La Voz de Galicia announced last week that on March 25 the Galician town of Ribadavia will celebrate its first Passover Seder in 500 years, in the Sephardic tradition, in a restaurant in the Jewish quarter.
Ribadavia is actually a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time, because my grandfather’s ancestors were from Galicia, though I don’t yet know which specific town or place. It wasn’t until after his funeral that I thought to ask whether that side of the family knew where in Spain they’d come from. “Galicia,” said my great uncle Ben, just like that. They’d known all along. Uncle Ben was only 92 then, sharp as a tack, and lived to be 101. I should have asked more questions.
I was actually planning to visit Ribadavia in the summer of 2001, but I got invited to the wedding of friends in Ireland – so close! – and went there instead. (The marriage didn’t last, but it was hands down one of the best weddings I’ve ever attended.)
This kind of family knowledge – the oral history – is often right on the money, even after centuries. When I settled in the Catalan pueblo I now live in, I met an elderly man who bore enough of a resemblance to my grandfather for me to take notice. When he spoke, I even heard my grandfather’s voice and distinct, staccato speech pattern. When he told me he was from Asturias – which shares a border with Galicia – I flipped. I rarely run into him any more, and our conversations have never gone beyond the weather, but maybe I’ll have a chance at some point to at least find out where in Asturias his family is from, and I will go there.
So, about that Seder. According to a related article in the Jerusalem Post, a 1997 study revealed that there were two Jewish families living in Ribadavia, neither of them of Sephardic heritage. I would assume that being Jewish they hold their own Seders – perhaps they even celebrate the holiday together? – though the paper did announce this is “the first Seder to be held here in 500 years.” I wonder what those two families have to say about that.
Behind the momentous event are the local Center of Medieval Studies, the town council, and a local tour packager. The Seder will include “real foods of the Jewish culture, including kosher wine and matza.” (I am so tempted to add an exclamation point.) And of course, for those wishing to spend the night there’s a hotel package, because the real goal, plainly stated in the Galician publication, is to stimulate tourism to Ribadavia.
In 2007 I opened my restaurant here on the opposite coast. The first meal I served was a Passover Seder, held in private for a diverse and lovely group of about twenty people I’d befriended at a progressive Jewish congregation in Barcelona. Few of them were Jewish, but all of them, knowing they had Jewish ancestry, attended services regularly in the interest of learning. It was that kind of place, with a smart and engaging rabbi, and great while it lasted. With real joy in my heart I cooked up a storm for that Seder, reproducing my family’s traditional menu from Rhodes. It was a fabulous meal.
Passover that year fell just days before my official opening, and out of genuine concern for the future of my business – it was not a place to be openly Jewish – I knew we’d have to celebrate in low voices behind drawn curtains and a locked door. So much for Elijah, and so much for kicking back on Pesach.
Some of the men arrived wearing kipot, and I asked them nervously to take them off until after the curtains were hung, but it was already too late. One man passing by on the otherwise quiet street had spotted men “with those beanies” and made a point of asking me about it the next day.
“Private group,” I said. He didn’t buy it. He owned a bar up the road, loved to gossip, and did.
Our Seder wasn’t a tourist spectacle, it was real life. Maybe I would have taken less of a hit if I’d run it by the town council first.