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.


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