Deep in the heart of Barcelona’s Old City, street signs with Catalan names such as Carrer de Montjuic, Jewish Mountain Street, speak of a Jewish presence. Certain walls contain barely decipherable Hebrew inscriptions from eroded Jewish tombstones. And an elegant stone tablet displays beautiful Hebrew letters commemorating the 12th century rabbi Shmuel HaSareri.
Although some 4,000 Jews lived there in the Middle Ages, Barcelona has been slow to recall its Jewish past. Unlike its counterparts in nearby Girona and other Catalan cities, Barcelona’s Call is largely neglected. There are few signs of commerce or habitation. Many streets are dirty and the stench of sewage wafts through the air.
Multi-lingual guides such as Dominique Blinder Thomasov of Urban Cultours help make a visit worthwhile, however. I appreciated her expertise during a recent visit hosted by the Spanish Board of Tourism and several Catalan organizations.
At its peak during the 13th century, Barcelona’s Jewish population represented about 15 percent of its total inhabitants. As immigrants from around the Mediterranean, these Jews filled the streets with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan and Arabic. And they also served as liaisons between East and West, helping transmit the latest advances in science and recent philosophic works from the Arab world.
One of their synagogues, which dates back to the 11th century, is being restored. Scholars recently discovered its remains under the basement of 17th century building within the Call. Sadly, no external signs reveal its significance.
During the pogroms of 1391 — marking the beginning of the Inquisition — many Barcelona Jews converted to Catholicism. Some adopted the surname of a Christian patron offering them protection as “new Christians.” By 1492, when King Ferdinand of Castille and Queen Isabella of Aragon ordered the expulsion of all Jews living on Spanish soil, most traces of Barcelona’s Jewish community began to disappear. In an effort to erase their presence entirely, locals added the names of Catholic saints to street signs. Unlikely combinations such as Sant Domenec del Call, which evokes a patron saint over the Jewish Quarter, now mark pathways where Jews walked for centuries.
Nearly 500 years after the Expulsion, during the 1950s, a Jewish community formed again in the Iberian Peninsula. A small group of Jewish arrivals organized the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona. Orthodox in practice, the Comunidad currently employs both an Israeli rabbi to service the Sephardi community and a Chabad rabbi for its Ashkenazi members. Today, Barcelona’s Jews again number close to 4,000.
In addition to its Jewish sites, a visit to Barcelona wouldn’t be complete without a look at some of its fascinating architecture. Much of it is within a short distance of the Comunidad. After morning services, I attended a Shabbat lunch at the Chabad rabbi’s home in the company of other international travelers. There I met a Breslov musician, his wife and their fellow band members, all adorned in chasidic attire. They were hired to perform at a bat mitzvah after Shabbat at the Comunidad and were visiting from Mea Shearim in Jerusalem.
Later in the afternoon we reconvened to walk together to see some of Barcelona’s greatest “modernista” landmarks. Spectacular buildings such as the Sagrada Familia, an unfinished work by Antonio Gaudi, and his Casa Mila (a k a the Pedrera house) are fine examples of Catalan Modernism. This artistic movement vindicated the Catalan national identity and promoted Europeanization of the country through urban planning.
Sagrada Familia is often referred to as a sandcastle because its massive towers appear to be dripping concrete.
And with its landmark undulating facade, Casa Mila represents a legacy of “modernisme” unique to Barcelona. Its public spaces, which combine exuberant colors and forms, are swathed in dreamlike, psychedelic swirls of reds, greens, yellows and blues.
And compared to the Call, these structures display a startling contrast between old and new.
When you go:
- Dominique Thomasov operates Urban Cultours, www.urbancultours.com
- The Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona is located at Carrer de Avenir 24; phone: 34-93-200-8513. Kosher meals are available with advanced notice
- Chabad of Barcelona is located on Calle Joan Gamper 27; phone, 34-93-410-0685; chabadbarcelona.org
- We stayed a few blocks from the Comunidad at the three-star Hotel Condado, a simple, clean hotel located on Carrer de Aribau 201; phone, 34-93-200-23-11
- Another site of Jewish interest is Montjuic, the site of a medieval Jewish cemetery. Montjuic is home to an impressive athletic facility that hosted the 1992 Olympics.
Frequent contributor Lisa Alcalay Klug has written for the New York Times, Forward and many other publications. She is the author of the forthcoming Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe. To learn more visit www.lisaklug.com
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.