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A Catalonian Revival

Interest grows in restoring ancient Jewish areas in Spain
By Richard Schweid, The Associated Press, June 2, 2006.

BARCELONA, Spain Spain's Catalonia region suffered some of the most virulent anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages. Most Jews were driven out nearly a century before the entire country expelled the others in 1492.

In the centuries that followed, Catalan Jews were a forgotten people. But now, interest is growing in the region's Jewish past, sparking a revival movement that is drawing Jews back.

Barcelona's oldest synagogue, dating from the ninth century, has been restored, and in January it received a gift of a medieval Torah, the scrolled parchment with the first five books of the Old Testament in Hebrew. The Torah, valued at $30,000, was donated by Lorenzo Rozencwaig, a Jewish attorney from New York.

With the 500-year-old scroll installed in its Ark of the Covenant, the synagogue is now consecrated and can begin to function as a house of worship -- though no congregation regularly meets there now.

"The Torah has a message not just for Jews but for all the people of the world," said Miguel Iaffa, an Argentine immigrant to Barcelona who has been a leader in the revival. "We don't own this Torah, but it's our grand responsibility to care for it."

In 1985, Iaffa discovered that a rubble-filled basement deep in the city's old quarter was also the remains of what was the central house of worship for Barcelona's thousands of Jews during the Middle Ages. Since then, he has served as the director of an association that bought and restored the building, and now administers it. The synagogue has been receiving visitors since 2002 and in 2005 posted a record 20,000 visits, said Iaffa.

"An increasing number of Jews are coming to live in Barcelona, and they are insisting on their historic right to be here," said Iaffa. "We want to see it become normal for Jews to live here and to be considered as Catalans and not as foreigners."

About 15,000 Jews live in Spain, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona. Barcelona has been home to three congregations -- Orthodox, Reform and Hasidic. The medieval synagogue that Iaffa has spent the past 20 years nursing back to life is not affiliated with any branch of Judaism.

There has also been a surge in interest in tracing the route of Catalonia's medieval Jewry, which stretches 45 miles northward from Barcelona to Catalonia's second largest city, Gerona. There, a medieval Jewish neighborhood has been painstakingly reclaimed and restored.

Gerona and Barcelona were home to drastically different Jewish communities.

Gerona was one of Europe's main centers of Kabbalah, and some of the great Kabbalistic writers and teachers of the Middle Ages lived there. Barcelona hosted a community of rationalist scholars -- and even today the city's rabbis are consulted for their lucid explanations of Jewish law and doctrine.

The first written reference to Jews in Gerona dates from A.D. 890. The Jewish neighborhood thrived for more than 500 years, although it also saw outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence.

The last synagogue built in Spain was completed in Gerona in the mid-1400s, and today it is beautifully restored, housing the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, with a museum about Catalonia's Jews, as well as a historical archive for scholars to consult.

After 1492, Gerona's Jewish neighborhood was closed off, bricked over and obliterated from the city's collective memory until the late 20th century, when it was excavated and restored. The Centre Bonastruc, at its heart, was visited by more than 100,000 people in 2005, according to director Assumcio Hosta.

Some 15 miles north of Gerona is the small town of Besalu, an impeccably maintained medieval village with a lovely main plaza, where Jews thrived in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Jewish ritual bath, the mikvah, has been excavated and restored. There are three guided visits a day to the baths.

The town is planning to undertake a second round of excavations shortly, according to Mayor Lluis Guino.

Copyright © 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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