Author: Elena Ruiz
One of the major attractions of the city is the fact that its old town still preserves enclaves of yesteryear almost intact despite the passage of time, which allows us to be able to wander around its streets, where you can almost relive how was the Barcelona of our ancestors. And if there is an enclave endowed with this evocative capacity, it is the Jewish quarter.
Sefarad is the name used by the Jews, since the Middle Ages, to refer to the Iberian Peninsula. Its history in Spain is long and ancient, so much that goes back to Roman times. Centuries after centuries, their presence became fertile and entrenched until the arrival of two nefarious dates: 1391 when anti-Jewish revolts began and 1492 when they were finally expelled from Spain.
Of all the Jewish communities that inhabited the peninsula, that of Barcelona was one of the largest and most powerful. The first documents confirming its presence in the city are from the years 875-877, but it is probable that they were established in it from the first centuries of the Christian era. The truth is that the existence of Jews in Catalan lands precedes, even, that of the Catalans themselves. The Judería of Catalonia, as well as the Valencian and the Balearic ones receive the name of ‘Call’, that means small street or alley. This denomination is the one that is used to refer to the set of streets occupied by them, that is to say, to the neighborhood, whereas the community receives the name of aljama.
The aljama of Barcelona was the largest in Catalonia of the Middle Ages. It had the reputation of being a ‘city of sages’ among the Jews, for in its streets flourished crafts, commerce, theology, science, poetry, philosophy, cabal and also had a rabbinical school of great renown . Today, Barcelona keeps a clear reminiscence of this Jewish past and, among its many references in the toponymy of the Catalan capital, remains of Montjuïc, Mount of the Jews, which was used as a cemetery of the Hebrew community for centuries And where they owned farmland, houses and towers.
Medieval Barcelona had two Jewish neighborhoods, the Call Major that was delimited by the current streets of Banys Nous, Sant Sever, Bisbe and Call. In the middle of the thirteenth century, due to the secular growth of the community, was expanded and as a result of this was built a new area known as Call Menor, located around the current church of Sant Jaume, Ferran Street. These two districts were not connected to each other, but in these narrow streets of the center of Barcelona lived up to 4,000 people. The life within the Call was governed by the Hebrew calendar, being for them the Sabbath the sacred day, and they followed the customs and Jewish laws.
For many centuries the Jewish and Christian communities maintained good relations, held joint ventures, and counts-kings entrusted important public offices to Jews, such as those of tax collector or ambassador. However, after a series of fateful events, among them the arrival of the black plague, began to spread slander, as the Jews poisoned the water. On August 5, 1391, this accumulated tension finally exploded, giving rise to the attack that suffered the Call, which was assaulted, burned down, 300 people were killed and many others were forced to convert to Christianity. Thereafter there was no possible recovery of the neighborhood, nor of coexistence between surviving and Christian Jews. All this ended with his definitive expulsion from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492. Since then, the imagery about Sefarad became the memory of a place where there was a revival of Jewish culture, but to which they could not return.
In spite of the looting and that the Call was occupied and hidden, today, between gothic cathedrals and streets dedicated to saints, you can guess the past of this important community. The location where the Call is located is a compendium of winding and charming streets located in the Barri Gòtic, and in which there are certain obligatory stops to better understand the environment that surrounds us.
At number 10 on the narrow street of Banys Nous, the S’Olivery store is located there, in its depths, among furniture of all kinds are discovered the ancient Jewish ritual baths – mikves – of the city. Christians and Muslims were also frequent users of these Banys Nous (New Baths). The building belongs to the XII century and is in a great state of preservation, where large columns and stone arches move us to another era. In the same street, on the lower floor of the caelum, the old arcades of the women’s baths still stand.
Sant Honorat Street was the area where rabbis and wealthy Jewish families used to live. Most of their houses were expropriated to build the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya, but at number 10 the remains of the house of writer Mossé Natam are still preserved. And in the corner that this street does with the street of the Fruita, also they are observed the rest of the source destined to them.
The synagogues were the center of the community: la scola, place for celebrations, religious rituals, and also for assemblies or judgments. Of the five synagogues that had originally been in Barcelona, only one of them is conserved, located in number 5 of the Marlet street. It is considered one of the oldest in Europe, although it ceased to provide its services as such following the expulsion of the Jews and began to give other uses to the building, to the point that a house was built on top of it . The Major Synagogue was reopened in 2002 and although it is not used for daily prayers, it does serve as the center of cultural diffusion of Judaism and community activities such as weddings and Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are held. However, there is an open debate among historians as to whether this is really the actual site of the original original Synagogue since many place it at number 9 on the street of Sant Domènec del Call, a building currently occupied by a wine merchant .
As a result of that 5 of August of 1931, the toponymy of the streets of the Call were changed and Christianized. The street of the Font, where the fountain in which the Jews collected water, was called Font de Sant Honorat, and later Sant Honorat Street, a name that is still used today. The street of the Synagogue became the street of Sant Domènec del Call, in which you can read a plaque that recalls a certain convent founded in 1219 by Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The reality is that this street was renamed in memory of the day on which the attack began, because it took place on the day of Sant Domènec.
The Call: memories of the Jewish quarter of Barcelona Relic preserved in the Greater Synagogue
Alamy Stock Photo
At number 6 in the same street, we come across the oldest house in the city, since it has been inhabited since the 12th century. Despite having been restored, original ornamental elements from the Middle Ages are conserved. A curious fact of this building is that, if one pays attention, there is a certain inclination of the facade, as a result of the earthquake that suffered the city in 1428.
Although, undoubtedly, the most interesting place to get into the Jewish culture of medieval Barcelona is the Center d’Interpretació del Call, set within the so-called Casa de l’Alquimista, on the Placeta de Manuel Ribé. The building dates from the fourteenth century and in it lived Jucef Bonhiac, a weaver-weaver. The museum offers information on the neighborhood and daily life, and also includes the remains of the house, a permanent display of ceramics found in archaeological excavations and tombstones of the second century from the Hebrew cemetery of Montjuïc.
It may seem that this Jewish Barcelona is a place belonging to the past, but it is worth rescuing it, preserving it and remembering it in memory of the material and immaterial splendor that reached the City during that time and the incalculable legacy that left us forever in this Land, despite being expelled from his beloved Sefarad.