The New Jewish Heritage Push
Five hundred years after Spain expelled its Jews, it wants them back.
I stepped into the brilliant sunshine of a plaza in Catalonia, and the first thing that caught my eye was a banner — in Hebrew. Above it, in Catalan, read the translation: “Noah’s Ark: A Holiday Exhibition” at the Museum of Miniatures and Microminiatures.
My husband and I were in Besalú, an enchanting village in the shadow of the Pyrenees, the kind of place where a Catholic church normally dominates — both physically and metaphorically. But the first sign I saw was in Hebrew. The second was a prominent poster for Besalú’s medieval Jewish bath, the only one left in Catalonia, along with guided tours of the Jewish quarter.
Spanish tourism authorities have launched a worldwide campaign aimed at drawing Jewish tourists — and their vacation dollars — to its network of Jewish heritage sites. The Red de Juderías Españolas is an ongoing, collaborative effort by municipalities from Catalonia to Andalusia to renovate the vestiges of Sephardic Jewish life, nearly all of which date from medieval times.
While Jewish tourists are the primary focus, Spanish officials consider the recuperation of Sephardic heritage to be a national priority — and a collective patrimony.
Indeed, scholars widely agree that when Spain expelled its Jews and Moors with a rallying cry of “pureza de sangre” (blood purity), the country’s intellectual and creative community was hollowed from within, leading to centuries of slow decline from its Golden Age.
The Inquisition’s rejection of all things Jewish was terrifyingly effective: Spanish Jewry virtually disappeared in 1492. With few exceptions, contemporary Spain is almost eerily devoid of any Jewish presence. The recent valoration of Spanish-Jewish heritage is therefore somewhat bittersweet.
I’ve been exploring my way across Sephardic Spain this year, most recently in Catalonia, where surnames like Mateu linger as evidence of (converted) Jewish roots. Along with Andalusia, Catalonia is rich in tangible Jewish history that dates to Roman times.
And so we found ourselves in Besalú, a town tucked into the Garrotxa countryside.
It was windy and a bit chilly when we left the coast at sunrise. But an hour into a back-road drive through deep green forests, fields of summer flowers and crumbling stone towers, the air seemed to shimmer with heat.
From the first glimpse, Besalú captivates with a singularly dramatic setting. Against a backdrop of dark-green mountains, a cluster of golden buildings rises alongside a wide, shallow river. The scene is framed by a medieval bridge, whose majestic arches span the water from town to forest.
This layout allows for numerous, equally compelling viewpoints. From the bridge, you can take in the full scenery of village, river and mountain. Alongside the river, a park with a pleasant picnic area has stunning views of the bridge. The town itself invites meandering: picturesque alleys lead from a 14th-century hospital to ceramic boutiques and spooky, thousand-year-old stone chapels.
The Jews of Besalú occupied a waterfront quarter until their expulsion in 1436. Today, a “street of the Jews” leads down to a reconstructed plaza, where recent efforts have restored remnants of the ancient synagogue and school walls. Off the plaza and through a narrow portal, the mikveh is a few steps down; the tourism office organizes four daily tours.
In March, a weekend-long festival celebrated Besalú Jewish heritage with a concert by the group Massada, regional Jewish cuisine, and guided walks with retellings of Catalan Jewish legends. Many visitors to Besalú these days hail from Israel, I was told, and many are interested in tracing Sephardic roots.
The “Noah’s Ark” exhibit was conceived for the festival season. “We wanted to coincide with the holiday of Purim,” explained the friendly museum docent. The show — a series of biblical scenes in miniature — is a way for Besalú to add a modern, living note to its historical Jewish identity.
The museum is one of the oddest and most delightful in existence. It starts with a roomful of what appear to be dioramas — exquisitely detailed interiors, worlds wrought inside shoeboxes.
But we’ve all seen dollhouses. What really blows the mind are two rooms of “microminiatures,” where spectators peer through magnifying glasses mounted atop the tiny art. Approaching the glass, you see a sewing needle; upon closer inspection, you see a dozen-camel caravan marching through the eye. The Eiffel Tower, recreated atop the head of a pin, is precisely 10,000 times smaller than the original.
“The artists hold their breath while they work. Even a heartbeat can destroy their creation,” said the docent.
Who would devote himself to such an endeavor? In a town dedicated to the preservation and celebration of every remaining trace — no matter how minute — of its Jewish heritage, the dedication of these artists seems right at home.