Cnaan Liphshiz’ article in the Jewish World’s Nov. 29, edition, “Is Spain really a haven for people with Jewish roots?” paints a gloomy portrait. Among examples cited is the awful statement that “across northern Spain people toast one another with the phrase ‘kill a Jew.’”
Happily, that is not the Spain that I’ve experienced over the last 25 years. In the early 1990s I visited friends in Tudela, the home of the medieval Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela. My host, knowing that I am Jewish, was happy to tell me that he descends from conversos, Jews who converted to Catholicism centuries ago. He took me to city hall to meet Benjamin of Tudela. The Benjamin that I met was an official who had posed for the large portrait of Benjamin hanging in the lobby. The official opened the archives to show me ancient Hebrew documents.
More recently, because my son and his family had lived in Spain for 10 years, I have had the opportunity to visit there often. My visits took me to Toledo, Bilbao, Barcelona, Ourense, and the nearby islands. I have spent considerable time in the cities and in many small villages.
Toledo calls itself the city of three faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The walled city is full of gift shops, all displaying Jewish-themed souvenirs. Signs point to the two synagogues, open, but, sadly, not functioning as places of worship. It was a bit shocking to enter the smaller synagogue and see it staffed by a nun.
The larger synagogue has been maintained more true to its original identity. There is an impressive museum with Jewish artifacts and a courtyard filled with ancient headstones. There had been a Jewish bookstore and gift shop at the entrance to the Jewish District. When I inquired there about the Jewish community of Toledo I was told that there was none; the couple of dozen Jewish folks preferred to keep “a low profile.” Sadly, on a subsequent visit, the building had been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. A year later, the store was closed.
All of my daughter-in-law’s large family and circle of friends in Ourense and elsewhere in Spain know that I am Jewish. One of the aunts told me that she had a Jewish converso ancestor. Never in 10 years of visits, meeting dozens of family and friends, did I ever encounter the horrendous comments noted in Liphshiz’s article. And, Bilbao, in the Basque Country, where my kids had lived for years, is as far north as one can get in Spain, said by the article to be a hotbed for hateful language.
Being a visitor, especially in the company of Catholic Spanish family members, is not the same as moving to the country because of ancestral Jewish roots. It would be wrong, however, to assume that one would encounter hostility and anti-Semitism in Spain as a rule.
My observation of the Spanish people is that they are friendly, affectionate, welcoming, and fun-loving. Introductions are accompanied with hugs and kisses. Deficiencies in speaking Spanish have been met with cheerful courtesy and praise if even two or three words in Spanish were attempted. Some local folks were eager to practice their English with an American.
Hopefully, no one reading Liphshiz’s article will be put off from visiting Spain.
David L. Colchamiro