Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jews and Spain -- A Final Preliminary View

Now that I am on the plane back toward the U.S. and have reviewed my blogposts, getting ready for publication those that haven't yet been offered up, and had a little sleep, I begin to try to make sense of this experience.  

Speaking with someone else who was on the tour, I heard that some people "really liked it and some people didn't" -- and among those who were disappointed, the feeling was that the trip "wasn't Jewish enough."

There are some Jewish people (presumably not too many who aren't) who only travel to see Jewish things in the world, and who might be disinclined to visit places where there isn't a Jewish narrative.  I know that I myself have more interest in the Jewish sites and perspectives than some of the people I sometimes travel with.  It's a fine balance -- to look deeper for the unique Jewish corners around the world and its culture and history -- and not to miss the fact that the world isn't ONLY about Jews and our history.

Yet of course the raison de voyage of this Cantors Assembly Mission was JEWISH Spain.  

Personally, I think I'm probably a little -- or a lot -- more open to the lacunae in this story than many others -- or than I might have previously been -- having spent 4 months in Asia during my recent sabbatical.  Many of us Jews obsess over "what do they think of us?" and "what do they think of Israel?" It was a bit mind-bending to spend time in places (Vietnam and India mostly, and also Japan) where they simply DON'T think about us.  This was something I feel like I have almost never imagined -- at least not during the last 30 years. Being the only Jews that people had ever met or are likely to meet within the next 10 or 20 years gave us an opportunity to consider "what would we LIKE them to know about us or Israel?  What's necessary?  What doesn't matter?" etc.

So a trip to "Jewish Vietnam" or "Jewish India" or "Jewish Japan" would be a fool's errand, a con, except for places where there really IS Jewish history.  There ARE places in India and Japan especially that have significant stories in times ancient (India) or modern (Japan).

Spain, though, gives us a different kind of challenge.  There is a profound, rich, joyful Jewish history in most of the places that we visited, but it's a history that is long gone, and has, until recently, had no one to preserve or collect it -- and, except by finding remnants of it elsewhere -- no one to recall it.  

When we visit Germany or Russia or other Eastern European countries, or even Turkey, Salonica, Morocco, Italy and others, the fragrance remains one way or another.  Ironically, of course, the story of the Jews of Turkey, Salonica, Morocco, Yemen and others is largely the continuation of the Spain story -- but with different host cultures -- and usually an outcome of a later re-expulsion to Israel or elsewhere.  

For most of the people in my corner of the Jewish world, the stories of Germany and Eastern Europe are familiar and deeply personal.  Their music and literature and language are much closer to my music and literature and language.  

I felt that, traveling with my cantorial colleagues -- especially a cadre of Spanish-speaking hazzanim, most of whom are from Ashkenazic tradition (which isn't as on point as people actually "dripping" in Sephardic tradition) would help us connect emotionally to what we would see in Spain.  I would love to have attracted more people to our trip -- but so many people have already been to Spain and "seen the Jewish thing" in Spain.  I really believed that they would be moved more deeply to travel in the company of my talented colleagues.

And I think that we really delivered beautifully.  High points were the joyful concerts that included a large number of songs in Ladino, pieces that sprang from the culture that was here -- or the culture that developed when it was expelled and grew elsewhere.  And it seemed like Aaron Bensoussan, a member of the Cantors Assembly who DOES exemplify the Moroccan tradition that emerged after Spanish expulsion, served as the sun that shone on multiple events.  Aaron is an amazing force of joy and commitment to this tradition, though his fascination with Ashkenazic hazzanut (despite having come from a distinguished tradition of Sephardic Moroccan hazzanut) provides a complicated composite kind of singing that doesn't necessarily exemplify anything about what was here -- but does say huge things about how culture develops and moves forward, sideways, upward and more.

It was nice to have two lecturers -- an increase of 100% -- over previous missions (though there are times some might seem to have preferred zero lecturers -- a 100% DECREASE! Still, the learning and background are among the key elements distinguishing our missions).  Professor Stephen Berk always has cogent and understandable and straightforward takes on what happened here and how we got here.  Professor Eliezer Papo was a little harder to fathom.  I suspect that he's much clearer in Hebrew.  I found that I often didn't know whether he had said A or the OPPOSITE of A...And as he sought to speak about Sephardic culture (as opposed to history), it might have been easier to connect with more direct demonstrations of what he was talking about -- perhaps with some of the "talent" on our trip.

But the challenge remained: there's a huge gap here.  We Jews haven't been here -- almost at all -- for 500 years.  And as Moses Hassan, our guest lecturer in Seville, someone who really does have a successful Jewish life history (his father was prominent in Seville's "Jewish community" and so is he -- he speaks Hebrew and is raising a Jewish child) put it:  "Do I think that there is a future here? Do I want to make a future here?"  There isn't -- at least not yet -- a population to build a future.  And Spain's future (unlike, for example, Germany's) isn't at all tied to the idea that it will matter if Jews are welcomed back and choose to come back.  And yet the Spanish government has been making efforts to identify descendants of those expelled so many years ago.  Do they really want them to come back? Do they want them to build a Jewish life here?  Or is it just something that looks good in the international framework of nations?  Too early to say.  Nobody, I think, thought that Jews were going to return to Germany by the thousands -- tens of thousands -- it was unimaginable. 

If Jews do end up starting to return here, will they rebuild any element of Sephardic Golden Age culture?  It seems unlikely -- and remember that today's Jews in Germany have an almost complete disconnect to what happened before the Holocaust.  It's a new population that has found a remarkable place to live in tremendous freedom -- and Europe's best economy -- attracting Jews from Israel, the U.S. and everywhere and also serving as a welcome basket to Russia's Jews, who knew nothing about being Jews anymore but certainly have taken advantage of moving to a new place that teems with freedom and opportunity.

So in terms of the future of Jewish Spain. . . If the economy improves, anything could happen.  Whether that will make it easier to explore the Jewish culture of 500+ years ago is another matter.

Traveling in a group of over 350 presents significant logistical challenges (nightmares?). In my view, the Ayelet folks did great, great work: The people on this trip were likely to be, on the average, somewhat wealthy and spoiled, impatient with having to wait for OTHERS but completely intolerant of not having events held up for their own particular needs or tardiness. At the same time, they had signed up for something extraordinary and kind of pricy, and could certainly be forgiven high expectations.

Could we have delved more deeply into the real Jewish history that has evaporated here...meeting Ramban/Nachmanides in Gerona, etc.? There's the challenge--hard to do for such a big group, but difficult to deliver special things for a small group. I can't quite get out of my mind the possibility of Simon Spiro dressed as Nachmanides, telling us his life story in prose, poetry, song and dance. And perhaps that lays out the difficulty--that almost everything that happened here morphed into other things and places. That what STARTED here either disappeared or was built into something else somewhere else at a different time.

Which brings me to another conclusion I made on a previous visit to lost Jewish worlds: After our Germany Mission, I went on a Rhine River Cruise with my family. It was on those visits to onetime medieval Jewish addresses (as opposed to 18th to 20th century and Holocaust sites) that it occurred to me that although the Jews suffered terribly in being abused, murdered and driven out, it was really the "host culture" that deprived itself of things that would have made it better.

What if the Jews hadn't been expelled from Spain? How much better off would Spain be today?! True, our culture is always enhanced by exposure to and distillation of host cultures when given the opportunity and when we take the opportunity, and the influences of the European and North African nations to which the Jews of Sefarad were exiled are an important part of what Sephardic culture is today. But time after time, when given the opportunity, Jews are a tremendously positive influence on host cultures.

Perhaps the world will figure that out, and some day we'll be able to organize "Jewish Heritage Tours" celebrating the history  and culture of the Jews of the Arab they were exiled from Spain but continued to develop their culture in these new countries, but were expelled again from 1948 (or earlier) forward, but were eventually welcomed back, etc. etc. IMPOSSIBLE to imagine. But...who could have imagined what would ultimately become of the Jews after the destruction of the Temples, and after the expulsion from Spain?!

We are still here to tell the story. We are still here to sing the songs. We are still here to live Jewish life according to the understanding of Joseph Caro, of Rambam, of Ramban.

For those of you who came with us to Poland and/or to Germany and/or to Spain, I hope that you were half as inspired as me by our ability to move forward beyond heartbreaking life and death historical challenges.

And I hope next time we say "we've got a mission" coming, you'll sign up and pack your bags!

God bless the visionary Nate Lam. And the tireless chairs Jetemy Lipton, Steve Stein and Alberto Mizrahi. And thanks to the dozens of colleagues who participated, organized, prepared and inspired, and to the hundreds who braved the hot Spanish summer to MAKE SOME HISTORY!

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