Barcelona

Rebuilding Spanish Jewry after 500 years

By: Liora Israelsohn

In 1492 the Jews in Spain were either expelled or forced to convert to Catholicism. Some 500 years later, the small but growing Jewish community in the old center of Barcelona is trying to recreate a culture which was nearly forgotten.

From the outside, the building looks abandoned. It’s hidden in a small, dark street in what used to be the Jewish Quarter of Barcelona hundreds of years ago. As I leave behind the cacophony of disoriented tourists and frustrated vendors on La Ramblas, I wonder if I’m in the right place.

Victor Sorenssen meets me outside. He looks laid-back and classically Spanish, and wears a welcoming smile that tells me he’s genuinely happy to be speaking to me today. I awkwardly shake his hand as I realise, in true non-European fashion, that I should have kissed both cheeks, and he begins to tell me about the building, and his organisation: Mozaika.

Mozaika aims to provide a cultural hub for Jewish (and non-Jewish) youth at ‘Casa Adret’, the founders’ affectionate name for the building, named after the owner who kindly rents the space at a low cost. The recently opened building will be home to monthly conferences, social events and cultural activities, including music, literature and film. Mozaika also produces an online magazine to promote the work of young Jewish people in Barcelona, share information about projects and publish articles. Marcel Odina, one of the six team members of Mozaika, also coordinates Salam Shalom Barcelona, which aims to encourage dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the city.

The interior of the building is clean and modern, with plenty of light and a beautiful view of the city from the classic Barcelona rooftop. As I stand basking in the January sun, I look down and see one of the team sweeping the outside stairs. They’re a non-profit organisation, and their work is born from pure passion for the rich history of Judaism and the current community in Barcelona.

This year is the centenary of the reconstruction of the Jewish community in Barcelona. The city was once a major hub of European Jewry, with the first Jewish presence in Catalonia documented in 890 C.E. But the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people in 1492, in an attempt to purify Christian Spain, left the Spanish Jewry dispossessed for generations. Today, Barcelona has still not recovered from the Spanish Inquisition.

Throughout the Nazi regime, the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime, Jews in Spain had to keep a low profile. Practicing Judaism wasn’t technically illegal, but it was to be done only behind closed doors. The old synagogues had been destroyed and Spanish law prohibited any religious building bigger than the smallest church in the city from being built. Religion became a private matter, and the rest of the city eventually became unaware there were even Jews living among them. In 1978, it officially became legal to practice Judaism, but the community is still under the radar. There are no laws against hate propagation or Holocaust denial in Spain, with many convicted neo-Nazis and Nazi war criminals seeking refuge and publishing and distributing racial hatred in Spain.

1000 families

It’s illegal to ask for religion in the national census, and because of the low profile the Jewish people have kept, it’s difficult to gauge the population, but it’s estimated to be about 40,000 in Spain, with about 1000 families living in Barcelona. It’s a small community, but it’s growing relatively quickly; in 1918, there were just 100 Jews in Barcelona. Almost a quarter of the 14,900% population increase came from Israel, a large percentage from Morocco after it’s independence, and a large group of South Americans escaping dictatorship.

“People still have a lot of ignorance about what Judaism is”, says Victor, who grew up in Barcelona. He attended the only Jewish primary school and then transferred to a public high school. “There’s still a lot of anti-Semitism that was created by the Catholic Church” he says, “it’s a bit strange because there was anti-Semitism for 500 years in Spain without any Jews.”

“I remember when I was a teenager, there were ten of us who went to Jewish primary school and we were going to public high schools and we were discussing whether we would tell people if we were Jewish” says Victor. “Some said no, their parents told them not to say they were Jewish”. But Victor and his friends found that most of their classmates were not necessarily anti-Semitic, but rather ignorant. “We were the first Jew that they had ever met, so it was just explaining all the time the difference and what it means to be Jewish”, he says. The younger generation is certainly more curious than in the past, but Judaism is still often a foreign concept, despite being such a big part of Spain’s rich history dating many centuries back.

‘Historical errors’

The Spanish Government introduced a legislation in 2015 to “correct historical errors”, following Portugal’s law of return enacted in 2013. The legislation gives Sephardi Jews (those descended from Spanish and Portuguese jewry) the opportunity to apply for citizenship, providing they can prove beyond reasonable doubt that their ancestors lived in Spain 500 years ago. But the legislation seems too good to be true. While the legislation seems like a leap towards religious tolerance and historical remorse, the process is near impossible, with applicants having to provide a huge amount of official evidence and paperwork, as well as demonstrate knowledge of the Spanish culture and language; one that was stripped from their ancestors centuries ago.

Victor, who worked for an institution for three years that assisted in the process, says the law is unclear and full of obstacles. “There were lots of lawyers constantly dealing with it and they said the law was created in a way that it would filter out 90% of the people” meaning the country would be issuing very few citizenships. “The lawyers would actually recommend trying to get citizenship in Portugal”, where the law of return is much simpler, and doesn’t require any cultural knowledge or language skills.

The legislation is Spain’s way of showing that they embrace the families of Jews that were part of Spain in the middle ages. “They try to sell the image that Spain was always a country that was close to the Jews, that there was coexistence between the cultures, but actually the relationship during the middle ages was pretty terrible”, says Victor. “It’s a bit controversial, but they’ve never made it easy. For us, nothing has changed”.

Mozaika is taking a different approach. The organisation seeks to create bonds and build bridges within society. They endeavour to use Jewish culture to explain what Judaism is all about, and unite society.

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