Seeking Jewish Life in Spain?

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

500 Years Ago

Despite the fact that the Spanish government, a democratic monarchy now headed by King Juan Carlos’ son, Felipe VI, has tried to redeem the ugly facts of the long ago expulsion of Spain’s Jews. It happened 500 years ago. Amazingly, in 2014, the well-meaning Spanish government decided to offer full citizenship to Jews whose ancestors were once expelled from Spain. Better late than never. Yet, despite this enticement to come back, the number of Jews living in Spain still remains small.

As history reminds us, the Jewish presence in Spain effectively ended with the decision of the devoutly Catholic monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, to to establish what was known as the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Officially it was called The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.  There were to be no heretics in Spain.

Some 15 years later, The Edict of Expulsion, issued in 1492, compelled all Jews, rich or poor, either to convert or to leave the country within a four-month window.(1) There were some 300,000 Jews in Spain! Many of their families not only had been living in Spain for centuries but had also contributed largely to the country’s brilliance and prosperity. Of these, 40,000 to 100, 000 (estimates vary) Jews, refused to convert. Consequently, they were forced to liquidate everything they owned —  if indeed they could — and flee.

The majority of the Spanish Jews, however, wished to remain in Spain; in order to do so, they were forced to convert to Catholicism. Forever after, they were known as Conversos (or derogatively, Marranos, meaning pigs). Although many Conversos adhered to Judaism in secret, it was a dangerous practice. They were constantly suspected of “Judaizing.” Discovery of secret practice or Jewish associations incurred severe punishments, such as torture or burning at the stake. Confiscated holy books were burned. Assets were seized.

Despite the efforts of a prominent, wealthy, Jewish scholar and businessman, Don Isaac Abravanel – who reportedly had financed the three ships for Columbus’ voyage to the New World (the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) in order to influence the rulers to delay or rescind this order, the rulers remained firm. They were under the indomitable sway of the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada. No Jews in Spain. In addition, it was undoubtedly to the rulers’ economic advantage to seize Jewish properties and other valuable assets that could not be transacted within the four-month deadline.

Many Spanish Jews fled in terror to nearby Portugal (where, unfortunately, their safety was very brief) and to the other countries of the Mediterranean. Others fled across the Mediterranean to Arab lands. They carried their culture, their Spanish language, and their haunting Ladino songs with them.  Some also carried the keys to the old synagogues and passed them down. Always, these Sephardim hoped to return. For the first time in centuries, they can.

A Period of Transition: 1975

The first time I visited Spain was in 1975. It was a period of transition from the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, which had begun in 1939 after he led his right-wing Nationalist party to victory in the the fiercely fought Spanish Civil War. During World War II, Spain leaned toward the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy.

By 1975, when Franco died and the dictatorship ended, local people still seemed guarded, reluctant to converse with foreigners. Policemen helmeted in the curious Spanish manner were still evident on the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia — the first city in southern Spain on my tour’s itinerary. While the beautiful Costa del Sol was being developed as a resort area, reflecting the political uncertainly, stalled projects, reflecting the political uncertainty, could be seen along the beaches. The whole country, it seemed, had warily assumed a waiting posture as the process of establishing a democracy had begun under a monarch, King Juan Carlos, as head of State.

The Spain I was revisiting four decades later in 2016 was a happy, bustling place.(2) People had welcoming smiles for visitors and, in Barcelona, there was great pride in the extravagantly joyful, out-of-the-box (even weird), Gaudi architecture that is the pride of this lovely city; the icing on the cake is that there are beautiful beaches too.

Barcelona, however, has a noticeable paucity of Jews:  According to the Jewish Virtual Library, about 5,000 live in Barcelona now, while some 12,000 Jews live in Madrid (the Conservative Beit El synagogue is there), Malaga, and Barcelona combined.(3) There is a small synagogue converted to a museum in Toledo. However, depending on the source, estimates for Jews living in Spain today vary considerably, anywhere from 13,000 to 50,000. A handful of Jews live in Valencia and Marbella, as well as in two North African enclaves.  Once there were so many more.

Back in Los Angeles, I had researched the old Jewish synagogue still standing in the center of Barcelona. Its name, Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, suggests its past importance. Dating back to the 6th century CE, with sturdy Roman foundations and the remains of arched Roman walls, it may well be the oldest synagogue in Europe. In fact, it is one of only five medieval synagogues that have survived. Its two rooms – that’s it! — are pictured on the Internet.(4) Since I had already viewed the photographs, the Sinagoga’s rooms seemed familiar when I arrived in person, except that they seemed so much smaller than I had anticipated. In order to enter, I had to descend a flight of stairs. Of course! Because of its great age and the fact that it had been unearthed, the little synagogue was very considerably lower in the ground than the surrounding buildings.

I had the sense of entering a dimly-lit cave. That’s what it felt like – a smallish cave with a structure held up by enduring Roman walls. Two ladies (Jewish?) sat there in folding chairs, ready to impart information to visitors. They told us that there was probably a mikvah buried under the adjoining building, but it could not be excavated because it was the private property of other people (who understandably didn’t want their café dug up).

Good Will and Then Some…

Given the good will of the current Spanish government, the efforts to rebuild Jewish life in Spain continue. Unfortunately, there is also a strong and very disturbing anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian feeling pervading the country – a new kind of anti-Semitism, even though few Spanish people have ever met an actual Jew. Or even have a true understanding of what happened to the Jews in Spain 500 years ago.

Unfortunately, what passes for the old Jewish quarter in Barcelona is really a figment of the imagination. It’s not even a good stage set. In reality, it consists of a bunch of engraved plaques attached to tall brick buildings constructed long after the original buildings were demolished. The plaques identify where the original buildings in the narrow alleys of the Jewish quarter ONCE stood. None of the brick buildings were the original buildings. Consequently, our visit there was a disappointment.

Until. One of the walls of a building – possibly identifying the site of the quarter’s long ago cemetery – had individual names in Hebrew letters etched in them. What??? Salvaged stones from the old Jewish cemetery had been built into the new wall. I kissed the Hebrew names etched in each marked stone within my reach. Even centuries later, those who visit this quarter-that-isn’t can still honor the Jews who once were there.

Even though, as Daniella Levy writes in her excellent article about her own, more extensive visit to Spain (5), she found a pro-Palestinian slogan (Palestina Libra)  — scrawled maliciously across the Hebrew letters identifying the site of the old Jewish quarter.

As I wrote in the Guest Book of the Sinagoga Major, “I am still here.”

(1)The full Edict can be read online at and other sites.

(2)It reflected my own feelings as, once again, a Guest Staff Rabbi on a Cruise Ship, this time to the Mediterranean.



(5)“Dear Spain: Want to Attract Jews? You’re Doing It Wrong,” Scribe: The Forward’s Contributor Network, Forward, July 24, 2017.