Toledo: The Tale of Two Synagogues

By Kay Lorraine

After the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the 15th century, eight of Toledo’s ten synagogues and its five Talmudic schools were destroyed. The two remaining synagogues in Toledo are no longer used for religious purposes but are open for educational purposes. And the difference between the two is dramatic. The first synagogue you find inside the Jewish Quarter is owned by the Catholic Church. There is absolutely no mention of the original name (Ibn Shushan Synagogue) anywhere on the building. In 1550, about 150 years after the massacre in which virtually all the Jews of Toledo were slaughtered, an order of monks renamed the building Santa María La Blanca in an effort to drive out the perceived “darkness” of the building’s Jewish past. The Catholics charge a healthy admission fee to get into the synagogue and the adjoining “museum.” They tout the museum as a big attraction. What you get for your money is a totally empty building, except for a cross, and a Christian propaganda display.

I have no problem with Christian symbols. Good grief, I was raised Methodist. But I find it deeply offensive and inappropriate that the Catholic Church is charging money to tour a synagogue where they have prominently displayed their cross. The entry fee includes the “museum.” In reality, it is merely a room where a nun will sell you propaganda about the Fraternidad Maria Estrella de la Manana, canonically founded in 1999 by His Excellency Braulio Rodrigues Plaza. This foundation is “inspired by the Holy Spirit and nourished by the spiritual doctrine of St. John of the Cross… due to the rupture between Israel and the One True Church.” The nun will also accept additional donations. That’s their Jewish “museum.” Period.

There is a group of Spanish Jews out of Madrid who have petitioned the Archbishop of Toledo to transfer ownership and custodianship of the property to them. The Church does not even acknowledge their request. The building is being used for no religious purposes, but I suppose it does raise quite a bit of money for the Catholics from admission fees. By comparison, the other synagogue in Toledo is the Synagogue of El Tránsito. It is owned by the government of Spain, not the church. We paid nothing to get in. There is a sizeable Jewish museum attached to the synagogue.  They also have done extensive archeological excavations that are open to the public at no cost.  Among the things discovered in the excavations is an ancient mikvah.

The interior of this synagogue is beautiful. It is famous for its rich Nasrid-style polychrome stuccowork, which bears comparison with the Alcazar of Seville and the Alhambra palaces in Granada. The ceilings rival some of the great cathedrals, and women’s section in the balcony is decorated with intricate molding and Hebrew inscriptions that go all the way around the sanctuary. No part of the synagogue seems to be off-limits to tourists. The accompanying museum contains a wide assortment of Judaica, including ancient menorah, shofars, beautiful candlesticks, kippahs, tefillin, mezuzahs, kiddish cups, challah covers, etc. Each one has a detailed explanation so that non-Jews can understand the significance and appreciate the artistry. The government has also gathered abandoned Jewish tombstones from all over Spain and made a lovely garden of remembrance within the Synagogue grounds. There are no bodies there – just stones that they are preserving. There is absolutely no Christian propaganda being distributed in the Synagogue of El Tránsito.

Before leaving Toledo, I saw two other things that highlight the way the Spanish just don’t “get it” about what they did to the Jews. There are “Inquisition Exhibitions” in virtually all of the major cities, so that people can view the “ancient instruments of torture” for their amusement. One of them was right around the corner from our hotel and it had several examples of the torture-toys on display behind a window; people were constantly holding their children up to the window so that they could be entertained by them. Another was a detailed explanation in the town cathedral describing the way the Spanish consider the “conversions” of the Spanish Inquisition and the “decline of the Jews” to be just a part of the “Golden Age” of Spain. Gee. Just when you think it is safe to go back into the water…