ROOTS OF SEFARAD

Jewish Heritage in Spain and Portugal

Jews in Spain


Spanish Haggadah

Jewish history in Spain goes back to the time of the Romans (2nd Century C.E.) and by the Middle Ages, Spain was the center of the Jewish world in Europe. Under Moslem rule, Jewish communities flourished: Jews were highly successful in the fields of agriculture, diplomacy, the arts, philosophy, commerce and sciences such as astronomy, medicine, botany and geography. They constituted about ten percent of the population (comparable only to pre-World War II Poland) and at no other time in their history (except perhaps the present-day United States) did they hold such high official posts. 

As the Christians reconquered Spain, a dark cloud gradually spread over Jewish society. Jews were increasingly subjected to religious intolerance: they were forced to live in ghettos (juderías), prohibited from practicing many professions, and were victims of pogroms and blood libels. All this culminated in the expulsion order of 1492. 

Spanish Jews fled to many parts of the world, creating Sephardic communities in such far-flung places as Palestine, Greece, Amsterdam, the Caribbean and North and South America. To this day, descendents of those expelled Jews still speak Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, 15th-century Spanish with traces of the local languages of the countries in which they settled. 

Plaque in the Jewish quarter

For over 400 years, there was no Jewish life in Spain. At the end of the 19th Century, a new interest in Judaism and Sephardic culture arose, and a small number of Jews started to trickle back in from Germany, Greece and other parts of Europe. With the help of a few Spanish politicians and intellectuals, they opened the first synagogue in Madrid in 1916 and were able to worship freely until 1938, when Franco’s fascist regime prohibited all religions except Roman Catholicism. By the end of the 1950's, the regime had become more tolerant, and looked the other way when the Madrid community began to hold services in a rented apartment. Finally, in 1967, the first law guaranteeing freedom of religion was passed, and the main synagogue in Madrid was opened the following year. 

There are now approximately 40,000 Jews living in Spain, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona, with Jewish communities in over ten cities and towns. The majority originally came from Morocco (after that country’s independence in the 1950's) and later from Latin America, especially Argentina. There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations and a number of Kosher restaurants.

 

Renewed interest

In 1992, Spain commemorated the quincentennial of the expulsion of the Jews. King Juan Carlos spoke in the Madrid synagogue, formally welcoming the Jews back to Spain. The many events, exhibits, TV programs, etc., at that time sparked a new interest in Sepharad, and Noah Gordon’s The Last Jew, a novel about the Inquisition, became a bestseller in Spain. Perhaps as a reaction to the oppressive Franco regime, the new atmosphere of tolerance and religious freedom encouraged many Spaniards to do research into their own family histories, and in some circles it became “in” to be able to claim a Jewish background. (In fact, a recent genetic study has shown that approximately 20% of Spaniards are of Jewish descent.) 

Chanukah in Madrid

In 1996 the official “Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters” was created to promote tourism to cities and towns that have a Jewish heritage; there are currently 21 member cities. However, perhaps the most important development in recent Spanish Jewish history was the creation of Casa Sefarad-Israel. In 2007 the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, together with the local and regional governments of Madrid established this official organization whose mission is to educate the Spanish public about Jewish culture and to develop ties of friendship between the Spanish and Israeli peoples. They created an inter-ministerial commission for the promotion of Holocaust education; publish Alef, a monthly magazine; and organize many events open to the general public, as diverse as travelling photography exhibits, open-air klezmer concerts and the public lighting of Chanukah candles.