The Last Jews in Grenada

by Kay Lorraine

In August and September of this year, my husband and I rented a car and traveled throughout Spain, soaking up the culture (and some fine food). I knew, of course, about the Spanish Inquisition but I was so naïve, I didn’t realize how widespread the consequences of it are still being felt today.

A man and two women

Image 1: Gabriel and Beatriz Perez. The only two Jews in Granada.

The Last Jews. This is Gabriel Perez and Beatriz Cavalier Perez. They are the ONLY Jews in Granada (population 255,000). In 2013, they opened the Sephardic Museum of Granada to help shed light on an ancient community which flourished there until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Gabriel and Beatriz are unique because in most places in the Iberian Peninsula of Spain there are no Jews left at all. None. Zero. Nada. As Brad and I traveled around southern Spain, I became almost obsessed with finding an active shul. When I was unable to find any Jews at all, I started to do some research, and this is what I learned:

From the 6th through the mid-11th centuries the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were generally accepted in society and Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life flourished.

A semi-open area with a menorah on a window ledge and plants.

Image 2: The museum created by Gabriel and Beatriz Perez.

Prior to 581, the Visigoths were mainly indifferent towards Jews and allowed them to grow and prosper. Once the Visigoths joined the Catholic Church, however, they began to persecute the Jews. No wonder the Jews welcomed the Muslim Arab conquerors in the 8th century.

Under Muslim rule, Jews prospered culturally and economically. They dominated the sciences (mathematics, astronomy, botany, and medicine) and arts (philosophy and poetry) and some notable figures held high posts in the Caliphate of Cordoba. Muslim Spain was probably the biggest center of contemporary Judaism in the entire world. There was still some persecution of the Jews, but it was nevertheless better than the rest of Europe.

 

 

A stone path with a Star of David design

Image 3: These Magen David symbols are in the walkways from the days when they showed the entrance to the Jewish Section of Granada.

With the death of Al-Hakam II in 976, the position of the Jews became more precarious. The first mass persecution of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic rule was the 1066 Granada Massacre. A Muslim mob massacred many of the Jewish population of the city of Granada. More than 4,000 people from 1,500 Jewish families were slaughtered in one day.

Many Jewish scholars then fled the Muslim-controlled portion of Iberia for the city of Toledo, which had been re-conquered by Christian forces. For the next 350 years, Toledo was a thriving Jewish quarter of approximately 50,000 Jews. It became a great intellectual center, famous throughout Europe.

By the 14th century, however, the Catholics began a systematic “cleansing” of Spain. A full-scale pogrom broke out in Seville on June 6, 1391.  The infuriated populace attacked from all sides, plundering and burning the Jewish houses. Many fell victims to the mob’s fury, although some of the Jews accepted baptism to save their lives. At this point, the so-called “Jewish problem” became the “converso problem.” As a result, the once vibrant Jewish community never recovered and, along with the other Jews of Andalusia, they were exiled in 1483, 9 years before the final expulsion.

A stone staircase with Star of David patterns

Image 4: These Magen David symbols are in the walkways from the days when they showed the entrance to the Jewish Section of Granada.

In 1328, 5,000 Jews were killed in Navarre. In 1355, about 1,200 Jews were murdered in Toledo. The pogroms continued from 1360 to 1366.  Henry de Trastámara and his brother invaded Castile and murdered the entire Jewish population of Najera, Villadiego, Aguilar, Paredes, Palencia and many other towns. 300 Jewish families from Jaén were taken as prisoners to Granada.

The massacres of 1391 slaughtered 4,000 of Seville’s 7000 Jews. In Córdoba the entire Judería was burned down; factories and warehouses were destroyed by the flames and the corpses of 2,000 Jews lay in the streets. In the city of Toledo, Jews were burned at the stake, subjected to forced conversions and a blood bath of mass murder.

In 1481, thanks to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the Spanish Inquisition started, with its headquarters at the Castillo San Jorge in Seville, targeting Jews among other groups; in 1483 all Jews were expelled from the city; and in 1492 the Alhambra Decree required all of Spain to be free of Jews and expelled all who would not convert to Christianity. Half of the country’s 300,000 Jews left, many for Portugal; the rest were forced to “convert” and a few stayed in hiding. Eventually, they traveled north to escape further persecution.

A series of rectangular monuments with inscriptions and images.

Image 5: Lucena’s Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately, it was locked up when I visited but I was able to take some pictures through the fence.

On our way to Cordoba, Brad and I took a side trip to go to Lucena where, during construction of Lucena’s southern ring road, in 2006, they accidentally discovered 346 tombs, dating from the 8th century to the first half of the 11th century, when Lucena was an important center of Andalusian Jewry. The Jewish Necropolis of Lucena is believed to be the oldest known Jewish cemetery in Spain. The local government has been working closely with UJCARE (Federación de Comunidades Judías de España) and the CPJCE (Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe) to preserve the Necropolis and its cultural significance. In December 18 of 2011, 170 remains of Kedoshim that had been exhumed during the construction work were reburied in the cemetery. The reburial was carried out by members of the Chevra Kadisha of Madrid, under full Halachic guidance of the Rabbinical Board of the CPJCE.

A series of pits next to a monument

Image 6: Many of the tombs consist of a pit and side chamber.

I traveled to Seville, Jerez do la Frontera, Córdoba, Lucena, and Toledo, I asked repeatedly and could find no evidence of a single Jew left in any of these cities. Is there a “Jewish Section?” Sure, sometimes. Are there shops there selling Judaica? Yes, and they are universally manned by Spanish gentiles, more than happy to take your money.

Monuments

Image 7: Although I was not able to enter, I was pleased to see that at least one community cared about the history of the Jews in Spain.

The Jews of Spain (south of Madrid) simply ceased to exist.

I physically went to whatever is left of the Jewish Quarter of every city I visited in Spain on this trip. Mostly there is nothing to see except a brief plaque about what used to be there. It is very sad.

 

 

Two people in an alley way decorated with planters

Image 8: Here we are in the lovely flowered streets of the old Jewish district of Cordoba. That’s pretty much all that’s left of the Jews here. The Jewish district began with the construction of a wall during medieval times that separated Jews from the rest of the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An arch shaped entryway to a building.

The only synagogue in Cordoba.

A Hebrew plaque reading Shel toledo harova ha yehudi

This marks the beginning of the Jewish Section in Toledo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictorial Log 

(goes with the pictures)

 

  1. Gabriel and Beatriz Perez. The only two Jews in Granada.
  2. In their little museum, they have created a sukkah to show Gentiles the Sukkot traditions.
  3. These Magen David symbols are in the walkways from the days when they showed the entrance to the Jewish Section of Granada.
  4. Once again, the entrance to the former Jewish Section of Granada.
  5. Lucena’s Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately, it was locked up when I visited but I was able to take some pictures through the fence.
  6. Many of the tombs consist of a pit and side chamber. 
  7. Although I was not able to enter, I was pleased to see that at least one community cared about the history of the Jews in Spain.
  8. Here we are in the lovely flowered streets of the old Jewish district of Cordoba. That’s pretty much all that’s left of the Jews here. The Jewish district began with the construction of a wall during medieval times that separated Jews from the rest of the city. Isn’t that lovely? (I’m being snide.)
  9. The only synagogue in Cordoba – but it’s empty and nonfunctional, so there’s nothing to see.
  10. This marks the beginning of the Jewish Section in Toledo.
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