In the Footsteps of the Ramban: A Visit to Jewish Catalonia
Spain is a country that is rich in Jewish history. Yet there is only one region that had the distinction of having within its borders a city crowned with the title A Mother City in Israel: Catalonia.
The Catalans call it rauxa. Normally a down-to-earth, hard-working people who take pride in their seny (common sense), every once in a while they get what’s called a cop de rauxa—a spontaneous burst of creative inspiration that hurtles them out of their ordinary lives and into the unexpected and the unknown.
I don’t think that rauxa is on the world’s list of highly contagious diseases, but perhaps it should be. For how else can I explain what happened during the summer of 2007, when I was looking for a simple, no-nonsense round-trip flight from Tel Aviv to Kansas City, Missouri that had decent connections and a reasonable price—and instead found myself mesmerized by an itinerary that offered a free stopover in what is the heart of rauxa country: Barcelona.
I think I can say with full honesty that before that moment it had never ever occurred to me to go to Barcelona. Yet once I saw the word, something clicked in my mind and wouldn’t stop clicking. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, an autonomous region located in the northeastern corner of Spain. Thanks to my love of old maps of the Holy Land, I knew that Catalonia was the home of the famous Jewish mapmaker Avraham Cresques, whose fourteenth-century masterpiece, the Catalan Atlas, is one of the most spectacular maps of the world created during the Middle Ages. However, Catalonia has another and greater distinction, for it is home to a city that was once so full of Torah learning and so steeped with holiness that it was crowned with the title of “A Mother City in Israel,” the highest praise that the Jewish people can bestow upon a place outside of the Land of Israel. In short, Catalonia is the home of Girona.
For those who know and love medieval Jewish history, the name Girona sends shivers down the spine. This is the city where Rabbeinu Yonah, author of Sha’arei Teshuvah (The Gates of Repentance), lived and taught Torah. It is the city where such luminaries as Rabbi Azriel, Rabbi Ezra ben Shlomo, and Rabbi Yaakov ben Sheshet established one of Spain’s most important schools of Kabbalah. And last, but certainly not least, it is the city of the Ramban (Nachmanides), who lived there almost all his life, serving as the leader of Girona’s Jewish community, as well as leader of all of Spanish Jewry, until he was forced to flee, at an advanced age, from his beloved birthplace.
What was it about the city of Girona that it merited all this glory, and would it still be possible to catch a glimpse of its former greatness? Would it be possible, I wondered, to walk in the footsteps of the Ramban, Rabbeinu Yonah, and all the other illustrious Torah sages who had called Girona home? Or had everything been destroyed after the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492?
After a little research, it seemed that it was possible. According to most sources, Girona, which is only about an hour’s drive north of Barcelona, has one of the best preserved Jewish Quarters in Spain. Yet still I resisted. Common sense told me that Catalonia, a region where kosher food is scarce and English is barely spoken, is not exactly a first-choice destination for the Torah-observant traveler. However, it was a photograph of a narrow passageway in Girona’s Jewish Quarter that proved to be the nemesis of my saner self. Its steep stone steps winding upward seemed to beckon me to follow them back to a purer, more intensely spiritual time. Before I knew it, the deed had been done. I was booked on the flight to Barcelona.
Glimpses of a Golden Age
Legend has it that Jews established trading posts in Spain as early as the time of King Solomon, but solid data about Jewish communities only begins to appear in the third century. By the tenth century, Jews were actively engaged in economic and political life throughout the Iberian Peninsula, including in Catalonia. Whereas other parts of Spain experienced Golden Ages as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries—and Catalonia and neighboring Aragon became united during this period—Catalonia’s moment of glory reached its zenith during the thirteenth century. During the long reign of King Jaume I, known as the Conqueror, Barcelona was transformed into a major port city and Catalan ships ruled the profitable waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
The fortunes of Catalan Jews rose along with the fortunes of their fellow countrymen. Jaume I highly valued his Jewish merchants, who set up lucrative trading networks in both the Muslim countries of northern Africa and the Christian countries of southern Europe, filling the king’s coffers in the process. Jews could also be found at the king’s court, where they served as financial advisors, court secretaries, and doctors. He also offered protection to all the Jews who settled in his territory, a policy that was continued by his successors, and the map of Catalonia became dotted with dozens of Jewish communities. In practical terms, this protection meant that the Jews were “owned” by the crown. They paid taxes only to the king, and their fellow countrymen were not allowed to physically harm them, since they belonged to the king. However, Catalan towns were not entirely without power and they exercised this power in the end of the thirteenth century by forcing the Jews, whom they often eyed with jealousy and suspicion, to live in their own area of town, which was called a juderia.
Yet despite the ghettoization and other restrictions that limited their contact with non-Jews, and the high taxation, the 1200s and early 1300s were relatively good times for Catalan Jews. They were free to practice their religion and they were self-governed by a council called an aljama, which was comprised of distinguished members of their own community. They were able to build synagogues, yeshivos (Torah academies), Talmud Torah schools for the children, mikva’os (ritual baths), and shelters for the poor. Even the decree issued by the fourth Lateran Council, which stated that Jews must wear distinctive dress, was largely ignored in Catalonia—at a price, of course, since the Jews had to purchase their exemption.
Although not all of Catalonia’s Jews were wealthy merchants—in fact most of them were artisans and simple craftsmen—there must have been more than a few. This is the period, after all, that saw the creation of Catalan illuminated masterpieces such as the Golden Haggadah, the Barcelona Haggadah, and the Sarajevo Haggadah, all of which were probably created in Barcelona in the first half of the fourteenth century. However, the Jewish community’s riches were not limited to only material goods. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were also the Golden Age of Torah scholarship in Catalonia, and it was during this period that the Ramban and Rabbeinu Yonah flourished in Girona, while their student Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, known as the Rashba, was a leader in Barcelona.
And what is left of all this life? What could I expect to see in modern-day Catalonia? I knew better than to ask about the whereabouts of the famous Passover haggados, which left Spain’s shores in 1492, if not before. Both the Golden Haggadah and the Barcelona Haggadah are now sitting in the British Museum in London, while the Sarajevo Haggadah is in Sarajevo, where it is on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But what about the buildings? Would it be possible to sit in the yeshivah where the Ramban expounded upon the Torah and pray in the synagogue where Rabbeinu Yonah stood before his Maker? Now that I was in Girona, it was time to find out.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, why not read the rest? You can buy Day Trips to Jewish History at Amazon and other online booksellers.