In Toledo, Asleep in the Room of the Moneylenders

November 13, 2012Ilana DeBare

We took advantage of our empty nest status to take a week-long trip to Spain this month, the first time in almost 20 years that we could travel at a time when schools weren’t on vacation. In Toledo, we have been staying in a delightful small hotel called La Posada de Manolo that, for me, is as evocative and fascinating as any of the official sights in this historic medieval city.

The Sanchez Nunez family turned their 500-year-old home into a hotel that celebrates Toledo’s three religious heritages — Moorish (Muslim), Jewish, and Christian. In a detailed and  incredibly thoughtful renovation in 2001, each of the three floors was decorated to honor one of those traditions.

Rooms were named after various medieval professions. Purely by happenstance, we ended up on the Jewish floor in a room that, instead of a number, is called Los Prestamistas — the Moneylenders. (Before your anti-Semitism antennae start vibrating furiously, let me add that that the other rooms on the Jewish floor are the Farmers, Doctors, and Translators.)

La Posada de Manolo is outfitted in my favorite style of European hotel — revealing and emphasizing the historic, artisanal “bones” of the building while providing modern comforts like wifi and a good mattress. The hallways show the heavy wooden ceiling beams; the rooms have thick, ornate wooden doors that close with iron latches. The head board and night tables in our room are heavy, rustic wood.

And the decor is geared to the room’s vocational theme — a wooden case on one wall holds brass scales that might have been used by money lenders, while another wall displays two medieval drawings of financial transactions. The Farmers room down the hall had a big rustic pitchfork mounted on its wall. A Moorish room named after Silversmiths had, of course, some silver cups and bowls on the wall. It’s like sleeping in a museum!

Like the owners of La Posada de Manolo, the city of Toledo has made a concerted effort to recognize and celebrate its three heritages. Jews lived here for about 1,000 years until they were expelled in 1492; Muslims lived here for hundreds of years until they too were forced out with the Inquisition.

The government has renovated two synagogues, turning the stunning Sinagoga del Transito (built in the 1300s by Jews, with permission from the Christian rulers, and using Moorish craftsmen and design motifs) into a museum of Jewish life in Spain. The onetime Juderia or Jewish Quarter has tiny tiles embedded in the stone streets that say in Hebrew “Sepharad” (Spanish Jewry) and “Chai” (lives). Our timing wasn’t right to catch it, but the city sponsored seven encuentros with Jewish culture in 2012 — mini-festivals of food, music and film timed to holidays such as Sukkot and Chanukah.

Sinagoga de Transito, with Moorish-influenced windows and carved walls, facing east where the Ark of the Torah would have been (Photo by Ilana DeBare)
Biblical text bordering the synagogue just below the roof (Photo by Ilana DeBare)
Street with “chai” tile in the Jewish quarter of Toledo (Photo by Ilana DeBare)

Every time Sam and I go to Europe, we seek out pieces of local Jewish history — the ghetto in Venice, the former Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, the old cemetery and synagogues in Prague. Honestly, it’s more interesting to me than cathedrals. (Although we visit those too of course.) There’s a personal connection, even if my ancestors lived nowhere near these cities. I think, “Huh, this is how I might have lived if I had been here in 1400.”

So it’s both gratifying and impressive to me how much Europe has, in the past fifty years, moved to celebrate its Jewish heritage. They slaughtered us, tortured us, burned us, forcibly converted us, expelled us, and as recently as the 1940s tried to industrially eradicate us from the planet. Many cities no longer have actual Jewish communities. Yet  in the space of one generation, Europeans have turned around, acknowledged their wrongs and put out a welcome mat to Jewish culture. (Sepherad chai!)

Of course one can quibble cynically with this. It’s easy to ask: Are North African immigrants or Roma minorities the modern substitute for Jews in European bigotry? Is anti-Zionist rhetoric the 21st century version of anti-Semitism? But consider countries like Iran and Iraq that expelled or persecuted Jews more recently than Europe. Wouldn’t it be great to have them acknowledge the historic contributions of their Jewish populations the way that Western Europe has? Wouldn’t it be great to see Sepharad Chai (or the Persian translation of that) in the sidewalks of Teheran?

So this is all really good. I love the renovated synagogues, the restored Jewish cemeteries, our little Jewish floor at La Posada de Manolo.

But it’s also unsettling. Visiting Europe, you’re confronted not just with 1,500 years worth of great art and architecture, but with 1,500 years of nearly-constant war. Spain fighting England, England fighting France, France fighting Spain, etc. The post-World War II Europe of cooperation, economic integration, social democracy and human rights is a brilliant development but a very recent, very young development.

View from our hotel window of the Toledo cathedral, built between 1226 and 1495 (Photo by Ilana DeBare)

Meanwhile, we Jews have lived in the United States in significant numbers for only about 130 years — and we feel completely secure. Assimilated. Americanized. We worry about Israel, but about ourselves? Not really. We are U.S. senators, university professors, hedge fund managers, newspaper pundits, community organizers, Hollywood producers. We are the model of a successful minority.

And so were the Jews of Spain! They lived here for a thousand years! Samuel Levi, who built the Sinagoga del Transito and for whom a street is named in the Jewish Quarter, was treasurer to the king of Spain!

And then…. expulsion and Inquisition.

(Photo by Ilana DeBare)

I found myself thinking, as we meandered our merry touristic way with cameras and guidebooks in hand, of some lines in Gates of Repentance, the Reform prayerbook for Yom Kippur. This section of the afternoon service recounts the history of persecution of the Jews and concludes:

Look and remember. Look upon this land,
Far, far across the factories and the grass.

Surely there, surely, they will let you pass.
Speak then and ask the forest and the loam.
What do you hear? What does the land command?
The earth is taken; this is not your home.

Ilana DeBare is a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA.

Originally posted at Midlife Bat Mitzvah

Related Posts

Cuban American and Jewish: Exploring the History and Intersections of My Communities

I've been reflecting on the story of America's founding - the narrative many of us learn as children in the United States. I've recently learned a different version of that story - one that I now recognize intertwines with my own. My identities as Cuban American and Jewish have been shaped by Indigenous stories in America and in Cuba; particularly the themes of beginnings, loss, transformation, and change.

Keeping Family Close, Regardless of Distance

As I boarded the plane to Israel in the summer of 2002 for my first year of rabbinical school at HUC in Jerusalem, my mother said, "Please, just don't meet an Israeli." As soon as the plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport, I knew that I was home. A few months later, I met that Israeli. From our first conversation, he understood that I was studying to be a rabbi, and I understood that he wanted to live only in Israel.