My Spanish Inquisition: Part 9 A Jew Visits Lucena

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

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

As we left the cemetery, García asked if I wanted to stop by city hall to meet Lucena’s top tourism official. We swung by the museum-castle again to collect another tourism official, swung through the cathedral where García showed me a crazy baroque chapel that he said was built by conversos and had some esoteric hidden messages about Noah’s burial site, and went on to city hall.

The first thing that happened in city hall was that the city’s top tourism official, Manuel Lara Cantizani, told me I would be given a menorah. I said that, as a journalist on assignment, I could not accept a menorah. They insisted it was a small menorah. Nothing fancy. Made of clay. Things got confusing. I heard Lara, an energetic man with a thin goatee, asking someone to go to another building to get the menorah. I said I really couldn’t take their menorah. Okay, Lara said. What about a dreidel?

I followed Lara into the next room, where an assistant waited with a camera. There was a backdrop with the town logo. I put on my jacket, which I had stuffed into my backpack when it got warm up by the cemetery. Then Lara was handing me the little wooden dreidel and we were shaking hands and smiling and the camera was going and I was wondering if I would be on the front page of the local paper the next day under the headline, “Jew Visits Lucena.”

In Lara’s small office moments later, I was sweating uncontrollably. A fourth tourism official joined us. The room was crawling with them.

“My proposal is that many Jews from all over the world know Lucena,” Lara said. He pulled out a poster for a half-marathon he’s organized for April of 2014. The run is sponsored by McDonald’s; the M in “Marathon” is in the shape of the golden arches. The poster has silhouettes of two runners on it. Behind each of them are photos of Jewish gravestones recovered from the graveyard.

The runners, Lara said, are supposed to be Jews. “As if two Jews, with the stone, they are running, finding their future patrimony,” he said. Lara hopes people will come for the race from all over Spain. “Obviously, the Jews will be very welcome.”


Peeling out of city hall as fast as I could, I found a bar and ordered a slice of tortilla española. At the next table, a group of older men were drinking beers. I tried to decide what I disliked most about Lucena: The Jewish gravestones being used to sell burgers? The dreidel photo shoot? The octagonal Jew room? The swarming tourism officials?

But then there was something that García had said back in the graveyard. During Holy Week, when masked men all over Spain carry icons of the Virgin Mary through the streets of their towns, the men of Lucena traditionally twist their heads behind their masks so that onlookers can see their faces through the eyeholes. García said that this was because Lucena was full of Jewish conversos who wanted to prove that they were good Catholics by participating in the ritual.

Let’s say, for a moment, that Abraham de Lucena was my direct ancestor, around 11 generations back. And let’s say that it’s four more generations between him and the Decree of Expulsion in 1492 and suppose that he had an ancestor who fled Lucena that year. That ancestor would be one of as many as 32,000 of my 15th-generation ancestors. (That’s the mathematical maximum. The real number is definitely lower — again, my great-great-grandparents were first cousins, and they probably weren’t the only ones.) Assuming all that was true, what right did one tiny sliver of a fraction of a blood tie give me to this place? Sure, the burger-hawkers were sons of the inquisitors — but they were also sons of conversos. And while my people had gone across the ocean and bought land and seats at a synagogue, theirs had stayed in Lucena and made sure everyone could recognize them through their Holy Week masks so that they wouldn’t be burned at the stake. And if their 15th-generation descendants had lost their jobs at the furniture factories and wanted to hustle some sentimental Jewish suckers into buying Star of David-shaped cookies and weird aural tours, who was I to get offended?

Maybe their claims to the Jews of pre-Inquisition Spain were just as strong as mine. Maybe they really were as Sephardic as I was.

Click here for Part 10: 'Yo El Rey' or here to go back to the main page.

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My Spanish InquisitionCredit: Kurt Hoffman / The Forward
A view of the ancient city of Toledo. Credit: Josh Nathan-Kazis
Image by Kurt Hoffman
Toledo is surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River.Credit: Josh Nathan-Kazis
An order signed by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492 making all Jewish communal property the possession of the crown. Courtesy of the Archivo Municipal of the Ayuntamiento de Toledo, via the Forward.

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