Digitally Reviving Spain’s Silenced Jewish Memory

Spanish cities are reinvigorating their online and real-world efforts to preserve a Jewish heritage that was largely forgotten over the centuries, to rebuild the bonds between Spanish and Jewish culture that were broken by expulsion, fascism and the suppression of a multicultural past.

Assumpcio Hosta
Assumpcio Hosta
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Assumpcio Hosta
Assumpcio Hosta

I grew up in Girona, the Catalan city in Spain where Jews flourished until their tragic expulsion more than five centuries ago. Everywhere I walked, their shadows surrounded me. Hidden among the maze of alleyways east of the Onyar River is the former Jewish neighborhood, the Call, full of synagogues, yeshivas, and other Jewish monuments. Girona was home to one of the most important Kabbalistic schools in Europe and Moshe ben Nahman - better known as Nahmanides or Ramban - lived and worked here.

Since then, 25 years of working with the municipality of Girona have demonstrated our commitment to develop the rich Jewish heritage of the city and to keep our vow to bring this hidden history back to life.

In 1995, the Girona Town Hall founded a non-profit association called Red de Juderias - the Network of Jewish Neighborhoods. Last month, we took another important step forward by partnering with Google to produce an online interactive map to bring this Jewish heritage online. The mapping technology means that visitors clicking on a landmark on the map see historical information about each site, and a 360 degree view of the different locations, as well as the facility to search the map by category, type, geographic zone and date. In total, 523 sites, 910 dates, and 1,667 pictures are displayed for the use of visitors from all over the world interested in discovering Spain’s Jewish past.

For Red de Juderias, this project represents only our latest and boldest step to shed light on Spain's Jewish past. When we began in 1995, our project seemed like a simple local initiative. Girona, like Cordoba, long has been known as a "Jewish" city. Slowly, if surely, word of our initiative spread. City after city in Spain asked to join us. Today, we count 24 members, from Avila to Tudela. These are large and small cities alike - from the metropolis of Barcelona to the remote medieval Catalan village of Besalu. The main criteria is that Jews once lived there and that the cities themselves demonstrate their willingness to restore and reopen their ancient heritage sites.

Why did our initiative prove so popular? After four decades of centralizing, Catholicizing Francoism, the new democratic Spain experienced a deep hunger to recapture its long-suppressed multicultural past. The prewar Republican government had made a start, allowing an immigration reform which opened the door to descendants of Sephardic Jews.

The new democratic government picked up and deepened this initiative. Recently the Spanish government announced a new immigration reform, pledging to speed up the existing naturalization process for Sephardic Jews who, since their ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492, have spread through the centuries in a wide diaspora - to the Ottoman Empire and the south of Italy; to Spain’s colonies in Central and South America; and to outposts in what are now New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. It was time, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said, “to recover Spain’s silenced memory.”

I have heard the criticism that the citizenship requirements remain too stringent, controlled by rigid Orthodox rabbis. And I know some Jews complain that Spain is exploiting a history that rightfully belongs to contemporary Spanish Jews. The only goal of initiatives like ours, they say, is to promote tourism.

But I believe this is not a fair or complete analysis. Our goals are broad, to rebuild broken ties with Israel and with Jewish communities in Spain and beyond. We are restoring Jewish heritage sites in Spain as part of a wider explosion of interest in the culture of Europe's lost Jewish communities. I work with institutions such as the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage and the Association of European Jewish Museums, and we help organize annual events like the European Day of Jewish Culture. After all, our Jewish heritage belongs to every citizen. It is our common heritage.

Our efforts go beyond just preserving the surviving physical relics. We attempt to revive Spain's rich Jewish culture. We encourage winemakers to make kosher wine - and a Catalan cellar called Capcanes now produces a wine which scores 93 on Robert Parker’s scale of 100. A bakeoff contest encouraged bakeries across Spain to recreate a medieval Jewish sweet. The winner, a bakery from Andalucia, now produces the “Dulce Sefardí” on a regular basis.

With online visual access to the sites of Sephardi heritage we are hoping that not only will this important history and culture be available to those who are unable to physically visit the sites themselves, but that they will provide a resource for those planning a visit. Although this might sound counterintuitive - why visit something you can see on your screen at home? – there is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that bringing monuments online generates interest in visiting them "offline".

When Pompeii, using the same imaging system we used, brought its ruins online, the number of visitors to the physical site jumped by some 25 percent. When historical books are digitized, books that were collecting dust in library shelves, many more people travel to see in person what is written within. For the sake of the revivification of a glorious past too long buried by politics and discrimination, we hope that this new digital open door to Spain's vast and rich Jewish heritage encourages visitors to walk in the footsteps of Jewish and Spanish memory.

Assumpcio Hosta is the Secretary General of Red de Juderias.

Girona's Call, a restored Jewish quarter, Spain.Credit: Aniol Resclosa and Patronat Call de Girona
Girona's Call, a restored Jewish quarter, Spain.Credit: Aniol Resclosa and Patronat Call de Girona

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