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Europe Thursday, 16 July, 1998, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Rebirth of a community
Medieval illustration of musicians
Musicians depicted in a 14th-century Haggadah from Barcelona
By Emma Rippon

Barcelona, like the rest of Spain, has plenty of secret history - and a large chapter of that history is the tale of its Jewish heritage. Once so persecuted that any sign of Jewish identity was driven entirely underground, Spain's Jewish community is beginning to rally, rediscovering its arts and traditions, welcoming Catholic Spaniards who want to uncover some of their own Jewish heritage, and building a new and stronger sense of Jewish solidarity.

Presenter Meriel Beattie met some of the leading lights of this community, including the Rabbi who came to Barcelona from Israel last year to help its revival, the newly 're-converted' forty-something elated by his new identity, and the families who are finally able to invite their friends round to a traditional Shabbat dinner.

Listen to this report in full

B&W image of Sephardic synagogue
Medieval image of preaching in a Sephardic synagogue
Before the Inquisition, Jews made up ten per cent of Spain's population and were at the centre of its thriving and cosmopolitan culture. In those days, polyglot medieval Spain, sharing the knowledge of Muslim and Christian lands around the Mediterranean, was renowned for its sages, its astronomers and its doctors; and many of these distinguished figures were Jewish. But in 1492, faced with the choice of forced conversion, exile or death, more than 400,000 of the community left and fanned out to create Sephardic Jewish communities across North Africa and the Middle East. Speaking their own language Ladino, a blend of medieval Spanish and Hebrew, and preserving their faith, many of these communities became as vital and erudite in their new homes as they had been in Spain.

Yet many Jews - almost as many as those who left - stayed on in Spain and tried to maintain as much of their Jewish identity as they could in secret. As a result of their endurance, modern historians reckon that up to half of Spain's population today could have some Jewish roots. The Inquisition spied obsessively on the new converts, constantly on the lookout for any giveaway signs of continued Jewish observance. Those caught continuing the Jewish way of life could be - and often were - tortured or burnt at the stake. The constant surveillance could call for desperate countermeasures. In some areas the new converts were nicknamed 'chuetas', after the Spanish name for the pork fat they would boil on their doorsteps to prove they were no longer Jewish. The persecution didn't end with the Inquisition: religious equality in Spain was only decreed in 1965.

Carpet pattern detail
Detail from a 15th-century synagogue carpet from Barcelona
This complex story has left the modern-day Jewish community with plenty of dilemmas to resolve. For one thing, it's become extremely hard to define who exactly is a Spanish Jew. There are those, like Carlos Schor, a businessman who's the head of Barcelona's small but growing community, who grew up practising Judaism and have never hidden their identity. Then there are families whose members fled the country centuries ago to preserve their faith, sojourned for generations in North Africa, and have returned to Spain in more recent times with their Jewish identity firmly intact.

Others, like Arnau Pons, who's originally from the island of Mallorca, were nominally Catholics as they grew up, going to church and apparently not observing any Jewish festivals. But their families maintained some (superficially baffling) customs in secret. Arnau was intrigued by these scraps of folklore, and by talking to older relatives, he discovered that his family, whether consciously or unwittingly, was observing centuries-old Jewish ways and had a strong Jewish heritage.

Menorah (candlestick) from Elvis library
Jews in Barcelona - and Spain as a whole - are recovering their identity
Unusually, Arnau decided to make the break and re-convert fully to Judaism. He formally left the Catholic Church he'd been raised in, went to a rabbi and declared his intention to become fully Jewish again. It wasn't an easy process, but now, after years of study, a late circumcision and the adoption of an additional Jewish name, he is exhilarated by his journey of discovery.

It's a process mirrored by the community as a whole. Rabbi Rueben Sternschein arrived in Barcelona from Israel eighteen months ago, aiming to support and motivate its Jewish renaissance. He now leads the 'Atid' ('future') congregation, and has seen it more than double in numbers since his arrival. Even the city's main synagogue has just been renovated. When it was built back in the 50s, planning permission was only granted on condition that the building would be identical to its neighbours. The message was clear: tolerance would only be extended to the Jewish community as long as it didn't draw attention to itself or insist on its distinctiveness. As the renovation was celebrated this spring with a lively party, and crowds spilled out onto the street, it was easy to see that that attitude has changed.

Is Spain still an anti-semitic society? It's hard to say. Some, like Rabbi Sternschein, thinks that the majority of Spaniards (including Catalans) are simply ignorant about Judaism and Jewish history and bear no particular ill-will. In fact, there are a number of Catholics without any personal connections with Judaism who are actively keen to find out more about their country's hidden heritage and revive some of its glory. These days, concerts of medieval Sephardi music held in the city attract audiences in the hundreds, about half of whom are Jewish and half gentile.

But there are lingering signs of prejudice.

Right-wing parties still occasionally spout nationalist rhetoric, and there has never been an official apology from the government or the royal family for the 1492 expulsion decree.

And for some people discovering they have Jewish roots comes as a big shock according to Sydney Azagury, a leading member of Barcelona's Jewish community.

Sydney invited some friends for dinner and decided to cook them a typical Jewish meal.

The wife of his friend recognised the food and said that she had always eaten the dishes in her family.

Then she started talking about some of the rituals that she carried out including lighting candles on Fridays and not sweeping the floor or cleaning the house on Saturdays.

According to Sydney she had no idea that they were Jewish customs, and when he told her that it was quite likely that she was Jewish she was very, very surprised.

"Unfortunately our friendship cooled," said Sydney, "we started seeing less and less of them, and slowly we stopped being friends.

Still, it is undeniable that the Jewish community, in Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain, is enjoying a new sense of self-confidence and optimism.

Driven underground for so long, the riches of Spain's Jewish culture are finally beginning to re-emerge; and that is good news for everyone in the city.

Interview with Rabbi Sternschein July 1998
speaks on the past, present and future of Barcelona's Jewish community
Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

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