Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Of Converts and Legends: Toledo, Spain in the 21st Century

José María Moreno Santiago, Vista de Toledo

Toledo, the Jewel of Sefarad, la Jerusalén de los sefarditas
Most visitors go to the Judería of Toledo, Spain for half a day, only 33 minutes from Madrid by bullet train, and find themselves overwhelmed. For the Jewish tourist, la alhaja (gem) of the visit is usually the Sinagoga de Samuel Ha Leví / Nuestra Señora de Tránsito y Museo Sefardí (the Samuel Ha Leví / Transito Synagogue and Sephardi Museum) located near the El Greco Museum in the Judería Mayor and facing the Tagus River, which is located at the edge of Tránsito Square. Five hundred years ago, this empty space was filled with Jewish homes. Today those Jews are either dead as the victims or 14th century pogroms and an Inquisition that lasted from 1492 until 1834, or spread like seeds from an álamo tree that cries for Spanish soil, across the world from New York to Jerusalem, some holding a key to a house in Toledo.
A Church that Wants to Be a Synagogue

Santa María la Blanca Synagogue, December 2011 (Copyright Felisa Meter).
The Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca, the church that wants to be a synagogue, is seldom visited by the Jewish tourist, and it is becoming even less of a favorite Jewish stopping place, a place of prayer for the dead. It has once again become a full church disguised as a place where the two religions can meet in peace. A judeo converso has made it his own private art gallery and place where to hook Jews to convert to the Roman Catholic faith. Vicente Ferrer, the 14th century priest who converted thousands of Jews into his private new anusim, new Christians, comes alive once again. The 15th century Dominican forcefully converted  buildings into Christian churches. One such synagogue was in Toledo, later renamed Santa María la Blanca which is still owned by the Church, where today an anusim, Abraham Kron and his Fraternidad María Estrella de la Mañana (Fraternity Mary Morning Star) has taken over the church and ancient synagogue in order to fish out new anusim. His carnada, or hook with which he goes fishing, is not violence this time but some bad art, a group of quiet nuns, tour guides, and some Jewish celebrations.
Some orthodox Jews refuse to enter such a building (A Madrid rabbi warns them, "If it says 'Blanca', do not enter!"), others feel uncomfortable, but the majority, like myself, take it in stride. It is part of a historical cycle that continues and is not much different from what it used to be. Now it is in the open, sugar coating or not, Toledo is a city that does not want Jews. It is a city that breaks windows of Jewish bookstores and restaurants. It is a city where tourist guides rather not deal with Jewish tourists. We are “a difficult lot, specially the Americans and Israelis.” What they do want from us is the dollars and the shekels. With those in hands, they will look the other way and swallow hard when they want to say that it was really the British historians that exaggerated about the seriousness of the Spanish Inquisitions, and that really we Jews bring it on ourselves like we always do. Of course, they are not anti-Semitic. They, the Toledans, are truthful, and Jews are good for high-end tourism. If you do not believe me, ask the mayor and the councillor of tourism, both “socialists and lovely people”!

A House that Does Not Belong to a Jew

Outside, basement (XIV or XV century), and patio (XIX century) of the "The House of the Jew"-- Toledo, Spain (Copyright, Consortium of Toledo and José María Moreno Santiago, photographer).
I should say that the mayor, the tourism councillor, the Consorcio, the owner of the house, and perhaps some people making money out of the publicity, want the legend to be true. The building located on Travesía de la Judería which is called by the city officials “La Casa del Judío” (The House of the Jew) has been open to the tourists since 2010, and all tours-that are in Spanish-have propagated the “legend” that here lived the Jew that funded Columbus’ voyage to the “new” continent. It can be visited only on Saturdays through previous appointment with the Consortium of Toledo, which leaves out all Jews who celebrate the Sabbath. Other arrangements can be made with an official guide who has a key to the building. Only the basement can be visited, "a 15-minute run through some archeological rocks," as an “official guide” so succinctly put it for me, very similar to what is left of the Sofer Synagogue, only a few blocks away. It is true, nevertheless, that “The Jew’s House” (what a horrible name, but the mayor of Toledo found it “normal”) has been made “pretty” for the “rich” Jewish tourists. Nonetheless, I was warned not to venture alone to "The Jew's House" because the "old lady," a woman my age, who owned it and lived there had a temper. I was introduced to the lovely woman by one of her neighbors and that was how I got to see her 19th century patio, no Jewish stories there. All she spoke to me about was her dead husband and the new boyfriend she was looking for in the Internet, even though she owned no computer, but that is a different Toledan story.

No one is supposed to know, outside of a few citizens of Toledo, about the existence of the old Synagogue of Sofer, which is located across the street from the 15th century palace/convent of the Catholic King Fernando and Queen Isabella, and covered with water filtered through it wooden cover that lets not only rain through, but also garbage. The Synagogue of Sofer was “found,” after it disappeared from sight in 1480, by Professor Jean Passini, whose articles and book  about Toledo and its Jewish Quarter I highly recommend. Today only a tourist guide can unlock the site that has no remains of the synagogue, which whatever has left--one wall--is covered.

Beam from "The House of the Jew"-- Toledo, Spain (Thanks to an official guide of Toledo).

According to a description by the Consortium, the building is XIV or XV and XVIII or XIX. When one does further research on a carved wooden beam above that has the following Hebrew verses carved and was placed in the basement of "The Jew's House," the mystery becomes even more confusing.
Aquí está la puerta de Yahveh, por ella entran los justos. Gracias Te doy, porque me has respondido, y has sido para mí la Salvación.

Here is G_d’s door, through it only the just enter. I give thanks because You have answered my prayers and have been my Salvation. (My translation)

A Lost Synagogue

French Professor Passini, has a photo of this beam in his latest book on the Judería of Toledo, but does not say much about this find. His photo is very different from the one I received from a Toledano and the one I took. Moreover, the official photographer of the construction site, José María Moreno Santiago, has no photos of this particular beam. Some, who prefer to remain nameless, believe the beam was not found in this particular property but near the wall of the Sofer Synagogue, located across the street from El Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes. Most think that this is was placed at the entrance of this “possible” miqvah, "mostly used by men" (at least most guides do not say that the miqvah was sometimes used for ocio, relaxation, like one of mine did!). In my humble opinion, I believe that this was a place where only the “just,”the Jews, entered to be literally saved during pogroms. These basements-there were others similar to this one in the Judería—offered strong protection against the onslaught of Christian masses after Catholic priests such as Ferrer stirred them up in the 14th and 15th centuries.

“Sofer Synagogue,” December 2011 (Copyright Felisa Meter).
A Legend That Survives

The 21st century Jewish tourist who reads, researches, and asks questions leaves Toledo with a bad taste in her mouth. No wonder the Spanish official tourist guide does not want to deal with her! "Too opinionated," he says. "Too belligerent for no reason," he emphasizes. How can someone who has grown up with symbols and words that point to anti-Semitism understand? How can someone look at the frescos of Bayeu in the Cathedral and lecture the poor tourist about its beauty forgetting its subject, the horrible legend of the martyrdom of a Christian child by Jews during Passover to drink his blood.
Francisco Bayeu, “El sacrificio del Santo Niño de la Guarda,” Claustro de la Catedral de Toledo (1776)
You might think that was long ago and we must forget! The fresco, based in a very old European legend, that of "El Santo Niño de la Guarda," is one that most people from Toledo know by heart, went up in almost the 19th century, not the Middle Ages, and it is the 21st century commentator who writes: "el sacrificio del niño cristiano por judíos de torva catadura, que lo roban de su casa y lo crucifican para arrancarle el corazón y beber su sangre." According to the blogger, it depicts the sacrifice of the Christian child by “hunchback” Jews, who kidnap him from him home and crucify him to pull his heart and drink his blood. After this, what can we expect of today’s Toledan population? According to statistics, Spain is the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, and I tend to think that Toledo doubles those figures. As the saying goes, the worse hater is the one who believes he does not hate. 

It is in the plans for the near future for more Jewish tourists to come as part of a deal that the mayor of Toledo talked about during his most recent trip to Israel in March 2012. I wonder how the official tourist guides will deal with the mass of Israeli tourists expected or will they bring their own experts? It is not clear if they will be visiting the church that wants to be a synagogue, la Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca. Will their Rabbi advise them to do so? Will they visit “La Casa del Judío” or will they consider it part of the Disneyland the government of Toledo has built in order to attract Jewish tourism, which they believe to be rich. I would hate to disappoint them by telling them otherwise. Do they know that it is highly cultured? This group of tourists will then keep asking those difficult questions and informing them of the palpable truths.
Map of the Jewish Quarter of Toledo:
- #3: "La Casa del Judío" / The House of the Jew," located between the Synagogue of Samuel Ha Leví and Santa María la Blanca.
- Further down the road, on Calle de los Reyes Católicos and across from San Juan de los Reyes, you will find what remains of the Synagogue of Sofer. Please do not ask Toledanos for directions because most do not know its whereabouts.

Works Consulted:

- Bosch¸­Lynette M. F. Art, Liturgy, and Legend in Renaissance Toledo (History of Jews in Spain, including 14th-15thcentury pogroms and the Spanish Inquisition, 1492-1834). 

- Duncan, Ronald, “St. Vicente Ferrer and the Anti-Semitism of Fifteenth Century Spain,” Society for Crypto Judaic Studies.

- El Museo Sefardí, Toledo, España.

- “El turismo judío de EEUU, el objetivo del Ayuntamiento,” La Tribuna Digital de Toledo (27 September 2011)

- Encuentros en la Judería de Toledo, 13-15 Abril 2012.

- Estudio sobre antisemitismo en España, CasaSefarad-Israel, 2010.

- Fraternity Mary Morning Star.

- Go on a Tour and Meet the Anusim Father Abraham Kron (See May 12)

- Padre San Juan de la Cruz (Abraham Kron), Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, Red de Juderías.

- “La Casa del Judío,” Rutas Patrimonio Desconocido-3: Consorcio de Toledo.

- "Page viajará la próxima semana a Israel para estudiar proyectos de promoción turística," La Tribuna de Talavera(11 March 2012).

- Palomero Plaza, Santiago, Historia de la Sinagoga de Samuel Ha Leví y del Museo Sefardí, Toledo: Ediciones del Ministerio de Cultura, 2007.

- Passini,Jean, La Judería de Toledo, Madrid: Ediciones del Sofer, 2011. (There is a French and English edition of this book. See #s 12, 13 and 14).

- Passini, Jean, "La Sinagoga del Sofer," Sefarad 64(2004) 141-157.

-“Photo Gallery: Toledo, Spain,” National Geographic (It includes a 1982 photo of the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca).
- Roth, Norman, “New Light on the Jews of Mozarabic Toledo,” JSTOR, 1986.

- Santa María la Blanca, Turismo de Castilla y La Mancha.

-Sofer Synagogue

- Moreno Santiago, José María, Vista de Toledo.
- Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca, December 2011 (Copyright Felisa Meter).
- Basement and Patio, "The House of the Jew"-- Toledo, Spain (Copyright, Consortium of Toledo and José María Moreno Santiago, photographer).
- “Sofer Synagogue,” December 2011 (Copyright Felisa Meter).


  1. Pues, francamente, me parece un poco exagerado, yo no percibo esa animadversión hacia los judíos en Toledo.

    No tengo ningún interés en defender al Consorcio, se puede criticar su labor, es más: se debe criticar su labor, pero justo es reconocer la inmensa puesta en valor y recuperación minuciosa de numerosos edificios, parques, calles y elementos de la ciudad durante más de 10 años y que se encontraban en un lamentable estado. Gracias a ellos se ha logrado renovar y rehabilitar el casco para sus ciudadanos y para sus visitantes. Ahora se pueden visitar ciertas cosas, antes no. Eso son hechos.

    En todo caso, respeto tu opinión, daría lo que fuera por que todo el mundo se expresara libremente Con las opiniones avanzamos.

  2. En Toledo viven bastantes extranjeros pero ningún judío. Los únicos que vinieron en los últimos treinta años y abrieron establecimientos tuvieron que cerrar e irse. Me pregunto por qué. La Iglesia quiso devolver la Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca a cambio de una iglesia en Jerusalén y el gobierno israelí no tuvo interés porque no habían por lo menos 10 hombres judíos para sostenerla--una ciudad que es considerada la Jerusalén del mundo Sefardita!

    Tú, José María, has siempre sido amabilísimo conmigo, pero no puedo decir lo mismo de la gran mayoría de toledanos que he conocido. Lo que sí te puedo comentar es que los residentes de Toledo oriundos de otras regiones, por ejemplo Galicia, comprenden perfectamente de lo que hablo.

  3. I received the following comment in my Facebook account, and it was made by a resident of Toledo, but not one who was born there.

    Hola Felisa!! Ya he leído tu artículo. Te diré en primer lugar que no conocía la existencia de la sinagoga de Sofer, preguntaré a un par de amigos míos que son guías turísticos a ver si me dicen donde está.

    En general decirte que me parece todo bien, diré en descargo de los toledanos, que no se si son muy antisemitas, pero desde luego parece que no les gusta nadie salvo los DTTV (De Toledo De Toda la Vida...) yo mismo que no soy de aquí lo he sentido.

    El antisemitismo es algo que impulsó la iglesia católica a través de los siglos, de hecho creo que no fue hasta los 60 que Juan XXIII dijo que los judíos no habían matado a Cristo, yo también lo creo, dado que difícilmente pudieron matar a un personaje de ficción.

    Si que es cierto que en España hay un sentimiento, que podríamos calificar de antijudío, creo que más por las noticias que nos cuentan sobre Israel, más que otra cosa. A mi me da mucha pena el tema de que nos enfrentemos por cosas que no conocemos. Sabes mi opinión acerca de la extrema derecha Israelí, del mismo modo que se que Hammas no son hermanitas de la caridad precisamente. Creo que si nos dejaran conocernos a todos sin prejuicios todo sería más fácil.

    Lo más curioso de Toledo, es la cantidad de descendientes de judíos conversos que viven aquí, sin saberlo. Es bastante obvio, sólo hay que revisar algunos apellidos, como el mío (MORA) que tiene varios posible orígenes, entre ellos MORAWITZ, o sea que a lo mejor casi todos tenemos algo de herencia judía en la sangre, y desde luego en la cultura.

    Felicidades por el articulo!!
    Un abrazo!!

  4. 1- Regarding Jewish ancestry and the Spanish people, according to an article published in the New York Times, 11% of Spaniards carry Jewish DNA.

    2- Concerning the location of the Sofer Synagogue, you are not the only person that lives in Toledo who does not know its location. I had several maps, went over it--literally--two or three time, and I still could not find it. The easiest way is to go down San Juan de los Reyes Street until you are almost at the San Juan de los Reyes Monastery. The synagogue, or what little remains of it, is located across the street under a “plaza” with its floor covered in wooden slats that lets rain and garbage pass through. (See photo)

  5. Querida Felisa:
    Creo que ya en Toletho te dije mi opinión. Pienso que exageras mucho. Respeto tu opinión pues sin duda será fruto de tu experiencia, pero pienso que en el Toledo de hoy -por suerte- nadie mira la religión de nadie. En cuanto al número de judíos, yo al menos conozco dos. Si lo piensas es normal. En el mundo sólo hay unos 13 millones de judios dentro de una población mundial de En una ciudad como Toledo de 82.000 y suponiendo un reparto homogéneo por el planeta (cosa absurda por otro lado) tocaríamos a 0,15 judios...
    En fin, que creo que tu visión es algo distorsionada por tu feed-back. Con todo cariño.
    Un abrazo.

  6. Eduardo,
    Es muy diferente ser DTTV que una mera turista, aunque ella haya estado viniendo continuamente en las ultimas cuatro decadas. Por lo tanto, nuestros puntos de vista seran diferentes.

    Una preguntas,, esas dos personas judias que Conoces, tienen comercios? De que? Sabe el publico que son judios?

  7. Opino 100% como Eduardo, como en otras muchas materias :)

    Yo, si conozco donde está la Sinagoga del Sofer y mi madre conoce una familia Judía. Felisa, en Toledo la gente no va rompiendo cristales de casas Judías. Siempre hay subnormales que en un momento puntual pueden romper los cristales de un determinado local como se detuvieron el pasado diciembre a un grupo neonazi que actuaba en la zona de la Plaza de la Magadalena, pero eso no quiere decir que los toledanos rompan los cristales de sus convecinos Judíos, ni de otras religiones, que las hay. Incluso en Toledo existe una mezquita (nueva) al uso, y nunca he leido ningún altercado (que yo no lo sepa no quiere decir que no haya ocurrido)

    También te puedo a segurar que los toledanos de hoy ni saben la historia del Santo niño. Por tanto, eso que lo llevamos grabado en el corazón y que qué se puede esperar de los toledanos de hoy, pues...

    Me resulta curioso, lo que yo sabía era al contrario. Que el Gobierno de Israel negociaba la Sinagoga del Tránsito con el Gobierno español a cambio de una Iglesia en Jerusalén (la del cenáculo) y que el Gobierno español (laico) no tenía ningún interés en ninguna iglesia en ningún lado. Pero vamos que a saber.

    No obstante, como también te he contestado en varias ocasiones en Toletho, no voy a dedicar mucho tiempo mas a este tema.

  8. Lo siento, el mensaje anterior no estaba firmado :)


  9. Jav,
    No es el gobierno espanol que tiene interes en una Iglesia, sino que la iglesia lo tenia. Debo volver a leer lo que escribi y aclararlo.

    En cuanto a las leyendas, yo no estaria tan segura.

    Muchas gracias por tus comentarios.

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