The tiny village fanning the flames of Sephardi culture

By Martin Bright, September 1, 2013

Tensions over Gibraltar and the ongoing economic crisis mean these are strange times to be visiting Spain as a British tourist. Neither issue has been mentioned to us since we arrived here last week, but then the Spanish have a reputation for keeping silent about inconvenient aspects of their history.

This tendency to keep shtum is the theme of Giles Tremlett’s book, Ghosts of Spain, required reading for any visitor who wants to understand this country’s dark recent history.

In a chapter on gypsies, the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent writes of a tradition among Spanish gitanos of tattooing a star of David and a crescent moon above the right thumb. This small act of solidarity with Jews and Muslims, the two other groups persecuted over the centuries by the Spanish is a small reminder of the grim history of this troubled land.

During the reconquista — the Christian retaking of Spain from the Moors — King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews in 1492 and the gypsies seven years later.

Gypsy culture is embedded deep in Spain through the tradition of flamenco. The gitanos refused to let it die — and there, deep within that music and dance, are the traces of those other Moorish and Jewish traditions the Catholic monarchs tried so hard to expunge.

At the Alhambra in Granada or the Alcazar in Seville, it is still possible to buy a CD entitled Tres Culturas, which celebrates the medieval music of Christian, Muslim and Jewish Spain. There, in the lutes and ouds you can hear the origins of flamenco guitar.

The traces of Jewish culture are everywhere in Andalucia, but for the most part they are only that: the barest of traces. Tourists wandering the winding streets of Seville’s Barrio Santa Cruz may be vaguely aware that it was once the city’s juderia — the Jewish quarter. Architecturally, only the entrance to the synagogue remains, built into the south wall of the church of Santa Maria La Blanca.

Despite the five centuries since the reconquista antisemitism still runs deep in Spain.

The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco claimed Jewish financiers were to blame for his country’s decline along with those other staples of authoritarian right-wing regimes: Freemasons, Marxists and homosexuals.

There are signs that, in the post-Franco era, something is shifting. Where we are staying, in the Sierra de Aracena national park, north west of Seville, there has been an attempt to embrace the Jewish history of the region,.

Santa Olalla del Cala, a village high in the Sierra had a sizeable Jewish community until the late 14th century when Feran Martinez, a local church politician used antsemitism to whip up support. As a result of the pogrom that followed, several synagogues were destroyed.

But since 2000 the village has also hosted a Festival of Hispano-Judaic and Sephardi culture, with lectures from local academics and concerts of Sephardi music.

With unemployment at nearly 27 per cent, Spain is living through its darkest period since the end of the Franco era. Sephardi tourism may now be established in the Sierra de Aracena, but how the country could do with a thriving Jewish community to help bring about a revival.

Last updated: 4:45pm, September 1 2013