The Secrets of Jewish Girona Part 1

by Judith Fein July 29, 2019


1-girona-panoramaFor more than two decades, I have been visiting with and writing about the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were expelled from their countries or converted to Roman Catholicism as a result of pogroms and waves of persecution in the late l4th and l5th centuries. Many of the converts sincerely embraced their new religion, while large numbers of others were Catholic in public, but kept up their forbidden Jewish practices in secret.

In every case, I found the stories of the conversos or anusim to be gripping and fascinating, but the two months I just spent in Girona and nearby towns in Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, differed in many ways. Most significantly, Girona was the place Jews were expelled from; in most other instances, I was in places that both unconverted Jews and conversos had fled to. And unlike other cities where all that remains are stone ruins of former Jewish life, Girona has a current, quasi-mystical Jewish identity and reality that roils below the surface and expresses itself in secret ways.

At first, I was going to write about the history of the Jews of Girona, and their thriving medieval community with its own governance (called aljama) and their brilliant kabbalists and philosophers (the most famous is Moses ben Nahman, who is better known as Nachmanides or Ramban). But all of you are savvy, and can easily find this history on and offline. Instead, I’d like to take you with me to discover what there is to see, and what’s going on right now in the labyrinthine streets of the Girona Call, or Jewish section, and elsewhere in Catalonia. Most of all, I want you to meet some of the people I was privileged to encounter and spend time with.

As you walk along the Carrer de la Força, the narrow, cobbled main street of the Call, you pass stone buildings that were once Jewish family homes. At the beginning of the l4th century, Jews comprised 10 percent of the city’s population. The male members of some of the prestigious families earned their livelihoods as silversmiths, doctors, moneylenders, or judicial and administrative officials. Others were tailors, shoemakers, bookbinders, illustrators, and thimble makers. The women were employed as pearl workers, haberdashers, silk makers, wet nurses and maids.

If you look up, you will notice windows and entryways that are plastered over and sealed. Persecution of Jews began in the late l300’s, and by 1418, as the ugly mushroom of anti-Semitism continued to spread through Girona, medieval Jews were forbidden to have windows and doors open up to the main street below because Catholic people had to pass through on their way to the cathedral. According to some versions, this was to protect the Jews from attacks by their Catholic neighbors; others say it was because the neighbors had to be shielded from prying Jewish eyes.

After the forced expulsion of unconverted Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492, the Call, with its history and mysteries, its people and stories, loves and losses, festivals and fasts, prosperity and panic at persecution, went silent.

Today, as you stroll along the busy, bustling Call with visitors of all religions heading to the Jewish museum, library, bookstores, shops and restaurants in the barrivell (historic quarter), you may see someone ahead of you with a thick shock of white hair. His name is Josep Tarrés and, at age 90, the poet, cultural activist, and visionary has lost none of his passion. He grew up in the Call, and, in his words, “Nobody cared or even spoke about it.” In 1975, with hard work and love, he pioneered the restoration and revitalization of the Call. With his wife Pia Crozet, a well-known French sculptor, he opened an important center of Jewish history and culture, and he wanted to establish the Call as the epicenter of Jewish mystical and kallabalistic learning. Things went in another direction, and today Josep goes largely unthanked and unrecognized. If you see him, thank him, because without him you might not be visiting the fascinating sites from Girona’s Jewish past.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked Josep.

“Almost all Catalonians are,” he said mysteriously. And then he mentioned that his relative was the organist at the church. I wondered if his ancestors were conversos who, at peril of losing their lives, had to keep up a Catholic identity in public, and if the commitment to Girona’s Jews was something encoded in his genes.

On Good Friday evening, Josep, walking at a brisk pace, led my husband Paul and me through narrow streets and up stone staircases. We arrived at the cathedral and he excitedly pointed out the surrounding marvels of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, as though he were seeing them for the first time. We climbed up to the roof of his friend’s house, which was opposite the steep front steps of the cathedral. Across from where we stood, half the city seemed to be playing Roman soldiers, dressed as penitents, or parading with their cofradias, or brotherhoods. Afterwards, we went into Josep’s friend’s ancient house below, with its dramatic décor and priceless art collection. Josep walked next to me, pointing out stone architectural features and whispering, “those are Jewish because they have no figures in them.” “How do you know that?” I asked. “Because I come from conversos,” he answered. “That’s why I brought the Jewish section back to life.”

At the Jewish History Museum of Girona, with its world-famous collection of medieval Jewish tombstones and memorabilia from Nachmanides and the kabbalists, almost none of the staff are Jewish, and neither are the department heads, who are medievalists and historians. I spent time talking to Sílvia Planas i Marcé, the director of the museum and Nachmanides Institute. She said that as early as the year 898 C.E. there were about “Twenty-five Jewish families, who lived around the cathedral. The Count of Girona wanted to develop the area economically and invited Jews in. They had been living in the countryside and they were merchants and moneylenders and artisans who could improve the economy; also, the more people in Girona, the more taxes could be collected. In the 11th-13th centuries Girona was so important as a center of Kaballah and Jewish philosophy and spirituality that it was known as the Mother City of Israel.”

I was so taken by her intimate knowledge of and respect for Jewish culture that I asked her, “Do you think your ancestors were Jews who lived here?” She shrugged and nodded, “Maybe so. Who knows?” In fact, people today do not know. The knowledge was hidden during the Inquisition, and lost over time. But I wondered if she, like Josep, carried it in her genetic memory?

In the town of Besalú, which is famous for its magnificent early medieval Roman-
esque bridge, the first documentation of a Jewish presence dates to the 12th century, but it is possible they were there as early as the 9th century. It was a good place for commerce and money lending, and Jews, who made up 20 percent of the population of 1000, were given permission to build a one-room school. Stones still remain from the base of the medieval synagogue, and they indicate a separate entrance for men and women, a prayer room for men, and a balcony where women probably used to sit. Under the synagogue, steps lead down to a 12th century mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, one of only three in Europe from that early period. The vaulted stone ceiling and walls are original, but after the Jews left in 1415 (when Besalú Jews had 15 days to sell their properties and move into a ghetto) and then in 1435, the mikvah was abandoned and the river took over and it was filled with water and mud.

In 1965, the ritual bath lay hidden underneath a textile factory. When they made a hole in the floor for a turbine, a hammer fell into the hole, and a member of the Romanesque society saw white stone under the ground. They dug out the mud and earth and thought that maybe they had uncovered an ancient mikvah. Rabbis from Marseille and Perpignan, France, came and measured everything, and sent their findings to a Paris rabbi who validated that the ritual bath had indeed been found after more than 500 years!

While in Besalú, you may find out about two famous Jewish doctors: Bendit des Logar and Abraham des Castlar. According to my guide, “the king had a Christian doctor, but always wanted a Jewish doctor.” They were part of a vigorous intellectual and cultural Jewish presence before their tragic persecution.

I wanted to find out the source of bitter anti-Semitism that scorched the Jewish medieval presence. It was in place before the plague or Black Death broke out in 1348, when the Jews of Catalonia, as elsewhere, were erroneously blamed for spreading the plague and poisoning the wells. A horrible massacre of Jews took place in Barcelona at that time.

I wondered how those fires of hatred were fed. I found one answer in Verges, the ancient town where many thousands of visitors converge during Easter and wait for hours to see the famous Dance of Death. Before the Dance, where skeletal figures dance hauntingly through the maze-like streets after midnight, the story of the last days of Jesus is presented as a huge, dramatic, gripping two-hour spectacle that dates from the Middle Ages and features the participation of a large swath of the local population.

In the play, the Jewish priests in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem wear talitot or prayer shawls, and Hebrew writing forms part of the stage set. I was pleasantly surprised until the story unfolded. The Temple priests were depicted as an envious, cruel cabal of Jews who were threatened by Jesus’s popularity, and called for his death. Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, didn’t really want Jesus to be crucified, but the priests demanded it. And when he was crucified, the priests were laughing and happy because they had triumphed. There it was, in front of me: the anti-Semitic propaganda that could be understood by illiterate as well as literate attendees in the Middle Ages. It whipped up hatred for the Jews and led to pogroms, attacks, murder and massacres. In many places, like Girona, it was dangerous to be a Jew. In 1391 there was a massive slaughter of Jews in the Girona Call. The ruins of the Gironella Tower are a chilling reminder of the fear and horror the Jews experienced: some were hidden by Catholic friends, but others fled the attack and took refuge there in deplorable conditions.

This frightening reality impacted my visit to the deep, deep, culturally-rich, sophisticated city of Girona and formed the back- drop for my visit to Rosa Maria Labayen in the Call. In her multi-story house, with its sprawling warren of rooms and staircases and gothic windows, we saw a graceful sculpture of the Hebrew letter “shin” by Pia Crozet and at least two menorahs. Of the 14 mezuzah holes (where mezuzahs were inserted into the stone doorposts to the right of the front door) found in the Call, nine of them are in her home, which is made of adjoining ancient houses. In the courtyard of her house on the main floor, a well dated to 1496 (four years after the Expulsion) has five mezuzahs hidden inside its walls. According to Rosa Maria, her garden with its Tree of Life was once the synagogue.

Rosa Maria is 96, beautiful and has almost transparent skin. “I am Christian,” she said at least three times during the several hours we spent together. “My path in life is numbers and letters. I am interested in practical kaballah, but I am not Jewish or interested in Jewish things. I am Christian.”

She talked poetically and with intensity about the sephirot, or emanations, which are manifestations of G-d in the created world. She spoke about numerology and kaballalistic beliefs, and told me never to wear my purple fleece shirt again, as the color had bad connotations. She mentioned that there is an old mikvah under her house, and spoke about the rays from Jupiter and that light is important to Jews; it is knowledge of the sacred.

“I made a vase of the broken pieces of my life,” she offered, “and I made another one for people who want or need it. I don’t believe in religion. The teachings of Jesus are not the Catholic religion.”

“Do you ever go to church?” I asked her.

“Absolutely not!” she replied.

When I left her house, passing by the “shin” sculpture and menorahs again, I wondered why she insisted so strongly that she wasn’t Jewish and was not interested in Jewish things. Was it possible that she, like the others, was descended from denial based on extreme danger if there was any evidence that conversos still held Jewish beliefs and observed Jewish practices?

I had stumbled into a world of Jewish secrets and mysteries, and no one I met was more secretive or mysterious or had more provocative information than a man named Gerard Serrat.

Stay tuned, Part 2 will be in the September issue.


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