Category Archives: Cantors Mission to Spain

Cantors Mission to Spain Final Day/Thoughts

As the Israeli Ambassador to Spain put it at our Sunday night concert, “Music transcends time. It is the image of our souls.” Whether dancing for a packed house for Shabbat services, an impromptu chanting of Ani Maamin in a church (that was once a mosque, that was once a synagogue), or a sing-along of Israel’s greatest hits, our mission to Spain showed us all that beyond Am Yisrael Chai (the nation of Israel lives), Lev Yisrael Chai (the heart of Israel lives).

During our last day, Professor Berk reiterated this idea that perception is reality. This goes for human history, but as we go from the learning and singing, this “camp-like” bubble of an existence over these past two weeks, away from the chaos of society and the Pokemon Gos of the world, it is our collective responsibility to make sure that the perception of both the past and present remain as genuine and introspective as possible, so that the future remains bright.

Our last day  included a morning tour of Seville, including a visit to the Cathedral Palace (where Columbus can be found) and a tour of the Royal Alcazar Palace of Seville. The evening was punctuated by a Flamenco performance and Israeli song festival at the Real Venta De Antequera, a place that normally hosts bull fights!

Berk’s last lecture of the trip was sponsored by my synagogue, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, and I do want to thank the synagogue and leadership for giving me opportunities like this for personal and professional growth! Most of Berk’s lecture focused on Franco’s rule and this play between European countries following World War II. To be honest, my focus during this time period was always on Germany, Poland, Russia and even Italy. Hearing about Spain’s position in this period brought the art work we saw at the beginning of the trip (the film about mass poverty, Picasso’s Guernica) back to life. We can say “never forget”, but if we never know, it’s hard to never forget. As the lecture turned into a question and answer, Berk focused his energy on what he saw as the eventual inclusion of Turkey into the EU. As the gateway to the Middle East, Turkey is an important political/military ally. As the borders would open with its inclusion into the EU, the conversation about security is a very serious one. This talk, two days before an attempted military coup in Turkey!


  • I learned a lot about the interplay between religions; the interactions between factions of religions. Spain’s Jews had a Golden Age, and there was a not so golden age. I learned a lot about post-WWII Spain. Meeting with and hearing the stories of Masorti Jews in Spain today, I found it worrisome that we don’t pay more attention to this group of Jews trying to create a Casa Sefarad in Spain once again. The Joint Distribution Committee gives very little to the Masorti communities in Europe. Hopefully through twinning and through education, this will change. The Golden age will never return, but love of culture, love of a modern Spanish Jewry can!
  • I love being in a country where everyone pronounces Dafna (airport/customs personal, hotel receptionists, bartenders) the right way!

  • Kippah- I felt weird not wearing a kippah (for security reasons it seemed like more people went kippah commando or hat on this trip vs. Germany, ironically). It’s not like I didn’t scream tourist with my fanny pack, diaper backpack, and camera bag.
  • Most importantly, I realized that more than the cantorial music they sing, these cantors on our trip, and I gather the same can be said about the cantorate in general, are loved. They are beloved by their friends and congregants (and congregants who are friends). Hearing how non-cantor trip participants (of which there were 300+) spoke about my cantorial friends in such glowing ways was truly inspiring. As a social experiment, one need only look at the dozens of photos I posted from our concerts for those back home to enjoy. These were not videos of cantors singing, but cantors smiling and loving what they do. To wake up to hundreds of notifications saying that hundreds of people that I don’t know loved/liked/commented on my photos shows the impact our cantors are making today. The way in which we interpret music is important, but the way in which we engage with our community through our personalities and stories means so much more. From strength to strength!














Cantors Mission to Spain Day 8

Granada and Seville

As I mentioned yesterday, Granada was the last Muslim stronghold. We skip forward to the yer 1500, where Granada is now the home to forced conversions. Our guide, Rosa, paints a picture of 1502, as Muslims lined in front of their former mosque (now a church) ready to be baptized. Conversion often created more rifts within the Christian community, as new Christians were designated separately from the old by being classified as “Moriscos.” In many instances, the “old” Christians were deemed clean (implying impurity for those newly converted). The church had long viewed converts on an equal playing field.

Rosa led us on a morning tour of Granada as we saw this juxtaposition once again of Islamic and Western architecture. In fact, the style of architecture changes like in Granada later on than in other communities, strengthening the tie to a more moorish style.

Our tour takes us to the museum of torture (Leora and I visited a Museo Della Tortura on our honeymoon while in San Gimignano, Italy), with a second floor tribute to the history of the Jews. The museum hosts a number of Jewish artifacts from Spain and throughout Europe with the hope of sharing the rich culture of the Jewish people (and therefore showing what was lost). We saw letters of conversos renouncing their Jewish faith, while using a secret code to communicate (writing in lemon!). Straight out of a National Treasure movie. My favorite artifact on display had to be the Arbol de Jesse from Granada (1618).

As we glanced over the hillside with a majestic view of the Alhambra Palace, Rosa explained that at one point during Muslim rule, occupants of Granada received their own land to become self sufficient. This makes a lot of sense given the way the Alhambra layout also has space for gardens in order to be self-sufficient. When the Christians took over, they kept hearing about all this land, called “Karen” (or Keren, as in Keren Kayemet Liyisrael), but they thought the locals were saying Carmen, so that’s why there are so many “Carmen” spaces throughout the region.

As we depart for a 3 hour bus ride to Seville, we learn about the vast number of monasteries and convents. One monastery is now a boarding school, yet there are “19 convents and counting” within Granada. Sounds like a reality tv show in the making to me!!

Berk Lecture

We were treated to a brief talk while on our way to Seville. Some of Berk’s insights:

We left off at the end of the 19th century. Setting the stage for the mood of the people:

There were revolts amongst peasants, workers, middle class; strong anarchist and Marxist movements. The low point is La Semana Tragica, July 25-Aug 2 1909, known in English as the Tragic Week- a series of bloody confrontations between the Spanish army and the aforementioned working classes/anarchists/socialists.

This unrest of 1909 couldn’t be seen in a Spanish vacuum when political theories and movements didn’t stop at the boarder crossing.

With the Russian Revolution in October 1917, we see the appeal of communism and the fear of communism. The appeal had a messianic feel to it- families like the Rosenbergs appealed to the idea of communism (not for the $$$). The leftists were motivated to action while the right (against Lenin), stayed socialist.

At the same time, since this is still a lecture on Spain, we see the last remnant of the Spanish empire in Spanish Morocco (we’ll learn later from our evening speaker of the various types of Moroccan Jews- Spanish, French, etc). The unpopular war in Morocco (in which 14,000 were slaughtered), with the humiliation of the Spanish armies contributed to the military coup of 1923. Primo De Rivera becomes dictator until 1930, when he leaves the country, followed by the monarchy (now the second expulsion of the monarchy of 1931 finally has context!!).

Massive rioting eventually leads to the republic establishment in 1931. When Hitler ran for office in 1932, Stalin said he would be out in 6 months. However, when Communists and socialists would not make any alliances, Hitler had his stranglehold. In 1934, the Kremlin party line changes. Now, it’s all against fascism, known as the Popular Front.

Socialists and Communists win mass majority in Spain. The Church and Republican army are obviously against it. With the summer revolt of 1936, Spain begins its Civil War. 1 million people die in the civil war. This civil war is the Vietnam of the 1930s.

Franco’s side has unity, but it also has guns and aircraft. The Republic has nothing. Salazar, Mussolini and Germany provide funding to Franco and support Guernica.

For the Republic side, the British and French send nada with their policy of appeasement in full effect. As Berk puts it, “no one wants to go in the meat grinder again.” America, too, is combatting isolationism.

Consequences of Civil War

Berk points out people turning their backs on Jews because they didn’t support their cause during the civil war. This is right out of the second paragraph of the shema- you pat my back, I’ll pat yours, but if you don’t pat my back, I’m not going to pat yours.

Stalin looks at the world through the prism of Leninism: as Hitler advances west, it must be a capitalist plot to release him eastward. As we know, perception is reality. We hear the story of Max litvinov, the Jewish foreign minister of Russia, replaced by Molitov. Molitov meets the German foreign minister as Hitler is about to invade Poland (Britain and France have alliance with Poland). The question arises- would Russia attack Germany from the east and make it a two front war? Or could Germany promise something in return for Russia’s help? Germany offers up Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and part of the Ukraine. The Soviet people will not know about the deal until Gorbachev.

This is all context for Franco’s iron fist rule from 1939-1975. Franco cracks down on all areas that would dare challenge him. For example, 7,000 high school teachers are executed during his reign.

Evening Program

It’s getting late so I’ll just mention that we had a wonderful meeting with Moses Hazan, from Morocco (most Jews in Seville are from Morocco), who teaches us about the Jews of Seville (lowlight includes June 6 1391 progrom, Spanish Inquisition beginning in Seville in 1478, last trial in 1781) . Cantor Aaron BenSoussan led us in a Moroccan maariv and Cantor Dov Keren led a powerful El Malei prayer for those in the Sephardic community that perished.











Cantors Mission to Spain Days 6 and 7


Sunday morning we traveled to Toledo. Our resources (our guide and guidebooks) gave varying opinions as to the origin of the phrase, “Holy Toledo.” Either it was a term originated by the Sephardic Jews, or a reference to the many churches housed in Toledo. Either way, the city of Toledo is a gorgeous vestige in time.

It was fascinating to visit two synagogues created centuries apart, only a block away from each other (sound familiar?). I am always taken by the acoustics of these synagogues. Architectural gems, these synagogues have amazing sound, as shown by my video of Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi on Facebook. We’ll also see a common theme of writing out certain key prayers on the walls. Our guides will paint a balanced picture of religious life in Medieval Spain- often the local religious communities did in fact work hand in hand. In fact, the idea that Arab artisans wrote the Hebrew lettering in one synagogue is but one of many synergies between communities and their worship spaces. Over time, we’ll see a number of worship spaces change hands, converting into mosques and churches without changing up every aspect of the space. As an example, the first synagogue visited was named Santa Maria la Blanca Monumento Nacional. Antigua Sinagoga deal Siglo XII.

Walking around the area, there are a number of Jewish shops and for the first time (other than our Maccabi Restaurant), we see a visible “kosher” sign in a few places. Toledo is a welcomed change from the bustling cities of Barcelona and Madrid, but the small windy streets do create some crazy driving scenes. We exit the Jewish quarter to find a world of Mazapan (the world’s largest monastery made out of marzipan, as well as the largest Don Quijote. We also see souvenir shops being housed in 400 year old buildings.

With regard to the height of Jewish Toledo, It’s interesting to note that the Jewish community was later aided by those scholars who fled during the reign of the Berber dynasties.

One final note from Toledo: often you’ll find musicians playing for money at many of the major tourist stops. Today’s story involves a guitarist playing a familiar refrain. I immediately connect the melody to a niggun we had used on Friday night in Madrid. I learned that the melody we sang Friday night derived from a pop song, so whether you are bringing in Shabbat or playing outside a Cathedral, music can be transported anywhere you have an ear ready to listen.

Sunday evening Teatro Goya (next to a golf school and go-cart track on the other side of town) played host to a grand concert of “World Jewish Music.” As part of the chorus, we sang everything from Avinu Malkeinu to Hallelujah to a salute to Israel. The eclectic concert showcased familiar faces as well as newcomers to the Cantors Assembly. We also received greetings from the Israeli Ambassador to Spain! You can catch my catalog of some of my favorite facial expressions from the concert on Facebook.

Córdoba and Granada

Monday morning came bright and early as we took the high speed rail south towards Córdoba, home of Moses Maimonides. After seeing a statue of the great Rambam, we headed to the Casa Sefarad to hear how the local guide incorporates Sephardic music into teaching visitors about the Jewish tradition (video on FB). We toured the former mosque turned church (a common theme will be brewing). You get the sense from seeing Córdoba (and later Granada) that this is a different culture- the architecture, the story lines (we are now in Andalucia FYI). Muslims Jews and Christians coexist. And Córdoba was a juggernaut – when cities like Madrid had populations numbering in the fifteen to twenty thousand range, Córdoba was pushing a half million. To show the Jewish impact, our guide, who identifies as Christian, showed us how her parents surnames both had Jewish origins!

Our 3 hour bus ride (with a detour for snacks at a rest stop with the worst possible location for a kids play area) brought us to Granada (we learned that the name means pomegranate), the last stand of Muslim rule before it fell to the Christians. We learned the significant date of December 30, 1066, when an angry mob stormed the palace in Granada and murdered Joseph Ibn Nagrela, the vizier to the Berber King, not to be confused with a similar sounding king. The massacre that followed wiped out the Jewish population, either by death or by getting the rest to leave.

We’ll explore a little more of Granada in the AM, but we did receive a late evening VIP tour of the Alhambra (meaning “the red one”) Palace (very different than Jacksonville’s Alhambra theatre), home of the Spanish monarchy for over a hundred years. It was interesting seeing Isabel and Ferdinand’s living quarters, having converted over (pun intended) the original use of the palace. You can still make out the Arabic on the walls. This is an interesting parallel to the Hebrew prayers we have found in the same level of synagogue walls throughout our trip.

Musical note #2: As we walked through Córdoba, we were treated by a guitarist (pictured below) who played Bei Mir Bistu Shein. Small world!















Cantors Mission to Spain Days 4 and 5

Our morning began with a grand tour of Madrid, highlighted by three main stops: the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor and the Centre de Arte Reina Sophia. Our bus split in half with each group going with one of our fantastic Madrid guides, Marta and Susannah.

Taking in the city, we noticed signs from the recent LGBT Pride parade, as well as banners for the support of taking in refugees. We learned that this is the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death (wrote Don Quijote).

While visiting the Royal Palace, we learned the history of the Spanish monarchy, with a special emphasis on Charle III and the current Spanish King and his family. It was here we learned that President Obama would be visiting the palace towards the end of this weekend, so each room became much more than a history lesson. The dining room (converted from 3 of of the former queen’s changing rooms) adapts to whomever and how many are eating at a given time, with place-settings for at least 140. As a side note, there were five glasses set out at each place setting for the gala event this weekend! As an even greater side note, we did have more silverware at our Friday night dinner than the President will have at his seat! The President and First Lady will sit towards the center of the table alongside the King and Queen.

It was fascinating to hear our guide use the word “expulsion” on numerous occasions describing the second expulsion of the Royal family in 1931.

We traveled to the Reina Sophia, a modern art museum with some powerful imagery and multimedia. Our introduction to the museum was a short documentary in black and white film showing those suffering in poverty a generation ago. This is still something quite palpable as you walk the streets of Madrid (and Barcelona). The art works do not shy away from political or social matters. I’m not used to having guided tours in art museums, but our guides’ attention to detail added extra layers to the pieces we looked at. Most importantly, we delved into the stories behind Picasso’s Guernica. As an art history student, I remember seeing many pieces of art for the first time via slides projected on a wall. The major disadvantage was not being able to realize the scale of a piece. I thought pieces like Jackson Pollack’s Autumn Rhythm or Picasso’s Guernica would be a decent size in real life, but I never imagined them taking up an entire wall of a museum. In contrast, a painting of Henry VIII in the Thyssen was TINY. In reading my favorite Top 10 book, I found out that the best sculpture in the museum was Julio Gonzalez’s Daphne (pronounced Dafna as in Pasta or Kafka) . I felt it was beshert to have the work sound just like my youngest daughter’s name (often mispronounced), but alas it was on loan!!!

Friday night was a true delight. A number of cantors co-led our service entitled “A World of Jewish Music for Erev Shabbat.” I was able to introduce a Latin-inspired Mizmor L’david that I had written for our Shabbat in the Round service a few years ago. You can listen to a less-Latiny version here.
It is a great feeling to hear 300+ people learning and singing a melody that they are all hearing for the first time. The energy continued throughout the whole service.

Our Shabbat morning service started with Shaharit at 9:30 and ended at 12:20, unable to touch the 4 hour gem from Germany. However, there was a wonderful flow to the service, with a few particular highlights for me. Our Rabbi in Residence of the trip, Yoshi Zweibeck (works with our mission co-chair Cantor Nate Lam) taught us (succinctly I might add) about the proper to argue with another- to find a balance of tolerance and pluralism. He also wrote a fantastic rhyme for our Torah introduction that rivaled Kendrick Lamar. A second highlight was hearing this guy Henry Rosenblum incorporate wedding melodies into the Musaf Kedusha (autocorrects to Medusa). I think he is celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary this Monday, but it’s not like I know him at all. I could ask my wife (his eldest daughter).

A final highlight was hearing the melodies used by Hazzan Annelise Ocanto-Romo, currently at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, PA, but previously serving at Beth Israel in Worcester, MA. Having grown up in Worcester, I was familiar with some of the “Worcester standards” introduced by our longtime Cantor, Stephen Freedman. Stephen had introduced a great Ashrei melody a number of years ago that obviously continued to stick with the congregation through multiple cantors that followed. The melody caught on with the congregation this morning, as most were hearing it for the first time. If you were to poll the congregation, they may have thought that it was hot off the press. Quite the contrary- the melody was written a number of years ago by Cantor David Brandhandler z’l, who passed away recently at the age of 104. I was lucky to meet Cantor Brandhandler at last year’s Chicago convention and thanked him then for the melody. It just goes to show the power of song to bring joy and excitement to a community even after the composer has left us in body.

After a brief Kiddush many of us made the long walk (and well worth it) to the Prado museum, where we spent a few hours going through the museum filled with Carravagio, Durer, Diego Velazquez, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco and even Raphael (his “Portrait of a Cardinal” mimicked the Mona Lisa in many ways). I was able to get a greater appreciation for the Spanish great Goya (his famous work in the museum is quite dark, but the top floor contained a number of rooms devoted to colorful and bright paintings by Goya. I was also able to learn about and become a fan of new painters like Beruete y Moret as well as Rico y Ortega.

After minha, we heard from the Rabbi of the local Masorti (Conservative) congregation. He gave us a mixed bag of information about the Jewish community today- it’s trials and the potential good heading its way. They have a Sunday school with 36 students (from a pool of 3000 Jews in Madrid- for context, Jacksonville has 4-5 times that population). The Rabbi’s own sons attend Chicagoland Day School in, you guessed it, Chicago!

Here’s some good news: people are discovering their Jewish heritage and since the end of Franco’s and Catholicism’s reign (it’s amazing how many people talk openly about despising him), people are soul searching, and even finding out that they have Converso roots. A common story is having a family tradition of having a ham leg in the house, for at one time, the family wanted the outside community to think that they had fully converted. When people are ready for conversion, the rabbi takes them to a lake (only warm enough in June andJuly) rather than the local mikveh, which is closed to them!

That’s the bad news- we learned that Casa Sefarad, where we visited and were welcomed on Thursday night, has little to do with the local Masorti community and is there for more political reasons than anything else.

Some great news. Having acquired two torahs (first a non-kosher one and finally a kosher one), the community has begun the process of writing its own Torah, the first Torah to be written in Spain in 500 years! B’sha’a Tova!

After a great Havdala led by Tahl Ben Yehuda (another shout out to Jacksonville), we are off to Toledo tomorrow! Hasta Manana!





Cantors Assembly Mission to Spain Days 2 and 3

Wednesday afternoon, Eliezer Papo gives a great lecture to fill in some of the gaps and answer questions about the community of Sefarad. Papo reminds us that there is always some subversive storyline in the folk lore and etymology of a place to heighten it’s importance. For example, a common pun of Sefarad was “sof rad”, meaning “end of the earth.” Poland got the same treatment, for they associated Polinia with “PO lan ya”, meaning “God dwells here.” In fact, Sefarad is first mentioned by Ovadiah, although Papo claims that this is in reference to Sardes on the Mediterranean.

When we left off with our history lesson from Stephen Berk, Islamic rule was becoming divisive while the Christian faith suddenly had a united cause to fight for. Andalusian society (spreading through most of southern Spain to include Granada and Seville) was under Moorish rule for most of the 8th-15th centuries. As Professor Papo put it, they could not see themselves, and their children, fighting Christianity. They had done well for themselves financially, so the class wars between the affluent sons of Islam and the low-income Christian brethren was on.

While I seemed to glorify the relative successes of Jews under Islamic Spain, Papo points out that Muslim Spain had its peaks and its valleys. Infighting, new regimes, the abolishment of Christianity and Judaism as recognized religions (Spain’s success was linked directly to allowing other religions to thrive), all led to the slow demise of Islamic rule.

Papo and Berk describe a tale of two rabbis- those rabbis that converted to Christianity, thus acquiring a new religious leader with a familiarity with the ancient text (see Moses’ hands guiding the sea to part as the first sign of the cross); and those rabbis like Maimonides who, as the Jewish elite, left Spain for greener pastures.

Speaking of rabbis, Professor Papo draws a direct line from the rabbis of Babylonia to the rabbis of Spain. In his eyes, you judge whether a community is at the center of Jewish life vs. the periphery based on one principle: if you import rabbis, you are marginal, while if you export rabbis, you are central. The center for rabbinic leadership shifts from Babylon to Tunisia. Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi goes to Fez, Morocco and then finally to Spain. Alfasi, known as the RIF, teaches Yosef Ibn Megas, who teaches the poet Yehudah Halevi as well as Maimon, the father of Maimonides. In making this family tree, Papo suggests that there is a Sephardic way of thought (practical) and an Ashkenazic way (theoretical). He tells a story of a community looking for a new rabbi. They stipulate that they are looking for a rabbi with one hand. When asked why, they respond “the old rabbi always said, “on one hand…, but on the other hand…”

As for sightseeing, we traveled a little over an hour outside Barcelona to the very well preserved community of Girona. The home of the Ramban, our group took a tour of the Jewish museum, which included a mikveh and a courtyard with a special gift from the famous Jewish artist Frank Meisler (See below). The Jews of Girona were active in for a few hundred years and quite chummy with the king, although the population never soared because at the end of the day, Girona is not a port town like Barcelona. While Barcelona Jewish life left in 1391, Girona, in the heart of Catalonia, thrived until the expulsion. Speaking of Catalonian, a factoid provided by our guide, Susanna #1: Jews spoke Catalonian and knew hebrew, but Ladino developed later. Who knew?!

We returned for an afternoon of visiting the street market (and seeing the first of two dozen museums for ham) before our Soul of Sefarad concert At Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica Catalana!

Thursday morning we took an early 3 hr train ride (1st class was great!) to Madrid. Some of passengers enjoyed meeting new friends while others learned all the lines to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Espanol.

Our bus tour stopped for 40 minutes for lunch, so Leora and I made it over to the Museo Thyssen. Thanks to my Top 10 book (highly recommended), we saw works by Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso, El Greco, Hopper and Mondrian amongst others.

Our evening activity included a ruach filled welcome reception at the Sefarad Center, a site donated by the city of Madrid and a short walk to the city center. We sang and drank wine to bring our communities together! L’chaim!














Cantors Mission to Spain Day 1

Good morning (or evening)! We’ve had a wonderful first day in Barcelona after our overnight flight from Atlanta. While we missed a stunning a tour of the Barcelona Jewish Quarter (known as El Call), we were able to catch the morning presentation by Professor Berk entitled, “The ‘Greatest’ Year in Spanish History. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…and two other things occurred.”

As I mentioned in my initial post, I had some idea of where Professor Berk would take the lectures, and in fact his train of logic included parallels (and differences) to his analysis of the German Jewish journey from our Germany trip 4 years ago. It is fascinating to see these two stories of German Jewry and Spanish Jewry, take center stage 4 years apart (in lecture time) and hundreds of years apart in real time.

A few notes from Berk:

1492 was a great year for Spanish Catholics. With the conquest of Granada on January 1, the last stand of Muslim Spain was now over.

On March 31 (I’ve mentioned this as being the only factoid I know about my birthday other than sharing it with Al Gore) of the same year, in the Ambassador’s room at the Alhambra, the edict was signed to expel the Jews from Spain. This was the culmination of a long series of events. Berk takes us back:

711- Muslims cross the Straights of Gibraltar to take Spain. At the same time, Berk brings up the Mongol horsemen who rode their way through multiple continents. The question arises: why move? And in this case, why are the Arabs expanding (or leaving) in 711? Jihad (spreading faith by war)? Food shortage? The classical definition of Jihad wins out.

When the Arabs go on the March, 97% of Spain is conquered. This is a “relatively” good time for the Jews. This academic hyopthesis, known as La Convivencia (the coexistence) claims that during this period from the early eight century until 1492, the Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in “relative” peace.

I mentioned this in my earlier blog, but Berk reminds us of this relationship between Jew and Muslim as parallel to what we learned 4 years ago. He states “Don’t look at German-Jewish relations through the prism of the Holocaust, just like you shouldn’t look at the Muslim-Jewish relations through the prism of the present. Times for Jews were “relatively” good as Dhimmis (protected people’s)- legitimate but inferior contributors to society.

So what happens in 1492? The Church is on the March, unified, while there is disunity amongst the Arabs. This is the time of “militant orders” (it wasn’t uncommon to find militant monks).

And the Jews? As we know, in history, perception of reality is what matters. The growing mythology that began with Matthew Chapter 27 has taken form in two ways- Jews are guilty of ritual murder and host desecration so (rabbis supposedly stabbing wafers). In spite of the fact that 1/3 of the Jewish community in Spain opts to convert, there is a growing fear that Judaism will subvert Christianity from within. “Old” Christians are upset- and racist thought comes to the forefront with this notion of “purity of blood.” That was the fear of the church, but the state and the masses also had fears- the legislation that barred Jews from having certain rights was null and void when 1/3 of them converted. There’s lots more to write but that’s a good start on Berk’s lecture ….

We enjoyed a delicious meal at a local all Vegetarian restaurant Teresa Carles (highly recommended!), and later we scarfed down Grilled lamp chops at Maccabi Kosher! Our group continued to Northeast Barcelona, seeing the great works of Antoni Gaudi, whose architecture defines much of the modern city. We passed La Pedrera, an undulating apartment block completed in 1912. This was Gaudi’s last civic work before dedicating 46 years of his life to the Sagrada Familia. We toured Parc Guell, a 14 year project by Gaudi in which the patron Eusebi Guell envisioned gardens, artistic villas and public spaces. This is home to famous mosaics, the most famous being a whimsical dragon. Gaudi’s perspective took into account that no two things in this universe are alike, and the variety of styles and colors incorporated into the park make for a magical experience.

We finished our touring for the day at the impactful Sagrada Familia. While the first stone was laid in 1882, the up and coming Gaudi took over as principal architect a year later and continued with the project until his untimely death in 1926. The church is filled with rich colors, mosaic tiling and gargoyles, as well as a helicoidal stone stairway. From inside and outside, and in spite of the fact that Gaudi has been deceased for the past 90 years as the church continues its construction, the project is totally Gaudi.

The project is financed solely by the millions who visit the sight (set to complete on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026). No political or religious financial aid. This fact, alongside the other spaces Gaudi worked on throughout Barcelona, paint an inspiring tail- that creativity is meant for the masses- we all need colors and spaces for radical thought – from our apartments to our places of worship.

Tomorrow, Girona!







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!