August 3rd passes largely unnoticed in Barcelona, though down in Huelva Province it’s the last day of a week long festival. It was from there that Columbus set out on August 3, 1492, on his first voyage in search of the Indies. That was a good day or a bad one, depending on your perspective.
In the history of Barcelona, August 5th – today – is a terrible day about which nothing good can be said. It too, goes by unnoticed here, and with good reason. Six centuries ago, on the heels of a violent pogrom that destroyed the entire Jewish community of Seville, Christian mobs took to the streets and wrought the same havoc on the Jewish quarter of Barcelona, that at its peak was home to the largest single Jewish population of the Middle Ages: 4,000 Jews – fifteen percent of the city’s population. In one horrible day mobs killed several hundred Jewish citizens. The neighborhood, too, which had at its center a small synagogue that had stood for a thousand years, was destroyed. This brutal event took place 622 years ago today – on August 5, 1391, a full hundred years before the Edict of Expulsion. The scene was repeated in several more Spanish cities before the violence subsided. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Barcelona rampage, the local government, fearing repeat incidents, declared it too dangerous for Jews to live there. Their solution to stem further violence was a mandate that the Jews of Barcelona convert or leave the city immediately. The rest, as we say, is history.
Today a walk through the medieval Jewish quarters of Spain calls for a vivid imagination and a well informed story teller to bring our history alive. With nearly all Jewish buildings having been destroyed or remodeled beyond recognition, it takes a keen eye to pick out the few structural fragments that remain: a Hebrew dedication carved in worn stone; a subtle detail on a doorway or a lintel; the curve of an old archway, long ago bricked over; the doorway to a bakery; mikvehs tucked away in the bowels of trendy shops. Visiting Spain’s Jewish quarters can feel more like going on a treasure hunt than a history walk. But there are real treasures to be found!
What Barcelona’s Jewish heritage lost in impressive buildings, it has retained in its gastronomy. To my eye (and people’s faces aside), food is the single most visible vestige of Jewish history here. Barcelona overflows with the foods of its Jewish ancestors, much of it altered, but much still made exactly as it was centuries ago by Spanish and Catalan Jews. The reasons why are varied and fascinating, and now I’m sharing these histories here where they first unfolded.
Are you visiting Barcelona? Come take a Sephardic tasting walk with me. I’ll introduce you to my gastronomic ancestors, probably yours, too, and certainly the world’s. They’re very much alive here, and waiting to meet you!
Inquiries are welcome in the comment box below. It’s that simple.