History - The Jews in Spain

history of the Jews in Spain

 © Michelle Chaplow Ceramic tile showing the Menorah lamp
Ceramic tile showing the Menorah lamp

It is said that the first Jews arrived in Seville in the sixth century BC, and were from David's family. They spoke Ladino, a Judeo form of Spanish. The Sephardic Jews suffered persecution from the Visigoths during the sixth century AD, followed by a period of harmony under Moorish rule, during which Jews, Moors and Christians co-existed, respecting each other's religions and holy days, each with their own skills to offer; they were employed as court envoys. In the 13th century they fled the fundamentalist Almohads to the Christian north of Spain, returning after the Reconquest. Sephardim prospered in banking, medicine, law and commerce, with a far higher literacy rate than other Spanish communities.

Valued for their commercial expertise, the Jews in Spain worked as tax collectors, which led to popular resentment and hatred. Jews were also said to pollute wells, transmit disease and were called "god killers". In 1391 the Jewish quarter in Seville was burned, popular animosity whipped up by fierce anti-Jewish rhetoric from a Catholic cleric; its inhabitants sought shelter with Moors in Granada, or were baptised and forced to convert to Christianity, becoming marranos (converted Moors were moriscos; both were called conversos). Measures were taken to catch forbidden Jewish religious practices carried out secretly by marranos - did they eat pork? Did they cook on the Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish holy day of rest)?

In 1481 the Spanish Inquisition started, with its headquarters at the Castillo San Jorge in Seville, targeting Jews among other groups; in 1483 all Jews were expelled from the city; and in 1492 all of Spain was to be free from those of the Jewish faith who had not converted. Half of the country's 300,000 Jews left, many for Portugal; some stayed in hiding. Some Jews took their house key with them when they were expelled from Spain, and have passed this treasured possession down through generations. After all those centuries, there are families which still have the key to this day. Those who stayed behind eventually became integrated into the Christian population; many Spanish surnames ending in -ez, adopted when they converted, indicate Jewish ancestry. 

For those interested in learning more about the history of Jews in Seville, the Centro de Interpretación Judería de Sevilla is worth a visit.

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