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Discovering a Forgotten Past In Girona, Spain

Discovering a Forgotten Past In Girona, Spain

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It is a January morning in Girona, a Catalan city of modest size about an hour's drive north of Barcelona. From the window of the Hotel Ultonia, children in uniform can be seen crossing the street on their way to school. Around the corner, the chef at the Larcada restaurant builds a fire of cork and olive wood over whose embers mushrooms, leeks, and fresh fish will be grilled for the lunchtime crowd and wonders how the local teenagers can like the food at the fast food joint a block away. Stores are opening, people are walking in purposeful stride to get to work; at a busy intersection, a modest traffic jam briefly blocks the pedestrian crosswalk. 

Such typical scenes of modern city life all stop flat at the River Onyar, a copper-colored band in the hazy morning light. On the other side, the old town of Girona rises from the hillside - a jumble of multi-hued structures, sloping tiled roofs, Romanesque towers, and Gothic spires. The Carrer de la Forca, once part of the ancient Roman route that crossed the Iberian peninsula, begins just beyond the footbridge. It is a narrow and steep cobblestone road leading to even narrower lanes that climb to even steeper heights only to disappear into sudden cul de sacs. Stone buildings, huddled one against the other, hover over the byways. Some are linked to facing buildings, making of the street below a dim and silent tunnel. 

Even by such standards, the Carrer de Sant Llorenc is more a dark alley than a street. Turned into a stairway to ease the pedestrian climb, it levels off at the doorway of a massive building. But beyond the door, the gloom is suddenly lifted as one steps into an airy alcove leading onto a bright, sun-splashed patio. There, flowered vines are cascading down from surrounding balconies. Arched recesses break the stone walls, and a profusion of plants line the gleaming granite floor. It is paved with slabs the color of earth except for the center where white, beige and brown blocks are formed into an enormous Star of David. 

This is the heart of the Call, the legendary medieval Jewish community of Girona where the Kabbalah was first written down. For nearly 500 years, it lay buried, literally sealed off, as houses and streets were, in successive layers, built over it. Now in an ambitious restoration project, Gironans are digging down through levels of construction and back through centuries to unearth a part of Jewish and Catalan history that began at the start of the ninth century, ended at the close of the fifteenth, and then slowly faded from public memory until it was completely forgotten. 

Assumpcio Hosta, the young historian who directs the project, tells how the remembering began: "For many years, people who lived in the old town were those who inherited houses. They did not like to live near the ground so they built apartments over the old ones. Through the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, they kept building up. But as the new part of town started to develop, people began moving there, and the old town became a less desirable place. "Then in the 1970s, the life of the city started to change. It became fashionable for rich people to move out of the new section to the hills surrounding the old town. From there, some moved back inside the old town." 

One of them was Jose Tarres, a restaurateur, and according to Ms. Hosta, "a kind of poet," who acquired a group of eleventh-century buildings near the cathedral. He discovered in one of them the remains of a medieval yeshiva founded by the renowned philosopher, Talmudist, and Kabbalist Rabbi Moses ben Nachman also known as Nahmanides. Tarres became imbued with the idea that a Jewish Aljama once existed in his city, and he was living in the midst of it. He set the Star of David into the floor of his patio and began talking about his city's glorious Jewish past. "At first, his ideas were met with disbelief," Ms. Hosta notes. "'Why are you now starting to talk about the Jewish heritage that we never heard of before?' people would ask. For while the outside world may have known Girona was once a great center of Jewish learning and mysticism, the people of Girona knew nothing about this. 

"My generation, to give you an example, had been educated during Franco's time," she explains. "The history of Catalonia was not taught. We only learned about the Catholic monarchs, the unification of Spain. As far as we knew, the expulsion of the Jews was something that happened elsewhere: in Seville, Granada, Toledo. We had no idea there was ever a Jewish community here." 

Actually, among intellectual circles, knowledge of the Jewish past had never disappeared, but it remained the province of a closed group of scholars. In the mid nineteenth century, a construction company laying the railway line from Barcelona to France found over twenty Jewish tombstones on a site known to this day as Mt. Juic (Mountain of the Jews). But this evidence of a medieval Jewish presence failed to awaken a public consciousness. It was only in the 1970s when the old town started to become a desirable location and people like Mr. Tarres began excavating buildings and opening up streets sealed for centuries that Girona began to shake off its collective amnesia. 

Ms. Hosta speculates that when the Jews were expelled in 1492, they blocked off their property and byways hoping to return one day. At the same time, she reasons, the church discouraged Christians from moving into former Jewish homes, and people feared doing so would encourage suspicions they were secret Jews. Thus the Call, unoccupied and sealed off, lay buried under successive layers of construction, under a kind of "Sleeping Beauty" spell for almost 500 years until a process we call "gentrification" brought it to life once again. 

It did not take long for public skepticism to give way to curiosity. "Historians and archaeologists in town who had some knowledge of the subject started to write about it, and people began to read about it. Our Jewish heritage soon became a popular idea," Ms. Hosta says. Curiosity led to commitment. In the early 1980's, the City of Girona began reclaiming its long-neglected legacy through a project named "Bonastruc ca Porta" (Nahmanides in the Catalan tongue). Spearheaded by Girona's mayor Joaquim Nadal, a rare combination of historian and politician, this visionary effort aims to restore the Call and establish within its labyrinthic structures a Kabbalah study center and museum of Catalan Jewish history. 

It has been a dual process: acquiring and renovating properties on the one hand and self education on the other. In 1987, the city purchased the building on Carrer de Sant Llorenc (now called Isaac el Cec) along with the adjoining patio (now called the Courtyard of the Rabbis). "No one realized the dimensions of the project at that time," Ms. Hosta says. "We thought we had bought the whole thing. But as we started to learn, we saw we had only a small piece of the property, and so we bought surrounding structures. 

"We knew nothing. We had to find out what happened. We turned to rabbis, to Jewish scholars. They came from all over the world, and they let us know what we had." 
A search of city documents yielded 1200 archival manuscripts written in Hebrew, Catalan, and Latin. Hidden in the binding of one of these old books were 100 Hebrew parchments, intact. "We had a rabbi from Yeshiva University of New York here at that time," Ms. Hosta relates. "He was thrilled. He said, 'You must give us these documents, and we will study them.' They had the knowledge we lacked, so we agreed. They did a computer-study and returned them to us for preservation." 
The parchments provided a wellspring of knowledge. Many dealt with items of domestic life. Some were commentaries on the Talmud. Another described one of the three synagogues of Girona -- locating it according to the houses it faced to the north and south. On the basis of such information, the Bonastruc ca Porta project took shape.

Where exactly the synagogue was situated in the collection of acquired buildings is still a mystery. What is known is that these multi-leveled stone structures, turned in on themselves with their unexpected alcoves, arched doorways and Romanesque windows overlooking tranquil gardens and courts, made up a communal center that contained a butcher shop, hospital, school, and ritual bath as well as synagogue. The surrounding buildings with their maze of blocked-off streets were homes of individual families. But these have been converted into modern apartments and are privately owned. "Of course we would like some day to own these too and to open up the streets that still are blocked," Ms. Hosta says. 

If some Gironans were initially incredulous upon hearing about a buried Jewish past in their city, some Jewish visitors were initially skeptical about Girona's sudden interest in a history it had for so long ignored. But the enthusiasm and interest behind the project has put such doubts to rest. Links have been established with the American Sephardic community, the Museum of the Diaspora, and the Israel Embassy. Acre has become Girona's twin city. The government of Israel provides a consultant for the project, and every summer Girona hosts a contingent of young Israeli musicians. 

The Bonastruc ca Porta project is not an exercise in uncovering an historical aberration that existed for a while and disappeared. It is viewed from within the context of Catalan history; by reclaiming its Jewish legacy, Girona is reclaiming its own past. At an international congress hosted by the city, a participant discovered the names of those Jews who opted for conversion over exile in 1492, a time when they were 10% of the city's population. These names, in various forms, are still found among contemporary Gironans. "There is interest and pride among the general population not only in the possibility of learning about this forgotten part of their history, but perhaps their own Jewish roots as well," says Mayor Nadal. 

In less than two decades, the citizens of this city have shaken off centuries of ignorance and indifference. A passerby points to a rectangular indentation in the doorway of an old building and explains it once held a "mezzuzah." A librarian shows off a facsimile of a fourteenth-century Haggadah from Barcelona and describes with familiarity the conflict between the Jews of southern and northern Spain. "Cordoba was a more materialistic and pragmatic center. But Girona was mystical; we had the Kabbalah," she says. 

Ms. Hosta wonders why it was her city that inspired such heights of mystical thought. "Perhaps because Girona was in the middle, between the French border and Barcelona. It was a network place. Though the Call in Barcelona was larger, Girona's was more important. The school was here." 

This generation of Gironans has had to educate itself about its past, and it plans to perpetuate what has been learned. Groups of children from all over Catalonia are regular visitors to the center. "They are very curious," says Ms. Hosta. "They want to know who the Jews were, why they left, where they are now." 

When in 1993, Girona hosted its first Shabbat service in over 500 years, the center was filled to overflowing as a cantor led the congregation in prayers translated from Hebrew into Spanish. Representatives from an American support group and the Jewish community of Barcelona joined citizens of Girona in this historic event which was followed by an Oneg Shabbat. 

Mayor Nadal ponders the mystique of his city. "What is it about Girona, that it should have caused the admiration of Leonard Bernstein, or caused Teddy Kollek, the legendary Mayor of Jerusalem, to make a private pilgrimage? What inspired the brilliant historical studies of Gershom Schollem, what is it that inspires the ecstacy, the emotion of Jews from all over the world when they visit the Call? The result of all these questions has prompted the city to seek once again a memory, a consciousness of history, and to understand an area which until now has lain hidden, forgotten in a corner." 

Through its Bonastruc ca Porta project, Girona acknowledges the suffering exile caused half a millenium ago, so pointedly articulated by no other than Nahmanides for whom it is named: "I am the man who has felt the stab of pain. I left behind the table spread for me, I went far from my friends and companions, because the journey is long and full of trials. I, who was a prince among my brothers, live now in an inn for travellers. House and inheritance too I left behind me, and I left my soul and my spirit there with the sons and daughters that I loved, and with the little children I looked after." 


About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

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