.  Even as Islam was beaten back by the steady advance of armed Christianity over 400 years, the Jewish community in Christian territory remained relatively strong and independent. Only in the last hundred years before expulsion did the Jewish communities of Spain (but not of Portugal) come under pressure to convert or leave. Expelled by Ferdinand & Isabella in 1492, Jews went to many places, but the largest group moved to Portugal. For reasons of political alliance, the Portuguese king followed suit several years later and expelled his Jews.  In both countries, many Jews went underground and the legacy of being Conversos (secret Jews) was carried by families for 500 years.


Our first stop was Portugal. Though the major cities like Lisbon and Oporto have small active Jewish communities today, it is not there that the vestiges of old Sfarad or of the Conversos are to be found. But in the small towns of the interior, away from the heavy hand of the 16th century Inquisition, and away from the hand of 19th and 20th century urban redevelopment, the ancient links can be seen.  For example, the town of Castello da Vide:





Castle on the hill (this had been a fortress town on the frontier with Spain). Churches at the left.  The Jewish area was to the right, below the castle but away from the churches.



Street in Castello da Vide.  The ancient synagogue is on your right.  Compare its upkeep with the private homes on your left.



Front of the synagogue.  The left-hand door (with the mezuzah notch) had been the main (ie: men’s) entrance. Women’s door to the right.



The old ark for keeping the Torah.  The structure beside it is unclear – probably it held the Eternal Light.



There are no Jews today in Castello da Vide.  And only two in Tomar (for more on Tomar read this Travelogue). But they are from a family who had been Conversos for 490 years and just “came out” about 20 years ago. They have located the old synagogue, they raise the funds for its restoration, and run it as a small museum.




Inside of the synagogue/museum. All the furnishings are donations from elsewhere – the building itself had been a hay storage shed before restoration.



The pillars are original (though restored).  We were told the four represent the Biblical Matriarchs.



Among the objects here is this stone from the Great Synagogue of Lisbon, dated 5067 (1307).  Click on it to enlarge if you read Hebrew.




This is the information sign (in English) which accompanies the stone shown above.  Click on it to enlarge to get the translation and history.







In one place we joined an entire Jewish community of former Conversos. This is the town of Belmonte, where we spent Purim hearing the megillah read in Portuguese.  A description of our impressions is in this Travelogue.









In Portugal, where old neighbourhoods still survive, it’s possible to seek out the narrow streets, look for the rundown buildings with the arched doorways, and still find the telltale notch in the doorway that betrays the former location of a mezuzah.







But not in Spain. There, 500 year olds houses have been demolished or renovated. But the narrow streets persist. And the streets often announce their past. “Calle de Juderia” (Street of the Jewish Quarter) say the signs, mounted in recent years by municipalities with a clear eye on tourism


Cities vary in how much they play upon their Jewish past.  In Seville, the Barrio Santa Cruz (Sacred Cross), the former Jewish neighbourhood, is today a trendy warren of narrow streets with pricey pensiones and popular tapas bars.  The ornate iron-wrought Santa Cruz cross stands exactly where the Great synagogue of Seville used to stand – though no marker or government brochure of any kind makes reference to that fact.
Cordoba, in contrast, makes a big display of its having been the harmonious meeting place of the Three Great Religions.  (perhaps it’s a little overdone – but it comes as a healthy antidote to the Jewish distorted historical view that we always lived in harmony with our Muslim cousins but only suffered under the Church.)




Specially honoured is Maimonides, who lived in Cordoba in the 12th century CE and who, with his buddy the Muslim philosopher Alvarroes, had much to teach the Church about the synthesis of Aristotelian rationalism and Biblical faith.






One of the former synagogues survives (though most of its interior beauty has been lost) and is a regular fixture on the tourism route.





In Toledo two synagogues (out of 11) survive (though no Jewish community).  The grander one was closed for renovation, but we did join the busloads of tourists in the other.  It had been built (around 1100 CE) in Muslim architectural style, with rows of support pillars capped with arches





Not surprisingly, subsequent Christian regimes felt the need to redeem this building.  Note the Christian artwork on the walls from its era as a church.



Jewish life in Catalunya (today northern Spain) followed much the same pattern it did in the rest of the peninsula – expansion, persecution, banishment. In Girona, a walled medieval city now a pretty university town, we spent an afternoon in a Jewish research library located on the Call – the Catalonian term for the old Jewish neighbourhood.


Located within the library/museum is a section of the old street and buildings where Jews had lived.


Located within the city walls is a ruined tower where the towns Jews had been rounded up and died




In Barcelona we went to both a small synagogue (poorly attended) and a Jewish film festival (well attended), though we have no photos from these.

But we did find the Barcelona Call by following the rabbi’s directions to an old building he claimed had been a medieval synagogue. He warned us there was no marker on the building, but said that any place we found recognition of the Dominicans we could probably assume we had stumbled upon the old Jewish area – apparently the Church gave them the franchise on Jewish souls




Remember Sfarad.