JLife’s Elaine Bermitz lets us in on her recent break, exploring Jewish heritage in Europe’s hottest city.
A really good holiday often comes from a combination of finding new places, relaxing, and occasionally being surprised by unexpected events, encountered through sheer serendipity. When we booked to spend a few days in Spain, namely Seville in a hotel which was described as “close to the medieval Jewish Quarter,” we expected to see something close to our heritage. But in need of sunshine, food, and wine, I was content with a 4-star hotel with a rooftop pool.
Some clues should have alerted me about where we had booked, however. Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia welcomed us in a reception filled with 17th century paintings and objet d’art, overlooked by a beautifully renovated balcony which had come straight from a medieval synagogue.
In fact, the hotel was one of our discoveries. Seville’s Jewish community dates back to the 8th century and flourished there until the infamous Inquisition of 1492 when most converted, escaped, or were burned by the Catholic church. Their seven-hundred-year sojourn was one of the most peaceful and influential times the Jews have ever known. With no exceptions to land ownership or access, they rose to the top of Iberian society, becoming doctors, merchants, tax-collectors, and advisors to the rulers throughout Spain. Under the protection of the Sevillian rulers they co- existed with the Islamic Moors and were trusted and revered.
The tour provided much more information, showing the extent of the Juderia, situated by the gardens of the palace, where there was much evidence of Jewish life. In Calle Levie we saw the remains of a considerable house, that of King Alphonso X’s tax collectors Samuel Levi and his nephew Yucaf Levim, Treasurer to Enrique II, the King’s stepbrother.
A plaque marked the spot where a synagogue had stood in the 12th century. The closely knit streets provided welcome shade as we saw a balcony on the corner of the Alzacar, which was the inspiration behind the famous balcony in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. A long street called Calle
Susannah provided evidence of an eerie betrayal of a wealthy Jewish merchant, Don Diego, by his daughter. In 1480, as the Inquisition was starting, Don Diego called a meeting of Jewish dignitaries to try to fend off this threat by starting an uprising. Susannah, his daughter, who was in love with a Christian, revealed the plot to him and as a result her father and his men were caught and executed. Susannah ended her life as a prostitute, leaving instructions as she died to rename the street
Calle de la Muerte and for the skeleton of her face to be set in stone above the door of her house as a lesson not to betray one’s family.
Following our steps back to the hotel, we noticed the street signs which have become a symbol of Jewish presence – the bronze sign “Sepharad” in Hebrew letters, shaped like the Iberian Peninsula.
Hooked on the trail of Jewish history we went to Cordoba, and first to Plaza Tiberiades, where a statue of the 12th century Jewish doctor and philosopher Maimonedes stands. A plaque claims him as a son of Cordoba, though at 11-years-old he fled to Egypt and on to Fez in Morocco.
An almost pure white synagogue dating from 1315 mis engraved with Moorish patterned tracery, and Hebrew inscriptions over the arch and around the walls, it is frustratingly incomplete and also beguilingly serene.
However, all of these sights were trumped by the joyful discovery of an open Sephardi restaurant, Casa Mazal, which provided cool shade in a courtyard, and the enticing smell of a lamb or chicken couscous, accompanied by many tapas style side dishes. An irresistible way to spend a couple of comfortable siesta hours.
Back in the hotel, with the heat reaching 43°C we spent the next day exploring some of the many courtyards, some mercifully covered by horizontal blinds, and settling in the coolest to read, rest, or snooze.
A distinctly Jewish feature of the layout was that none of the room’s entrances overlooked another’s, following the biblical custom. Though the houses which made up the hotel had been lived in by other families since the expulsion of the Jews, the architecture and the way of life of its original inhabitants had clearly been respected.
There are other deeply held traditions in Seville too. Flamenco music and dance is a serious art form, performed not only in the theatres, but on many street corners and squares, outside cafes, and anywhere where a small square of hard wood will sit flat enough for someone – male or female
– to dance, clap, and sing ancient tunes and rhythms from Spain’s illustrious past. So too with the bullfight. While Seville doesn’t hold live ones anymore, the bullring is open and tours around it explain its significance in society, defending the sport as a sacred art form.