I have been meaning to write this post for awhile now. Today being Yom Kippur, it feels very appropriate that I finally sit down and put my thoughts into words.
Oddly enough, I have found myself learning, appreciating and embracing my Jewish faith more than I ever have before here in Spain… which is so odd considering this is an extremely Catholic country. Before I left for my semester abroad, I was nervous and slightly worried to be Jewish in Europe- more specifically, in Spain- and so was my family. I was advised over and over again to be safe and low-key in general because the world is a dangerous place right now but my family and friends emphasized to be extra safe because I am Jewish which is something you can only really understand if you too are Jewish.
The history of Jews in Spain is not great. Like in most places around the world, they weren’t a big fan of my people for awhile. In my Spanish history class, we learned about the Spanish Inquisition in depth; I find it fascinating and was especially interested in the role of the Jews (not a big a surprise- especially because I am the only Jew in the class). I found it so interesting and think you should all know about it too, so here it goes. Don’t worry, I’ll summarize and try my best to make a long story short.
So… The Jews arrived in Spain in the first century. They lived amongst everyone else very peacefully. They spoke Spanish and did all the Spanish things while praying in Hebrew at a synagogue. But other than that, they were just like every other Spaniard and there was no issue. Fast forward a little bit —In the 14th century, Spain was suffering from an economic crisis. The “pueblo” was starving, poor and miserable and they needed someone to blame their problem on. So obviously, the only logical scape goat was the Jews. They were wealthy and held positions of power, therefore they must be the reason of the economic crisis, right? Makes sense. Naturally, the people of the pueblo started murdering the Jews and for the first time in Spain’s history, it was dangerous to be Jewish. Many converted to Christianity in exchange for their lives. BUT even though they went through the process of converting, attended church weekly, etc., they were still Jews at heart and continued to believe and follow the Jewish faith in secrecy.
Ok now that you understand all of that- let’s talk about the Inquisition. The Catholic Monarchs – Isabel and Fernando – established the infamous Spanish Inquisition in 1478. What most people don’t know about the Inquisition is that it was only targeted people who were baptized. More specifically, people who were baptized and did not fully accept or follow the Catholic Church’s dogma also known as heresy. Make any sense why I gave you so much background info? Because now Jews who converted fall into this category. Hence the murdering and the exile that you have all heard about! Interesting, isn’t it?
Well the legacy of the Inquisition lives on and almost everyone in Spain is Catholic and those who aren’t are atheists. So being Jewish here is unique and frankly, kind of dangerous.
I have visited Toledo, Segovia, and Sevilla- all of which have beautiful and antique Jewish neighborhoods. I felt moved and I felt connected in each one. It sounds odd but there was just a way about it- a feeling. I felt comfortable and was dying to know the history and the stories that had happened there.
Today is Yom Kippur. I decided to attend services and went to one of the two synagogues in Madrid (not 100% sure about that number, but it is definitely one of very few, if not the only one)– Beth Yaacov Synagogue. Last night, a few friends and I went to Kol Nidre and had no idea what to expect. It was a small building that was guarded by 3 cop cars and many many men carrying legit machine guns. This startled me and I didn’t know what to think or feel. Should I feel safe that they are here or sad that this is necessary? Anyways, we went inside and were greeted in a rather harsh way because they were on high alert and worried about safety. Then we were told that the service will start soon to make ourselves comfortable. Everyone around us was speaking English because we were apparently attending the Ashkenazi service which they only have during the High Holy Days. The Sephardic service was upstairs and had a lot more people in it in comparison to the 30 people at my service. Overall, there were very few people at the synagogue especially considering that it was one of the only synagogues.
It was extremely conservative, maybe even orthodox? The women and men were separated. The men all were wearing kippahs AND tallits. The service was entirely in Hebrew. The rabbi/cantor had his back turned to us the whole time and was bowing continually for the entire duration of the service. How did he not get dizzy or faint? I don’t know. I could hardly follow along so I decided to focus on the beauty of the service and just listen.
For the past 3 years, there has always been a REALLY cute Jewish boy at services that I never see again. At Hillel, the past two years, this has happened and now here, it has also happened. I was sitting next to said cute boy’s mom and got all the info out of her. They were from Germany, he was my age, and he was studying here in Madrid! I was debating attending services the next day, but decided it would be worth it to go and see him again. Unfortunately, he didn’t show even though his mom said they would. The annual vanishing cute boy at High Holy Day services must be one of His ways of punishing me. Maybe if I sin less this year, the cute boy at services next year won’t disappear.
The German boy and his mother didn’t make it but the service was still lovely: similar to the Kol Nidre, just even less people were in attendance. There is never a dull moment in my life so of course, something else noteworthy happened. My friend and I were leaving services and she was on her phone with snapchat open. The men at the door stopped us and started yelling “She’s filming!! Call the cops!!” We freaked out and did everything we could to prove to them that she wasn’t actually filming anything. They screamed and told us we weren’t respecting the sacred holiday and that we could not come back to this place. Another man came over to ease the situation and to console us. He explained that being Jewish in Spain is very dangerous and extremely difficult so they have to always be on high alert and don’t take little things like these lightly. We were terrified but more than that, I felt so sad. It is heartbreaking that this is their reality and that they have to be that cautious just to pray and celebrate their holidays. It shouldn’t be this way. They shouldn’t need machine guns and cop cars. I haven’t stopped thinking about this since it happened. My eyes have been opened and I will never forget this experience.
Side note: I spent this past weekend in Sevilla and had every intention of blogging about it because it was most definitely worthy of a blog post but I was feeling inspired and this post took its place. So just know- it happened and I loved it!
Wishing a happy and healthy New Year to you from Madrid! I am especially homesick and missing everyone a little more than usual today. Holidays aren’t the same without family! Love and miss you all so so much!