My Spanish Inquisition: Part 7 Good News for Lucena

Can Sephardic Jews go home again - 500 years after the Inquisition?

The Forward
Josh Nathan-Kazis
The Forward
Josh Nathan-Kazis

Just past the life-sized caveman diorama at the ancient castle-turned-museum in the center of Lucena is an octagonal room dedicated to the Jews.

Fundamentalist Muslim caliphs chased the Jews from Lucena in the 12th century, a few hundred years before the Catholics did it again; this room is more or less all that’s left of them.

I had come to Lucena for sentimental reasons: Right at the top of the family tree I had shown to Royo back in Madrid, in the 10-or-11-generations-back range, is a man named Abraham de Lucena. Based on his surname, I figured he had ancestors in Lucena, this small city an hour and a half south of Córdoba, in the heart of Andalucía. My shtetl, maybe?

The idea of revisiting the village you think your Jewish ancestors may have come from is horribly overdone, and I felt bad about the whole thing. I was so afraid of the cliché that I decided to go incognito. I wouldn’t set up interviews or even call ahead, just show up and look around and then leave and that would be it. As I perused the pottery shards in the Jew room, however, a tour guide asked if I was Jewish. My cover blown, I admitted I was.

Turning to her tour group of older Spaniards, she informed them that they were in a room dedicated to the town’s Jewish history. “So, shalom,” she said, turning towards me to beam and nod.

I grimaced back at her.

The guide wore a black fleece vest over a pink shirt, and spoke in Spanish faster than I could follow. From the ninth century through the 12th century, Lucena was almost entirely Jewish, the richest Jewish city in the region. The Jews called the city Eliossana, or Eli hoshanah, which means “God save us” in Hebrew. (Broad smile in my direction! Nod!) She described Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath (Smile! Nod!), before shuffling the Spanish tourists into the next room.

On the way out, a young woman in the tour group stopped her. I had been taking notes on her speech, the young woman told the guide. Was I writing down mistakes she had made in explaining Shabbat?

The woman and the guide pulled me aside to ask, presumably thinking I was some kind of Jewish spy, ratting out mistaken tour guides to higher religious authorities. I told them no, I was just a journalist.

Bad move.

Within the hour, Lucena’s top tourism official was handing me a dreidel in front of a fast-clicking camera as I sweated through my blazer.

* * *

There’s no train station in Lucena, so to get there I took the early bus from Córdoba, through hilltop towns with ancient towers. On the way I read La Razón, a right-wing paper I got for free in the hotel lobby, which excitedly reported that members of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party had sung the “Internacionale,” the Communist anthem, at a meeting the previous weekend. The economic crisis had felt less acute in Córdoba — perhaps because of all the Spanish vacationers, whose presence made the place feel particularly affluent — but there were reminders of unease, like the anti-immigrant graffiti in the park outside my hotel that read, “Spain for the Spaniards.”

Lucena is not far from Granada or Seville or Córdoba, all three of which are more interesting places to spend a day. A small mountainside city built around an ancient church and ringed by industrial zones, Lucena is the kind of place that still takes siesta seriously. From 2 until 4 p.m. on Monday, more or less the only person on the street was a kid kicking a cigarette carton.

‘We say that the Jewish spirit is still here in Lucena.’

The city’s provincial dullness only became an economic problem once the crisis hit. Lucena went heavy into the furniture business in the 1980s, eventually becoming the region’s major furniture producer. The Lucena furniture factories rode Spain’s real estate bubble, churning out couches to fill the new buildings that developers were planting up and down the Costa de Sol and all over the country. When the crash came, it hit the furniture industry hard. The number of unemployed people in Lucena more than doubled. Faced with collapse, Lucena needed to diversify.

As it happens, Lucena was once a wealthy Jewish city with an important talmudical academy and a large Jewish population. Unfortunately, that was a millennium ago. Two rounds of expulsions later, there were absolutely no signs left of a Jewish presence.

Still, that hadn’t stopped nearby Córdoba or Jaen or Avila, or a handful of other cities in the area, from suckering Jewish travelers with renamed streets and Jewish-themed restaurants. Lucena decided to give it a try.

Roping in the Jews was the general brief of Jose Antonio García Suárez, the tourism official who grabbed me on the way out of the museum in the castle in the city’s center. After identifying myself as a reporter to the smiley tour guide, I had climbed with the elderly Spanish tourists to the top of the old castle’s tower, where you can see the tiled spire of the Iglesia San Mateo, apparently built on the site of a synagogue demolished centuries earlier. On the way out, the tour guide pointed me out to García, and we were off.

García dressed like a young college professor in a light-colored blazer and jeans. I followed him up through the town to a gated lot bordering the highway. Until just a year ago, García told me, Lucena had not been allowed to join the Red de Juderías, in part because Lucena had absolutely no historical Jewish sites at all. Then, in 2007, when building this highway, they found buried treasure: bodies. Hundreds of them. According to García, some initially thought that the construction crew had come upon a mass grave from the Civil War in the 1930s. An archeological study determined that the graves were much older — 350 Jewish tombs dating from the 10th and 11th centuries, plus a handful of gravestones.

That was good news for Lucena.

The cemetery, for now, is only open to tour groups; García had a key. Inside, he rattled off quirky, tourist-friendly Lucena tidbits, like a student guide telling prospective freshman at a liberal arts college about Connecticut’s six-women-living-together-is-a-brothel law. For instance: Lucena’s Jews, apparently, were in the business of castrating slaves and selling them as eunuchs to Muslim rulers to work in their harems. And: There’s a legend (possibly invented by Lucena tourism authorities — I couldn’t find it mentioned anywhere online) that the grave of the biblical Noah is hidden somewhere in the city.

And then there was this: Lucena, García explained, had traditionally been wealthier than its neighbors. “We say that the Jewish spirit is still here, the Jewish entrepreneurial spirit,” García said.

The cemetery itself is a dusty patch encircled by the highway with a few dozen plots where the recovered remains were reburied in a ceremony that, for some reason, included black-hatted Ashkenazi rabbis. A few graves were left open to demonstrate how the medieval Jewish Lucentinos dug down and then sideways to protect the bodies from grave robbers. The discovery of the cemetery has allowed Lucena to really go for it with the Jew-pandering. Now, there is Hebrew on the street signs, a pastry shop that sells cookies in the shape of Jewish stars, and this performance where they feed you a meal blindfolded while making it sound like you’re in a Talmud study hall and then before an Inquisition tribunal.

“From city hall, what they’re trying to do is, first, assemble all of our Jewish past… [and] convert it into economic development,” García said. “If we have a Jewish past, it’s a tourist resource, because thanks to our Jewish past, people can come here, just as you came.”

Should I have been offended? Here was this bald tourism apparatchik, who had just said something vaguely anti-Semitic about Jewish money, explaining how his government was exploiting a history of torture and forced conversion to sell cookies shaped like Jewish stars. Not just a history of torture and forced conversion — my history of torture and forced conversion. I had the family tree to prove it.

The problem was, I was starting to have some doubts about the family tree — and about Abraham de Lucena, the man at the top.

Click here for Part 8: The first 23 or here to go back to the main page.

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A church in Lucena, built on the former site of an ancient Jewish synagogue.Credit: Josh Nathan-Kazis / The Forward
Image by Kurt Hoffman
At Lucena’s city hall, local tourism official Manuel Lara Canitzani gave the author a dreidel. Photo courtesy of the Ayuntamiento de Lucena.
Construction workers found an ancient Jewish cemetery while building a highway around Lucena.Credit: Josh Nathan-Kazis

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