Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Am Yisrael Hai
By Ariel Blacher
                We began our journey to Spain on Sunday June 29th.  We were very conflicted to leave Israel at such a critical time in our country’s conscience. Yet, the tickets were booked and plans had been made. So, we decided to continue with our original plan and travel to Spain, with somewhat bated breath.
                One of the criteria of our trip was to educate our children regarding the historical significance of Spain for our Jewish people.  The kids have learned about the Spanish Inquisition  of 1492 in Jewish History lessons throughout their  school careers.  Yet, we wanted the kids to tour the towns, and learn the history of the Jews living in this area.
                We travelled to Toledo by train.  We met our tour guide, Shlomo(www.jewishtoledotour.com), at the historic Toledo train station.  The station itself is a work of art. High ceilings, ancient chandeliers, and beautiful stain glass windows adorn the station.  It is a work of art.
                Our first stop, was to a panoramic view of the Old City of Toledo.  The view was breathtaking.  There, our tour guide , Shlomo (www.jewishtoledotours.com), gave us a brief history of the city.  There is mention of this area being settled from the time of the Roman Empire. Yet, this area was clearly first settled during the Visgoth rule.  The Visgoths converted to Christianity, and then the Muslims conquered the area.  In the time of the Crusades, the Christians re-conquered the area, and kept strategic control of the are. 
The Jews settled into the area, and called it Taltulya , which is Hebrew for wandering, for the Jews were dispersed from Jerusalem ,  and wandered to this land.[1] Here, these Jews created a hub of life.  The city was complete with synagogues, a Jewish Castle (essentially a Jewish community center), ritual baths, kosher butcher lane, and more.  Jews lived as merchants, jewelrs, butchers, rabbis, tailors, and more in this small town. 
                Originally, the Jews maintained peace with the rulers of the area.  The Muslim leadership had a quiet understanding with the Jews of allowing them to worship freely.  When the Christians took control of the area, originally the same peaceful worshiping practices applied.  Yet, by the early 1200’s there were ordinances made upon the Jews.  By the mid-1300’s, Jews were ordered to wear yellow bands in order to show their identity in the common public areas.  (Note: It is entirely possible that the Nazis took this history, and used it to their benefit when making Jews wear yellow Jewish star armbands during WWII). 
                Eventually, the Jews were singled out as infidels and were tortured for not believing in Christianity.  Jews were told to either convert to Christianity, or to leave Spain.  Many Jews were tortured during this horrific time in our history.  Main leaders of the community, such as Shmuel HaLevi (a prominent businessman at the time), were tormented and eventually brutally killed for their belief in Judaism.  Many of these horrific crimes occurred in the Main Square of the town, with the entire community forced to watch the torturous torment.  The gate near this Square is called The Blood Gate, due to this horrific fact.
                It should be noted that those who chose to convert were called “Muranos”.  Yet, this term is considered derogatory.  It literally means “pig.”  These people prefer to be called “conversos”, which literally means “converts”.  To this day, many stores hang pig legs in their shops in order to prove that they readily eat pork.  For, it is known that Jews are forbidden to do so.
                As we walked throughout the streets of Toledo, there was a feeling of familiarity for me.  I am not of Sephardic descent, I am an Ashkenazi  Jew.  Yet, my father recently had a genetic testing done for a genealogical study.  His genetic report clearly stated Sephardic descent.  It is no wonder that my father is often confused for someone of Italian or Hispanic descent.  So, I would not be entirely surprised if my father’s family migrated from Spain to Eastern Europe.
                As we passed by a store, Josh quickly said to me, “Ariel, look into that store…you look like the salesperson!”  Sure enough, she had my dark brown eyes, chocolate curly hair (mine is usually covered for Orthodox reasons), and round face.  She could have been my cousin!  My kids often joke that they will marry Sephardim.  Ah…but now we know that we also have a drop of Sephardic blood, too!
                Throughout our tour, I felt as if I was walking through familiar alleys.  The Jewish Quarter reminds one of the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem or Safed.  It is hard to imagine that people rode donkeys and horses throughout these narrow alleyways!   And, people continue to drive cars throughout them today!
                As we left Toledo, I was enamored with a sense of identity and purpose.  I am so proud of my Jewish identity.  I am proud that my people, despite the odds, have continued to thrive.  Spain was not the only country to create ordinances against us.  Yet, we survived! We continue to be graced with G-d’s great light.  Even in times of darkness we are guided to survive the pain, and continue towards a better future.
                It is with a heavy heart that when we returned to our hotel, we received messages from Israel that Eyal, Naftali and Gil-Ad were found dead, near Hebron.  No one can comprehend the pain the families of these boys have suffered these past two weeks.  And, now, the collective pain that an entire nation currently suffers along with them.  If we have learned anything from this terrible ordeal, it is that we are Jewish brethren that must unite against evil forces.  And, despite the darkness, we will survive, and thrive.  From the time of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, until now we have made it clear that we are a stubborn people.  We will not let this terror scare us.  We will rise to the occasion, and use this as our strength for generations to come.  Am Yisrael Hai! And in the words of Rabbi Lau (Chief Rabbi of Israel), we are Am Echad, V’Lev Echad (One nation, one soul).


1.    [1]  Abrabanel's Commentary on the First Prophets (Pirush Al Nevi'im Rishonim), end of II Kings, p. 680, Jerusalem 1955 (Hebrew). See also Shelomó ibn Verga in Shevet Yehudah, pp.6b-7a, Lemberg 1846 (Hebrew)

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