The Cantor's Blog-July 12th

Mon, 07/11/2016 - 4:57pm -- lcanfield


Cantor’s Blog

To boldly go where too few have gone before

Barcelona, Catalunya


After practicing the weekend before leaving Jerusalem for Barcelona, I realized that my attempt at an accurate accent was a few days off. Most Barcelonans don’t seem to pronounce their city with a lithp, Barthelona, at least not in my limited experience. Perhaps in Madrid they do where they speak Castilian (or should I say, Cath-tilian) Spanish but here, I didn’t hear the ‘th’ sound until finally one afternoon when we stopped at a grocery store to buy some apples and the young man who checked us out said, ‘Grathias’.

From Jerusalem the trip is far less complex and lengthy than from Louisville, KY. Only one flight and one time zone to traverse. Kind of like flying to California without the jet lag. That said, it's quite odd how far from a normal time zone it occupies. It should probably be the same time zone as Britain from a geographic perspective but politically it seems to have chosen to remain with central Europe. Havdalah is around 10:45 p.m. this time of year!

We arrived at the hotel just in time for the last bus tour of Barcelona, a vibrant and bustling city with a huge obelisk of Columbus (ironic since his discoveries led to the minimizing of the importance of the city), Montjuic (which has some of the best views of the city and is named for what was originally the Jewish Cemetery, now built over and neglected as such but home to such marvels as the 1992 Summer Olympics and the Joan Miro museum), and La Rambla, what used to be the river flowing outside the ancient city walls into the Mediterranean, now streaming with families, gawkers, lovers, government approved human statues who gladly pose for tourist selfies for a fee, and, we have been warned, pickpockets galore.

In addition to a tour of the Jewish quarter, Gaudi-designed Guell Park and the Sagrada Familia Church, we have heard a few lectures about the history of Spain and its Jewish residents and also experienced some of the gustatory and artistic pleasures unique to the city which celebrates a desired Catalonian Independence (not quite as violent as the Basques but certainly fierce — the only real obstacle according to our guide from a Catalonian standpoint is the fact that the soccer team wouldn’t be able to play Madrid in the regular season), a deep connection to its Catholic past (but apparently a reluctant administration of the Inquisition in its time), and a mythical association with Saint George and his slain dragon.

In 1492 there were approximately 400,000 Jews in Spain. By 1493, 200k had chosen exile to forced conversion; the remaining 200k chose to convert. In addition, since the riots against the Jews began in Spain around 1391, 100 years before the Expulsion Edict, there were probably a good 200k at least of ‘New Christians’, Jews who had converted earlier, some of which not so sincerely.

In 2016 there are approximately 30,000 Jews in Spain, a much smaller percentage of the population than half a millennium ago.

Professor Berke, who has been a guest scholar at AJ before and who famously speaks for hours without notes, condensing hugely complex historical interactions for a lay audience with brilliance, spoke of the historical conditions which led up to the three great events of 1492 in Spain.

1. January 1st: Islamic rule was completely eradicated from the Iberian Peninsula.

2. March 31st: The Edict of Expulsion of the Jews.

3. Columbus sailed to accidentally ‘discover’ the new world.

Although I have studied much of this history, Dr. Berke never fails to teach me things I didn’t previously know.

Some historians refer to the Convivivencia, the period in which Jews, Christians and Moslems got along in Islamic ruled Spain as the Conveniencia, a way of suggesting it was merely a function of mutual self-interests coinciding rather than a deeply-rooted appreciation many hope to establish in the modern world.

The Reconquista by the Catholic church of the peninsula begins slowly but surely in the 10th century with Toledo and little by little pushes the Moslems back into Africa until by 1492 the ‘job’ is done. Islamic converts are called Moriscos and they suffer a similar fate as Jews in 1609. Not just Moslems but even those who had converted to Christianity are kicked out of Spain.

We do well in the newly Christianized areas as long as we are needed, a literate middle-class of professionals who can aid in the reestablishment of rule on the peninsula. As soon as Christian Spaniards ‘catch up’ economically and educationally, we become a much more despised and disposable minority. Even those of us who convert are suspected of secretly keeping our Jewish ways and the lay Catholic population have incentive to both root out the ‘fakers’ and lie about us to get rid of the competition.

Spain becomes convinced it can’t be a real nation without uniformity. In the process they are the ones who most likely create the idea of Jews as a race which will be abused to such great effect during the Holocaust.

Spain begins a 100 year rise in fortune thanks to Columbus’ exploitation of the new world in its favor. Gold and Silver enrich the Spanish monarchs and they thrive until their hegemony comes to an end at the end of the 16 century.

One of the reasons it’s so painful to be kicked out of Sefarad is the extent to which it was so much better to live here than most of the diaspora. “With punishments like this, we don’t need rewards” to paraphrase another proverb.

In his presentation to us, Professor Eliezer Pappo asked the following question: How do you know whether a Jewish community is central or peripheral? The answer: Whether they import or export rabbis. Any community that has Yeshivas that create rabbis that are desired elsewhere is central to the Jewish world of it’s time. If they have to import them, they are, by definition, peripheral.

The difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic treatments of the Talmud was profound. For the most part, Ashkanazic rabbis were of the belief that any conflict that was resolved was, by definition, a dispute NOT for heaven’s sake. After all, the Pirkei Avot assert that any dispute for the sake of heaven ENDURES so they would create even more complicated riffs on the Talmud than those that already proliferate there. Sephardim had a more practical approach: How does one derive a bottom line from the Talmudic text — how do you know what to do?

One Sephardic congregation went so far as to ask for a Rabbi with only one hand. Their previous rabbi would always answer a query with ‘on the one hand’ this and ‘on the other hand’ that. The congregation wanted their rabbi to resolve all his conflicts and doubts BEFORE rendering a clear answer for his congregants.

Why did Sephardic Jews create so much secular poetry? They ended up competing with the Arabic religious dictum that metrical and rhythmic poetry helped people come closer to God.

As Andalusian Arabs became wealthy they became more protective of their sons’ lives and decided to hire mercenary Berbers to fight their Christian wars for them. According to the law of unintended consequences, the Berbers started to take over parts of Spain themselves from old guard Moslems and asserted the reason the Arabs were losing to the Christians was because they were so tolerant. Thus the Almoravids and Almohades waged a holy war against Jews as well, forcing them to convert to Islam.

In addition to an awesome concert of Sephardic inspired music from a vast array of my colleagues’ talents, we also spent part of our last day here seeing the full gamut of Miro’s artistic genius in the Foundation/Museum that carries his name.


Thanks to my wife, I read some of Rick Steves’ guide to Spain which includes a general warning about pickpockets in various parts of the country. In one case, the flea market on Sunday in Madrid (which I avoided by going to Toldedo with our group today), he says not to even bring a wallet. Seriously. Otherwise, one should wear a money belt (my wife couldn’t figure a way for me to wear it where it wouldn’t look terrible) or to carry in my man-purse and hold it in front of me (which I have done, so far with luck -- pooh, pooh, pooh...).

I also read about the Rosemary scam where women come up to you in Seville and offer a free Rosemary but then expect payment for a reading of ones palm. I didn’t have to wait for Seville; on my way back from the Shabbat service to my hotel, I saw a woman accosting someone on the street with rosemaries. Lesson learned.

In terms of other gray areas of the law, on our way back one of my walking partners accidentally stepped on a some sun glasses sold by street vendors. He apologized (hadn’t broken them, by the way) and the salesmen didn’t say a thing, just gave a strong look. Again from my guidebook, I understand that these sales are not technically legal but the cops generally look the other way. To avoid capture when they decide to focus, many of the vendors have a rope tied to all four corners of the blankets upon which they display their wares so they can quickly gather them and vamos!

I guess the only consolation of having to really watch out are these:

1. There seem to be a lot of security folks around. This may be because of more desperate and violent threats but it’s nice to know that if something goes missing, I can find a Spanish copper quickly.

2. It’s generally a pretty gentle way to lose your credit cards...

3. Apparently when Goebbels visited Franco in the thirties, someone picked his pocket. I suppose that’s worth a lot in and of itself.

Finally, I’ve formulated an addition to a well known quote by Benjamin Franklin based on my extensive travels so far:

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and the exit always goes through the gift shop.

But you knew that.

And don’t put your wallet in your back pocket before walking through Puerta del Sol.

Sagrada Familia

We did have a tour of the Gaudi (Guell) Park and the Sagrada Familia and we walked by the ‘Block of Discord’ that included a Gaudi facade along with two others that ‘clash’ with it.

The most amazing part of the church that he began to build for me is the fact that he knew he would never finish it. He worked on a church for families that is larger and as ambitious as any I have heard of or seen (and that looks like a Disneyland park inside...) and walked miles to work each day to move it along up until the day before he died as a pedestrian in an accident in 1926 in his 70s.

He wanted the top of these huge steeples to be just a little shorter than Montjuic nearby since he felt that nothing a human might make should claim to be higher than something God would create.

More importantly, the city of Barcelona is one of the few if only that has benefited financially in the long run for hosting the summer Olympics (I think I read that in the Economist...) and perhaps it’s partly because that’s when they decided to charge admission to the continuing project of La Sagrada Familia.

At this point, the city believes it will finish the project on the year of Gaudi’s death, 1926.

It’s nice to know that some people still think far ahead about SOMETHING.

Next week I'll try to catch up with my learning from Madrid, Toledo, Cordova and Granada (and perhaps Seville).