Sunday, May 17, 2009

Spain 09

Spain has a long history, not only with its relationship to the rest of the world, but specifically with its relationship to the Jewish people. The Jews were first alienated, imprisoned and tortured during the “Inquisition” that began in the 14th century and lasted officially until the middle of the 19th Century. Historians estimate that approximately 3,000 Jews were burned at the stake during the Inquisition. Then the Jews were expelled, many finding their way to Italy, Amsterdam, Europe and N. Africa. Estimates of those expelled range from 40,000 to 300,000, with the lower number the more accepted.

The Moors conquered Spain in 711 and most of the area around the Mediterranean in the process. The Crusades drove them back into North Africa. Jewish merchants were assigned to trade with the Moors, buying goods for sale in Spain, and selling Spanish goods to the Moors. Christian Spain was forbidden this trade. The Inquisition began officially in order to ferret out the non-Christians that were living in Spain. Originally the Inquisition was run by the Pope, out of Rome, but later Ferdinand II took over in a much more cruel fashion. Ultimately the evil Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498) Torquemanda assumed control of the Inquisition.

Torquemada served as the Grand Inquisitor and headed an organization of ecclesiastical courts which imprisoned, tortured, and burned suspected nonbelievers at the stake. It is estimated that at least 2,000 died in Spain during his tenure.

According to Wikipedia: “The Inquisition worked in large part to ensure the orthodoxy of recent converts… It was not definitively abolished until 1834, during the reign of Isabella II.”

Historians claim that there was a long tradition of Jewish service to the crown of Aragon. Ferdinand's father John II named the Jewish Abiathar (Yehuda) Crescas to be Court Astronomer. Another Jew who converted to Christianity (A Converso) financed the trip of Columbus to the new world.

According to Wikipedia: “Jews occupied many important posts, religious and political. Castile itself had an unofficial rabbi. Nevertheless, in some parts of Spain towards the end of the 14th century, there was a wave of anti-Judaism, encouraged by the preaching of Ferrant Martinez, Archdeacon of Ecija. The pogroms of June 1391 were especially bloody: in Seville, hundreds of Jews were killed, and the synagogue was completely destroyed. The number of people killed was equally high in other cities, such as C√≥rdoba, Valencia and Barcelona.

“One of the consequences of these disturbances was the mass conversion of Jews. Before this date, conversions were rare and tended to be motivated more for social rather than religious reasons. But from the 15th century, a new social group appeared: conversos, also called New Christians, who were distrusted by Jews and Christians. By converting, Jews could not only escape eventual persecution, but also obtain entry into many offices and posts that were being prohibited to Jews through new, stricter regulations that were enforced by both the papacy & the newly formed kingdom's Inquisitors.”

Visiting Spain is removing the reminder of cruelty and oppression the Spaniards
Inflicted on the Jewish people. This is not difficult since the evil history dates back so far as to nearly be forgotten. But not quite. Perhaps the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella also sponsored Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery mitigates their crimes. Perhaps.

Practicing Judaism was forbidden in Spain until after the demise of the fascist dictator Franco in 1975. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the first synagogue opened officially. Today’s Jewish population is in flux, since so many Israelis pour into Barcelona on a weekly basis, unloading from the never ending tours so popular with budget conscious travelers.

Sitting on the steps watching the “Magic Fountain” light show in Barcelona, a beer-bellied middle-aged Israeli lay sprawled on the steps conversing freely in Hebrew with his wife and another couple.

At the base of Montserrat, peering up hundreds of meters to the famous church, a group of Israelis standing near their tour bus were receiving a lecture on the place in Hebrew by their tour guide.

On Shabat the Chabad minyan in the nicer part of Barcelona was made up mostly of Sephardi Spaniards, and a few Israelis, all led by the Chabad Shaliach, a pleasant young man originally from Mexico, and his associate, originally from Argentina.

In the town of Fornalux, 30 km from Palma on the Island of Mallorca, a native Mallorquine (one born on the island) now a commercial airline pilot, said that “Cheutas”, (conversos) are still discriminated against in Spain. “I don’t understand why? They are part of our history. If they were Jewish hundreds of years ago, so what? Today they’re Spanish.” (In 1691, during a number of Autos de Fe in Majorca, 36 chuetas, or conversos of Majorca, were burned.)

Conversos, also known as Morranos, secretly practiced Judaism in Spain for centuries. Today secrecy is no longer required. In the small quaint town of Torla in the Pyrenees mountains, amid the authentic stone and slate houses packed together like sardines, one comes across a Jewish star carved artistically into a wooden door covering an electric box. When asked about the star the British ex-Patriot owner of an adjacent apartment said, “My father asked the same thing. He’s Jewish you know.”

Joan Miro lived and worked just outside Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands during most of his life. The Mallorcan village of Deya, once the home of British poet Robert Graves, is now rumored to be the part-time home of Hollywood film star Michael Douglas, himself half-Jewish. There are Jewish names in the tiny cemetery attached to Deya church. Aurbach, Faber, and others.

Graves found Deya on the recommendation of his friend Gertrude Stein. At the time Graves was living with his mistress. Perhaps Stein, a lesbian, knew Deya as a place that accepted different types; perhaps she found Deya through an aunt or cousin or childhood friend there, Faber or Aurbach? Whatever the cause, Graves settled into Deya, except for a period during World War II, and lived there until he died.

Graves thought of the town as sitting on a magic mound of magnetism. He established an artist colony, and formed a cult built around the worship of strange objects, among them his mistress. At one point he owned much of the town, and rented the homes to those he wanted under his wing. Then the main road was narrow and dangerous, the main street in town made of dirt, the homes lacking electricity and running water: today that has all changed. The road is wider; the main street is paved with asphalt, the homes modern with luxurious amenities, selling for half-a-million dollars and up.

The people are still nice. A woman with a typical Balearic Island straw basket over her shoulder, a recorder peeking out of the corner, smiled showing bad teeth, and tried to give directions. She wore a black beret with a red Mao star, and a black-check kafyiah around her neck. She’d been born and raised in Deya, so one assumes the odd types still populate the area. If one can find them among the tourists pouring out of busses and lining up to visit the home of Robert Graves; or sitting in expensive restaurants that are spread throughout the little village.

Pamplona has the image of an old Spanish town where every July 7th the bulls chase stupid macho types who frequently slip and are gored. Ernest Hemmingway made the town famous in his Spanish epic “The Sun Also Rises.” But the old town is only a fraction of the sprawling city, sort of a mini Barcelona. And except for a few die-hard cities, bull fighting seems to have fallen out of favor in Spain.

Madrid has a wonderful name and conjures up beautiful images, although most “hip” people today prefer Barcelona, for the Gaudi buildings, and the Joan Miro museum. Most overlook, or don’t know, that the famous Montjuic, that contains among other buildings the wonderful Miro museum, was the site of a prison where Franco’s fascists tortured their enemies, who were later buried in the nearby cemetery.

Guernica is one of the draws to Madrid. The dynamic Picasso painting depicts his anger and frustration with the carpet-bombing of the town of Guernica by Nazi planes, at the request of Franco who at the time was trying to curry favor with Hitler. Franco was also trying to intimidate any enemies who thought they could oppose him, using Germany’s might as a weapon. But the painting, in black and white, is like all great works of art, finely fitted and finished. Each part fits into the others, making the viewer thing about their integration, while accepting their place on the canvas.

In Bilbao the Guggenheim museum in the Basque country perhaps ironically rounds out the Jewish experience in Spain. Jews once tortured, imprisoned, expelled, are back: today the Guggenheim, built by a foundation originally Jewish, designed by Frank Ghery, also Jewish, is the magnet that brings visitors to the northern regions.

In the small Basque seaside town of Guetera, a Basque-born Catholic waiter at the portside Mayflower restaurant brags he has been to New York twice. “Are you Jewish?” he asks. “All of New York is Jewish.” He then goes on to tell about his favorite authors, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Bernard Melamed, “And the Israelis, Grossman, Oz, Yoshua..”

Has Spain changed? “The Church, no one goes there,” said an innkeeper, a young bespectacled man, trained as an attorney. “That’s why you don’t see any priests. They’re just not important any more. Not since Franco died.” He stood at the door to his 15th century building, now a guesthouse, waved, and said, “Shalom.”