Barcelona Through Jewish Eyes

One of the more memorable experiences I had while in Barcelona was a tweep-up with New Yorkers Seth and Bethany Mandel, who were in the city at the start of their honeymoon.  For those of my readers who do not use Twitter, I should explain that, loosely speaking, a “tweep-up” is when people who follow each other on Twitter, where members often use the term “tweep” to refer to a Twitter friend, actually meet up in real life.  In the case of the Mandels, we had been friends on Twitter for some months, but had never actually met in person until last week, when we all happened to be in Barcelona at the same time.

The Mandels are an orthodox Jewish couple who keep kosher, and because of this they were going to have a very difficult time eating in Spain, where even sweets like almond cookies are often cooked in pork lard rather than vegetable shortening.  So I wanted to make an effort to show them not only some of the Roman and Gothic monuments that dominate the old district or “Gothic Quarter” of Barcelona, but also the remains of the “Call”, or Jewish ghetto, which existed in this ancient part of the city until the 14th century.  As someone who has always been aware of the importance of the Jewish community in Barcelona historically, it was an eye-opener for me to actually come to understand things a little bit more by seeing them first-hand.

The Jewish portion of our tour started at a shop in the old Jewish Quarter called, appropriately enough El Call, which carries a wide selection of books, kosher wines and chocolates from Catalonia and elsewhere, as well as travel information, souvenirs, etc.  The young man running the shop that morning on behalf of his father had just returned a day or so earlier from studying in Atlanta.  He noted that it was far easier to find kosher food there than in Barcelona, where there were few Jewish families who kept kosher.

After some wandering around we were eventually able to enter what remains of the ancient Sinagoga Major, or Main Synagogue, located about a block away and housed in a building subsequently built on top of it.  One got a real sense of the strata of history here, since the original foundation stones of the building, far below the present-day street level, were of Roman imperial vintage.  Things were then built up in layers over time, and one could see how each passing century added more and more stones on top of what came before, so that the original topography of the area was obscured by later construction.

The small rooms maintained by the Associació Call de Barcelona, or Jewish Quarter Association of the city, include a main room used for more intimate services, such as weddings, and a collection of Judaica donated by various patrons.  There is a massive menorah created by a Catalan sculptor from the island of Minorca, display cabinets containing various silver pieces and artefacts, and reproductions of documents held in the archives of the association.  It is remarkable that the place was re-discovered and renovated beginning only about 15 years ago, thanks to the efforts of local historians and the Jewish community.

The group gave a brief presentation to us and others who had come to the synagogue about the history of the place and the residents of the area. Afterwards, the Mandels had the chance to chat a bit with the ladies from the association who run the place, as well as pick up a few souvenirs. I was particularly amused by the sight of yarmulkes in the red and blue colors of F.C. Barcelona or “Barça”, the legendary and hugely popular Barcelona football (soccer) club.

Afterwards we popped in to Caelum, a tea room and pastry shop built on top of the old mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath. Unfortunately the bath was only open to visitors in the afternoon, and I did not get to see it with the Mandels themselves, but at least they could see a bit of it through the floor grating at the entrance. Again, Barcelona is such an ancient city that everything is built up in layers, and the present-day street level is well above where things originally stood.

While perhaps the best thing I did during our morning runaround was to introduce Mr. Mandel to the pleasures of the “tallat” or “cortado” – espresso “cut” with hot milk, which he thoroughly enjoyed – I came away from the experience more aware of the Jewish heritage of my favorite place in the world. It was something I had always been aware of in the abstract, and even from having wandered around El Call many times in the past. Yet to see a place through the eyes of others, who are seeing it for the first time, forces you re-examine the familiar.

I could make the analogy, for example, of a Catholic taking a non-Catholic to see a famous church or an art museum containing Renaissance altarpieces. The discussion about the meaning and significance of what one is seeing leads to both parties becoming more aware of the connections to the past which they may have either not been aware of, or simply taken for granted as being commonly known. That was certainly true in this case, or at least I hope it was as much for the Mandels as it was for this scrivener.

The experience is also a testament to the power of social media to connect us. I would certainly never have met the Mandels, or known they were going to be in Barcelona at the same time I was there, had it not been through the connections we made on Twitter.  There is much that can be said of such networking sites that is negative, but in this case I believe it to be a positive example of the good that can come out of the outreach capable through such venues.  When used in the right way, even an old hand around Barcelona like yours truly can come to learn even more about something he already knows and loves well.

Giant menorah in the ancient Sinagoga Major in Barcelona

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