Monthly Archives: June 2016

Looking forward- Mission to Spain 2016

Throughout the past few weeks, and over the next month, Europe will be focused on two events: The Brexit vote and the Euro Football Championships. Yes, the UK’s fallout will have many long term implications for Europe as well as our global economy, I do want to focus for a moment on football. Having been in Germany 4 years ago during Germany’s run to the finals while on our last Cantors Assembly Mission, I discovered that the UEFA Euro tournament, more than the Olympics, takes over every household, bar and street corner. Up until mid-day today, Spain, the two time defending champion (meaning no one else has one since 2004),  lost in its Round of 16 battle, thanks to some gritty play by the Italian team. Now that Spain is out of it, the Cantors Assembly Mission can now FINALLY take center stage.

Although I don’t leave for our mission for another week, I did want to set the stage for a thought provoking trip. While writing my Germany blog, archived here, I brought up a recurring theme- the spirituality of a place. I have always believed that there was something unique to Eastern Europe; that even as things got bad, people stayed because beyond family and community (and in part because of them), there was a deep sense of spiritual home, even outside the Promised Land. Alongside plague and pogrom, Eastern Europe and Ashkenaz brought us Chazzanut and Chassidic masters. Both synagogue and the tisch uplifted us even in the darkest hour.

When looking at the Holocaust, we forget the communal life prior to those moments of devastation. And in Germany, we forget the role that Jews had played in the arts and sciences. As Professor Berk pointed out on our last mission, Germany was poised to rule the 20th century- culturally and politically…and Jews would be a part of it.

I say all of this in anticipation of our trip to Spain, a cultural center for the Jews prior to their expulsion in 1492. If our communal memory needs jogging to appreciate the gifts of Eastern European jewry that were lost only a century ago, we certainly need some extra jogging of our memory to recognize the contributions of Sepharad hundreds of years ago.

Whenever I have the joy of teaching Jewish history from 200CE- 1850 in Foundations of Judaism class, I try to focus on key dates, key individuals, and key takeaways. When teaching about the Jews of Spain, I reiterate every year that Jewish culture thrived under Islamic rule (and that we suffered under Christian rule), making a point to say that our modern sensibilities to the other faiths are clearly not passed down from aeons ago. I’m hoping that my simplifications will be tested as we learn about the history of Jews in Spain.

As an example:

Reading through old primary and secondary source materials from my undergraduate years at NYU, I stumbled on a collection of charters highlighted in Bob Chazan’s (chair of the department at NYU) book Church, State and Jew in the Middle Ages. Among the charters is one from King James I of Aragon, dated 1239. The introduction to the text states,

During the Thirteenth century, the Christian drive in Spain proceeded farther southward, bring new Jewish communities into the orbit of Christendom. After the conquest of Valencia, a charter was granted to the Jews of the area, extending to them physical protection and the legal status held by the Jews of Saragossa. A number of specific issues are singled out for special consideration. Jewish courts are firmly supported; the old principle of mixed testimony is reaffirmed; Jewish oaths are to be taken on the TORAH; cases are to be tried in the defendant’s court. Particularly interesting is the stipulation that Jews must not be held under arrest or forced to appear in court on their Sabbath.

It’s important to recognize that our modern understanding of anti-semitism, of other peoples, did not exist even a generation ago. The regulations outlined above seem “accepting” given the context of space and time (much more accepting that the edicts of the Visigoth king Recceswinth, who outlawed Kashrut, weddings, circumcisions, and the celebration of Passover back in 654). With that caveat, I’m hoping to learn a tremendous amount from our two guides. Professors Stephen Berk and Eliezer Papo. I’ve also been reading up on the earliest settling of Spain thanks to this online gem (with maps and even biblical references to Spain).

See you next week in Barcelona!