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‘BACK IN GIRONA, AFTER 500 YEARS’
From  by  Ronit Treatman, Times of Israel, June 28, 2012

Girona was founded by the Iberians, expanded by the Romans (who named it Gerunda), conquered by the Visigoths, then Moors, and finally by Charlemagne. Charlemagne incorporated Girona into Catalonia. By the 12th century, it was home to a large Jewish community. Rabbi Moses ben Nahman Girondi, (better known as Nahmanides or Ramban) headed one of the most important Kabbalistic schools in Europe here. He was selected to advocate the Jewish position in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263 by King James I of Aragon. This was a debate in the Grand Royal Palace between the Ramban and Pau Cristia, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism. The purpose of this debate was to convince the Jews to covert to Christianity. Nahmanides prevailed, but in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Girona.

According to Assumpció Hosta, a historian and the director-general of the board of the Patronat Call de Girona (Municipal Board of the Jewish Quarter of Girona), some Jewish families chose to sell their properties to Christians before leaving Girona. Other members of the community believed they would return one day. They blocked off their properties and streets in hopes of reclaiming them in the future. The Christian neighbors who were left behind were reluctant to move into these vacant homes for fear of being labeled secret Jews by the Catholic Church. As a result, the homes of the Jewish ghetto or Call (derived from the Hebrew “Kahal” meaning “community”) remained unoccupied for 500 years. Over time, the people who lived near the Call built new structures, encroaching over the old houses. These construction projects gradually expanded, totally covering and entombing the vacant Jewish properties. This trend continued through the 18th century. With time, the Jewish Call was completely buried under the subsequent construction projects surrounding it.

The residents of Girona entirely forgot that a Jewish community had once existed there. The first clue reappeared in the 19th century, when a railway line was being built from Barcelona to France. When the construction crew dug through Mount Juic (Mountain of the Jews), 20 tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions were unearthed. Except for a few archaeologists, no one really took note of this discovery.

During the centuries following the Jewish expulsion, Girona had developed beyond the old city walls. For most of this time, the new neighborhoods were considered the most desirable. In the 1970s, the old town of Girona began to be gentrified. Mr. Josep Tarres i Fontan, a Catalan poet, was one of the people involved with rehabbing it. He purchased several 11th century buildings with the intention of building a restaurant. As work started on one of his buildings, the remains of Nahmanides’ yeshiva were discovered.

The discovery of such an important Kabbalistic site sparked the beginning of an exemplary model of preservation and education of a Jewish site in Spain. This is due to efforts of one very special man, Mr. Joaquim Nadal i Farreras. Mr. Nadal was a professor of history in the University of Girona. Subsequently, he was elected mayor of Girona in 1979. Mr. Nadal insisted on preserving Girona’s Jewish history.

“Why did you decide to preserve it?” I asked him. “Why did you care?”

Joaquim Nadal replied, “As a historian, I knew about Girona’s Jewish heritage from documents and other archaeological remains. When I took over the mayorship of Girona, I took advantage of the fact that in Spain there was a movement to recuperate the legacy of the Jews. We created a program to teach about the historic life of the Jewish community. We transformed this into a great project with a museum, el Museu d’ Història dels jueus (Museum of the History of the Jews), and a center of studies and recovery of historic memory, called the Instituto de Estudios Nahmànides (Nahmanides Institute for Jewish Studies).”

The mission of the Nahmanides Institute for Jewish Studies is “rehabilitating, studying and promoting the history of Girona’s Jewish community.” Some efforts to accomplish these goals include offering grants to graduate students who wish to delve into such topics as family trees, Jewish lineages, and the lives of Jewish women. A specialized library is free and available to all who wish to use its resources.

The museum and institute together comprise what is known as the Bonastruc ça Porta Centre. “Bonastruc ça Porta” is Catalan for “Nahmanides.” The Bonastruc ça Porta Centre is located on the site of Nahmanide’s yeshiva. In its courtyard is an ancient excavated water cistern. I hoped that I would learn about my ancestors’ lives in Girona at this institution.

What was my family’s life like in Girona in the middle Ages?

I wandered around the narrow, limestone alleys of the Call, just as my ancestors had long ago. The governing body of the Jewish community was called the Aljama. The Call was self-administered by Jews, and taxes were paid directly to the king of Catalonia. I went to the site of the home of the head of the Aljama. The current structure is not the original house that he lived in anymore. I call this place “the house of the seven mezuzas.” This newer structure was built with recycled stones from the medieval homes that were torn down to make space for it. Seven stones with hewed impressions for mezuzahs were incorporated into this structure. One sits just inside the well.

From the museum exhibits, I learned that Jews were merchants, bookbinders, and businessmen. I had assumed that they spoke Ladino. According to Silvia Planas Marce, director of the museum, the vernacular of Girona’s Jews was Catalan. Planas explained, “The Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, or Sefardi, is a language that was born after the expulsion of the fifteenth century. It was formed with a base of medieval Castillian, with the addition of words from all the different parts of the Iberian Peninsula from which the Jews departed in 1492. Hebrew was used for prayers and scholarship.” In the museum’s section about the professions of Girona’s Jews, there is a page from a medical manuscript written in Hebrew.

The most interesting information in Girona’s Jewish Museum was gleaned from two archives. The archive of Girona has records of property transfers dating back to 1284. These documents have helped map out the Call, and pinpoint where Jewish properties were located. Girona’s archive helped identify the site of the synagogue and Nahmanides’ yeshiva. The archive of Girona’s Inquisition lists all the Jews who converted to Catholicism. Their Jewish names were recorded, as well as the new names they adopted when they became Christians.

The most amazing item on exhibit is a priceless Torat ha-Adam by Nahmanides, printed in 1595 in Venice

What impressed me the most about this museum and institute is the rigor of scholarship and partnership with such institutions as the Israel Museum and the Jewish community of Barcelona. Private individuals were willing to lend, donate, or permit replicas from their priceless collection of artifacts and family heirlooms. The most amazing item on exhibit is a priceless Torat ha-Adam by Mosse ben Nahman (Nahmanides). This copy, donated by Rabbi M. Serels, was printed in 1595 in Venice.

The Bonastruc ça Porta Centre has a lovely gift shop. The most enjoyable part of my visit to it was chatting with Mr. Xicoira, the gentleman in charge. He told me that many Catalan visitors tell him about unusual customs in their families. “They wonder why they have these unique traditions,” he tells me. “They are here because they suspect that they might be Jews,” he continued. “What about you,” I ask him. “Are you Jewish?” “I don’t know,” he tells me. “My name Xicoira means chicory in English. Jewish converts to Catholicism were known to take the names of plants as their new last names. It is possible.”

I leafed through a fascinating book I purchased called “The Judeo-Spanish Surnames,” by Malka Gonzalez Bayo. When I reached the names listed under “N”, the name Nadal appeared.

I asked Nadal, “Is your family of Jewish origin?”

He replied, “We don’t know with certainty. Nadal is of Jewish origin. It was also a last name applied in Catalonia to foundlings who were baptized with this name meaning ‘Nativity.’”

Being the first in my family to return to Girona since 1492 was a fascinating experience. Nadal’s vision, initiated in 1979, has blossomed into a vibrant institution. At the Bonastruc ça Porta Centre, Hebrew is taught, reemerging in Catalonia. Artists are invited to express their creativity by fashioning Jewish ritual objects, such as menorahs. I wasn’t certain how it would feel to visit this place. My impression of it was that it was welcoming, respectful, and engaged in earnest scholarship. Some Rabbis and Jewish tour guides I am acquainted with have criticized such developments in Spain.

“They are only there for Jewish tourism to bring in money,” I was told.

It is my observation that something much more profound is occurring. Many families in Spain harbor a secret: They are descended from Jews. Many of them still retain vestiges of the Jewish faith expressed as unique family customs. There is still a lot of fear in Spain to both discover one’s Judaism, and to express it. Perhaps one day, Catalonians who wonder about their roots will wish to reach into the past with their DNA analysis, much as I did. In the meantime, a scholarly place is a safe place to learn about Judaism. That is how the Bonastruc ça Porta Centre serves not just Jewish visitors like me, but also the native Catalonians.

THE SEPHARDIC WAY      

Girona is on "The Sephardic Way", a network whose aim is to locate, revive and recover the cultural heritage of Jewish Spain which covers (at this time) Barcelona, Girona, Besalu, Cordoba, Caceres, Jaen, Hervas, Ribadavia, Segovia, Toledo and Tudela.  Its object is to restore their synagogues and Jewish Quarters and create cultural centres and museums devoted to a deeper understanding of the Sephardic legacy.

During the Middle Ages Girona was a very important Jewish centre with the best preserved and most important Jewish quarter in Spain. It was accidentally discovered during the reconstruction of the railroad from Spain to France in the mid-19th century. Girona´s old Jewish section, known as the “Call”,  was restored in 1980.

Its main street was a Roman Road that takes you back in time.  At its heart is a new educational and cultural complex called the Bonastruc Ca Porta Centre, which recreates Jewish life through art exhibits, musical events and food tastings. Surrounding a patio on the site of an ancient synagogue, there is a Catalan Museum of Jewish Culture, the Institute for Sephardic and Cabbalistic Studies and a library housing important medieval Jewish manuscripts.  (Click here for detail)

NAHMANIDES INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH STUDIES       

The Institute, which bears the name of the illustrious Girona-born Rabbi Mossé ben Nahan, or Nahmanides (b. Girona 1194  d Acre 1270), was created in 1997 with the aim of rehabilitating, studying and promoting the history of Girona's Jewish community. The aims of the Institute are pursued through research and education. It is complemented by the library which allows free access and consultation to its specialized material.

EDUCATION

The Institute operates in two main areas: education and promotion. Academic and scientific programmes, including international conferences, lecture cycles, courses on cultural or historical themes, seminars intended for different professional groupings (such as for those in education or tourism), Hebrew language classes, workshops and activities for families and for children of all ages. There is participation in activities organized by other entities and institutions so as to publicize the Jewish history and culture of the city of Girona.

RESEARCH

Research and study projects are undertaken relating to Jewish Girona, the reconstruction of family trees and lineages, and the history of Jewish women. Information is processed into databases available to researchers and all interested in these subjects. Their research and studies are made available to the public by publishing them in specialized books and journals in Spain and overseas

THE MUSEUM OF JEWISH HISTORY

The main aim of the Museum is to preserve and reflect the history of the Jewish communities of Catalonia, which throughout the entire medieval period formed part of, and made a decisive contribution to, the history of the country and its cultural and scientific development. In most cases an attempt has been made to illustrate the explanations given during the visit to the Museum with examples of items originating from Girona's own Jewish history. These examples, which may be in documentary, archaeological or pictorial form, thus offer a general explanation of the pattern of Jewish life in medieval Catalonia.

The Museum's Thematic Areas

The Museum's eleven galleries thus form an itinerary allowing visitors to learn about aspects of the everyday life, culture and history of the Jewish communities of Catalonia and of Girona during medieval times.

OUTSTANDING FIGURES     

RAHEL (11TH CENTURY)

Rahel was a Jewish woman who in 1040 sold in her own name a vineyard that she had inherited from her parents, situated outside the city walls near the abbey of Sant Daniel. She signed personally, in Hebrew, the deed for the sale of the land to Elies, a Christian. Since Rahel apparently knew how to read and write, a rare ability at the time, this enabled her to sign the deed of sale in her own hand. Most significant of all, however, is that Rahel acted on her own behalf and in her own name, and did not require male authorization to conduct a legal and legally recognized transaction concerning her own property. Hers is the oldest recorded signature in Hebrew in the city's history.

AZRIEL OF GIRONA (12TH CENTURY)

A cabbalist and philosopher, he was a very well-known member of the cabbalistic circle of Girona, and was both a direct disciple of Isaac the Blind and the philosophical master of Mossé ben Nahman. Spoke several languages. Noteworthy among his large number of writings is the Sa'ar ha-so'el, an intelligible explanation of the theory of the 10 Sefirot in the form of questions and answers following the rules of logic, intended as an initiation for beginners. Other writings include Commentaries on the Sefer Yesirah or Book of Creation, on the Aggadot of the Talmud, and on the daily Liturgy. In the latter case it can be noted as a curiosity that the work includes numerous Catalan terms written in Hebrew characters.

MESSULLAM BEN SELOMOH DE PIERA (13TH CENTURY)

A cabbalist, poet and philosopher. Also known as "Vides of Girona", he was a friend of Mossé ben Nahman and Azriel of Girona, and together with them was one of the leaders of the Jewish community in 13th century Girona. Formed part of the city's circle of cabbalists. He used poetry to express his philosophical ideas, and was against the philosophy of Maimonides. He wrote two poems dedicated to Mossé ben Nahman, whom he looked upon as a great sage and master.

MOSSÉ BEN NAHMAN (13TH CENTURY)

A philosopher, cabbalist, talmudist, poet, physician and rabbi, he is the most important and outstanding figure in the Judaism of the Iberian peninsula in the 13th century, and was the greatest talmudic authority of his generation. Known to his contemporaries as "the Master of Girona" or "Ramban", he is referred to today as Nahmanides or as Bonastruc ça Porta.

He was born in Girona in 1194, and died in the Holy Land in 1270. He was the rabbi of Girona and the keenest intellect and spiritual leader of the whole of Catalan Judaism. He was the most illustrious and prestigious member of the city's cabbalistic circle. In 1263, summoned by King James I of Aragon, with whom he had ties of personal friendship, he defended Jewish beliefs against Pau Crestià, a Jewish convert to Christianity who was confessor to the King, in the so-called Disputation of Barcelona. Shortly afterwards he left voluntarily for Jerusalem so as to comply with the Talmudic precept to "die at the mother's bosom". In 1270 in the city of Akko, he preached a New Year sermon which is still read in some synagogues all over the world even today.

Shortly before his death, he wrote a number of letters to his children in Girona, in which we can see how much he missed his family and the city. His personal seal in bronze was unearthed in the 1970s near Akko, and its inscription reads: "Mossé, son of Rabbi Nahman, of Girona, have courage!". A copy of the seal can be seen in the Museum of the History of the Jews.

Among his works that are particularly outstanding for their exceptional quality are his Commentary on the Torah, the Torat ha-Adam, various Talmudic treatises, monographs about Jewish legal terms, and his poems, with their profound and cryptic content.

ASTRUC, MOSSÉ AND JUCEF RAVAYA (13TH CENTURY)

Members of one of the most powerful Jewish families in the history of Girona, they each held high office in the royal and local administration in the late 13th century. They had enormous influence both within the Jewish community and in the general administration of the kingdom. The father, Astruc Ravaya, was the King's Bailiff for Girona and district, having succeeded his son Jucef Ravaya in this post. His other son, Mossé Ravaya, was Bailiff-General of Catalonia, and as such signed the Royal Charter of Palamós in the name of the King in the late 13th century.

BONAFILLA (13TH CENTURY)

A member of the Ravaya family, one of the most important and powerful families in 13th century Jewish Girona. She was a businesswoman who negotiated sales and loaned money against the payment of interest, all in her own name and at her own risk. In April 1288, she was accused of fraud before the ecclesiastical courts by a Christian resident of La Bisbal. Judged by the Bishop of Girona, she had her sentence commuted after paying bail to the value of 260 sous in the coinage of Barcelona.

JACOB BEN DAVID BONJORN (14TH CENTURY)

A scientist and physician. The son of Ester Caravida and David Bonjorn de Barri. Court physician and astronomer to King Peter IV "the Ceremonious", he calculated astronomical tables commissioned to him by the King in 1361. He lived in Girona and Perpignan.

ESTER (14TH CENTURY)

The daughter of Astruc Caravida, a powerful Jew of illustrious lineage, and of Bonadona. Her parents arranged her marriage to David Bonjorn de Barri. During her marriage she lived in Perpignan. Her husband was apparently a bad-tempered individual who treated her so badly that she repeatedly asked him for a divorce. The royal astronomer, however, refused to give her the necessary document of repudiation or to return her dowry. In order to gain her freedom and recover her personal and family assets, Ester caused her husband's books and tools to disappear from his study. She thus provoked him to repudiate her, since only the husband could request and grant a divorce. She then returned to Girona and had to struggle for a long time more to recover her dowry, which the husband refused to return. For this reason she named a lawyer to represent her. It would seem that she finally succeeded in obtaining the full return of the assets that had been given as her dowry.

NISSIM BEN ROVEN GIRONDI (14TH CENTURY)

A Talmudist, physician, jurist and rabbi (i.e., spiritual leader) of the Jewish community of Saragossa in the 14th century. Originating from a family from Cordoba, he was born and trained in Girona, although he lived almost all his later life in Barcelona, where he was a spiritual master and leader and directed the Talmudic school created by the Grand Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, a disciple of Nahmanides. He was known for his rationalist opinions, contrary to the mystical currents of the Cabbala. He wrote a commentary on the Halakot of Yishaq al-Fasi, Sermons, and a very important work, Responsum, used as an instrument of consultation by numerous communities all over the world.

BLANCA (15TH CENTURY)

A Jewish woman who had converted to Christianity and was the widow of the convert Bernat Falcó, the Falcó family being one of the most powerful families in the Jewish and convert community in the Girona of the 14th and 15th centuries. Blanca made her will in 1437, before a Christian notary. Nothing in her will indicates her Jewish ancestry, and she shows herself as a devout Christian and a lady of the Girona middle class of her day. A reference, however, to her son David, who is Jewish, and to the inheritance that she leaves him in her will provide irrefutable proof of her own Jewish past. She was a woman who was rich and influential, and she divided her inheritance between her children: three sons (two of whom were converts and one who was a Jew) and two daughters, who were both converts and married to converts in Perpignan and Castelló d'Empúries.

LINKS      

» Feliu, Eduard. La cultura hebraico-catalana. Barcelona, 1992.

» Planas Marcé, Sílvia. Filles de Sara, dones jueves de la Girona medieval. Girona, 2002.

» Romano, David. Els jueus de Girona als segles XII-XIII. Simposi Mossé ben Nahman i el seu temps, Girona, 1995.

» Sáenz-Badillos, Ángel; Targarona, Judit. Diccionario de autores judíos. Sefarad s. XI-XV . Córdoba, 1988.

The Jews of Catalonia by Sarina Roffe

Sephardic Routes, Spain Connects with Jewish History by Michael Levitin  LA  Times 27-5-2007



Many Barcelona visitors land at Girona

GIRONA
Summary
—–––––––––––––––-

 By the 12th century had a large Jewish community including Nahmanides (or Ramban) who headed one of the most important Kabbalistic schools in Europe here. He was selected to advocate the Jewish position in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263.

While some families sold their homes when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 others did not and blocked off their properties and streets in hopes of reclaiming them. Christians  were reluctant to move into them for fear of being labeled secret Jews by the Catholic Church. As a result they remained unoccupied for 500 years.

Today Girona is on "The Sephardic Way", a network of town whose aim is to locate, revive and recover the cultural heritage of Jewish Spain.

Its object is to restore their synagogues and Jewish quarters and create cultural centres and museums devoted to a deeper understanding of the Sephardic legacy. In Girona there is a Catalan Museum of Jewish Culture, the Institute for Sephardic and Cabbalistic Studies and a library housing important medieval Jewish manuscripts.

During the Middle Ages Girona was a very important Jewish centre.  Today it has the best preserved and most important Jewish quarter in Spain.  

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BACK IN GIRONA, AFTER 500 YEARS

What was my family’s life like in Girona in the
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