An authentic medieval mikvah rests near a stone bridge and the picturesque river it spans in the Catalonian city of Besalu. Clearly marked signs identify the newly renovated "call," or medieval Jewish quarter, in the nearby city of Tortosa. And the restored cobblestone streets of neighboring Girona lead to the site of a former synagogue where Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman) may have prayed.
These are just a few examples of the Jewish presence that can now be felt in Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain. Well-known Spanish cities such as Toledo, which once hosted one of history's greatest Jewish communities, and Cordoba, where Maimonides lived, have long recognized their Jewish roots. But this is a relatively new phenomenon in Catalonia, or as the locals say in their native eponymous tongue, Catalan.
The Spanish Board of Tourism and several Catalan organizations working to celebrate Spain's Mosaic heritage recently invited a group of Jewish journalists to witness their efforts.
Most cities we visited share certain traits. Prior to the Inquisition, the number of their Jewish residents generally comprised 10 percent to 25 percent of the total population. Several but not all of these destinations are now represented by the Red de Juderias de Espana-Caminos de Sefarad, or Network of Spanish Jewish Sites-Roads of Sepharad. The long moniker hints at the organization's goals.
The Red is a public nonprofit association that aims to defend the history, architecture, culture and artistic pursuits of the lost Jewish communities of Spain. It consists of representatives from cities spread across the Iberian Peninsula that have restored or are working to restore their former Jewish quarters, such as Tortosa and Girona. The latter hosts the Red's offices and played an instrumental role in organizing our visit.
Other Red members include Caceres, Cordoba, Hervas, Oviedo, Ribadavia, Segovia, Toledo and Tudela. In these destinations it's simple to locate and tour an area populated by Jews in the Middle Ages. But sadly, in many of the cities we visited, there wasn't always much to see. Throughout our trip, our guides spent so much time searching for tiny nooks where a mezuzah might have hung more than 500 years ago that it was tragically comical.
The Red's other efforts are much more concrete. It also organizes concerts, lectures, discussions, Hebrew classes, even courses on traditional Sephardi cooking. Because there are few if, any Jews, living in most of these outlying cities, Hebrew classes and other programs are typically attended by non-Jews. Many of these participants claim some sort of Jewish descent, but without documentation or other forms of evidence, it's nearly impossible to know who truly has Jewish ancestors and who does not.
We were, nevertheless, amazed to see the number of non-Jews committed to preserving Jewish culture and history. Many of them know more than assimilated American Jews. And to quench their thirst for information, which somewhat parallels the intense interest in Jewish culture in contemporary Germany and Poland, various institutions are producing materials on all things Jewish. In the cities we visited, it was easy to find maps, books, CDs, videos and even a small recipe guide that specifically relate to the Jewish experience of Spain. In an effort to honor the culinary pursuits of Spain's Jewish population, a Spanish woman named Ana Bensadon recently published a modest cookbook featuring dishes for a traditional Sephardi Shabbat meal. "La Cocina Sefardi" (accent on the /i/ in Sefardi) is published by the Network of Spanish Jewish Sites-Roads of Sepharad in conjunction with the government-owned Paradores hotel chain.
The book is not available in English, but my mother, Alegre, a native Spanish speaker, has translated one of these treasured recipes, which were "guarded for generations."
The Red de Juderias-Caminos de Sefarad can be reached c/o the Permanent Secretary Office at email@example.com; phone 34-629-778-448; fax, 34-972-214-618; Apartado de Correos 379, 17080 Girona, Espana. For information and reservations at the Paradores hotel chain, visit www.parador.es or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Classic Sephardi Eggplant Salad
4 medium eggplants
3 large yellow onions, cut into small strips
2-4 pounds firm, ripe tomatoes, peeled and mashed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon sugar (helps eliminate acidic flavors)
1 pinch fresh ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Salt to taste
1. Fry the onions in a generous amount of oil. Add the tomatoes, garlic and sugar. Cook slowly on a low-to-medium flame until the mixture takes on a jam-like consistency. Meanwhile, broil the eggplants just until the skin begins to blacken. Cool the eggplants, then peel and chop.
Add eggplant to the pan of onions and tomatoes. Then add the remaining spices. Stir well.
2. Continue cooking the mixture until all water has evaporated. Remove from heat. Refrigerate overnight, allowing the flavors to marinate. Serve cold.
Lisa Alcalay Klug, a former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, writes for The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and other publications.