It’s 10 AM. The sun is shining. But in the narrow lanes of Girona’s medieval Jewish quarter or Call, darkness and shadows pervade. It’s been over a decade, in 1992, since the symbolic gesture of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia openly cancelled the 1492 law of expulsion. Girona, just 60 miles northeast of Barcelona, once had the second largest Sephardic Jewish population in Catalonia after Barcelona. There were Jewish families in Girona in the 9th century CE and perhaps much earlier. The town’s importance as a centre of Jewish culture relied heavily on one man; the famous 13th century doctor, rabbi, philosopher and cabalist, Nachmanides (circa 1194-1269), known within the Jewish world as R. Moses ben Nachman or the Ramban.
Today there are no synagogues or Jews in this Spanish town of 75,000 inhabitants. However, there is much fascinating archaeological evidence of the former Jewish presence which at its height, totaled about 300 persons. Municipal officials here, and their counterparts in a handful of other cities in Spain, have labored to restore the Jewish quarter near the Cathedral. They also have established two institutions to commemorate Girona’s Jewish heritage and its famous mystical circle of medieval days.
After crossing the Onyar River on the edge of Girona by way of the Eiffel Bridge (built by the Eiffel Tower group) past the wide pedestrian shopping street, I enter a maze of ancient arcades, archways, courtyards and passages. This is the Call, the Jewish quarter. The word derives from kahal, the Hebrew word for community. Many of the restored buildings stand within the Aljma, an area that traditionally housed all the communal services including synagogue, school, local government, ritual baths, burial grounds and kosher butcher.
The Bonastruc ca Porta Center, at Carrer de la Forca 8, occupies several restored 13th century buildings. The Center houses the Catalan Museum of Jewish Culture with an important collection of Hebrew tombstones. Nachmanides Institute for Sephardic and Cabalistic Studies, is a research center which is dedicated to Jewish heritage. The building has an impressive research library, a café and an exhibition hall where exhibits on Spain’s Jews are displayed.
“We’re finding many archaeological remains which make us think a synagogue was here,” Assumpcio Hosta, the director of the Bonastruc ca Porta Center, tells me pointing to a stone building as we head off the Carrer de la Forca, the main artery of the Call. At the bottom of each of these steep dark streets are the remains of medieval gates which were closed when there was a special religious fete for Catholics. While the gates kept the Jews out, they also served as protection for the Jewish community in times of strive. “Sometimes the relationship was very good and sometimes it got so bad,” Assumpcio says. As a municipal official explains. “the object is to focus on the common memory that we have together –not just the Jewish past, but the collective history of the Jews, Muslims and Christians, who once lived together in harmony.”
From the shadowed street, we enter a bright square where the sun has found a gap. The cobblestones have been replaced by a huge Star of David mosaic. The Girona Cabalists according to Gershom Scholem, the 20th century authority on Jewish mysticism, “were a group of epochal importance.” Since Nachmanides seems the main reason for the rediscovery of Jewish roots, Assumpcio is intent on talking about him. “Nachmanides was the first to put his thoughts of Cabalism on paper. It was always just an oral tradition, although, never codified before Nachmanides. Cabalism was a school of secrets before he wrote about it.” Many Spaniards have become increasingly interested in Spain’s Jewish past and the exotic elements of the country’s history. “You must realize that in Spain, that part of our history was not told for many years,” Assumpcio states. “Generations have grown up without any awareness of the Jewish past. Now we’re trying to fill that gap.” Although no Jews have been living here for more than 500 years, at least not openly, the memory of the former historic community has been preserved in the picturesque narrow lane-ways of the Call and in the Bonastruc ca Porta Center, which make Girona one of the major sites for Jewish tourists in all Spain.
Girona, a Catalonian town of about 75,000 inhabitants, is situated about 60 miles (85 km) northeast of Barcelona between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Besides Judaic sites, main sites of interest include a Cathedral that combines Romanesque, Goth and Baroque styles: the Museu d’Art with a collection of Catalan paintings and sculpture; Many Arab baths and the Sant Pere de Galligants Monastery with its archaeology museum which includes some medieval Jewish tombstones.