Friday, September 28, 2012

Sephardic Jews and the Nissan

 Carrer Jueus,
Castelló d’Empúries
It was my own stupid fault.  I knew better and had thought of it many times.  Lazy, that’s me.  Ever since I first came up here to look for an apartment, I have parked the car more or less in the same place, somewhere near a supermarket, just at the entrance to town and about a ten minute walk from where I now live.  It’s a good place to park:  there is no posted time limit (although my mason/handyman Josep assures me that they do tow cars away from time to time, when the spirit moves them, posted limit or no), I can easily check on it two or three times a week when I go to that way to buy groceries, and this last spot I found was so near the major road that I had less worry about theft or vandalism than when it’s parked way in back.  So I didn’t want to start it up and drive it and lose that premium spot.  Unfortunately, after sitting in that premium spot for two months, the battery died.

Back in mid-July I had driven to nearby Peralada to see what the village and the famous castle looked like.  That was the last time I drove the car.  Since then I’ve gone on two outings, but both were to France and by train.  It’s rare that I need the car for my errands which is one of the great joys of living in a European city and one of the things I disliked the most about where I used to live, where you need a car to do anything.

I went to use the car on a recent Sunday, thinking I would go to Castelló d’Empúries, a very pretty village that I visited soon after I moved here.  This time I would go to attend their 22nd annual Festival of Troubadours, dedicated this year to Temps de Sefarad.  Maybe there would be some bagels. 

Some Catalans seem to take an active interest in the Jewish community that once lived here before it was thrown out in 1492.  Those Jews were a colorful blend of Middle East and Europe, a blend that can be heard in their lovely music.  There is really very little that remains in Catalunya of that community.  But many towns take pride (or an interest) in at least identifying the former Jewish neighborhoods and some of the streets where Jews once lived.  Perhaps a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.  Or a way to attract tourists.

Plaque in  Castelló d’Empúries
where the medieval synagogue used to be
Tortosa has identified their former Ghetto (called a call in Catalan), as has Barcelona and Girona and Castelló d’Empúries, among others.  In Barcelona, you can visit a small museum on the ground floor of an old building on the site where the main synagogue was once located.  In Castelló d’Empúries, as in most other towns, there are only plaques.  Girona was home to one of the most important centers of Jewish mysticism, the study of Cabbala, with Rabbi Moises ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides as its leader.  This intellectual center made Girona possibly the most important Jewish community on the Iberian Peninsula at that time.  Girona’s Jewish museum, more substantial than the one in Barcelona, is located in the former call. 

Outside the museum but within the former call, you can find, in some of the surrounding buildings, a small indentation in the portal of some of the houses where a mezuzah once hung.  It gave me goose bumps being there when I visited a few years ago, and seeing those indentations, still there in the same doorways to the same buildings that had been hurriedly vacated more than 500 years ago.

The Catalans have an odd relationship with the people of the Middle East.  They dislike Arabs but are great supporters of the Palestinians; they pretend to like Jews (easy enough since there are essentially no Jews living here) but despise Israel.  Like most of the world, they feel compelled to choose sides but don’t really care enough about those they support to offer ideas that would help arrive at a resolution to that long-standing conflict. 

I walked down to the car the next morning and called for road service.  Damn.  I should have brought a book.  Who knows how long you have to wait on a Monday morning for road assistance.  I sat myself on a nearby bench under the shade of a tree and watched and waited.  The truck came in twenty minutes, connected cables from a portable battery, and the engine started up immediately.  I signed a paper and that was it.  The service comes free with my car insurance. 

Not wanting to take the chance of getting stuck somewhere, I drove straight to a garage near my house to have the battery charged.  The good part is that I now have a neighborhood mechanic.  The bad part is that I had to pay for something I could probably have achieved for free (well, the cost of gas) just by driving for twenty minutes. But hopefully I have learned my lesson and will start the car up a little more often.  Maybe even today.  Or tomorrow. 


  1. Relationship between Catalonia and "the conflict" is complex. During many years most of left-wing people identified themselves like Palestinians and hate Israel and jews(as a reactiom Spanish right-wing like Aznar started to support Israel, it's funny becasue they are the most traditionally antisemite) but this situation has been decreased in the last years at the same time that people can get more information. Now I'd say that most of people are not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine but neutral, and prejudices are falling.

    By the way, did you know that Catalan jews were not Sephardies?

  2. I have seen many TV3 reports on things that happen there and they are always anti-Israel. That, in part, made me think that most people here are, since TV3 isn't particularly radical one way or the other (left or right). Also, people I have met here, when the topic has come up, have all been anti-Israel. And finally young people (and that mayor who recently stole from a supermarket in protest) all wear kafiot as a symbol of revolution. Which has always struck me as very odd. As if there was one arab country that was left wing.

    And no, I had no idea that Catalan Jews were not Sephardic. I thought all Spanish Jews were, sort of by definition.

  3. There is a group of journalist absolutely anti-Israel, one of them is Joan Roura who works at TV3, who are responsibles of the distorted image of the conflict here.
    Until recently it seemed that Hamas and similar groups were a kind of angels. Now things are changing.

    About Catalan jews, they were not considered Sephardic until the unification of Spain (when jews were already expelled). There is bibligraphy about it, for instance this:

  4. Intereting. What they write about is what the Jews of Catalunya were called vs. the Jews in the part of Spain ruled by Arabs -- al Andalus. That is interesting but maybe too academic. Did the Jews of Catalunya speak Ladino as did the rest of the Spanish Jews? Was their culture and their habits different from the others? I'm not one who is much for counting how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. :)

  5. The language of Catalan jews was qatalanit of judaeo-catalan

  6. My goodness. I had no idea! The article seems to distinguish between the Jews in Catalunya and the Jews in Spain, the latter being expelled in 1492. But the Jews in Catalunya were also expelled in 1492, weren't they?

  7. The first big expulsion was on 1391. But the definitive one was on 1492. In the Cotlliure's harbour there is a stone remembering that the last jews expelled from Catalonia were shipped there (Cotlliure now is in France but in that age was in Catalonia).

  8. I'll be in Collioure next week and will look for it.

  9. Dvora,

    I think you know that my cousin Jaime and I are direct decedents of Rabbi Moises ben Nahman. Jaimie's father (also named Ben Nahman) wrote "THE NAHMANS OF GERONA A Brief Introduction To Our History" for all of us. I will send it to you if you would like. Avi

  10. Avi, no I didn't know, but thinking about Jaime's name, it makes sense. How cool. I'd love to read about it. And if you'd like to come visit, I'll take you there, if you've never been. Or even if you have been!

    1. On its way.

      And I am working on this;

      " I'd like to hear more about you and your life in the past 40 or more years!"