Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Synagogue Is Not a Museum

Though some synagogues include a museum, a synagogue is not itself and ought not be treated as a museum.

Some years ago someone described to me the difference between a Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land and a Jew coming to visit Israel. A Christian pilgrim sees the Holy Land as a museum. S/he comes to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. A Christian pilgrim's itinerary includes Bethlehem, Nazareth, the sights aound the Sea of Galilee where Jesus preached and conducted miracles, and Jerusalem,scenes of the last days of Jesus' life.

Jews, on the other hand, view few if any Biblical scenes. Yes, Jerusalem is certainly a highlight, but it is as much to wander in the Jewish quarter as it is to offer a prayer at the Western Wall. It is as much to shop in Downtown Jerusalem as it is to visit the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem. Jewish tourists might want to visit a public school, see how Ethiopian Jews are being integrated into Israeli society, observe first han how Israel is monitoring the Lebanese border, visit a kibbutz, meet young Israeli soldiers, learn about Israeli agricultural and technological innovations, talk to government officials, swim in the Dead Sea. Surely we want to visit archeological sights, but Beit Shean, is fascinating not because of particular events that happened there, because it was an ancient Roman town where ordinary people lived, worked and raised families. We connect with Israel not simply because things happened there long ago, but because Israel is a living, breathing society with people to whom we are connected for better or for worse at the hip. We take pride in its accomplishments and feel strongly about its policies and direction.

For Jews Israel is not a museum.

The last few days Carol and I spent in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. It is a complex city, that once was the Moroccan capital. The old Medinah is a twist of roads and alleys with all kinds of unusual traffic and it is easy to lose one's sense of direction and not know which way to turn.

And like every city in Morocco, Marrakesh has a long and illustrious Jewish history. And although few Jews remain, virtually all having immigrated to Israel, France, Canada and the US, five synagogues remain in the Melah, the area in most towns where Jews lived. Of the five, two continue to function, one only on Shabbat and holidays, the other open year round with a daily Minyan.

I found my visit to the synagogue in Merakesh quite emotional: the synagogue, the photos, the zedakah box to maintain the shul. Only a couple of Jews still live in the Melah, but a few others have shops there. The name Corcus appeared as a prominent community family name. For years Joe and Lilian Corcus, who migrated in the 1960s when most Moroccan Jews left, were members of our Portland Jewish community.

As we visited a large Israeli tour group came by. They were interested in seeing the synagogue as well, but I had the strong sense that they were visiting a museum, not a living institution of Jewish life. Minyan each morning was listed to begin at 7:30. I was excited by the idea that I could participate in a Minyan in a historic synagogue in Marakesh. Unfortunately we only had five men the next morning (Wednesday) even though they assured me that Mondays and Thursdays they always get a Minyan in addition to Shabbat.

Nevertheless I thought about the difference. Synagogues are not museums, even though sometimes they have outlived their communities.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Holy Week

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, the holiest day in the Christian calendar.  In several languages Easter is known as Pascha, a name derived from Pesach.  Most years Holy Week concluding with Easter coincides with Passover.  That is not accidental, but scheduling by design.  According to three of the Gospels,  Jesus' Last Supper took place at a Passover Seder.    On the agenda at several of the earliest Christian Councils was when to schedule the Easter observance.  One seriously considered proposal was to use the Jewish calendar, thereby assuring that Easter would fall during Passover.  Though that suggestion was rejected, the solution that the Western Church uses gets the desired results most years.  It fails however during Jewish leap years, such as this one, when we add a thirteenth month to our calendar.

This past Thursday Carol and I boarded a ferry that took us from Tarifa, Spain, to Tangiers, Morocco.  In making that transition in less than one hour, we crossed over from an overwhelmingly Catholic country to a predominantly Muslim one.  What an amazing change, particularly during this Holy Week.  All of Spain was on vacation, crowds from the countryside have come for observances into the main urban areas.  Though Morocco is not devoid of Christians, there is no sense of special religious goings on.  In Spain we experienced traditions both amazing and indeed hair raising from both an American and Jewish mindset.

Very early on Palm Sunday we flew from Valencia, where we observed and enjoyed the strange Las Fallas festival I described in a previous blog, to Seville.  Seville is the capital of the province of Andalusia and as such the center of unique Holy Week observances, or so we have been led to understand.  Seville teems with the thousands of people filling hotels and restaurants for this week.

Following Palm Sunday mass children and teens of all ages accompanied by their parents and grandparents poured out of churches.  Though most of the adults were dressed in their Sunday best, this younger contingent along with some adults were dressed in white cloaks with tall pointy hoods that covered their faces revealing only their eyes through cut holes.  We couldn't help associating the dress with Ku Klux Klan uniforms!  It took our breath away.  Of course we were bringing our frightful American associations.  It was explained to us that these clothes were instead a sign of ultimate contrition, that only God could see the real human being.  Thankfully we observed this in the midst of a celebratory atmosphere, and we did our best to understand what we were bringing to the situation.

However that night the scene changed once again.  Now thousands, probably tens of thousands, of older teens and adults paraded in solemn assemblies through the blocked off streets of Seville near the Cathedral wearing mostly black robes with the same large pointy hats as we saw in the morning, but in black, again with only eyes visible.  Interspersed with these solemn assemblies were enormous floats in gold and silver depicting aspects of the final week of Jesus' life, followed by large bands playing mournful dirges.  We learned that the floats weighed thousands of pounds and were being lifted by teams of men under the floats that could only travel several feet before setting the float down.  It was a great honor to be chosen for such a team and periodically substitutes were incorporated.

The combination of darkness, the soulful hooded paraders, many of them in stocking feet or barefoot, the doleful music, the floats themselves, the large crowd of spectators who clapped and cheered each time a float was lifted was eerie and troubling to say the least.  It was also not far from our consciousness that it was in Seville in 1391 that anti-Jewish riots broke out spreading to every major city in Spain with a Jewish community.  These communities never recovered. Those Jewish areas of town continue to exist to this day as the former Jewish areas of town htough no Jews have lived there since the Jews were exiled in 1492!  Jews had lived in these cities often since the Roman period.  It was not difficult to imagine what in other circumstances high religious fervor could lead to given the proper temperament and fanatical leadership.  Given the contemporaneous American presidential race, the atmosphere around Donald Trump also had its affect on us.  We had a hard time sleeping that night.

What we did not expect was that the same ritual would take place each and every night of Holy Week...and not just in Seville.  Later that week we drove to Granada.  Though not as large as in Seville, here too observant participants marched anonymously in hoods, often in black, but also in red and green with floats and bands from the individual churches to the Cathedral and back again to the churches.  Such events we understand occur in every city large and small throughout the province.  It was eye-opening, somewhat frightening and gave us plenty to think about. 

Easter had historically been frightening times for Jews throughout the centuries in Europe.  Blood libels accusing Jews of slaughtering a Christian child whose blood was claimed to be necessary in order to bake matza took place in cities throughout Europe.  Easter was a time of Passion Plays in which it was the Jews who were portrayed as calling for the death of Jesus and were accused of being Christ killers.  We saw first hand how that in former times could easily become reality.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

I guess I never thought much about Christopher Columbus.  We used to get a day off from school for Columbus Day.  We learned that Columbus sailed for Spain, and his first voyage included the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.  Though his origins were obscure, he was likely Italian.  Long ago we were taught that before Columbus, people thought the earth was flat and that if you sailed too far, you would probably fall off.  However sometime later we were assured that even in Columbus' day, people already knew the earth was round. At a certain point when it was emphasized that Columbus exploited the native population on his several journeys, a struggle occurred between the Italian and Native American communities as to whether to celebrate Columbus as a hero altogether.

A theory was expounded at one point claiming that Columbus might well have been Jewish.  After all 1492 was when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jewish community from Spain. We know for a fact that some of Columbus' sailors were Jewish.  That obscure origin mentioned earlier fits well with Jews who might have hidden their origin and if you wanted to hide that you were Jewish, why not claim Christopher as your first name.   However that theory has been largely debunked.  (More recently I learned that the maps that Columbus used came from Majorca, a center of Jewish cartographers.)

However here in Spain Columbus is celebrated as a great hero.  That is because the exploitation of the New World initiated by Columbus' mission and subsequent explorers made Spain fabulously wealthy.  In many ways it made Spain the center of the world, until three generations later under Philip II, Spain's overreach bankrupted the country.

Columbus is buried in the cathedral in Seville, or was he?  His tomb is quite large and stunning.  He died in 1506 in Spain a the age of 54. His remains were moved several times between the old world and the new, back and forth across the Atlantic.  His wishes were to be buried in the new world, and thus Santa Domingo claims to have his remains, but Spain claims they were finally repatriated to Seville.  Our guide told us that DNA tests were done in Spain, but not in Santo Domingo.  It was Columbus' son who wrote a biography of his father, the text of which remains in the Seville archives.

In fact Colon, as he is known in Spain, made his first appeal for money to the king and queen in Seville in 1487 and was turned down.  It was only some years later almost immediately after Grenada fell, the last Muslim holdout in Spain, that Isabella, we are told, granted Columbus' request against the advice of her scientists who claimed correctly that Columbus' calculations were wrong, because the globe must be far larger than Columbus claimed.  Even after reaching what later became known as America, Columbus believed he had reached the Orient.  In the main square in downtown Grenada at the base of Colon Street stands a giant image of Isabella granting Columbus the money for his voyage.  The image contains a scroll listing the voyage's numerous conditions, one of which was granting Columbus one-eighth of any riches he brought back with him to Spain. I can only assume that she reneged on this promise, because it seems that Columbus died impoverished.

Such is life....

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Las Fallas and Shabbat in Valencia

With a few unexpected missteps and gaffs our travels proceed largely as planned.   However finding opportunities to write have surprisingly been few and far between. It's been up early most mornings and quite late to bed most evenings.  Carol and I are not really the beachcomber types.

In our research we discovered the description of what sounded like a wild and crazy celebration that takes place in Valencia for a week every year ending on March 19. We found a reasonable airfare and decided to include the last three days of La Fallas in our itinerary.

Although undoubtedly pagan in origin, it also contains the trappings of Catholicism, probably as a latter day addition.  Crowds of half a million people pour into Valencia as both participants and observers, coming for the spectacle.  Preparations must go on over the entire year.  The participants are made up of 450 "fraternities", associations of various kinds: clubs, neighborhòods, workers groups, etc.  Many of them prepare "Fallas": enormous displays sometimes 30 or 40 feet high, made up largely of cartoonish characters often representing known local personalities in humorous, compromising or suggestive positions, with short written commentary which was over our heads since we neither know the cast of characters or the Spanish/Castilian slang that it is written in.  Some are large enough to walk through and they are displayed in public squares throughout the city.  During the day the fraternities parade through the streets, the women in elegant gowns with hoop petticoats underneath  made of spectacular fabrics and the men often dressed in what looked like pirate attire: men, women, children of all ages, including handicapped and seniors with walkers or wheel chairs, each group followed by a band from the fraternity.  The women carry bouquets of flowers which are deposited at the cathedral and then placed in a 60 foot high arrangement of Mary and the infant Jesus (that's the religious part). There must be hundreds of thousands of carnations.

Finally on the last night, beginning at 10 and continuing until 2am, each Fallas display in turn is set on fire and burned to the ground, preceded by extensive fire works at each of the various locations.  The crowds watching the burning are so heavy and thick with people that there is literally no room to move.

Since we would be in Valencia over Shabbat, I researched possibilities with little expectation of finding another Jew.  To my surprise I discovered that there are actually four small Jewish affiliations, one even connected with the Conservative Movement. The others, I was told, are a small group of Moroccans who mostly do business together; a group of Jewish women married to Spaniards; and the last a Chabad rabbi who arrived with three children and now has 7.

Alba Toscano, whose last name reflects her father's Italian Jewish heritage, who created the Conservative group, invited us to services which take place in her small apartment. Carol and I made our way through the celebrating crowds to find Alba and two other women sitting at a table with homemade Siddurim in Hebrew, Spanish and transliteration.  On a neighboring chest was a computer with six others Skyped in, from various far flung regions of Spain and one man participating from the Isle of Wight, England!

There are usually more participants Alba assured us, but since this was vacation time several people were away. I have never seen anything like this, the extremes we Jews go to in order to connect with other Jews and our faith.  We all participated in turn, Carol and I in Hebrew and English, everyone else in Spanish.  We read through the entire week's Parashah and Alba gave a drash comparing the rules of the Torah to Roberts Rules of Order.  Then the Siddurim and a Humashim were put aside and we in the apartment and the others wherever they were, recited kiddush and hamotzi together.  The entire hour and a half experience was really quite moving.  After the Skype turned off, Alba served the five of us dinner. Amazing.

Alba we discovered overlapped with me at Berkeley, having earned her PhD in chemistry.  She moved to Valencia 27 years ago and never left, earning her way partly as a scientific translator.  She is a bundle of energy.  She created this group which she runs apparently on a shoestring and sees this as her Jewish community.

Saturday morning I met with her for an early morning tour around Valencia, before the revelers bestirred themselves.

We will never forget our experiences in Valencia.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Needing to Get Something Off My Chest

I need to get something off my chest before proceeding further.  And it has nothing to do with my broken ribs which seem to be healing nicely, thank you.

Spain is a very Catholic country. And though many middle aged and younger Spaniards claim not to be religious, Catholicism infuses the entire culture, even, perhaps especially, where people are not aware of it.

Now it's OK that Spain is so very Catholic, though to get that way, the Spaniards engaged in ugly and horrifying acts.  They conquered a society that with noticeable exceptions (yes, Maimonides, honored in Cordoba as a native son, fled with his family at the age of 13 because of Almohad oppression) was tolerant of its Jewish and Christian minorities.  Arab rule encouraged the expansion of science and medicine, nurtured poets and linguists, built architectural masterpieces such as the Alhambra in Grenada and the Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba that remain to this day. As the Spanish rulers reconqueried Spain over a period that lasted literally hundreds of years, they engaged Jews to translate the Arab societal advances into Castilian to take advantage of that which the former culture left behind. And for a considerable time under the protection of Spanish monarchs and church authorities, Jews lived well.

But with the passage of years Catholic religious fanaticism captured control of society and the imagination of the people. Though it ebbs and flows and is a complex story that often varies from locale to locale, efforts were made to isolate Jews through distinctive garb and housing.  They could avoid these discriminatory distinctions by converting which some did.  But those who converted were not trusted as genuine Catholics, assumed to be secretly practicing Judaism which some undoubtedly were; they associated with their relatives who remained Jewish, and were referred to as Marranos, which means pigs.

These "former Jews" retained their trusted positions in government, in medicine and elsewhere which only engendered more jealosy...after all the demand to become Catholics was at least in part to deny them their authority and influence and riches. Now those who "converted" maintained all that they had before and now might also be considered respected members of Catholic society as well...  So 100 years before Ferdinand and Isabella captured Grenada the last Muslim holdout, in a moment of political vacuum in 1391, devastating pogrom-like raids on Jewish communities throughout Spain took place: killing, looting and pillage, forcing Jews who had lived in these communities for hundreds of years to either flee the country or seek refuge in smaller locales.  Then years later the Inquisition, endorsed by the Pope, gave religious nuts power to put on trial hundreds if not thousands of conversos, accusing them of putting on nicer clothes on Shabbat, or not eating bread during Passover, or consorting with those who remained Jewish.  The usual punishments for such suspicious Jewish-like behavior included torture and burning at the stake.  Thus my fury to learn that Torquemada remained buried as a dignitary in a church.  However Allen Abravanel, forwarded research that others had taken care of him years ago. His resting place was apparently ransacked in 1832.  (I would like to think it was one of my ancestors who took care of the dastardly deed.) And finally when desperate to separate Jew from Converso, those remaining Jews were expelled in 1492.  These Sephardi Jews found their way to Turkey, Amsterdam, Palestine, Rhodes, Italy and North Africa in search of security, freedom and a place to practice their faith.

Today of course nothing Jewish lives (other than tiny pockets like the Jews in Madrid, whose history here is recent).  It's eerie and weird.  Each of the towns we are visiting: Segovia, Avila, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville and dozens of others have recognized Jewish quarters, areas where Jews once lived and thrived.  But religious fanaticism snuffed it all out.

All that is over 500 years ago.  It's hard to remember that this Jewish presence precedes Christopher Columbus.  But it is history that they (Spaniards) and we (Jews) have to live with and come to terms with.

Before I could go on, I had to get that off my chest.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Broken Bones: Yey, Socialized Medicine/ Fourth Posting 2016 Travel

It was the kind of unexpected and unanticipated event that most certainly could have brought our trip to a sudden and disappointing end. 

We picked up our rental car that would take us first from Madrid to Segovia.  From Segovia we planned a day trip to the town of Avila (more on both later).  Segovia and Avila are hilltop walled ancient cities: extremely narrow streets not made for cars, but which the automobile negotiates perilously over mostly cobblestone passageways.  Among other tidbits we learned that the Grand Inquisitor Torquemata was buried in a church in Avila where he died.  I was incredulous.  How could someone responsible for so much innocent blood on his hands retain the honor of church burial?  I had half a mind to spit on his grave.  I took some minor comfort in the fact that he wasn't buried in the cathedral. (very minor)

It was getting late and we wanted to get back to Segovia before dark, so we headed back in the direction of our parked car.  Just then I saw what I thought was a church at the end of an alley.  Perhaps that's the one.  I turned down the cobblestone lane only to discover that my suspicions were incorrect.

That's when it happened.  I turned back heading to the main road.  One unnoticed cobblestone was raised and inch or so above the rest and I went down face planting on the road. Suddenly I was a bloody mess with blood pouring from my nose and forehead and pain shooting from my right chest, knee and wrist.  Two passersby and Carol helped me to my shaky feet, doing all they could to stanch the blood.  Together they accompanied me a couple of blocks to a local pharmacy.  There the pharmacist and his assistant did their best to clean me up a bit.

Unsure of my real condition we decided to head to a local hospital. (That in itself was an adventure.)  I was immediately taken for x-rays: nose and chest.  Though the radiologist gave us the good and bad news, we met then with Dr. Omar Guillermo, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who was on the night shift.  He confirmed no broken nose, but three, perhaps four broken ribs. Ouch.  Yes, it hurt.  Protocol, the doctor said, for three broken bones was to admit me to the hospital.  I could go, but I would have to sign a release.  Although we had our room and luggage in Segovia, we (rather Carol, since I was in no condition to make decisions beyond not wanting to be admitted) decided to spend the night in Avila.  Dr. Guillermo encouraged us to return to the hospital at 8:30am the next morning for him to check my vital signs, because his overnight shift ended at 9am.  The next 24-48 hours would be critical.  He instructed me to be very careful, because there were serious potential consequences. He typed out prescriptions for three medications: two for pain and one for stomach distress.  The doctor was a delight, taking as much time as we needed and although he spoke very limited English, he communicated mostly via computer, writing diagnosis and directions in Spanish and having the computer translate for us into English.

Then came the real surprises: because I am a foreigner they handed me a bill for $163 euros, considerably less than $200.  Yes, the decimal point is in the right place.  If I had been a Spanish citizen, I would have paid less!!  That included the fees for the radiologist, the x-rays, doctor's fee and hospital.  Then we walked down the street to the pharmacy.  Three medications and the charge was under 10 euros!  Take that Mr. Trump all all of you idiot Republicans, who promise as soon as they enter office to rescind Obama care, which provides access to health insurance to millions who can't get it anywhere else.  Are you kidding me????  As Dr. Guillermo told us when we commented on the fee:  "Medical care shouldn't be a business."

Well, this episode certainly could have ended our trip right then and there.  But thankfully it hasn't.  I took pain pills when needed.  I slept on my back, any other way was too painful.  I have been reasonably careful.  Five days have passed and we will carry on as planned.

Now I just need someone else to spit on Torquemada's grave for me.  I still can't believe  this horrible fanatic (it is even said that he himself was the son a converso...if so, he also had Jewish blood) retains to this day a place of honor in Spain.  Unbelievable.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Correction: Thank You Allen Abravanel

Let me chalk it up to jet lag.  In my first blog post from Madrid, I reported that Carol and I raced off to the Prado Museum as soon as we checked into our hotel.  (Each evening the Prado allows visitors to enter without entrance fee.)  The Prado is surely one of the great art museums of the world. In wandering aimlessly from one room to the next we came across one painting titled "The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain".  How the Spanish deal with the period of the Inquisition and the Expulsion of its Jewish population is of particular interest to me and therefore this painting stood out in my mind.  However I gave some incorrect information and neglected to include some of the most interesting aspects of the content of the painting.

Our good friend Allen Abravanel to the rescue.  One of the preeminent names in Spanish Jewish history is that of Abravanel, Allen's ancestors.  As you will note from Allen's comments to me, it may well have been Abravanel who is actually depicted in the painting.  Though some attribute the scene to fable, others claim that in fact when Ferdinand and Isabella issued the expulsion, Abravanel, whose position gave him access, came to offer a large sum of money in exchange for rescinding the order.  As the offer was being considered the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada entered angrily throwing a cross onto the floor to undermine the request.  The request was summarily denied.

Thank you Allen for setting the record straight.  Here is the full text of Allen's note.  I encourage all to open the web site in order to see the dramatic scene as portrayed by Emilio Sala:

It is great to get your reports of Madrid!  When we visited the city a few years ago, we also went to the Prado and saw The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.  It is not a 17th century work, but a late 19th century portrait (in fact, most of the works in that section of the Museum are 19th century Spanish art with historical events depicted, as I remember).  Here is a link to the Prado’s explanation of the piece:

And see:

Since he painted the work in 1889, he must have been thinking about the upcoming 400th anniversary of the expulsion as the inspiration for an historical work of art. 

A few points:

a.       This is a painting of the famous scene in which Torquemada runs in to stop the negotiations to stave off the expulsion.  It seems to me that the artist painted Isabella with her eyes closed, but Ferdinand with his eyes open – she was probably opposed to the financial deal from the beginning, but he was watching his negotiations disintegrate (note the horrifying look on the face of one of his courtiers).

b.      Who is the Jew in the foreground dressed in the garb of an Israelite (note the use of russet colors in his clothing, and the kippah he is wearing)?  Some say Abravanel, while others say Senior.  The scene seems to fit the events described by Abravanel, however.

c.       And what do the words “Tanto Monta” mean in the background?  See:,_monta_tanto,_Isabel_como_Fernando

Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando (pronounced: [ˈtanto ˈmonta, ˈmonta ˈtanto, isaˈβel ˈkomo ferˈnando]; "They amount to the same", or "Equal opposites in balance") was the alleged motto of a prenuptial agreement made by the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. During their joint reign they did in fact support each other effectively in accordance with their motto of equality. Still, the wording "Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando" is actually a popular saying invented many centuries later, not the real motto. Besides, and contrary to popular belief, it was only the motto of King Ferdinand of Aragon, and never used by Isabella.[1] Both the full version of the slogan and the unsourced idea that it referred to the two monarchs was a Romantic myth, aimed at fostering the idea that Isabella and Ferdinand ruled over a unified monarchy. In truth, both realms remained separate during their lives.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Madrid: Second Post 2016 Travel

Nothing of Jewish interest remains in Madrid was what I read in searching the web. Well, no wonder, Madrid, Spain's modern capital, began as one of a chain of Muslim outposts to defend against Christian invaders.  Madrid's name derives from an Arabic word meaning water channel.  Medieval Madrid remained a small and poor town through the 15th century, probably not attracting much if any Jewish interest or inhabitants.  King Felipe II chose Madrid as his capital in 1561, despite the fact that it was still a fortified encampment built on mud designed more to impress than to provide a meaningful defense.  Not until the 17th century did Madrid begin to take on the aspect of a capital.  That they did devoid of Jews.

Prior to departing Portland I discovered that Madrid was home to both an Orthodox and Conservative synagogue, a kosher restaurant and a few shops that sell kosher products.  The Conservative synagogue which meets only on Friday nights and holidays was particularly secretive about their whereabouts. They requested scans of our passports, clearly for security before revealing their address.

We have one Portland Jewish contact currently living in Madrid.  Hank Langfus' son, Josh, is teaching English in a Spanish public high school on a Fullbright.  Josh celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in our sanctuary and completed our high school program as well.   Quite an impressive young man.  We invited Josh to come with us to the Conservative service Friday night and for dinner.  He agreed enthusiastically interested in the Jewish connection, adding that he never turned down an invitation to dinner....

In the interim I was determined to use Friday afternoon to check out the Orthodox synagogue and eat lunch in the kosher restaurant around the corner.  I was not at all surprised to find a police van standing on the corner.  However the police there obviously to keep an eye on the synagogue paid no attention to my or anyone else's presence.  The name of the synagogue was nowhere in sight though there was a modernistic shape of a menorah as part of the design on the side of the building. Obviously security again.  Having located the shul I headed for lunch.  It was 1:30pm and two men were speaking outside the restaurant address.  They looked at me curiously.  When I said I was interested in lunch, the owner claimed I was too early. No one eats lunch before 2:30...come back in an hour.  I returned after surveying the small stores, picking up a challah, Shabbat candles and a few other things.  It was a great meat lunch, but more expensive than any other meal so far I have eaten.  In conversation the owner estimated that there were 7000 Jews in Madrid, all but 1000 of whom were Sephardi Jews from North Africa.  He was from Morocco.

Later we found Josh's insights about his experiences and integration into Spanish young culture fascinating.  He did expect to be of some curiosity as an American, but was surprised to be the first Jew anyone had met, teachers as well as students.  They plied him with questions.  He told us he would soon go to a gathering of Fulbright recipients in Germany and would make a presentation on being Jewish in Catholic Spain.  Carol and I agreed we couldn't think of a finer representative of our people than Josh Langfus.

At the Conservative synagogue we were prepared for tight security and came as requested with passport in hand.  No one was interested.  They greeted us warmly. About 50 people gathered, 20 of whom were on a Spanish tour with their rabbi from Boston. The service and most melodies were very familiar.  The synagogue's rabbi was from Argentina and trained there.  Because of the guests he gave his sermon alternating in Spanish and English.  I found that very impressive.  A light Kiddush followed. It turned out to be a productive evening for Josh: he was invited for Seder!

The next morning I headed off to the Orthodox shul, actually walking distance from our hotel.  Here the attendees were less welcoming, largely I guess because they were uncomfortable trying to engage me in English.  Often I look forward to being offered an Aliyah.  I have been called to the Torah in Istanbul, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo.  However just prior to the Torah service, small chips were handed out with numbers on them...I was #19.  They then picked numbers out of a box.  19 wasn't called.  After services the 40 men and 10 women gathered downstairs for a very light repast.  I wouldn' call it lunch.  I met a young couple living temporarily in Israel who were on vacation.  She was British and he American.

Well, it was an eventful Shabbat.  Now on to our next stops: Segovia, Avilla and Toledo.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Madrid: First Post 2016 Travel

 Our arrival in Madrid came at the conclusion of a 23-hour journey that took us from Portland to Chicago, and on to London prior to the final leg.  Thankfully we had accumulated a sufficient number of miles to travel business class, providing not only additional space, the opportunity to lie completely flat during the overseas flight, but also access to the airline lounge during layovers between flights.  Still 23 hours is a long time in transit; nevertheless these amenities helped to mitigate much of the tedium and discomfort.

As Carol expressed it to our museum guide yesterday, there is something very peculiar about touring a country with such a long and protracted history of anti-Semitism.  Sure, very few countries do not contain chapters of hatred of Jews, some more venal than others, yet Spain’s experience is arguably longer and more continuous than any other.  It begins long before the well-known final expulsion in 1492.  Although there were periods of tranquility and eras of security and enormous Jewish productivity, antipathy to Jews fostered by Catholic fanatics appears throughout the centuries of the Christian conquest of Spain from the Moors, the most devastating outbreak occurring in 1391.  Jews never returned to Spain  until sometime after the First World War, only to experience anti-Semitism again under the brutal rule of Francisco Franco, who lumped Jews in with the Communists.  Yet even during that period, Franco seemed to look the other way as some Jews found safe passage through Spain in their effort to escape Hitler.  My mother at the age of 16 was among them.

Despite the foregoing Madrid is a beautiful, uplifting and exciting city, aided by the wonderful unseasonably warm weather that greeted us on our arrival.  (I think Madrid’s weather at this time of year is not too dissimilar to that of Portland’s though it sits as a lower latitude.  The architecture is eye candy and the people pulsate filling the streets and in coffee shops and restaurants into the wee hours of the night.  We have been reading for some time about the Spanish economy facing challenges similar to those of Greece and Italy.  There is no sign of that from the viewpoint of an arriving tourist. The people are well dressed, driving newish cars and seem to eat out a lot.

Madrid is famous for its museums, most particularly the 1)Prado, followed by the 2)Reina Sofia, which houses among other famous pieces, Picasso’s Guernica, named for the Basque town decimated during the Spanish civil war and the 3)Thyssen-Bornemisza.   The first two offer free evening hours.  So almost immediately after setting our suitcases down in our hotel we made our way to the Prada, a mammoth museum, home to paintings by Titian, Bosch, Rubens, Duerer, El Greco, Valesquez, and Goya among others.  I have the great advantage of bringing my own art expert and experienced museum docent as we tour.  What a help!

On our walk to the Prado, we passed the very ornate municipal building, the hub of a major Madrid intersection.  There prominently hung a huge banner declaring “Refugees Welcome”.  Now that’s surely a clear message.  We have all been reading about the rivers of refugees flooding into Germany and France, often to mixed reviews, as well as Donald Trumps’ racist anti-Muslim refugee pronouncements.  But here on an important civic building the community is declaring its public attitude.  For me it was unexpected, but I was delighted. I wonder though how popular among the general populace this statement of welcome is.  Nevertheless there it is.

Finally, as we wandered the Prado that first evening with no particular ground game, with many paintings on various Catholic religious themes, I was very struck by one piece, there being only one, painted, I think in the 17th century, titled “The Expulsion of the Jews”.    Throughout our wanderings in Spain over the next weeks, I will be very curious as to what if anything the Inquisition and the expulsion has meant and continues to mean to Spaniards.  Are they aware of this history?  Is it taught in school?  How is it presented?  Does it taint in any way thoughts about Ferdinand and Isabella who must be thought of as heroes responsible for the beginning of a new era of Spanish history.  And what was it that prompted this painter in the 17th century to choose this theme as the subject of this painting?  Even though there was only one, I was pleased to run across it our first evening in Madrid.