Beautiful Barcelona and its Jews of today and long ago

Davening at the Sunday morning service at the Barcelona synagogue on Avenir Street.

Davening at the Sunday morning service at the Barcelona synagogue on Avenir Street.

What a stunning city, filled with eye-catching buildings, tree-lined boulevards so broad you have to take a taxi to get across before the light turns red. A city with museums devoted to Miro and Picasso, with acoustically and esthetically perfect concert halls like the Liceu and the Palao di Musica. With dazzling buildings by the renowned late-19th-century architect Antoni Gaudi, with superb public transportation and a citizenry that is always amiable and helpful.

Plus a city with a lively Jewish community that numbers about 3,500, with two welcoming synagogues, a school that educates about 150 students, and roots that indicate a thriving pre-1492 Jewish history.

We stayed at the palatial Barcelona Hilton on Avenida Diagonal, the city’s premier street. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice for it was close to the Chabad shul and to the main synagogue/Jewish community center on Avenir Street.

Before beginning a tour on your own, get a feel of the city by buying a one- or two-day ticket to the hop-on/hop-off Turistica Bus, which goes to all the major sites in the city. And then, after this wonderful overview, zero in on areas you like.

The medieval Gothic quarter, where Jews resided until 1492, is a favorite destination. From Catalunya Square, walk along the lively, tree-lined La Rambla, with its market stalls and street performers. Pass the palatial Liceu Theatre: The venue for Barcelona’s finest operas and concerts, within are ornate, art-bedecked rooms and halls. On two different occasions we saw there a classical ballet and a memorable production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice. On the right, also look for La Boqueria, a colorful, roof-covered food market, where people are always snapping photos of the beautifully displayed produce.

Along La Rambla is the city’s information center. As I left after inquiring about Flamenco dancing, a man held the door for me. To my “Thank you,” he replied, “How do you know I speak English?” I said, “I just looked at your face and knew.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation, I added, “And you know what? I bet you understand Yiddish, too!” He laughed and gave me a thumbs-up.

A day later, along the same street, while eating lunch at an Israeli falafel stand (yes, falafel in Barcelona!), a group of three Israeli couples entered and immediately one man headed toward me and asked in Hebrew, “Ta’im?” (Is it tasty?) I answered, “Yes, but how do you know I speak Hebrew?” He must have overheard my remark to the American the previous day, for he shot back, “I just looked at your face and knew.”

The aron kodesh at the Avenir Street synagogue.

The aron kodesh at the Avenir Street synagogue.

Photos by Erika Pfeifer Leviant

Off La Rambla, enter the medieval Gothic area near the old cathedral. A short walk from Jaume Square is the heart of the old call — a uniquely Catalan term for a Jewish quarter, deriving from the Hebrew diminutive for kahal, or kehilla (community) — where Jews lived until 1492. There, find the narrow Marlat Street. At No. 5 is a small space with a large history. Descend a few steps, and you will have a revelatory experience, for you stand in the Synagogue Mayor, the oldest synagogue in Europe, built in the sixth century and rebuilt in the 14th. The main room measures 40 by 20 feet, and in one corner one can still see remnants of late Roman walls. A document from 1267 shows that King James authorized the restoration and elevation of the height of the Roman medieval synagogue. But not until late in the 20th century was this site explored, excavated, and restored.

‘Happy Cow’

The Barcelona Hilton is ideally situated for a visit to the city’s two synagogues. A five-minute stroll led us to the Chabad shul at 27 Joan Gamper St., where about 50 men and women attended the lively Friday night service.

The next morning we took a 20-minute walk up Avenida Diagonal, passing world-class fashion boutiques, to the synagogue at 24 Avenir St. (For security reasons, tourists are urged to bring their passports.) Here about 60 adults and youngsters participated. At the munificent kiddush after services, I asked a longtime member how many of the dozen or so older men sitting at our table were born in Barcelona.

“Not one,” he said. Then pointing to one man after another, he said, “He was born in Tangier; he was born in Casablanca; he comes from Tunis; that man from Algiers….” The Jews who trace their ancestry back several generations are more secularized and show up at synagogue only for the High Holy Days.

Although the Jews seem to be mainstreamed and modern, it was rather surprising to see separate tables for men and women as you would in an ultra-Orthodox shul. I asked the rabbi, who had arrived six months before, about this, and he laughed: “You know, this surprises me, too. But I inherited this arrangement when I got here, and I can’t change it.”

There are no kosher restaurants in Barcelona, but arrangements for kosher food can be made in advance by contacting the Jewish center (info@cibonline.org). The city also has many vegetarian restaurants; Google search “Happy Cow, Barcelona” for a complete list.

Many of Barcelona’s Jews are shopkeepers or in business. One man told me he was a clothing manufacturer — “the shmatte business,” he said, using the Yiddish colloquialism for textiles. Some are doctors, a few are journalists, and one is the publicist for the current king of Spain.

One other site of Jewish interest, in the western part of the city, is an area called Montjuic (Jewish Mountain), which has an ancient cemetery where many Jews are buried.

A company called Barcelona Walks, located at Catalunya Square, offers several English-guided walking tours, including one in the Gothic area and one devoted to Picasso, which culminates with a visit to the Picasso Museum that features the artist’s early works.

(For those interested in the Jewish past of the entire region, take Catalunya Bus Turistic’s one-day excursion to Girona, which is only 60 miles away. Girona — the birthplace of the famous scholar and leader of Spanish Jewry, Moses ben Nachman [Nachmanides] — has preserved its medieval Jewish quarter and boasts a museum that displays engaging artifacts from pre-1492 Jewish history.)

Barcelona is also a major port city with beaches and a gigantic, walk-friendly pier. And do not miss architect Gaudi’s innovative buildings — the epitome of modernismo — and his meticulously adorned and highly whimsical Guell Park, perched upon a hill overlooking the city.

On the flight home, I read the entertaining collection of picaresque Hebrew tales by Joseph ibn Zabara (1140-1200). He begins one seminal chapter of his major work, The Book of Delight, with the line, “There once was a man from Barcelona named Joseph ben Zabara….” When one reads this work in conjunction with the famous debate between Nachmanides and the apostate Fra Paolo Christiani that took place in Barcelona in 1263 in the presence of King James, it is easy to see why the past and present of this glorious, light-filled city flow into one emotive continuum.

Curt Leviant’s newest book, A Novel of Klass, will appear in November. Erika Pfeifer Leviant contributes essays on Jewish art to various periodicals.

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