30 May 2007

Connecting again: Spain and the Jews

From the Los Angeles Times comes this story of Spain's connecting once again with its Jewish past and present.

Datelined Girona, a city I've visited several times, the reporter interviewed several people I know. That was nice to see.

This network is about bringing patrimony to light; it's about rehabilitating the physical space and memory of Spain's Jews," said AssumpciĆ³ Hosta, the general secretary of Sephardic Routes, from her office in Girona, 60 miles north of Barcelona. The organization began here in 1995, in this medieval Catalan city whose narrow, climbing cobblestone streets of the Call, or Jewish quarter, are considered among the best preserved in Europe.

Unfortunately, Hosta's organization doesn't recognize the fact that today there are Jews in Girona. Tourists who take walking tours through the Nahmanides Center ask if there are still any Jews in Girona. The guides always say no. However, there is a group, and I have met them, including Conversos who have returned to their Jewish roots, Argentine immigrants and others.

For Girona and other small and medium-size cities like it — from JaĆ©n in the south to Oviedo and Tudela in the north — there are also strong financial incentives for marketing the Jewish past. "The hotels are happier. The restaurants are happier. We couldn't do this while Franco was alive, and when the country was still in poverty," Hosta added. "We didn't have Einstein, but we had [12th century rabbi and philosopher] Maimonides. Now there is a lot of curiosity."

In towns where there are no Jews today, the organization has done a remarkable job preserving and restoring remnants of the old Calls.

Sadly, this lack of Jewish presence and sensitivity guidance by Hosta's organization, has resulted in restaurants in some towns using the name of the Call or a famous resident, and advertising ham sandwiches for sale.

Indeed, Sephardic Routes has its critics, especially from those who see a dangerous tendency in focusing on "the archeological Jew" and not paying enough attention to the living Jewish community of today.

"They talk about Jews without [their being] hardly any around," said Nily Schorr Levinsohn, who works in media relations for Catalonia's Jewish community of 6,000, based in Barcelona. Schorr Levinsohn thinks that Spain, burdened by guilt over its history with the Jews, now genuinely wants to reflect and learn about what it lost. But "today's Jews aren't a part of this process."

In Barcelona, it has been difficult for the city to recognize that it has a vibrant Jewish community that wishes to be involved in restoration projects of the Call.
There have been problems with Jewish graves on Montjuic, discovered during construction. Plans for a Jewish studies center were supposed to proceed without Jewish involvement.

When activist community members complained vociferously, the official line was that this was the city's history, not the Jewish community's. Schorr Levinsohn's comment about lack of Jewish involvement in these projects is an understatement, but it is not for lack of trying.

It should be a two-way road to roots, with preservation and education, on one hand, and the contemporary Jewish community's official representation in those places where a community exists.

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