Jewish revival in Seville


Any visitor to Andalucia - and even more so anyone who lives here, or who has spent any amount of time here – will be aware of the region’s rich multicultural past. Christians, Jews and Muslims all co-existed during the Moorish era, 700-1492, with the Jewish community being one of the most prosperous.

Many major cities, most notably the historic big three of Granada, Seville and Cordoba, had Jewish quarters (known as Juderias) where the population had its own shops and temples. The Jewish quarters of both Cordoba and Seville are probably the most picturesque of each city, with narrow winding lanes where it’s easy to get lost. In Seville, you can stay at a hotel called Las Casas de la Juderia, while Cordoba has a statue of the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Most synagogues were destroyed in the time of the Reyes Catolicos (Catholic King and Queen, Ferdinand and Isabella), when the Inquisition targeted Jews, demanding that they either leave Spain; stay and convert to Catholicism; or die. However Cordoba’s is one of the few Jewish temples which remains intact; it dates from 1315.

The story of the fate of Jewish people who remained in Spain during this time is a fascinating, if sobering, one. They were forced to practice their religion in secret, like the Catholics during Elizabeth I’s reign in England. People would risk death by congegrating in someone’s house to read out the scriptures and carry out religious rites, all the while prepared to hide evidence of their worship at a moment’s notice – a knock on the door could be their undoing, if they weren’t quick enough to revert outwardly to their converso religion before the visitor entered. These “hidden Jews” also used other, more discreet ways to celebrate their holidays, such as fasting.

So it is very good to hear that the European Centre for Jewish Students has chosen Seville to celebrate the festival of Purim this year. Hundreds of young European Jews will be coming to the city from 18-21 March. The event will include a special Shabbat celebration; a themed fancy dress party; and traditional charity donations, all part of the mizvot (actions) of the Purim festival. Reading of the Megillah, the story of Queen Esther (Jewish wife of Persian King Ahasuerus, a heroine who saved her people from a massacre), is a focal point of this religious celebration.

Needless to say, security at Purim in Seville will be tight: “All new participants will go through a screening process. All participants must show a passport or European ID card for entrance to the event… Accomodation details will only be available after completing registration for security purposes.” That is all to be expected in this day and age.

Referring to the challenging history of the Jews in Iberia, the organiser states that these young European Jews “will be able to celebrate the festival openly with pride, attesting to the fact that the Jewish spirit of Spain lives on.”

Obviously Gentiles can’t attend Purim, but it is still fascinating for those of us who live here, but are not of the Jewish faith, to discover about it - especially in ultra-Catholic Seville. For example, did you know that Ferdinand, the Rey Catolico himself, had a Jewish mother? Or that Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews had a special name, Sephardi (or Sefarad), with their own musical traditions? The Casa de la Memoria, appropriately located in the old Jewish quarter of Seville, has information and concerts of Sephardic music, as well as flamenco. Sephardi also had their own language, Ladino. One theory says that 20% of Spanish men are directly descended from Sephardic Jews - perhaps there were more conversos than originally estimated. Come to think of it, my husband is convinced he has Jewish antecedents...

Today 50,000 Jews still live in Spain. In Andalucia, Cadiz, Malaga and Granada have the most sizeable Jewish communities, with a Jewish school in Malaga. It's all part of the new multiculturalism of Spanish life today, in which religious tolerance is key.

Blog published on 21 February 2011