The fast train from Madrid to Córdoba makes the Acela look like the G train to Queens. We pulled out of Atocha at 5 p.m., picking up speed as we rolled past Toledo and into a region of rolling hills like oversized moguls and towns with castles and church spires. I took speed-blurred photos out the window as the sun set.
In Córdoba two hours later, I checked into a chain hotel and set off down a dark alley towards the old city, thinking back on my conversation with Abulafia, the Uruguayan romantic. After her first disappointing visit to Spain, Abulafia had gone to Israel, then stopped back in Spain for a second shot. During that second trip she took a nighttime walk through Córdoba that, in her telling, convinced her to settle in Spain.
“I don’t know why, my steps take me straight to the Jewish quarter, like I know where to go,” she had told me. “And then I walk a little bit more and I find the synagogue. My body starts to shake really, I cannot control it, the emotion, and I say I have to live here.”
My steps took me straight to the Jewish quarter, too — it’s hard to miss. The old city’s not that big. And there are plenty of signs. I stood in front of the statue of Maimonides, hoping for something transcendent.
Eh. I took a picture of the statue’s foot, rubbed shiny by a million tourists’ hands like the balls on the Wall Street bull. The thing is: Córdoba is the most beautiful city in the world. It’s also an ungodly tourist trap.
The walls of the Mezquita, the cathedral in the center of town, are unearthly masterpieces, magnets that trap your attention and pull you in circles around them for hours. The Burger King across the street, less so. There’s a Mezquita Garage and a Mezquita ice cream store and a million crummy jewelry stores. There’s something called the Gallery of the Inquisition, which is six rooms of wildly disturbing replica torture devices, pornographic illustrations of naked women being tortured on the devices, and a couple of cheesy skeletons. The entrance fee is three euros.
I watched the bats from the bridge over the Guadalquivir and dodged the local kids riding mountain bikes up the stone streets of the old city, then found myself at a great-looking bar with a bull’s head on the wall and ate an overly large plate of cured tuna for dinner.
The next morning, back in the Jewish quarter, I figured out the other problem with Córdoba.
Córdoba’s one remaining synagogue, its only legitimate extant pre-expulsion Jewish landmark, is on the Calle Judíos, just down the way from the Plaza Maimónedes. Built in the 14th century, it’s a single room with, I’ll grant you, some very beautiful plaster work on the walls. But that’s it.
The Jewish sites in Córdoba don’t rate mention next to the Mezquita. In the gardens of the Alcázar, an ancient palace that served as a headquarters of the Inquisition, sculpted pine trees surround a statue of Christopher Columbus with Isabella and Ferdinand, and there’s a pond where monster fish flop and suck at chunks of bread thrown in by a keeper. The Jewish sites? There’s an alley and a room.
“The Spanish Jewish identity, it isn’t tangible,” said Sebastian de la Obra, who runs his own private museum just down the block from the synagogue. “There’s no Mezquita, there’s no Alhambra, there’s no Giralda de Sevilla.”
In a faux-synagogue on the second floor of the Casa Sefarad, the mansion he converted into a museum in 2004, de la Obra sang the Yiddish version of “Dona, Dona” to a crowd of 30 rapt Spaniards. Apparently familiar with the Joan Baez version, they joined in en masse for the chorus.
A Yiddish show-tune-turned-pop-hit may be irrelevant to Spanish Jewish history, but the museum crowd didn’t mind. It was the climax to a lengthy tour of the museum during which de la Obra’s massive enthusiasm for Sephardic history was used to bludgeon the Spaniards into identifying with Spain’s Jewish past. They hadn’t known the chorus to any of the Sephardic songs de la Obra had sung first, but they sure knew “Dona, Dona” — and they got into it.
Earlier, in the basement, in front of an exhibit on Sephardic food, de la Obra had described the Sephardic origins of el cocido, a typical Spanish stew. He played etymological games, pointing out Spanish expressions that had roots in the Inquisition or with the Jews. The word desmazalado, for instance, means unlucky in Spain; mazal is Hebrew for “luck.”
In a dark room with a replica of the outfit the Inquisition’s victims were forced to wear as they were burnt, de la Obra talked about the legacy of the Inquisition. “This is a country of suspicions,” he said. The Spanish tourists, most of whom were old enough to remember Franco, nodded. “This country continually suspects half of the country… This has its origin in the Inquisition.”
De la Obra is a dramatic sort of man. He’s tall and grey-haired, with a goatee and a black polka-dot scarf. After the tour, he stood outside the museum, smoking and shaking hands with his awed audience. He isn’t Jewish, but he, too, thinks he has Jewish roots — he’s found records of a man named Antonio de la Obra, a scribe, who was brought before an Inquisition court in Granada in 1620. (One of his employees at the museum thought he might have Jewish roots, too: His family’s nickname in Lucena, their hometown, was “the Hebrews.”)
We sat together in his small library on the second floor of the Casa Sefarad. Smoking a cigarette and gesturing broadly, de la Obra explained why he cared about Spain’s Jewish history.
For the past 500 years, he said, Spanish identity has been defined by Catholicism, the Spanish language, and the land itself. Judaism and Islam, which existed on the peninsula for centuries before the expulsion, have been excluded. “We have constructed our identity denying the fundamental, either the heart or the brain,” he said. “We have constructed a mutilated identity.”
When the government first opened the Centro Sefarad-Israel in Madrid, it opened under the name Casa Sefarad. De la Obra sued to protect his right to the name and won. But his fight with the government isn’t just about trademarks. De la Obra believes that the local and national governments in Spain have exploited Spain’s Jewish history for political ends since the 1980s.
In de la Obra’s telling, it started when Spain recognized Israel. That recognition had been held up for decades on both sides, first by the Israelis, who mistrusted the Spanish government for its previous alliance with Hitler, and then by the Spaniards, who worried about upsetting the Arabs. Israeli and Spanish diplomats finally signed a mutual recognition agreement in secret in The Hague in 1986, according to a 2009 article in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs by Shmuel Hadas, Israel’s first ambassador to Spain.
Spain had kept its foreign policy oriented towards the Arab world in the aftermath of its post-Franco transition to democracy in the mid-1970s. According to Hadas’s article, the country’s diplomatic leadership felt that strong relations with Arab countries would help protect their lingering colonial interests in North Africa, and would bring investment from oil-rich Arab leaders. That began to change in the early 1980s when Spain began a diplomatic pivot to the West. Today, Spain is firmly within the United States’ sphere of influence: The country joined NATO in 1982, sent warplanes to the Bosnian War in 1996, took part in the invasion of Iraq, commanded the UNIFIL force in Lebanon between 2010 and 2012, and still has troops in Afghanistan.
It’s clear, too, that the relationship with Israel has become particularly important to Spain. In his bid to bolster international support for an independent Catalonia, a movement that has grown stronger in recent months amid the ongoing economic crisis, Catalonian regional president Artur Mas traveled to Jerusalem in November, where he said that he saw Israel as a model that demonstrated the viability of an independent Catalonian state. (Netanyahu declined to meet with him, probably so as not to annoy the Spanish government, which strongly opposes Catalonian secession. Mas also failed to meet with any Palestinian leaders, an oversight that drew much criticism back in Barcelona.)
Yet while Spain pays plenty of attention to its relationship with Israel, it also maintains strong economic and political ties to the Arab world. The country has deep historic, economic and diplomatic relationships with Arab nations, plus a growing Arab immigrant community. That can force Spain into tough positions, like the one the country faced around the 2012 U.N. vote on Palestinian non-member observer state status.
According to de la Obra, the government’s cultural work promoting Spain’s Sephardic heritage is a tool that the foreign ministry uses in striking that tricky balance.
“It’s political,” de la Obra asserted of the Centro Sefarad-Israel, created by Spain’s foreign ministry in 2006. “The principal ally of Spain, politically, is the United States,” he continued. “A large part of the investments made here actually come from the Arab countries, and they have to maintain this situation. At the same time, they have to seem to have a good relationship with Israel,” de la Obra said. “For this reason they created [the Centro Sefarad-Israel].”
On the one hand, de la Obra has an interest in playing down the ideological purity of the Centro Sefarad. He’s got something of a fixation on the place. He says that his fight with them was like David taking on Goliath.
But it’s also true that the institution exists under the patronage of the foreign ministry, and that Shimon Peres (an Ashkenazi Jew born in Poland) attended the opening ceremony at their offices with the king and queen in 2011.
De la Obra’s other grievance is with the touristic exploitation of the Sephardic legacy. He sees the political and economic uses of the legacy as connected. In his telling, Spain’s creation of the Red de Juderías in 1995 — a state-run tourism organization that coordinates among cities with historic Jewish quarters — was, at least in part, a reaction to the opening of relations with Israel.
The problem with the effort to promote the country’s Jewish quarters as tourism destinations was that very little remained of them.
“The immense majority of the juderías are new,” he said. “They have been built out of nothing. Out of nothing. They have made a fake stone [with a] magen David. They have put a little sign with ‘House of Maimonides.’”
De la Obra’s response is this museum. A small bust of Maimonides sits on his desk. The museum is full of artifacts, but its real function is to be a vessel for de la Obra’s exuberance for Jewish Spain. Hence, the singing.
“In the history of Judaism, Spain is the second homeland of Judaism,” de la Obra told me. “It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland, it’s not Russia. It’s not France, it’s not Great Britain. It’s Sefarad… No Ashkenaz dreams of Poland. [If] they dream, it’s as a nightmare, not a dream. No Ashkenaz dreams of Hungary. A Sephardi, yes, dreams of Sefarad.”