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Toledo: Capital of Sepharad
August 26, 2003

By Samuel Toledano*.

When a title for these remarks was suggested to me some time ago in Madrid, I purposely refrained from asking whether the theme centered on the recent designation of Toledo as the capital of "Sefarad 92" or on Toledo as the historical symbol of the Sephardic heritage. Such calculated ambiguity served my purpose of sharing with you some of my thoughts regarding both aspects: the historic re-encounter of Spain with its brilliant Jewish past, and the contemporary challenge we Jews face in ensuring that the fateful events of 1492 are remembered and commemorated with the solemnity, dignity, and pride which they so richly deserve.

For me, the subject of Toledo has strong personal overtones since the history of my family dates back to Yusef Toledano, the father of Rabbi Daniel Toledano, who departed Toledo at the time of the expulsion with his six grown children. It is thus doubly gratifying to speak of the great metropolis of Sepharad, with which the Jews identified so strongly that, in the old legends, they had claimed to be the founders of the city and had given its name a Jewish etymology. These claims aside, Toledo certainly had a large Jewish population during the Visigoth era, and at the time of the Arab conquest found itself under Jewish control. Toledo must have grown during the Moorish occupation since historical data show that the Jews, by this time, already dwelt in their own quite spacious quarters--later to gain renown throughout the medieval Jewish world for the size and beauty of its many synagogues. With the Reconquista, the fame of Toledo grew even greater. Under King Alfonso VI, Toledo served as the cradle of the most learned and distinguished members of Spanish Jewry. Jewish poets, scientists, rabbis, physicians, and ministers of the court were born and resided in the city. A partial list of their names would include Yosef be Ferruziel Cidello, physician and minister to Alfonso VI, as well as Judah ben Ezra, DonZulema, Don Zag de la Malena, Yusef be Shusan, Abraham Barchilon, Samuel Halevy Abulafia, and Meir Alguadese, all of whom served as almojarifes, or treasurers, to the Castilian kings. Many centuries were to elapse before similar positions could be attained by Jews in other European countries.

No less distinguished were the many rabbis who taught in the Hebrew academies of Toledo, e.g., Meir Abulafia; Asher ben Yehiel; Judah ben Asher; Yacob ben Asher, author of the Turim (a landmark in rabbinical literature); and Yosef al Nacawa, author of Menorat ha Maor. Their fame, as well as that enjoyed by poets and scientists, attracted students from all over the world to the academies of Toledo. Moreover, the leading families of the aljama (Jewish quarter) of Toledo, the Ben Ezra, Ben Shoshan, Ben Sadoq, Alfajar, and Abulafia soon claimed to be the aristocracy of Spanish Jewry. Conscious of their cultural attainments and of their contribution to their people, they adopted the title of nasi, or prince. Also notable were the ordinances governing life in the Toledo aljama, which served as the model for centuries to come for the organization of Sephardic communities in North Africa and within Ottoman Empire.

Deserving of special mention is the School of Translators of Toledo, a focal point for reintroducing to the Western world the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers which had been lost during the Middle Ages. The cooperation of Jewish and Christian scholars in this endeavor reached it apogee under King Alfonso X. It should also be mentioned that Jews made important contributions to the development and use of the Spanish language, which for obvious reasons they preferred to Latin, so closely identified as it was with the militant advance of Christendom.

Toledo likewise held (and still preserves) the two greatest architectural and artistic treasures of medieval European Jewry, the synagogues of Santa Maria la Blanca and el Transito, or the Great Synagogue, Kneset Haguedola, and the Synagogue of Samuel Levy, to use their Jewish names. As early as the twelfth century, Yehudah al Harizi (in his Tahkemoni) expressed his admiration for the number and beauty of the Toledo synagogues. No fewer than ten were the temples of that time, to which should be added five academies, or centers of worship and teaching. Fifteen synagogues are known to have existed in Toledo at the time of heaviest Jewish settlement. Of the two which have been preserved, the former Kneset Haguedola (built around 1205 by Yosef ben Shoshan) was described by Amador de los Rios as "a monument of exceptional value in the history of Hispano-Arab art and of really unique interest in Spain." More richly decorated is the synagogue of Samuel Halevi, commonly called el Transito, built by the treasurer of Pedro I, who lived in a nearby palace, known today as the Casa del Greco. A masterpiece of mudejar art, el Transito was built around 1357 and contains a wealth of inscriptions in Hebrew.

In sum, the flowering of Jewish culture in Spain moved the great Spanish historian, Americo Castro, to state: "The history of the rest of Europe may be understood without placing the Jews in the foreground; not so that of Spain." Toward the end of the fourteenth century, however, the fruitful coexistence of the three major cultures in Spain (Christian, Moorish, Jewish), and in particular the fate of the Jews was upset by the rise of religious fanaticism. The pogroms of 1391, incited by the preachings of San Vicente Ferrer, caused the destruction of the Jewish communities along the Mediterranean coast and also affected the aljamas of Spain. gangs of murderers, abetted originally by the sinister Martin Ferrand of Ecija (near Seville) roamed all of Spain, leaving thousands of dead in their path. In my opinion, the tragedy of 1391 is greater than that of the expulsion itself because the decree, unjust as it may have been, at least provided an option-- exile or conversion to Christianity--whereas during the pogroms, the Jews were simply butchered without mercy. Yaacob Albenen has left us a long poem, written after the massacre of Jews in Toledo on June 20, 1391. He writes in strophe 32:

"Woe betide the synagogues Turned into ruins, Kites and vultures have built their nests Since the sons of Israel have departed"

The growing spirit of intolerance soon lead to the belief that in the very desecration of a synagogue would be found a validation of Christianity. Now the intention was clearly to convert the Jews, and every means used to achieve this was considered legitimate. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain was a direct consequence of this upsurge of religious fanaticism to which was added a growing popular pressure against the decisive role played by the Jews in the economic life of Spain. The monarchy, until then an enthusiastic albeit self-interested supporter of the Jews, abandoned them in 1492. With the conclusion of the centuries-long reconquest of Spain from the Moslems, the need for the Jews as an administrative and financial arm in the war against the infidel had clearly lessened. Christian society now clamored for "an internal reconquest" over the Moslems. The expulsion of Jews was thus seen as a crucial step in attaining national unity, which in the fifteenth century was necessarily construed in religious terms.

Moreover, despite the emphasis traditionally placed on the "economic factor," it is not in this realm that the consequences of the expulsion are best measured. Amador de los Rios was correct in pointing out that the expulsion was "a grave disruption, and a highly noxious one at that, in the development of our national culture." It was in the cultural sphere that the expulsion of the Jews left a deep void, a void that has never really been filled.

To be sure, the expulsion did not deprive Spain entirely of her Jewish population. It may have solved the Jewish problem but in doing so it created a converso problem. At the time of the expulsion, important administrative departments were headed by conversos. Conversos were also prominent in Spanish cultural life. They included Fernando de Rojas, author of La Celestina; the great humanist jurist, Luis Vives; and the founders of Spanish mysticism, Santa Teresa de Avila and Juan de la Cruz. Diego Lainez, second general of the Jesuit order, was also of Jewish descent, as were the philosophers Alfonso de Zomora and Alonso de Madrigal, the cartographer Nicolas Oliver, and the physicians Villalobos and Cristobal Acosta. Little wonder that Claudio Sanchez Albornoz should have stated "From the King down, nobody in Spain can confidently claim not to have a Jew among his ancestors. This is true especially when we approach the higher social strata." It is thus doubtful whether the expulsion ultimately helped make Spain less Jewish.

What tragic lives the anusim (or marranos according to the terminology of the period) were forced to lead under the constant threat of the Inquisition. Between 1483 and 1834, the Inquisition terrorized Spain and remains to this day the symbol of utmost intolerance. Juan Antonio Llorente estimates the number of its Jewish victims at around 50,000. Franciso Pena, who in 1578 reedited the Manual of the Inquisitors, was perfectly explicit: "It should be remembered that the main purpose of the inquisitional trials and of the death sentences is not to save the souls of the accused, but rather, to serve the common good and terrorize people. There is no doubt that to instruct and to terrorize people with the issuing of sentences, the imposition of sanbenitos, is a good action." Numerous authors have painted a horrifying picture of the life of the marranos, their secret adherence to their Jewish faith on the one hand, and their public posture of embracing Catholicism on the other.

The preservation of the Sephardic cultural heritage for so many centuries after the expulsion, by those who chose exile, is a remarkable phenomenon. The maintenance of judeo espanol, of judaism, and of haketia in the Moroccan communities, would have been impossible without the depth of feeling retained by the Sephardim toward Spain and their concomitant need to maintain a specific Sephardic identity. Judeo espanol is the same language that the conquistadors brought to the New World and that the Sephardim took with them into exile. From Tangier to Salonica, from Curacao, from Jerusalem to the North African mellahs, judeo espanol is the language of both nostalgic longing and of daily life. In the romancero sefaradi, wherein this language finds it most original expression, literary and religious themes are always intertwined with the remembrance of the "fatherland"--now lost but never forgotten.

It might be said that the Sephardic Jews abandoned Spain because they felt, above all else, their Jewishness. Yet they remained quintessentially Spanish and considered themselves to be the aristocracy of the Jewish people. The distinguished historian Graetz put it in the following way: "Wherever they went--to Africa, Syria, Palestine, Italy, or Flanders--they carried with them the Spanish language, Spanish dignity, and distinctiveness. They cherished and cultivated this Spanish manner so fervently that it has endured to this day in full vigor among their descendants. Far from being absorbed into the majority of the Jewish population within the countries which had hospitably welcomed them, they,as a privileged race, looked down upon them (the other Jews) with contempt and not infrequently dictated laws to them."

As an illustration of the above, I would like to cite the example of Morocco, and I see friends from Morocco in the audience who will be able to confirm my illustration. When the Spanish Jews landed in Morocco in August 1492 and made their way to Fez, they did not wish to mix with the autochthonous Jews, the toshavim, and wrote their own ordinances, the Takhanot of Castile, carefully stating that these takhanot would bind forever the descendants of "the Holy Congregations of the megorashim from Castile." This reference is preserved to this day and curiously enough constitutes a clear legal proof of Sephardic origin for the acquisition of Spanish citizenship, to which I will return later. Little could the framers of the takhanot in late 1492 imagine that they would help their descendants, five centuries later, reclaim the Spanish citizenship of which they had been deprived. Thus does history come full circle.

It would be unfair not to mention that enlightened voices were raised in Spain to deplore the expulsion of the Jews and to demand their return. Some did so more for reasons of perceived national interest than to redress a grievous wrong. For example, Spanish ministers of finance advocated the repatriation of Jews out of concern for the Spanish economy. The Conde Duque de Olivares, the great statesman of seventeenth-century Spain, suggested to King Philip IV that selected Jews be invited to return. Olivares was echoed in the eighteenth century by such other ministers as Godoy, Campomanes, and Pedro Varela, who expressed the hope that, thanks to the economic dynamism of the Jews "commerce and industry will grow in such a way that the Spanish state will be saved from bankruptcy."

In 1869 the liberal politician Emilio Castelar engaged in a heated debate in the Constitutional Congress with the Abbot Manterola, who represented the traditional intolerance. Castelar, in words which sound quite modern, spoke about "the great European minds that now shine in the world and could have shone in Spain, had we not expelled our Jews." As examples, he cited Spinoza and British Prime Minister Disraeli, both illustrious Jews of Sephardic ancestry. "By denying us the presence of the Jews," confirmed Castelar, "you have deprived us of an infinity of names that could have been a glory to Spain."

For Castelar, as no doubt for others, it came as an astonishing revelation when Dr. Angel Pulido y Fernandez, after a trip to the Balkans near the end of the nineteenth century, reported on communities who spoke fifteenth-century Spanish and still identified themselves as being from Murcia, Extremadura, and Navarra. Nonetheless, anti-Jewish sentiment in Spain was sufficiently deep rooted to deprive Pulido y Fernandez's book, "Spaniards Without a Fatherland," from obtaining the attention it merited at the time. The 1890s in Spain likewise registered the failure of Prime Minister Sagasta's attempt to repatriate Russian Jews victimized in the wave of pogroms unleashed in Russia. Many decades had to elapse before the conditions were right for recreating Jewish life in Spain.

To supplant the prevailing intolerance, the Constitution of the First Republic created in 1869 what came to be known as the "regime of tolerance." Although maintaining Catholicism as Spain's official religion, the 1869 Constitution also stated that "nobody will be prosecuted for the private practice of his religion." On 29 June 1967, following the Declaration "Nostra Aetate" by the Second Vatican Council, Spain's first law of religious liberty was adopted, despite some resistance in the Cortes. This law sanctioned the formation of non-Catholic religious associations and accorded them full legal status. Prior to the adoption of this law, we Jews were forced to disguise such associations as commercial companies, to which we gave names such as Beth Sion or Beth Knesset, Inc.

The Constitution of 1869 is interpreted as having repealed the Decree of Expulsion of 31 March 1492. When the 1967 law of religious liberty was passed, our first request to the government was that if officially declare the abrogation of the Edict. This was done in October 1968 in a decree by the Ministry of Justice granting recognition to the Jewish Community of Madrid.

The democratic Constitution adopted in 1978 proclaims religious freedom in Article 16 and, for the first time in Spanish history, provides for the separation of church and state. This Constitution and the Law of Religious Liberty of 1980, one of the most liberal of its kind in the world, open the possibility for religions in Spain, which enjoy notorio arraigo (deeply rooted tradition), to establish bilateral agreements with the state. Both the Protestants and the Jews have been granted such privileged status and are currently discussing separate but parallel agreements with the federal government to be enacted eventually by a law passed in Parliament. Our draft agreement covers a wide variety of issues encompassing, for example, the civil effects of Jewish religious marriage, the status of rabbis, avoidance of scheduling state examinations on Jewish religious holidays, kosher products, the treatment of cemeteries, tax exemptions on religious buildings, contributions made for the preservation of the Jewish cultural patrimony, and access to the communications media controlled by the state--in particular state-run television. I would now like to turn to some examples of the recognition extended by Spain to the Sephardic Jews. The Sephardim were first mentioned in Spanish legislation in 1926, when the dictator Primo de Rivera issued a decree granting Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews then living in Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, who applied for it within a specified time. The decree was motivated by the suppression of the Consular protection traditionally enjoyed by many Jews under the Ottoman Empire. Although few Jews took advantage of the decree at the time, it nonetheless constitutes a landmark.

During the Second World War, many Jews were saved from the Holocaust by Spanish consular officials. Thousands more were granted refuge in Spain and were not returned to the Gestapo, the Franco regime's association with the Axis powers notwithstanding. In 1967, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, Nasser imprisoned all Jewish heads of families in the Abu Zabal prison. At the request of our community, Franco instructed the Spanish Ambassador to egypt, Angel Sagaz, to issue passports to all Jews--Ashkenazi as well as Sephardim--in that country. Many hundreds of Jews thus obtained not only release from jail, but also safe passage aboard Spanish ships to Barcelona.

In 1982, Article 22 of the Spanish Civil Code was amended to include Sephardic Jews who could prove such origin, among those, primarily Latin Americans. This article entitled individuals to a reduced period of residence of two years in applying for Spanish citizenship. Underlying this amendment is an interesting question: How does one verify Sephardic origin? If the question "Who is a Jew?" is difficult to answer (a question which now divides Israel), then its counterpart "Who is a member of the Sephardim?" is even more intractable. In practice, the Spanish authorities, after trying unsuccessfully to set up objective criteria, among them the Sephardic ketubah, now tend to accept as evidence the certificate issued by the Federation of Jewish Communities.

May I now turn to the last, and far from the least, of my points in this address--the commemoration of the five-hundredth anniversary of 1492. Spain faces this commemoration enthusiastically because it is now a democratic Spain, cognizant of its past, yet determined to initiate a new era of coexistence and to delve deeply into its fruitful Jewish roots to build a better Spain. As we all know, a National Commission for the Fifth Centenary has been created under he chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Luis Yanez. A special subcommission, appropriately called "Sefarad 92," deals with the specifically Jewish aspects of the commemoration. Its creation was explained by Mr. Yanez as the desire "not to let the historic occasion of 1992 lapse without offering to the Jewish communities, linked in their blood and in their hearts to Spain, to Sepharad, the opportunity to share with us the reflection, the commemoration, ad the truth arising from every re-encounter which takes place in a spirit of kinship and harmony."

In this same hall of the Temple Tiferet Israel, His Majesty King Juan Carlos expressed similar thoughts during his historic visit on 1 October 1987: "I should like finally to convey to this community the greetings of a Spain which in full conscience assumes responsibility for the negative as well as the positive aspects of its historic past. This is also a unique opportunity to emphasize the will for peace and friendship that animates the Spanish people who see in this community a living part of their own history."

Precisely along these lines lies the challenge we Jews face in the 1992 commemoration. The challenge is multi-dimensional and raises a number of questions concerning the contribution of Spanish Jews to Jewish culture, Hispanic culture, and universal culture; the causes and consequences of the expulsion; the phenomenon of the Sephardic diaspora in all the lands where fate led them; and finally, the Jewish contribution to the Discovery of America. This last question, as the least understood of all, deserves to be carefully analyzed on this occasion. Indeed, to jointly commemorate in 1992 both the Expulsion and the Discovery, will imply more than a coincidence. On the very day of 2 August 1492, the last day for the departure of the Jews from Spain under the Royal Decree of 31 March 1492, the three caravels of Columbus weighed anchor. Among their crews were Jews and converts who carried in their hears the secret hope of discovering a New World beyond the oceans, a world in which they might live free at last from intolerance and persecution.

From "Encounters" (Autumn 1990, pp. 37-41). Reprint permission granted by publisher.


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