Capitalizing on an Inquisition

In between my SIT-sponsored study abroad program and a two-week sojourn in Morocco, I’m lucky enough to get to spend a full week exploring southern Spain for a vacation and some language practice. So far, I’ve wandered through Sevilla and Cordóba, along with a few very small towns, and I’ll also get to visit Malaga and Granada.


Not only is the area beautiful and very warm (I can go running in shorts and a tank top, while I’m fairly sure it’s snowing in Providence) and filled with good tapas and churros, but it’s also steeped in Arab-Islamic and Sephardic-Jewish history.


For centuries, North African Muslims governed this whole region, supplying it with endless examples of blue-tiled mosques that have now been turned into Catholic cathedrals. There still seems to be quite a lot of immigration and exchange between the Maghreb (specifically Morocco) and this area; I’ve had the chance to practice my Arabic with a few different waiters and shopkeepers, suggesting that Arab-Islamic culture in Spain is not just a historical memory, but is also continuing on in new forms today.


The Jewish culture that used to be such a vital part of Spain, however, appears to be stuck solely in the past.


In Sevilla, I stayed in a hotel in the heart of what used to be a Jewish quarter in the Middle Ages. The synagogues, mikvehs, and Jewish homes were all vacated in 1492 when the infamous King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella called for all Jews to leave the country. The Jewish community that didn’t immediately convert to Catholicism (at least on the surface) responded by immigrating to North Africa (where their descendents lived until the mid-20th century before immigrating once more to France, Canada, the U.S. and Israel). As a legacy of this expulsion there still seem to be very few Jews living here today, and contemporary Jewish culture is relatively hidden. But the memory of a Jewish presence (and the exploitation of that memory for profit) is omnipresent.


Just a block or so from my hotel in Sevilla sits a brand-new museum dedicated to Jewish life in the town during the Middle Ages. A small exhibition of religious artifacts, historical writings, and somewhat exaggerated anecdotes describes the community and laments its loss. I spoke at length with an Israeli tour guide who started working there after moving to Sevilla to study dance. She told me that a local non-Jewish family who owned a flamenco enterprise had spent years collecting the museums’ artifacts and eventually decided to open the museum. I’m not sure if they were motivated to do so out of charity or in the hopes of making money off the streams of Jewish tourists in the region — our tickets were pricey enough that this seemed to be a rather profitable enterprise.


The even more touristic judería in Córdoba had further examples of people capitalizing on some aching for a lost Spanish-Jewish culture. I ate lunch at Don Pepe de la Judería, a tapas restaurant filled with pork and shellfish, but with a logo that looks like a black-hatted man with payos. Kitschy gift shops sell souvenirs marked with menorahs and stars of David, and a luxury hotel, jewelry store, and bagel store are all named after Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker. As nice as I think it is that commercial businesses are helping tourists remember that this Jewish culture existed and thrived in Spain a half-millennium ago, it’s strange to me that a whole group of people is making money off of the memory of a past genocide. I feel like that memory should be more hallowed and respected, not used as a gimmick to draw in tourists.


Casa Mazal, a Sephardic-themed restaurant just steps from the remains of a medieval synagogue in Córdoba, embodied all of these uncomfortable contradictions. A Jewish Sephardic federation that runs a museum in the area opened it very recently — one of the board members thought it was silly that there was no official Sephardic food in the area. They seem to want to accommodate Jewish traditions and the current community, so they offer a Kosher wine option and have no pork or shellfish on the menu. But the restaurant is also filled with kitschy memorabilia that’s more Russian-looking than Spanish, and Israeli music (not Judeo-Arab or Judeo-Spanish) cycles through on repeat. The design of the restaurant seemed more focused on attracting wealthy Jewish tourists than on actually honoring the memory of the Jewish quarter or sharing cuisine from that community.


I’m heading to Granada soon, and I’m a bit worried I’m going to happen upon an inquisition-themed amusement park filled with Yiddish food stands and Israeli pop music. Perhaps I’m being too demanding, but I don’t think this is any way to remember a religious expulsion that truly was tragic and barbaric.