The Secrets of Jewish Girona Part 2

by Judith Fein September 6, 2019


diasporaPart I took the reader into a world of Jewish secrets and mysteries in Girona, Spain, and the nearby villages of Catalonia, where all the Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave in 1492. Part II continues the story…)

Of all the people I met in Girona, none turned out to be more secretive or mysterious than a friendly, articulate, and garrulous man named Gerard Serrat. I met him at the Dor Museum restaurant, which is part of a luxurious, dramatically situated hilltop complex that includes a hotel and a spectacular gem museum.

Gerard, who said his I.Q. is 180, told us his grandmother was from the tribe of Judah, and that “information about the story of the Jewish people was passed down orally, from mouth to ear, until current times. The information had to be discreet, so it was kept close to the chest of those who carried the memories. It was a path of silence and discretion. I, myself, am descended from conversos. In the 3rd century B.C.E. there were already Jews in Tarragona, Barcelona, Lleida, Aragon, Narbonne, Montpellier, Toulouse, and, of course, Girona. And a dish Girona is known for today, escudella (a meat and vegetable stew), is Jewish. The Jewish community was very important even in the earliest times. A lot of people talk about medieval Jews, but not what came before them. They lived peacefully with Iberians, Greeks, and Phoenicians. They came here on Phoenician boats.”

He said that his wife is Jewish, and her people never had to go into the Diaspora. “They came from a region that had been ravaged by the Black Death and an earthquake. It had very few inhabitants left. They wrote to King Ferdinand and asked him to let them stay without converting or going into exile. They were needed to work the land. They didn’t have property. They were craftspeople and artisans. The king was lenient towards them. He wasn’t the real horror for Jews and Moors. His wife Isabel was much worse.”

Gerard showed us pictures of himself in a wig, as head of protocol for the cathedral in Girona. “You have to listen and watch and keep your enemies close,” he said.

“You know,” he claimed, “one of the reasons the Catalans want independence from Spain is so they have a place for Jews to be safe. The Catalan leader in exile is Jewish. He has the Torah with him.”

Gerard said that he disagrees with what Josep Tarrés said. “Not all Catalans are Jewish. They are Moors, Greeks, and have other origins as well.”

And with that, as my brain tried to surf the waves of information Gerard
was imparting, we headed outside and climbed up a hill, surrounded by ancient Iberic ruins. Gerard pointed out the Diaspora and pilgrimage routes in the distance below. It was both shocking and moving to see a path which led to exile that would change world Jewry forever. Gerard said the Jews who were expelled from Spain came from different villages, and it didn’t matter who was rich or poor. They met each other on a trail to Diaspora, united in a situation which made them a community for the first time.

As we climbed higher and each revelation created more questions and more mystery, Gerard came to a nearby hill where initiations “into knowledge” still take place. He said there are circles within circles of knowledge that each person only knows part of. “They can’t think they are important just because they have a piece of the knowledge. Humility is important.” I think he was talking about secret kabbalistic initiations.

On another occasion, Paul and I drove to the small town of Castelló d’Empuries,
about 45 minutes from Girona. In their tourism office, where we met our guide Pol, a young woman named Yvonne Leon spoke to me in Hebrew. I thought I was hallucinating because there were no Jews left in the town after 1492. She informed me that although she is not Jewish, she takes private Hebrew lessons. Then she showed me videos produced by the tourism office that recreated Jewish life. In one, she portrayed the bride in a Jewish wedding. In another, she played a Jewish woman who was celebrating Sabbath at home. “I have worked in this office for 12 years,” Yvonne said. “When a Jew comes in, I know it. I just feel it. Sometimes they cry and I cry too.”

Pol joined in and said that his family was Jewish; he found it in a list of names of local Jews who converted to Catholicism under pressure. “And you?” I asked Yvonne. She does not know the facts of her family history, because they were from Leon, not Castelló d’Empúries, but she is pretty sure that she is. “And do you know what?” she added excitedly. “Every year there is a Jewish week for kids here so they learn all about Jews and the Jewish religion.” She showed us a menorah and a model of a synagogue that the children made. “In the Middle Ages,” Pol said, “200 to 300 Jewish families lived here.
They were 10 percent of the population.”

Pol began the tour at the Dominican church and he explained that, “the church was the seat of the Inquisition. It was first outside of the city, and then moved here. The Dominicans were the Inquisitors. When they traveled, this is where they stayed.”

We saw marvelously preserved medieval Jewish headstones, and disturbing alabaster carvings in the cathedral of a Jew in France who had to wear a special pointed cap, and another Jewish man with a hooked nose. Judah, who betrayed Jesus, was depicted as having a grotesque, bestial face. Pol pointed to an area where conversos were buried and explained that they were interred separately “because they had young, and not old Christian blood.”

On the 18th of February 1417, more than 100 Jewish hearths (families) converted to Christianity because of psychological, financial, religious, and social pressure put on them. Pol told me a very sad story about Perfet Bonseynor, the last rabbi of Castelló d’Empuries. The Pope of Avignon, Benito XIII, gathered together all the rabbis from what was then Aragon (Catalonia was part of it) and kept them secluded in Tortosa for two years. The goal was to indoctrinate them about Christianity so they would go back home and change the minds of local Jewish citizens. They could not leave Tortosa without permission, but poor Rabbi Bonseynor could not bear it. He didn’t care if he incurred the wrath of the church. He left before two years were up, and when he arrived back home in Castelló d’Empuries, he found that his own family had converted under pressure. It broke his heart.

Only 10 families didn’t convert. The rest were baptized in a stone font that still stands in the cathedral: a large basin for the adults and a small one, attached, for the children. Then Pol led us to the town square where a big party was made to celebrate their conversion.

One of the most endearing parts of the day was meeting the current owners of a medieval synagogue. It has been in their family since 1827, and Vicenc Comas and his daughter Ariadna Comas took us around. Ariadna said that “the first document pertaining to the synagogue dates from 1264, so we know it was certainly a synagogue and housed separate schools for women and men. There have been other owners before us, and each one has changed and remodeled the space. But there is one small mikvah [ritual bath] that remains and perhaps a second, larger one.” Astoundingly, the small mikvah still fills with fresh water and they don’t know where it comes from. They think there was a special water channel that flowed under the synagogue.

In the 13th century, the authorities demanded that the synagogue be reduced in size by 50 percent because it had grown too large and beautiful. A wall was built to close off half the synagogue; it had no windows or doors. Ariadna said they live upstairs, where Jews lived before them, and they can still see where the windowless wall was erected. It is rare to find such an ancient synagogue that has not been fixed up for tourists. It is the way it was when the family bought it. Ariadna showed me a niche on the wall outside the synagogue, and said, “It may have held a statue of the Virgin for former converted owners to prove how Christian they were.”

I was surprised to learn from Pol and Yvonne that Catalonian Jews are not Sephardic. They do not think of themselves that way and never did. They never spoke Ladino or Spanish; they spoke Catalan in the street and Hebrew in the synagogue. The Andalusian, Sephardic Jews sat on rugs on the floor. In the Catalonian synagogues, there were benches. They even have information about who owned the benches, which could be bought and sold. The cheapest seats were called “neck breakers” because you had to twist your neck to see the rabbi.

A few days later, I met Gerard Serrat in the Barri Vell (historic quarter) of Girona. He parked his motorcycle, and immediately linked arms with me. “Let’s go to the Jardin Kabbalistico,” he said. The multi-tiered, secluded, verdant Garden of Angels, as it is popularly called, was
designed by Josep Tarrés. Oval plaques adorn the wall to the left of the entry; each one bears the name of an angel from the Bible. “There are 27 angel plaques here, and 72 in the bible. It’s the reverse, see? 72 and 27,” Gerard explained. I recognized several familiar names, like Ariel, but the others I didn’t know–Pahalia, Lauvia, Jamabia. “Come on,” Gerard said, as he linked his arm with mine again. “I want to take you somewhere else.”

I waited in the street while Gerard disappeared and returned about five minutes lat-
er with the key to what he said was the oldest Jewish residence, created from a warren of houses. They were occupied from 870 C.E. until 1492, the year of the expulsion. He led me into a sprawling, magical old stone house that was alive with energy from days long gone. We entered a room with a stone window bench and he asked me to sit on it. “This is where a young woman who was betrothed would sit and look down into the street where her novio was waiting,” he explained. “They would carry on a conversation from window to street.” Then Gerard pulled his jacket over his head and hunched over, imitating an old woman. “This was her grandmother, who would sit right here so she could overhear everything the young intendeds talked about.” “But couldn’t everyone else in the street and in the houses above hear too?” I asked. Gerard smiled and said, “That’s the way it was.”

Gerard showed me a replica of a medieval Jewish bed with a dark wooden headboard curved around the top protectively, about four or five feet above the sleeper. Carpets once hung from the walls to keep out the cold winter air. I followed Gerard like a little duckling as he went from one arched room to another, pointing out an old staircase here and a passageway there.

“This is where the kabbalists meet now,” Gerard said as we came to a large room. “Can you tell me who they are?” I asked. “It’s very discreet,” was all he replied. Then he changed the subject and showed me a stained glass Jewish star window he had made.

Behind the house, he pointed to the bottom part of his large metal tree of life installation. It was brilliant in design and water ran through it. The tree curved upward and contained lights for the key sephirot or energy centers. And then he showed me a large metal menorah he made. His passion for all things Jewish baffled me, because Gerard is not Jewish. “Is it that your ancestors were Jewish, and you are honoring them? Or do you feel Jewish, even though you aren’t?” I asked.

“We are very, very discreet,” he repeated. “I am a man of science, and I do not scare easily, but if one of the important people tells me not to do something specific, or to delve into something, I listen. I obey. The result could be very dangerous if I didn’t listen.”

“May I ask who the important people are?” I inquired.

He pretended he didn’t hear me, and we walked back to his motorcycle.

The last night Paul and I were in Girona, Josep and Pia invited us to dinner. She prepared a delicious pasta-based meal, with hand-dipped chocolates for dessert. Then she asked me a favor. “Can you please write L’chaim for me in Hebrew?” Of course, I obliged, and I asked Pia, whose elegant, evocative, monumental statues dot the public spaces of Girona, why she wanted me to write the words of the Hebrew toast, which mean “to life.”

She pretended she didn’t hear me, and she didn’t reply. She, too, was discreet. Very discreet. We hugged, and both Pia and Josep said, “Adéu.” In Catalan, the word for goodbye is not adios but adéu. Unlike the Spanish “adios,” which literally means “to g-ds,” it is singular and means “to G-d.” One G-d. Was this another Jewish remnant?

I left Girona with many more questions than answers, and I promised myself that one day I would return and, as discreetly as possible, find out more.


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