In Rambam’s Footsteps
Tue, 12/08/2009
Born Uriah Rapoport in Minsk, my grandfather changed his last name to Harris when he immigrated to the United States in the late 1870s at the age of 9. I was told he stayed with the Harris family only for one night, but kept their name for the rest of his life. I have nothing against the name Harris, but “Rapoport” connects me to a past before my grandfather. I looked up the name. There were many distinguished Ashkenazi rabbis named “Rapoport” in Eastern Europe, even in Minsk. My great-grandfather was not one of them: he was in the lumber business. I fancied that “Rapaport” was Sephardic in origin. Simple translations of the name gave me a lift. In Spanish, “rapa” is a flower of an olive tree; porto means “I carry.” Similarly, in Portuguese “porto,” the verb, means to carry, and the noun is a harbor or a sweet alcoholic drink. One translation of the Portuguese word “rapa” delighted me: a top with four lettered sides used to play games of chance — a dreidel, no doubt, with “Nes Gadol Hayya Sham” (a great miracle happened there) abbreviated on its sides! When I learned of a 16th-century Italian family named “Porto” that joined a Venetian family named “Rapa,” I imagined that while some Portuguese and Spanish Jews became Conversos or died during the Inquisition, my ancestors, the Rapas and the Portos, left under the Edict of Expulsion, made their way to Italy and then, eventually, to Lithuania. Far-fetched, but perhaps our core is Sephardic. Beginning with this thin personal thread, I studied the fascinating history of the Golden Age of Spain. Commencing in the eighth century with the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, the Golden Age of Spain was a time — unique until contemporary American history — when Jews enjoyed respect, politically and religiously, from the other powerful religions of the day, Islam and Christianity. Jewish religious, cultural, economic and intellectual activity flourished. Jews, like Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, served as advisers to the caliphs. Judah Ha-Levi and Solomon Ibn Gabirol wrote poetry and philosophical works that were influential beyond the Jewish community. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam or Maimonides) wrote one of the most important religious commentaries of all time. Still read, these intangible expressions of the culture of the Golden Age continue to have vitality, informing people’s lives throughout the world. I visited Spain in 1985 in search of tangible evidence of the Golden Age. I wanted to glimpse the shadow of Hasdai Ibn Shaprut’s robes turning a corner in Cordoba, to hear whispers of Judah Halevi’s poetry in the streets of Toledo, to taste the spices of the Moors at dinner in Grenada. An amateur photographer, I hoped to capture images that reflected the past glory. I toured Spain armed with “Jewish Spain: A Guide” by Manuel Aguilar and Ian Robertson, the first guide printed in English devoted entirely to the sites and monuments of special interest to Jewry. To my chagrin, tangible signs of the former Jewish life were elusive. Even where the book described a site of Jewish interest, the site itself had no marker. The few synagogue buildings that had survived through the centuries were used as churches, convents or mosques. Former Jewish cemeteries no longer had tombstones. It was difficult to frame a shot that celebrated the Golden Age. Quite the opposite, one marker in Seville ghoulishly memorialized the terror after the Golden Age had ended. A small tile of a skull with the name “Susona” beneath it was embedded in a wall on the Calle de la Muerte, the Street of Death. It was an ominous reminder of a tragedy of betrayal and death at the hands of the Inquisition authorities. As if the foreboding tile still cast a pall over Jewish life in Seville, a small congregation I visited was known of only by word of mouth. Its members practiced in secret, in a fourth-floor apartment owned by a member of the Jewish community. Entering the makeshift synagogue was like entering a speakeasy; they wanted to know who had sent me before they opened the door. Although Franco presumably had welcomed Jews to Spain during World War II and did not persecute Jews during his rule, no religious organization other than the Catholic Church was allowed to own property in Spain after the Edict of Expulsion, not even 10 years after Franco died and seven years after Spain adopted a constitution. The most visible acknowledgment I saw of the vibrant Jewish life of the Golden Age was in Cordoba. A contemporary street sign announced the Juderia, the Jewish quarter. Down the road was a small square with a statue of Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides. Born in Cordoba in 1135, Rambam fled with his family when the Almohades (fanatical Muslims) invaded Cordoba in 1148 and ordered the Jews to convert, signaling the beginning of the end of the Golden Age. The statue of Rambam was in front of an unmarked building. The building was once a synagogue, constructed in honor of Rambam in 1315, during a period of renewed acceptance of the Jews in Cordoba. However, as the Christians conquered Spain in the 15th century, Jewish life was continuously jeopardized. Once King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella achieved hegemony over Spain in 1492, they issued the Edict of Expulsion. They required all Jews to convert or to leave; those who remained in Spain (and later Portugal) as Jews would be executed. The small Rambam Synagogue was forced to convert, too. It became the San Crispin Church. After viewing the statue, I entered the former synagogue. Afternoon light streamed in the small Moorish windows. A warm glow illuminated the precious sanctuary, a small square room with blessings and honors carved into the stone, a women’s section upstairs. I was taken with the scene, grateful finally to find a piece of the Jewish past. Then I noticed a faded red cross painted on one wall of the sanctuary facing the niche in the eastern wall that once had held the Torah scrolls. The reality that any evidence of Jewish life in Spain had been decimated overwhelmed me. I left the Rambam “synagogue” heavy with the sense that Jewish history had ended in this place. I walked further down the Juderia and entered what once had been the Zocolo, the marketplace in the Jewish Quarter. Expecting to see tourist shops in the square, I saw instead that  a large crowd had gathered. Dignitaries spoke from a podium. Refreshments were being served. A man started talking in Hebrew. In honor of the 850th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides, Israel and Spain announced their first exchange of ministers of culture, a step towards establishing full diplomatic relations between the two countries. As I studied the crowd, it was obvious many of the people were Jewish. They came from France, Israel and other parts of Spain. The next morning, they reconvened at the Rambam Synagogue for the first morning prayer (Shacharit) service there since 1492. Men recited the prayers and read a proclamation. In the women’s section sat three generations of Jews who could trace their families back to Spain. A woman who looked as if she had been born in the 15th century watched in awe. An elderly man from France held a key to a house his family had owned in Cordoba before the Expulsion. He had the honor of mounting the mezuzah on the doorframe of the synagogue, a public rededication after 500 years. I went to Spain to capture a sense of the past. Not finding the glorious past, my photographs told a different story, the story of a great miracle that happened there. When I returned home, I tried to interest curators, museums, and Jewish organization in this story, the rebirth of Jewish history in Spain. Initially, no one responded positively. Nevertheless, my interest in Sephardic Jewish culture was sealed. First, I started to cook Spanish-style food, savoring the olive oil and garlic, pine nuts and capers, almonds and oranges. Then I seized on Moroccan food, fragrant with cumin and coriander, turmeric and lemon. More than the Ashkenazi food of my great-grandparents that was rarely served in my family’s home, Sephardic cuisine awakened my Jewish senses. Twenty years later, on the 850th anniversary of Rambam’s death, the story of the rededication of the synagogue named for him captured attention. Then Makor, the former Jewish cultural center on the Upper West Side, mounted a show of my photographs, in honor of Maimonides: “Susona Returns: The Rebirth of Jewish Life in Spain.” Since poetry had been such a vital part of the culture in the Golden Age, Makor invited Corie Feiner, then its resident poet, to respond to the exhibition with three performance poetry pieces. Her poetry enlivened the photographs. I returned to Spain in 2006 to visit Barcelona. By that time, Barcelona had a Jewish population of about 4,500 people, with two active congregations, one Orthodox and one liberal. Located in what had been the Jewish quarter before Jews were expelled from the province of Catalunia in 1391, a third synagogue — originally built in the fifth century — has recently been excavated and restored. The day we left, it received its first Torah. The miracle continues. Caroline G. Harris is an attorney living in Manhattan.