September 26, 2020 •
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Dear Friends:

I would usually write “Shalom from” in the subject line, but since it is 4:00 AM here in Lisbon, as I sit in the business center of the Corinthia Hotel, Bom Dia – “good morning” – seems more appropriate.

Passover began two weeks ago tonight.  As usual, we took all the furniture – well, not the piano – out of the first floor of the house, put it in the garage, and set up a makeshift table around which we we could shoehorn nearly thirty people for two wonderful Seders.  And after cleaning up on Sunday, we packed and headed to EWR to meet up that evening with twenty two Temple B’nai Abraham friends for our flight to Madrid, where our thirteen day Iberian adventures began the next morning.  We visited Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Cordoba, Seville, Barcelona, Girona, Besalu, Lisbon, Sintra and Evora.  (And I no doubt forget a place or two.)

For a TBA group, this was someplace new.  As always, we sought to understand both the Jewish history and the Jewish actuality to be found.

That history began in early medieval times, as Jewish life grew toward what was rightly called the Golden Age, two or so centuries of prosperity, peace and tolerance, a time of many believe unequalled until the flourishing of Jewish life in North America.  However, in 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, of Christopher Columbus fame, established the Inquisition, and overnight Jewish life ceased.

Jews were not to be found in this part of the world – with an exception I will come back to – until relatively recent times when immigrants from former Spanish colonies like Morocco were allowed in, and they were followed by others from Latin American countries, individuals seeking a political stability, freedom of expression and economic opportunity they did not see in their native lands.

I also had a personal motive.

In 1985 I left Brazil, where I had been serving as a congregational rabbi in Rio de Janeiro, and came back to North America, specifically to New York, more specifically to Columbia University, where I began work on a doctorate in Jewish history.

My area was medieval Spain and Portugal.  With excellent Spanish and Portuguese, this was a natural.  But the key reason was that I had become intrigued by the question of Jewish identity, and at no other time in Jewish history was that question of greater significance.

Jews and other non-Christians in Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1487, had three options:  convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be killed by the Inquisition.  (Obviously, no one deliberately opted for number three!).  Many Jews left, creating the Sephardic diaspora of North Africa; Italy, Holland and England, and a few other places.  Others converted and remained.

Some of course were sincere in their new faith while others were Marranos, hidden Jews, who maintained a secret Jewish life and practice even as to the world around them they were good Catholics.  In a few amazing cases, this continued into the 20th century, and we often heard stories of people whose parents and grandparents had certain home rituals – lighting candles on a Friday, for example – whose origins were unknown.

I have visited Barcelona many times, but I was excited by the opportunity to visit other cities, with no real Jewish presence today, but which are steeped in Jewish history.

What we quickly found was that there is little concrete evidence of that history but a lot of “here there used to be”…a synagogue, a school, a place where Jews lived.  Much of that concrete evidence was eliminated by the Inquisition, but as we learned, a massive 1755 earthquake did its part as well.

Still, many of these cities still possess more than a hint of what was.  In Seville, the name of our hotel was the Casas de la Juderia.  (Homes of the Jewish Quarter)  We walked along many old streets with names that included the word Juderia or something similar.  In Girona, we saw what was once a private home with a notch in the doorframe where the mezuzah was placed.

I was especially moved by yesterday’s visit to the library in Evora, which possesses one of the world’s largest collections of medieval manuscripts and Incanabula, books from the first fifty years after the invention of the printing press. The librarian, Vicente, showed us a book on Astronomy by Abraham Zacutto, a Spanish rabbi who created some of the first permanent star charts, and who gave Vasco da Gama the tools to navigate far to the east.  We also saw manuscripts from the Inquisition itself, and were stunned to learn that large numbers of them, here and elsewhere, had never really been studied.  I had studied manuscripts like this once, and wonder if one post-retirement activity might be to return to scholarship.

The history was moving but as became clear at dinner last night, when we all talked about what struck us the most, were two emotional evenings with the Jewish community of today.

A week ago tonight, we attended services and enjoyed Shabbat dinner with the Bet Shalom congregation of Barcelona, with whom Robin and I spent a Shabbat two years ago.  This is a young congregation, both in terms of its founding a dozen years ago, and the average age of its members.  Visited by a local rabbi occasionally, it is really the lay leaders – especially Jai and Maria – who run things, leading the services, overseeing the schools, and organizing a surprisingly large number of activities.

I can only describe the service as enthusiastic.  Everybody sang, everybody participated, and everyone did so with feeling.  And that included our group…thought it was obvious they were more comfortable with the Hebrew than the Spanish.  (I had been asked to speak, and delivered a sermon, in Spanish.  My fellow travellers told me I had never been more eloquent.)  Dinner afterward was delicious, fun and…late!  We left close to midnight, and that was only because any later would have meant our bus driver was violating union rules!

Two days ago, we observed Yom HaShoah here in Lisbon, at the annual community commemoration, which is held at the one local synagogue, founded a hundred years ago by Jews from North Africa.  The beautiful building was full, and has there are only at most a couple of hundred Jews in Lisbon, many were obviously not Jewish.

Several ambassadors were present, including those from Germany, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Poland…and of course Israel.  The Israeli ambassador spoke, as did the president of the community, adolescents from the community engaged in readings and music, several short videos captured the meaning and significance of the day.  At dinner after, with some new Portuguese friends, several us admitted that tears welled up in our eyes.

So much happened in these days…numerous other Jewish encounters, so many nice people along the way, beautiful rides in the country side…and I haven’t even mentioned the Alhambra!  (We were told Washington Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow there, though I am not sure I believe that.)  But I have already written a lot, it is nearing 6:00 AM, and that means I need to go shower, pack, and get on the bus with everyone else and head to the airport.  (In other words, please forgive any typos or less than pristine grammar…no time to proof!)

I hope I sleep on the plane.  When we arrive Robin and I will head home, stopping on the way to pick up the dog.  Then it’s on to Temple B’nai Abraham for the evening service, and back in the morning for Parashat HaShavuah, and the morning service when Dylan Dennis and Noah Berger will become Bat and Bar Mitzvah.

It has been an amazing journey, and I cannot imagine better company than that Robin and I have enjoyed since April 2.  It was a fun, interesting, interested, group, filled with good humor and warmth.  We all already knew one another; now we know one another even better.

I hope your own Passover was meaningful, and that these last two week have been good.  I’ll see you soon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Kulwin


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