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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Spain: Selling Culture to Jews or Selling Out Jewish Culture

By Shelomo Alfassa

June 20, 2005

This is a new article, a similar article based on a similar paper was
published in the Heritage Florida Jewish News, September 28, 2001

Heritage oriented tourism is the fastest growing market segment of the tourism industry worldwide. Today many tourists are looking for authentic places that put them in touch with their own unique history and culture. For many Jews, Spain is one of the primary destination hot spots. Spain is a beautiful country, one that with each visit allows the traveler to discover something new. Many Jews, specifically Sephardim, have a great desire to visit Spain as it was the ancestral homeland of their forefathers. Many Jew travel there, usually out of a deep-rooted curiosity, to experience the sites where their families once lived.

Today barely a scant remains of the old Juderias (Jewish quarters) in most of the Spanish cities. Yet, the Spanish government spends an incredible about of money to advertise the Juderias to descendants of the people who once lived there-the Jews. Marketing culture for tourism is not inherently bad, but there is a fine line between marketing culture to draw tourists, and selling-out culture for tourist money.

The Spanish government considers Jewish culture so important, they market the many Juderias on their tourism website like precious gems in a jewelry store. On one official Spanish government website you will find the word "Jewish" mentioned near twenty times, even having a multimedia movie on important Jewish settlements in Spain. Cordoba, Girona, Ribadavia, and Toledo are all mentioned, still, it is interesting to note that there are no presentations targeted towards Muslim tourists on the website, though Islam was the foremost civilization in Spain for more than half a millennia, with the Jews making up only a tiny minority during the same period.

This raises many questions. How much of this is intrinsic? Does the Spanish government really desire modern Jews to walk through their lands, or do they just want the money in their pockets. Do they promote the Juderia as gems in their holy tourism crown because they truly want people of the world to learn about the Jews who once lived in their country-the ones they themselves expelled centuries ago?

Step into the Juderia of Cordoba and you can walk the same winding narrow streets that Maimonides walked as a young man. Stroll the orange tree lined lanes surrounding the old city walls while breathing the sweet Andalusian air; there you can make the obligatory visit to an empty shell of a once vibrant synagogue of the great Jewish community of Cordoba. Of course while you are in Cordoba, you should not miss seeing the old Sefer Torah. However, you won't find it in the synagogue, nor a museum. You will find the ancient scroll of Jewish law lying in a box underneath the cash register at a shop that caters to tourists. But this is no Jewish tourist item-this is a real Torah scroll, and it is for sale for the equivalent of $18,000 U.S. dollars. While false reproductions do exist of all types of art and religious articles, this was the real deal. It was allowed to be examined only after telling the shopkeeper the examiner was the agent for a potential buyer in the United States.

This most holy Jewish item rests not in the possession of the Jewish community either in Spain, Israel or elsewhere, but in a tourist shop. One has to ask, why has the Jewish community not purchased it, rescued it? Why is it not in a Jewish historical museum, or even more properly laid to rest in a manner consistent with old sacred Jewish documents. There are stories of cemetery workers in Eastern Europe digging up buried Torahs that had been hidden during WWII and then selling them for profit back to the Jewish community, is this an analogous situation?

But this is not unique. A small antique shop in Granada, Spain contains a large glass box placed up high on a pedestal near a back wall. When the sales person was asked what it contained, she said she was not sure, she only knew it was "something of the Jews." When she opened it, unlocking it with a key, it was none other than another genuine Sefer Torah. She didn't know how much the shop owner was selling it for, and when asked how long they had owned it, she said ever since she could remember.

In Toledo, the city that was once heart of Spanish Jewry, stands an ancient Jewish synagogue known today as the 'Santa Maria la Blanca.' Next door to the synagogue is an antique shop selling large pieces of the wood lattice that had been once attached to the exterior of the thirteenth century house of worship. This same shop also sells an old scroll the Jews read on Purim, a Megilla, complete with hand carved wood handles.

Jewish people had lived in Spain for over 1500 years. This begs the question, could it be possible that every single Jewish ritual item has been destroyed over time? Couldn't some of these items survive? Is there a mass of Jewish books, and holy items hidden somewhere? Harry Stein, a Sephardic webmaster whose wife is a descendant of the great Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel told the following story to this writer:

"In 1972 I was in Madrid assigned to the United States Military Advisory Group. Many weekends my family and I would tour the countryside. On one occasion, we decided to visit Toledo, the once capital of Spain and the home of a large Jewish population prior to the expulsion. Taking the main road to Toledo from Madrid, we were stopped by road construction, the site of a tunnel collapse. We parked the car and strolled into an antique shop to keep us occupied until the road could be made passable. On one of the shelves, much to my surprise, I found what appeared to be a wrought iron menorah, which was found in the tunnel. I asked the proprietor how old it was. He said that the menorah was made in the 17th or 18th century. I smiled at him and stated that the menorah made during in that time was impossible. He smiled in return and said, 'Yes, it is impossible.' He then explained that there were tunnels through out Spain that were used by Jews to go to the synagogues and by secret Jews after the expulsion as a place to pray. I later found out that others have heard of these 'Jewish tunnels' throughout Spain."

Over thirty years has passed since this occurred yet almost nothing has been written about Jewish tunnels in Spain. It is not unheard of, even in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Sephardic refugees from Spain built underground passages to safe rooms where they could hide in an emergency. It's known that Jews interconnected their houses underground for the purposes of communicating with other Jews to have a minyan and share in communal events, but this has never been seriously investigated.

Those who take history seriously would lament over the endless amount of souvenir shops selling the same mass-produced ceramic star of David plate holders, menorahs, and kiddish cups all targeted towards the numerous Jewish travelers visiting the newly fangled Juderia. Many of the shops and restaurants, some with names like Judah Ha-Levi Café and Patio de Juderia, have a Jewish star on the front of the door, and a statue of their Virgin Mary on the back. Cafes and even entire communities sometimes hold concerts of "Sephardic" music. Dr. Judith Cohen, an international Jewish music expert reported that local songs have come to be seen by some (some rather cynically) occasionally presented by local officials, as "Sephardic" simply because they are sung by people who happen to live in the area designated as the "Old Jewish Quarter" even when the songs in question are part of the Christmas season repertoire or ballads from the late nineteenth century. Several towns that have created festivals containing components related to Jewish culture in neighborhoods and remnants of building that were once home to Jews many centuries earlier. In regards to this, Dr. Cohen has said it was "a rather mystifying logical leap" how they have led many visitors to conclude that the people who live there now (and by extension), their songs, are also Sephardic.

Spain is a warm welcoming country with friendly well-meaning people, but targeting Jewish tourists for their money, selling their cultural treasures and exploiting their traditions does nothing to continue to sooth the centuries old wounds that have been carved into the Jewish hearts and minds. There are many issues here, and each one deserves attention. Considering the Jews were not allow to take near anything with them when they left in 1492, it is quite reasonable to consider there may be a surplus of Jewish ritual items and objects still left in the country which were not destroyed.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) consider many cities in Spain to be protected World Heritage Cities (including Cordoba, Toledo, and Granada). They have a strong global policy of stopping the illicit exploitation of cultural resources. Nonetheless, there is no interaction between the mainstream Jewish community, and UNESCO regarding the Jewish ritual items, which apparently survive in Spain. In 2000 with the cooperation of the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the Syrian Jewish community managed to smuggle out many ancient Torahs and Jewish manuscripts from Syria, an adversary of Israel. Considering Spain is an ally of Israel and both are members of the United Nations, it seems the rescuing of Jewish holy items could be done easily with proper representation and dialogue between the two governments.