When we visited the Czech Republic, it was bittersweet to see restored synagogues in every town we visited although there were no longer any Jews. But in Spain, as we found out on our recent visit, there is mostly nothing remaining. Jews were not only expelled from Spain but their heritage was erased.
Synagogues were destroyed or converted into churches after the expulsion in 1492, like the Hermitage of San Antonio in Cáceres. On first glance, it looks like it was always a church. But take a closer look and you see the steps down to the floor from the entrance, since synagogues had to be lower than street level, and an upstairs gallery that was the mechitza (separate section for women).
Most of the converted synagogues are still being used as churches; but there are three that were restored and declared to be national monuments in the late 19th century. Two of the restored synagogues are in Toledo. The main synagogue – now called the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca (picture above) – was originally built in the late 12th century and converted to a church after the expulsion (hence the name). It is one of the oldest remaining synagogues in Europe. A smaller Synagogue of El Tránsito, built in the 14th century, was connected to the home of Samuel HaLevi, who served as treasurer to the king but was ultimately imprisoned and tortured to death. The third restored synagogue in Cordoba was built in the 1300s. After the expulsion it was first used as a hospital, then as a church, and finally as a school before being restored. All three are in the Mudejar style, which means that they incorporated decorative Islamic style elements.
There is also a mikveh that was discovered by chance in 1964 in the town of Besalu (about an hour from Girona). To see it, you have to go with a guide who has to get the key from the tourist office (it took our guide 20-30 minutes to hunt down the person with the key, which gave us time to do some shopping). Once the door is unlocked you go down a steep flight of steps to the mikveh. You can see holes in the sides to let in the water from the nearby river and a drainage hole at the bottom. The stone chamber is very cold so it must have been a bit chilly to use it.
The old Jewish quarters are marked, mostly with the Sefarad logo. This makes it easy to locate them; but there is little, if any, evidence that Jews once lived in those areas. It feels sort of like a treasure hunt to find any traces of Jewish life. There might be a remnant of the wall surrounding the Jewish quarter (Seville) or an inscription in Hebrew on a chimney (Cáceres).
You might see an indentation in a doorway where there had been a mezuzah (Cáceres, Barcelona) . These can show up in the oddest places, such as hiding near a fire extinguisher in a tavern (Girona).
At one point we were taken down into a parking garage, not our guide assured us to see her car but because the remains of a Jewish cemetery were discovered during construction. The garage was still built over the cemetery but there is a showcase for one of the gravestones (large stones placed over the grave).
There are also a few statues of important Jews – such as Maimonides in Cordoba and Yehuda Ibn Tibon in Granada (although it was a bit disheartening that this statue is overshadowed by retaurant awnings). Like Maimonedes, he was a physician and philosopher and he also translated Arabic texts which made it possible for scientific knowledge to spread to Europe. The inscription on the base also indicated that he was an oculist – according to our guide he evened performed cataract surgery.
The most heartening thing we encountered were the small museums of Jewish history. The history of Jews in Spain is not taught in schools and most Spaniards know nothing about this history or of the significant contributions by Jews to science, literature and the arts. The museums aim to rectify this gap, to remind visitors that well before Muslims and Christians arrived, there were Jews living on the Iberian peninsula. The first documented mention of Jews in Granada, for instance, dates to the year 303, but Jews probably arrived even earlier engaged in trade or coming as slaves to the Romans. Most of these museums were established by Jews, but one of them – Casa Seferad in Cordoba – was started and run by people who are not Jewish but believe that Jewish history is an essential part of Spanish history.