Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Alcalá de Henares, Spain

By Julie Kalt and Alex Freedman

1492 was a definitive year in the history of Spain. For hundreds of years, Spain was home to a confluence of the three major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judiasm, and Islam. This mixture of traditions and peoples created a rich culture that didn’t exist anywhere else in Europe. Jews in particular contributed greatly to the economic success of Spain during the Middle Ages. This is one of the many reasons we were both interested in studying in Spain

Today, only 12,000 Jews live in Spain, and although their contribution to Spanish history are significant, you can hardly detect a Judaic presence in “la vida diaria” (daily life). Why was 1492 significant? During this time, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela signed an edict that forced Jews to leave Spain if they refused to convert to Christianity. They felt the only way to politically unify the country was to force the created of an Iberian-Christian nation. Although the Jewish expulsion was more congenial than that of the Muslims, it was an expulsion nonetheless. Today, these Jews are known as Sephardic and make up a tenth of the global Jewish population.

But enough of the history lesson – how has this effected our experience here in Alcalá de Henares? On our first tour of Alcalá, we walked by a cooridor on one of the main streets that used to be part of the Jewish barrio (every city we visit has a former Jewish barrio with no trace of the people or religion that inhabited it). On the wall is a placard that says “The Great Syanagogue.” Lo and behold, it was not quite what we expected:

Julie: “I am so excited to see the synagogue!”
Alex: “Me too!” (asking the guide) “Where is the synagogue?”
Guide: “You’re standing in it.”
(It is now a plaza with a restaurant and a convenience store…so much for that.)
Julie and Alex: :’(

Unfortunately, this is a typical example of the lack of Judaism there is in Spain, and if it is here, it’s a part of small communities that gather in secular spaces to conduct services and pray.

Our program recently traveled to Toldeo where one of the puproses of the trip was to see the mixture of religions. We saw a mosque, a cathedral, and a synangogue. The mosque is now nonfunctioning and was converted into a “church.” The cathedral is enormous, well-maintained, and city landmark, and the synagogue has also been converted into a church (after, of course, having been converted into a mosque first). It does not resemble what we think of as a synagogue, but is characterized by Moorish architecture and structure. Our guide explained that there is no such thing as Jewish architecture because the Jews would construct the synagogues in the popular styles of the day.

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Spain (a country that is, after all, Catholic), just an observation of how much history can change the political and cultural landscape of a country. It’s easy at Tufts to think that Jews are everywhere having the same kind of presence they have on campus, but coming to a place where there only exists a faint ghost of their presence reminds us that we are lucky to be in an open and diverse community and that, perhaps more importantly, we must remember who we are because if we don’t, who will?