98 International Symposium: The Spanish-Jewish Connection:
Resurgence of a Community that Never Died,
University, River Forest, Illinois, August 1998
Katz Frommer, Ph.D. and Harvey Frommer, Ph.D.
The very existence of this conference is testament to the uniqueness of the
Spanish-Jewish connection. Of all the Diasporic experiences, none seems to
have the lasting power and majesty of the medieval Jewish presence in Spain.
More than five hundred years may have passed, but the Jews have never
forgotten Spain, and Spain has never forgotten the Jews. That Spanish culture
lives on among Sephardim is born out by such well known examples as the
continued use of Ladino, but by lesser known examples as well. Dona Jimena
Artesania Suprema is a small company which produces traditional Spanish
confections. We happened upon it a while back on the road from Cordoba to
Granada, stopped off for a little tour and sampling of the delicious
confections. While we were there, we met its export manager. He told us that
from the time they began attending international food fairs, their biggest
account has been Mizrachi Foods of Jerusalem.
The Jews may have retained the taste of Spain, but the reminders of a one-time
Jewish presence in Spain abide as well. Some had been long buried and only
recently rediscovered like the mikveh or ritual bath beneath an 11th
century building in the Catalonian town of Besalu. Others have always been
there, out in the open for all to see like a couple of streets in Sagunto, a
small town just north of Valencia. One is called the Street of the Old Blood,
another is the Street of the New Blood and at the top of it is the Church of
the New Blood, and any passerby can tell you what they mean.
As oral/cultural historians and Ashkenazi Jews, we became involved in the
Spanish-Jewish connection almost by accident. In the late 1980s, we were
doing some travel writing with a Jewish slant where our interest in the
subject was awakened by visits to Curacao, Barbados, and Greece -- all of
which have very different but compelling Sephardic heritages. And so,
beginning in 1993, we began a series of trips to Spain, six in all, searching
the dimensions of the contemporary Spanish-Jewish experience. We discovered
an ongoing two-fold process: the recovery of a past that never died on the one
hand, and a dramatic resurgence of Jewish life and culture on the other.
went we found a fascination with possible Jewish roots. Carlos Benarroch, a
leader of Barcelona’s Jewish community, told us he is besieged by Spaniards
who want him to help them discover if they are descended from Jews. Some of
them have converted. “It is nothing short of a phenomenon,?he says.
variety of factors can be said to have contributed to this phenomenon. There
was all the attention given to the 500th anniversary of the
Conversion/Expulsion edict in 1992. But beyond that, there are the
liberalizing effects of a democratic government in the wake of Franco’s death
in 1975. One senses a joie de vivre in the streets of Barcelona and Madrid.
In the evenings, people stroll along the boulevards, have their dinners at 10
o’clock, and stay up till all hours. Restaurants and nightclubs are full.
Shop windows showcase beautiful goods. The Spaniards are open and friendly and
obviously enjoying the fresh air of political freedom. The church has become
much less powerful, people have become much more curious about their past, and
this curiosity has manifested itself in a
interest in whether there is a Jewish branch in the family tree.
During our first trip, we struck up a conversation with a young salesman in
the gift shop of the Palace Hotel in Madrid who is imbued with the idea that
he is descended from Jews. “My name is Antonio Cruz,?he told us, “and the
name Cruz (cross) is typical of the conversos. They selected the most
Catholic-sounding names.?nbsp; Then he added: “Cut any Spaniard and you’ll find
Jewish blood.?nbsp; We put this encounter into our first article. The next time
we were in Madrid, we stopped off to see him. “You made me famous,?he said.
“All these Jewish ladies from America keep coming into the shop and telling
me, ‘You know, you do look Jewish.’”
The attitude of the monarchy has done much to raise the collective
consciousness about Spain’s Jewish heritage. King Juan Carlos has publicly
apologized for the Conversion/Expulsion edict and the Inquisition. He has
attended services in Spanish synagogues; Queen Sophia has studied with a
rabbi. And Spanish citizenship has been offered to any descendant of Jews
exiled in 1492 -- which has contributed to the population of 20,000 affiliated
and as many as 30,000 unaffiliated Jews who live in Spain today. The most
recent arrivals are from Bosnia and Argentina, but the major influx began more
than thirty years ago with Jews from North Africa. There is a sizable
Ashkenazi population as well, stemming from the 30 to 40,000 refugees who
received sanctuary or visas from Franco’s Spain during the Second World War, a
bizarre irony in a story where ironies abound.
The current president of the Spanish-Jewish Federation, the parent body of
Spain’s fourteen Jewish communities, is an Ashkenazi, Carlos Schorr. His
father had come to Spain after World War I to study medicine because Jewish
quotas kept him out of medical school in his native Poland. After he became a
doctor, he sent for his Polish sweetheart back home, and they settled and
raised their family in Barcelona.
Today Carlos Schorr continues to live in Barcelona with his three children and
his wife Luna Benarroch. Luna is a Sephardic woman with two ground-breaking
distinctions. She is the first female psychiatrist and the first Jewish
psychiatrist in Barcelona. The Benarroches are one of the oldest Spanish
Jewish families. Only Luna’s ancestors never left Spain. Their home was
Melilla, Spanish Morocco, where, strangely enough, Jews have been living since
1497, never having been forced to choose between exile and conversion. They
were so prominent in this small, very exotic city -- a combination of Europe
and Africa -- that until after World War II when many left Melilla for Israel,
Barcelona, Caracas, and the United States, each extended family had its own
Carlos Schorr is a civil engineer by profession. But his duties as head of
Spain’s Jewish Federation take up the bulk of his time. He is very cognizant
of the uniqueness of his position: an Ashkenzai Jew heading a congress that
resonates with Sephardic history and culture during this historic period when
the government is making public gestures of reconciliation and descendants of
exiled Jews are welcomed back.
As head of a Federation that encompasses fourteen communities in places as
diverse as Valencia, Torremolinos, Madrid, and Malaga, Schorr’s activities run
the gamut of Jewish organizational life. On the one hand, he is meeting with
the Justice Minister in Madrid arguing that the Jewish community should
receive economic support from the government just as the Catholic Church
does. On the other hand, he is involved with disputes within the Jewish
community -- why should Spain be different from Israel or America in this
regard? -- the most recent being over the establishment of Spain’s first
Reform Synagogue in Barcelona, a battle Schorr fought against and lost to Luis
Bassat, the founder and president of the advertising agency that handled the
But as previously mentioned, the renewal of Jewish life in Spain is just half
of the story; the other half is the re-discovery and reclamation of a Jewish
past ignored or buried for centuries. Let us share some of these stories
with you focusing on three areas: the province of Catalonia -- in particular
Gerona, Segovia, and Mallorca. The first deals with a successful attempt to
reunite the past with the present; the second deals with an earnest attempt to
uncover a Jewish past marred by anti-Semitic myths that continue to have
currency; the third is a story of an ambivalent yet persistent Jewish identity
that ironically is about to end. Each, we think, forms a distinctive chapter
in this on-going saga of a remarkable linkage between a people and its adopted
Catalonia, the northeast province of Spain, stands apart from the rest of the
nation. Catalonians were fierce resisters of Franco who brutally suppressed
them to the extent of making the speaking of their native language illegal.
Understandably, they are very assertive about their identity. It was
interesting how often we were told “I am not Spanish; I am Catalan.?The
nickname for Catalonians is Poles -- but Poles is a code-name for Jews and
suggests ambition and a strong work ethic, a comparison that seems to please
them. Carlos Schorr estimates about half the Catalonians believe they are
descended from Jews.
Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is home to Spain’s second largest Jewish
community, the first being Madrid. Most of them live in the Ensanche section,
a modern affluent area of broad boulevards lined with sidewalk cafes, spacious
parks, two synagogues (counting the new Reform), even a kosher butcher. This
is the new Jewish neighborhood. There are two old ones, still intact, within
and just outside the walls of the Gothic quarter just a ten minute drive away,
but no Jews live there today.
But perhaps the most interesting of the Jewish related stories in Catalonia,
if not in all of Spain, lies in Gerona, a small city about an hour’s drive
north of Barcelona where a process of collective remembering has brought a
long buried past to the surface both physically and metaphorically.
Gerona is bisected by the River Onyar into an old and new section. The new is
a modern metropolis of apartment houses, banks, schools, and stores. The old
is a hillside of Romanesque towers and Gothic spires, narrow cobblestone lanes
that climb into darkened cul de sacs, and stone houses that are huddled one
against the other. It was in one of those houses that we met Assumpcio Hosta,
a young historian, who directs the Bonastruc ca Porta project named for the
medieval scholar Nachmanides. She related the following story to us:
Starting in the sixteenth century, when people inherited houses in the old
section, the fashion was to build new apartments over the old ones. Each
generation added another layer creating the jumbled look one sees today. Then
the new section began developing. People abandoned their old homes, and the
area fell into neglect and decline.
But in the 1970s, the life of the city started to change. Suddenly, it became
fashionable for rich people to move to the hills surrounding the old town, and
from there, some began moving into the old town itself, buying up and
remodeling medieval houses. One of these was a restauranteur Jose Tarres, “a
sort of poet?in Ms. Hosta’s words. He acquired a group of 11th century
buildings near the cathedral with the idea of opening a restaurant. But as he
dug down through the accumulated layers of construction, he came upon the
remains of some kind of medieval school which he subsequently learned had been
the 13th century yeshiva founded by the Talmudist and Kabbalist Rabbi Moses
ben Nachman, commonly known as Nachmanides. This was the renowned rabbi who
had taken the part of the Jews in the famous Barcelona Dispute of 1263, he
learned, the one who is credited with first writing down the oral tradition of
Tarres became taken with the idea that a Jewish aljama had once existed in his
city, and his property was at its center. He remodeled the structure; into
the floor of its patio, he set a great Star of David, and he began talking to
anyone who would listen about Gerona’s glorious Jewish past.
At first his ideas were met with disbelief, Ms. Hostos says. “Why are you
talking about a Jewish heritage we never heard of before??people would ask.
For while the outside world may have known Gerona was once a great center of
Jewish learning and mysticism, the people of Gerona knew nothing about it.
“My generation had been educated during Franco’s time,?Ms. Hostos explains.
“The history of Catalonia was not taught. . . As far as we knew, the
expulsion of the Jews was something that happened elsewhere; in Seville,
Granada, Toledo. We had no idea there was ever a Jewish community here.?/span>
Interestingly enough, during the 19th century, a construction company had come
across more than 20 Jewish tombstones while laying the tracks for a railroad.
But this evidence of a medieval Jewish presence failed to awaken a public
consciousness. It was only with Mr. Tarres?discovery that Gerona began
shaking off its collective amnesia.
Further excavation in the old part of the city revealed a labyrinth of byways
and cul de sacs that had been sealed off for centuries. Ms. Hostos speculates
that when the Jews left their homes in 1492, they blocked their property in
the hopes of returning one day. At the same time, the church discouraged
Christians from moving into former Jewish homes and people feared if they did,
they would be suspected of being secret Jews. Thus the Call, unoccupied,
sealed off, and buried under successive layers of construction lay in a
Sleeping Beauty kind of spell until a process we call “gentrification?brought
it to life once again.
Ms. Hostos explains how initial public skepticism gradually gave way to
curiosity. Local historians and archaeologists began researching and writing
about the Call, and people became intrigued. Ultimately curiosity turned to
commitment. In the mid 1980s, the project Bonastruc ca Porta (Nachmanides in
Catalan) was born, spearheaded by the mayor of Gerona. It is a visionary
effort to restore the Call and establish a Kabbalah study center and Museum of
Catalan Jewish history that involves purchasing property, excavating through
layers of construction, and learning from Jewish scholars and 1200 medieval
manuscripts which had languished in the city hall for centuries about Gerona’s
Sephardic past. Hidden in the binding of one book were 100 Hebrew parchments
intact which were translated at Yeshiva University in New York and provided a
wealth of information about domestic and sacred life in the Call. Links have
been established with the American Sephardic community and the Museum of the
Diaspora in Tel Aviv. In 1993, Gerona hosted a Shabbat service, the first in
document listing the names of those Jews who converted in 1492 was discovered,
and citizens are studying the origins of their names to see if they have a
Jewish past. Familiarity with Jewish customs is growing. A passerby noticed
us stop to examine an indentation in a doorway. “That was for the mezzuzah,?
he said to us and explained what a mezzuzah is. A librarian showed us a
facsimile of a 14th-century Haggadah from Barcelona and described the conflict
between the Jews of southern and northern Spain. “Cordoba was more
materialistic and pragmatic,?she said. “But Gerona was mystical; we had the
This is what we find most interesting about the Bonastruc ca Porta project.
It is not an exercise in uncovering a historical aberration that existed for
a while and then disappeared. Instead it is an ongoing process viewed from
within the context of Catalan history. Shaking off centuries of ignorance and
indifference, the citizens of Gerona -- by reclaiming their Jewish history--
are reclaiming their own past.
few years after we visited Gerona, we were invited by the mayor of Segovia to
come to his city which is actively promoting its Jewish heritage. Like
Gerona, Segovia had once been a great center of medieval Jewish learning. But
unlike Gerona, its Jewish quarter was never buried. Jews may no longer live
in Segovia, but the two Jewish neighborhoods remain intact. Documentation
about where synagogues and other structures once stood has always been
available. And now, with the awakened interest in its Jewish past, the city
has begun a process of restoration and reclamation.
Segovia, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, sits on a rocky
hill in north central Spain, between two river valleys. From a distance you
can see its limestone towers rising from behind a medieval wall overlooking
the dramatic vistas of Castilla-Leon. The most famous landmark of the
city is the aqueduct that was built by the Romans in ancient times. The mayor
of Segovia told us “There are two bridges in Segovia. One is the aqueduct.
Everyone knows about it. But the other is the bridge to Segovia’s Jewish
past. Not everyone knows that Segovia had one of the biggest Juderias in all
of Spain. This is the bridge we have yet to cross.?/span>
He provided us with a guide, a young graduate student, Maria, who was fluent
in English, very informed about her city, and brimming with enthusiasm over
its many treasures and attractions. She took us for a walk along a balustrade
overlooking a dry river bed. On the other side was the old walled city. We
could see some of the seven brick arches that surround the Jewish quarter. On
our side, was the old Jewish cemetery with gravestones that go back to the
11th century. A black iron fence ran the length of the walkway, protecting
pedestrians from the steep drop. And set into the fence were a succession of
abstract candelabras, menorahs that alerted the visitor to the special
nature of this place.
In a reverential mood, we accompanied Maria to the other side of the river bed
and into the old Jewish quarter. Our first stop was the beautiful Corpus
Christi Church, an ethereal Mudejar structure reminiscent of Santa Maria del
Blanca in Toledo. Its interior is punctuated with graceful horseshoe arches,
its ceiling is carved cedar wood. Even though it was badly damaged by fire in
1899 and never fully restored to its former glory, the Corpus Christi Church
is still an impressive structure.
It was once the major synagogue of Segovia, Maria told us. Recently a joint
Judeo-Christian service was held here attended by the bishop of Segovia and
the leader of Spain’s Jewish community.
Then she called our attention to a huge oil painting on a far wall. “That
painting tells the story of this church,?she said. “Some people say it is a
myth, but I believe it is true.?/span>
We crossed the church to get a close look. The painting depicted three or
four ugly old men with big noses and sinister expressions hovering over a pot
of some boiling liquid being heated by a fire. In the upper right-hand corner
against a dark background, a glowing disc seemingly floated on its own
Maria related the story behind the painting. “In 1410 a Jew loaned money to a
priest,?she said. “The priest could not repay the loan, so instead the Jew
took the holy wafer, the Corpus Christi or body of Christ used in the mass.
He and a group of rabbis tried to destroy it by throwing it into a pot of
boiling oil, but the wafer flew out of his hands and sailed across the city to
another church where it fell into the hands of a priest conducting mass. To
punish these men, the Queen took the synagogue and transformed it into the
Corpus Christi Church which became part of a nunnery.?/span>
We spent the rest of the day with Maria, who proved in other respects an
excellent and informed guide -- except for one more piece of startling
information. We were observing from a distance a great wall with a convent at
its base. “There is a Jewish story to this place too,?she said, and
proceeded to tell us there was once a Jewish girl who fell in love with Christ
and converted to Christianity. The other Jews condemned her and pushed her
off the high wall. Though she fell to her death, her body was totally
unblemished. A group of nuns buried her in that place and erected the convent
in her memory.
That night we met the mayor for dinner with Maria as our translator. We found
him to be a most intelligent and perceptive man, full of respect for the
ancient traditions of his city, anxious to let the world know about Segovia’s
Jewish heritage. After dinner, as Maria took us back to our hotel, we felt
the moment had come to speak our minds. “Maria, we want to tell you something
frankly,?we said, “and we hope you will not be offended by what we say.?/span>
And we proceeded to attempt to enlighten her about anti-Semitic myths such as
the desecration of the host she had described to us earlier in the day, the
needless and unjust suffering they had caused, the fact that none were based
on evidence of any sort but were lies dreamed up to inflame the passions of
the masses and deprive Jews of their liberty and lives. Moreover we told her
that if she had any expectation of fulfilling the mayor’s dream of encouraging
Jews to come and live and study in Segovia, telling people these ugly
fantasies would be counterproductive.
Maria listened attentively and seemed responsive. We went on to discuss
stereotypes and prejudice, but it was only when we mentioned how centuries of
anti-Semitism had led to the Holocaust that she became truly animated. She had
learned nothing about the Holocaust in school, she told us, but she had seen
“Schindler’s List?and was very moved by it. We can only hope that Maria will
not forget that the myth of the desecration of the host found its ultimate
expression in the gas chambers.
Segovia has embarked on an admirable Sephardic restoration program. Perhaps
it will bring a new cosmopolitanism to the city and the lies that have
sustained anti-Semitism through so many generations will finally be exposed
for what they are.
Our last story takes place in what is arguably one of the most beautiful
places in the world, the Balearic island of Mallorca. Before our trip, we
read George Sand’s book Winter in Mallorca which describes the time she
spent on the island with her lover, Frederic Chopin, and noted the references,
all unflattering, to Mallorcan Jews. She compares them to the Jews of France;
she comments disparagingly on their dress, remarks on their ostentatiousness,
faults them for manipulative bargaining to buy the valuable possessions of the
impoverished aristocracy. Still the references were puzzling. Were there
Jews in Mallorca in the middle of the 19th century? A second book, Kenneth
Moore’s Those of the Street (1976) answered our questions. Sands was
referring to descendants of Mallorcan Jews, commonly known as the Xuetas (pig
eaters). Still we wanted to get the story first-hand. Here is what happened.
Our first day in Palma, the capital of Mallorca, we were looking in the window
of a women’s clothing store and noticed a pair of stone slabs with Hebrew
lettering- the Ten Commandments. We went inside and found a woman reading the
Daily Bulletin, the newspaper which serves Mallorca’s sizable community of
British transplants. “I’m Jewish,?she told us when we asked about the
slabs. “It’s a symbol of my faith.?/span>
She went on
to relate how she is part of the Mallorcan Jewish community begun in the 1940s
by Ashkenazi refugees who found sanctuary on the island. The burgeoning
post-war resort economy spurred its growth, and today it is a growing
international group with its own synagogue and cemetery.
“But,?she added, “ask any native Mallorcan where the Jewish section of Palma
is and they will direct you to the old section of town. Go to the Calle de
Plateria (Street of Silver Shops) and see if you can meet a Xueta. Everyone
still thinks of them as Jews.?/span>
Soon after, our guide Bernardo arrived. We asked him to show us the Calle de
Plateria and told him we’d like to meet some Xuetas.
He seemed non-plussed. “Xuetas? I don’t know what that means. I don’t know
any.?nbsp; But he drove us to the Gothic section and down the Calle de Plateria
-- a narrow by-way lined with small jewelry stores.
As we proceeded, Bernardo, warmed up a bit. And after a while, he confessed
that he did know a Xueta, a young woman who works for Mallorcan television.
He said he would call her and arrange a meeting.
We stopped for lunch. Bernardo had several glasses of wine. Then he turned
confidential. “You know, my wife’s sister is married to a Xueta,?he said.
“And at the wedding, my father in law said he would rather be at the cemetery
than the church.?Immediately afterwards, it seemed to us, Bernardo regretted
his words. He fell silent for a while and then said he must take us back to
our hotel immediately as he had an appointment he had forgotten about. The
meeting with the television personality never came off.
That night, we walked down to the Calle de Plateria. It was a mild night and
storekeepers were standing in the doorways of their small jewelry shops. We
stopped in front of one and asked the pleasant-looking man before it if this
was the Jewish section of town. He demurred. “We are not Jewish,?he said.
“The people in this neighborhood are descended from Jews, but we are Catholic.
There is our church, St. Eulalia,?he said, pointing to a big church on the
corner of the street.
“Yes,?he added, “we have a Jewish history, and I suppose it is very
interesting, but it is from very long ago.?/span>
He invited us into his shop and introduced himself, Joan Bonnin, and his son,
a young man in his early 20s, also Joan Bonnin.
We began talking about the profusion of jewelry shops on the street, and the
son said, “These shops have always been owned by the Jewish families.?nbsp; And
the father nodded in agreement.
Here lies the paradox of Mallorca, its oxymoron: Jews who are not Jews;
Catholic Jews. How can it be? These are people who follow no Jewish rituals,
observe no Mosaic law, yet are still perceived as Jews -- even by themselves.
Bonnin, in turns out, is one of fifteen surnames that specifically identify
the descendants of Mallorca’s Jews who did not convert until late in the
seventeenth century. The Inquisition ran out of steam here early in the
sixteenth century, and its Jews were able to make their accommodations with
the larger culture while secretly continuing to practice their faith, if not
openly, at least with the tacit knowledge and consent of the rest of the
The fact that Mallorca was an island, isolated and cut off from the Iberian
mainland, enabled its Jews to avoid conversion for 200 years after the
Expulsion Edict until an Italian-Jewish trader carelessly alluded to their
presence. Then the Inquisition finally came to Mallorca with a vengeance,
breaking the will of the last holdout, forcing all to abandon their faith.
But the irony was that although the Jews sincerely converted at this point,
the Old Christians did not allow them to assimilate into the larger society.
And so they remained a sub-culture, cut off from social interaction and
inter-marriage with the rest, sustained by generations of intra-marriage and
powerful ties of kinship.
“When they call us Jews, it’s not meant as a compliment,?the younger Bonnin
says. “But we are proud of our accomplishments. Our children do well in
school and go to university. We are successful in business. And we take care
of one another.
“They call us Jews, yes. But also People of the Street because so many of us
live on this street with the jewelry shops.?/span>
“How about Xuetas??we ask.
“That too,?he says with some embarrassment. “It means bacon-eaters, and it
comes from the time of conversion when our forefathers used to eat bacon in
the doorways of their shops to prove they had really converted.?/span>
So that is the secret of Mallorca’s Jews -- people who were forced to convert,
but who were ostracized and stigmatized by the larger community, an action
which ironically enough, resulted in their holding on to their collective
identity. They are not Jews spiritually; they are Catholic. Yet culturally,
in terms of their values and cohesiveness, they are Jews.
Allusions to this perceived identity surfaced through the centuries.
the Jews George Sands refers to and the ones Ann Maria Matutue speaks of in
her novel of the Spanish Civil War years “School of the Sun.?nbsp; In the 1940s,
sympathizers included the Xuetas in their anti-Semitic proclamations. And to
this day, the church St. Eulalia is still derisively called the “Synagogue of
But things began to change dramatically for the Xuetas after the Second World
War when massive tourism brought a new cosmopolitanism to the islands and
shattered the provincialism that had so long sustained the status quo.
Visitors from the Spanish peninsula saw no difference between the Xuetas and
other Mallorcans. The common expression became that all Mallorcans are Jews.
To which the Mallorcans began to reply, “Maybe we are.?/span>
Under these changed circumstances the Xueta phenomenon became Mallorca’s
shameful little secret, dirty laundry, best kept within the family. Which
explains the guide Bernardo’s behavior.
The situation is rife with irony. As mentioned before, all over Spain, people
are curious to discover whether they have Jewish roots. In Mallorca, there is
no doubt. The descendants of Jews know exactly who they are. Also, as
mentioned before, all over Spain there are new communities made up of
emigrants who are descendants of exiled Spanish Jews and who have accepted
Spain’s offer of citizenship. In Mallorca, the descendants of Jews have never
left; the community is intact. But there is very little movement to re-assert
Joan Bonnin Senior told us the Xueta community is very interested in Israel.
They follow all the news; they were enthusiastic after the 1967 victories.
But he will go no further. “As far as our becoming Jewish again, it is from
too long ago. The possibility no longer interests us.?/span>
Joan Bonnin Junior, however, is fascinated by his Jewish heritage. “I don’t
know much about it except for the stories in the Bible. But I want to learn.
I pay attention to the news from Israel. I read about the Holocaust. I have
seen ‘Schindler’s List.’”
Then he adds: “My heart is Jewish. My blood is Jewish. But my religion is
few years ago, this young man married a non-Xueta. Only in this post-war
generation has that begun to happen. “I am typical of my generation,?Bonnin
junior said. “Many of us are inter-marrying. It doesn’t matter any more.
Also, we are moving out of this old neighborhood to the new sections of
“It is a good thing,?he adds. “I am glad the old divisions are disappearing.
But I do want to hold on to what I am and where I came from. I’d like my baby
son to know something of my history.?/span>
We had spent a number of hours with this Catholic-Jewish father and son, who -
incidentally -- seemed so very Jewish to us. By the time we left their jewelry
shop, it was after 9 o’clock. All the stores were closed. All the shutters
were down. As we walked the streets of the old Gothic neighborhood, the
terrors of the Inquisition suddenly seemed very close at hand. We could
imagine a Joan Bonnin of the 17th century standing in the doorway of his shop,
not with the warm smile we saw, but one born of humiliation and fear. How
many generations did it take, we wondered, for the pain to ease, for the grief
to be erased by collective forgetting?
But by the next morning, such heavy-hearted reflections seemed out of place.
The sun was shining brightly. From our hotel window, we could see a new
cruise ship had docked in the port. Mallorca is a big vacation place and the
atmosphere is up-beat and happy. And there is a new and growing Jewish
community here with people from all over the world who are enjoying its
economic opportunity, ideal climate, and beautiful scenery.
Yet a sadness lingered. We could not help but mourn the passing of the People
of the Street who put such a curious spin on the enigmatic question: What is a
It is clear that their eventful story is about to end. No longer apart, they
stand on the cusp of history, about to move out into the larger population --
Thinking back to Mallorca, to Segovia and Gerona -- and all the other places
we have visited in Spain -- we marvel at how each was so different yet had
some connection to a Jewish past or present. Which brought to mind a young
man we met in Valencia last year who converted to Judaism when he married a
Jewish woman from Casablanca and today serves as the secretary/treasurer of
the fledgling Jewish community century in his city. He shared with us a bit
of fanciful hearsay he had come upon: the Jews who were exiled in 1492, he was
told, took the keys to their homes along with them, hoping one day to return,
and these keys were passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps, he
conjectured, someone has returned to Spain with the actual key to his
Whether an actual key has made the journey through half a millenium or not, it
is clear that doors are opening throughout Spain on a past long sealed off and
a future for new and growing Jewish communities. Moving into the final years
of this century and millenium, it seems the perfect metaphor for the
Allow me to close on a personal note: my late father, a Russian Jew, somehow
always had this great love for Spain. He loved the Flamenco dancing, the
music, the art; he admired the women -- from afar. But when he and my mother
finally went to Israel and planned some European stops along the way, he would
not allow himself the pleasure of visiting Spain because, he said, he could
not set foot in the land of the Inquisition.
What would he say if he knew of what has happened in the ensuing years: how
the Spanish government goes out of its way to welcome Jews, uncover Jewish
history, encourage new Jewish communities? What would he think of the current
King of Spain asking the Jews forgiveness, the Queen of Spain studying with a
rabbi? What would he make of the fact that Harvey and I have visited Spain
six times, met so many of its people, gotten so many insights into this varied
and wonderful land?
imagine he would be very pleased that we have been able to see first hand the
renaissance of Spanish-Jewry and establish for ourselves a very personal and
powerful Spanish-Jewish connection.
Frommer and Harvey Frommer. “Letter from Valencia: Layers of Civilization,?Forward, July 25, 1997
Frommer and Harvey Frommer. “Majorca’s Catholic Jews,?/span>
B’rith Jewish Monthly, March, 1995
Frommer and Harvey Frommer. “Melilla: A Bit of Spain that Jews Never Left,? The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, August 29, 1996
Frommer and Harvey Frommer. “Reclaiming a Buried Legacy,?
May 5, 1994
Frommer and Harvey Frommer. “Reclaiming a Golden Age: The Spanish City of
Segovia is Busy Restoring Its Splendid Jewish Heritage,?The Philadelphia
Jewish Exponent, August 17, 1995
Goshko. “Trade with Neutral Countries Propelled Nazy Army, US Says,?/span>
June 3, 1998, A3.
Matute. School of the Sun, (translated by Elaine Kerrigan) New York:
Columbia University Press 1989 (paperback)
Moore. Those of the Street: the Catholic-Jews of Mallorca: A Study in
South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976
Sand. Winter in Majorca (translated by Robert Graves) Mallorca:
Valldemosa Edition, 1956