Many travelers to Spain may not be aware of the significant Jewish influence throughout the country, but in many of Spain’s most prominent cities one can find a Judería, or Jewish Quarter. At one time the Spanish Jews, also called Sephardic Jews, were one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities in the world. The vibrant Jewish communities suffered a terrible fate in 1492, under the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella they were forced to choose between converting to Catholicism or staying true to Judaism and facing exile, or worse, death. The decree of expulsion was officially rescinded in 1968, and in 2014 the government of Spain passed a law allowing dual citizenship to Jewish descendants of those who were exiled in order to compensate for shameful events in the country’s past. Although many of the synagogues were converted into churches, there are still many important Jewish heritage sites in cities all over Spain, the most famous being: Barcelona, Girona, Segovia, Toledo, Madrid, Córdoba, Granada and Sevilla.
At one time the Jewish community made up 10% of Barcelona’s population. The Jewish district in Barcelona is named El Call, coming from the Hebrew word “kahal” meaning community. El Call is where one can find all of the old synagogues and original street names. Another point of interest in Barcelona is Montjuic, which translates to Jewish mountain, and provides stunning panoramic views of all of Barcelona. In the Museum of National Art of Catalonia there are many paintings depicting the conversion from Judaism to Christianity. In June there is the Jewish Cinema Festival, which has been a celebrated annual event for over a decade.
Northwest of Barcelona is the city of Girona with the most historic and well preserved Jewish Quarter in Spain. Jewish presence in Girona dates back to 890, and when the Jews were exiled in 1492 they decided to close off their houses with bricks because they thought they would be returning. Catholic neighbors were reluctant to re-open these properties fearing they might be considered Jews, and so the area was entombed until the late 1970s when a land developer found the remains. Today there are many historical sites celebrating the Jewish heritage; the new educational and cultural complex called the Bonastruc Ca Porta Centre recreates Jewish life through art exhibits, musical events and food tastings. Surrounding a patio on the site of an ancient synagogue, the complex includes a Catalan Museum of Jewish Culture, the Institute for Sephardic and Kabbalistic Studies, and a library that houses important medieval Jewish manuscripts.
Segovia, Toledo and Madrid
In central Spain are the three cities of Segovia, Toledo and Madrid each with its own unique Jewish heritage sites. Segovia has a small Jewish neighborhood within the old city walls, and the most famous site is the church of Corpus Christi, which used to be a synagogue. Also in Segovia is the famous Alcázar castle, which was once home to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, the nobles responsible for the Jewish exile. Toledo is known as “The city of three cultures” for the Muslim, Christian and Jewish influences on the city, and historically it had the largest Jewish population in Spain. Of the ten synagogues that once stood in Toledo only two remain today and have been converted into Catholic churches. The Transito Synagogue is now home to a Sephardic Jewish museum. Madrid’s Jewish quarter is located in Lavapiés, the name comes from the tradition of washing (lava) one’s feet (pies) before entering the temple. Madrid is also home to the Museum of the History of the Jewish Community of Madrid where one can learn about the historic presence of Jews in the city through photographs and documents.
Córdoba, Granada and Sevilla
The south of Spain is most famous for its widespread Arabic influence, but also has several sites of significant Jewish heritage. Granada is home to the Alhambra, an exquisite Moorish palace where the decree of exile formally called the “Alhambra Decree” was given in 1492. The Jewish community in Granada faced centuries of going back and forth between being accepted and then being untolerated by the various Muslim and Christian rulers. The Jewish Quarter in Granada is called the Realejo and is home to another Sephardic Museum. Córdoba is home to the only synagogue in Spain that was not converted into a Catholic church. It is also home to the Casa de Sefarad a cultural center for Sephardic heritage, and in June the annual International Sephardi Music Festival takes place in Cordoba’s Botanic Gardens. Sevilla had the second largest population of Jews in Spain after Toledo. Today the Jewish history can be observed in the neighborhoods of Santa Cruz, Santa María la Blanca and San Bartolomé.
All of these cities are featured in various Bike Spain Tours. If you have an interest in Jewish history in Spain, we can point you in the right direction!