Saturday, December 9, 2017

How to Memorialize a Synagogue: Segovia and Toledo

The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.  The synagogues they left behind were often converted to Cbristian  churches or convents.  Some of the 15th century buildings still  remain, but they are no longer synagogues.  How does one mark the presence of these buildings; how does one acknowledge their history?

In our travels, we saw three historical" synagogues, one in Segovia and two in Toledo.  They offer a set of mini "case histories" of the the complexities of memory, particularly that of Jews who were expdelled from their country.

Segovia:  The Old Main Cemetery

The Old Main Synagogue (Antigua Sinagoga Mayor) was constructed in the mid-14th century, then confiscated and converted to a Christian church in the early 15th century.  It eventually became a church dedicated to Corpus Christi (Eglesia del Corpus Christi), then became a convent, to which it is still attached.  The original building was destroyed by fire in 1899 and then restored, beginning in 1902.

The building is in the Moorish style typical of Spanish architecture of its time.

The building itself contains no reference to its Jewish past, though there is a laminated card you can consult for information on its origin.  Indeed the only reference to the Jews is a painting by Vincente Cutanda, called Miracle in the Synagogue, painted in 1902 and still displayed. 

It is both a bad painting and a "blood libel," showing Jews descecrating the host by fire and then beng destroyed themselves.   That it is still hanging is disheartening.

Toledo:  Synagogue of El Transito

The Synagoge El Transito was built in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafula.  The founder served Castilian kings and thus perhaps got permission to build an elaborate synagogue in a time when synagogues must be smaller and plainer than surrounding churches.  This synagogue is quite tall and elaborate with with polychrome stucco work.

The synagogue was taken over by a Benedictine priory in 1492 and eventually became a church dedicated to the Transit of the Virgin Mary, hence its current name.  It later became a  public building and is now restsored  and houses a Sephardic museum.

It is a lovely bulding and contains interesting historical  material about the synagogue and the Sephardic community.  But it feels like a museum, and--for us--any sense that is or ever was a synagogue is missing.

Toledo: Santa Maria la Blanca

Santa Maria la Blanca, or the Communal Synagogue of Toledo, was built in 1180 and is perhaps the oldest synagogue in Europe still standing.  It is a Mudejar construction, built by Moorish architects on Christian soil for Jewish purposes.  In 1405, a Dominican priest preached a series of sermons  that inspired a mob to rush the synagogue and kill as many Jews as possible, throwing their bodies on the parapets below.  Soon after, the synagogue became a Christian monastery and then a church, eventually known as Santa Maria la Blanca.

The synagogue has been recently restored, and it is stunning.

Left bare, except for the ornaments of the architecture itself, it creates an astonishing sense of history.

How does one re-create a synagogue when there are no Jews left to use it for prayer and study?  In the case of Santa Maria la Blanca, the building is still owned by the Catholic church.  In this case,  though, they have left the building to speak for itself.  For Tony and me, this was the most moving, evocative and meaningful of the three restored synagogues we visted in Spain.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Antonio Machado

Me with a statue of Antonio Machado in the Plaza Mayor in Segovia

When I was getting my Ph.D. in English at McGill University, I had to satisfy a language requirement.  To satisfy the requirement, students had two options.  Option A was to have basic knowledge of two languages.  This knowledge could be demonstrated by a certain number of college level credits in a language or passing a reading test.  Option B was to do one language at a more intense level.  I demonstrated basic knowledge of Spanish by my six hours of undergraduate Spanish at Tulane.  But I didn't have college credits in another language, and I "disgracefully" failed  the French reading exam.  ("Disgraceful" was the word the Director of Graduate Studies had used while  "encouraging" me, in no uncertain terms, to give it a try.)  So I had to do Spanish at the more intense level.  This  involved finding someone in the Spanish Department who would work with me on some kind  of research on a Spanish writer. 

I should say that Spanish had absolutely nothing to do with my dissertation research.  Since  I was writing about British modernism, French would have been  usesful (if I'd had it to use) because of the symbolistes, etc.  However, I was stuck with Spanish and with what I, and I truly believe, the Spanish professor thought was nothing more than a hoop I had to get through. 

I chose to write on the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939) who was a member of the "generation of 98."  I remembered liking  Machado in Spanish class, and his poems were short and  lyric.  Specifically I wrote about parallels between the poetry of William Wordsworth and that of Antonio Machado.  I chose this topic because I was genuinely reminded of Wordsworth when I read Machado, and  this meant half of the paper I was  going to write would be about a poet who wrote in English.  I was not claiming any direct influence; there is (I think still) no evidence Machado read Wordsworth.  And he was a century older, so I couldn't even say they were part of some  larger contemporary movement.  I wrote the paper in English. That the Spanish professor (whose name I have completely forgotten went along with this project is further  evidence that he thought this was a meaningless (for my Ph.D.) requirement.

When Tony and I were planning our trip to Spain, I read somewhere that there was an Antonio Machado museum in Segovia.  He wasn't born there, but had lived for several years.  The museum  was  his house,and we thought we'd go see it.  We were stunned  to find  out that it was  full of visitors,  and we should have bought a ticket in advance. 

Thinking about Macado, I wondered if anyone else had put him aside Wordsworth and I looked on google scholar.  To my delighted surprise, there were SEVERAL published articles on topics such as "echoes of Wordsworth in the poetry of Machado."  Wow, I had anticipated a cogent scholarly topic!  Most  of  the articles were in Spanish, and my Spanish has almost  completely disappeared, so I couldn't read them.  But I was truly delighted.

Here are three lines  of Machado:

Sólo recuerdo la emoción de las cosas, 
y se me olvida todo lo demás; 
muchas son las lagunas de mi memoria 

And here is my painstaking translation:

I only remember the emotion of things,
and all the rest is forgotten;
many are the empty spaces in my memory.

Doesn't that just remind you of Wordsworth?

"emotion recollected in tranquility"
 "we see into the life of things"
 "gleams of half-extinguished thought"


Sunday, November 26, 2017

What Else DId We See in Segovia?

Segovia is a gorgeous little city.  It sits atop a hill on a plain in the midst of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. The surrounding mountains, as seen from the roof terrace of our hotel are beautiful.  Specifically is in in the midst of a sub-range called Mujer Muerte as it is said to resemble the figure of a dead (reclining) woman.

Segovia has its requisite of interesting buildings, including a cathedral and various churches.

But its real beauty, I think, comes from a kind of aesthetic wholeness I did not experience in any of the other cities we visited this trip.  The wholeness is a product of the rich ochre color of many of the buildings, especially, as the sun lights them; the lack (aside from business signs) of any sense of modernity; the crowded and jumbled streets, creating the feeling of so many more details to see and wonder at.

But mostly I came away from Segovia as a "textured" city:  textured not only by history but also textured on facades of its buildings.  This appears not only in the sculptural and structural details of buildings, such as the images above, but also by the way buildings are inscribed with patterns,

I think all this texture reflects the texture of Segovia's past and all the people who  have lived here----Romans, Moors, Christians, Jews.


What Did We See in Segovia? (Hint: It's an Acqueduct)

When we left Barcelona to fly back to the  US we went through the new extra security protocol for flying into the States.  Most people got the usual "did anyone give you anything to take with you," etc.  But we were pulled over, randomly I have to guess, for extra inquiry.  "Where did you go in Spain?" asked the security man; "Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, and Barcelona," we obediently answered.  "What did you see in Segovia?" he further asked.  Our minds went blank.  (It was an early morning flight, we had gotten up extra early to get to the airport in time, we were barely awake, etc.)  Eventually we fell back on what seemed an accurate, if generic, answer.  "We saw the Synagogue and the Cathedral."  He then asked what we did:  "retired."  "What did you use to do?" "Teachers."  What kind of teachers, high school?"  "College," we answered.  "Where did you teach," he asked looking directly at me.  Finally a question for which I had a specific answer:  "The  University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky."  That must have been enough because we were then told we could board the plane.

I start with this silly anecdote because, as we eventually realized in our drowsy (and in my case still nightly semi-drugged state), the main thing people see in Segovia is the Roman Acqueduct.

The Acqueduct is an amazing sight.  Of course we knew Segovia had an acqueduct, but we had no idea how impressive it was.

It is also the very first thing you see when you get off the bus that brings you from the train station, up the hill. to Segovia itself.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, Tony and  I figured out what the correct answer to the security man's question was.

What else did we see in Segovia?  Stay tuned for the next post.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Eating in Spain or A Tapas Crawl Through Four Cities.

In Madrid we ended up eating tapas at almost  every meal and mostly at the same place.  There was a great tapas bar just across the street from our hotel called Orio.  They feature a kind of tapa called "pinxtos."  This is basically a small delight on a piece of bread.  There are multiple varieties on offer, and you just pick up what  you like and order a drink from the bartender (e.g., cerveza, tinto, cava).  Every pinxto costs the same, about 2 euros, and at the end, they count up the number  of  toothpicks on your plate, add up the price, add the cost of the drinks (which you remind  them of), and there you are. 

At Orio, the variety was great: from anchovies and sardines on artichokes to various kinds of hams, to manchego and other  cheeses, to hot goodies such as little black puddings (Tony likes these) or slices of steak.  It's a marvelous way to eat, as you get to try anything.  And if you do occasionally get something you're not crazy about, you haven't really invested that much.  For example,

In Segovia, the tapas scene was quite different.  We discovered a place called Sitio.  This was a much more "locals" kind of place.  I think we were the only tourists the nights we were there.  They had two bars, one with cold and one with hot tapas.  The portions were large; two tapas were basically a full meal.  And they cost nothing--except for the price of the drink,  That is, for every drink you got a free tapa.  So two drinks each, two tapas; but the bill was just the drinks.  Amazing.

After dinner, we went to another bar that we heard was decorated with beautiful "Moorish" tiles.

We ordered cava, and with that came--you guessed it--another tapa.

In Toledo we didn't find tapas bars but instead restaurants selling what are called raciones or small portions, (which you do have to pay for).  In one I ate something called carcamusas--pork, tomatoes and peas--which is traditionally Toledo (and pretty good).

Our second Toledo meal was at a small restaurant owned by hotel we stayed in, Casa Urbano Adolfo. The hotel had a famous restaurant with a famous chef.  It looked wonderful but was more, in cost and food, than we wanted.  So we went to their small restaurant, Collecion Catedral, and had a great meal.  

Because we were hotel guests, we got lots of treats.  Putting that together with our orders we had a wonderful and really inexpensive dinner.

Free cava to start.  (Remember, Tony is in the middle of bronchitis; he is having more fun than it seems!)

Then we shared an appetizer of scallops with pisto.

Baby lamb skewers with roast potatoes.

And a great, though inexpensive (about 12 euros) bottle of their house wine.

In Barcelona, we mainly ate tapas and ham bocadillos, except for one slap-up, sit-down Sunday lunch, which will be the subject of another post.