Sermon regarding Trip to Spain
July 30, 2016
Cantor Jack Chomsky
To paraphrase Eric Idle
In any great adventure,
if you don't want to lose,
victory depends upon the people that you choose.
So, listen, Europeans, very closely to this news:
You won't succeed in History,
If you don't have any Jews.
On July 4, Susan and I joined with Larry and Rosa Stolz of our congregation – and about 50 cantors – and about 375 people from the U.S. and Canada on a historic Cantors Assembly Mission to Spain.
This is the 3rd Mission of the Cantors Assembly conceived and led by our unique colleague Nate Lam of the Stephen S Wise Synagogue of Los Angeles.
Our first Mission was our trip to Poland in 2009. This trip culminated, in a sense, with the production of a motion picture documentary 100 Voices. Our second trip was to Germany in 2012.
What’s the difference, you might ask, between a trip and a Mission? What makes our Cantors Assembly tours worth the time and money that people spend to travel with us?
I would say that the unifying idea is to deepen the experience – to celebrate the culture that coursed through these places before the Jews were driven out. In the first two cases, it also became an opportunity to overcome our anger about what happened to our people—not to forget (God forbid), yet to reach out to those who have been reaching out to us. In Poland, which once was one-quarter Jewish, many people have come to realize that you cannot tell the history of Poland without incorporating the history of its Jewish community. When we were in Warsaw, ground was broken for the first Polish Museum of the History of the Jews – not the extermination of the Jews, not another Holocaust commemoration.
Also, traveling in the company of 50 or 100 hazzanim means that you get to see and hear the music that came from these places. And to share that music with the people who live there now – non-Jews and a tiny fledgling, slightly growing Jewish community. And you get to move past “I wouldn’t spend a dime of my money in that country where they did this to my people” – an understandable feeling, but one that looks only backward.
As then-President of the Cantors Assembly, I was a chair of the Germany Mission. One of the challenges to us was that our target shifted somewhat: Instead of going to a place to see only the ashes of our ancestors and traditions, it turned out that, by the time we made the trip, there wasn’t a fledgling Jewish community, but rather a burgeoning one. I don’t think anybody saw that coming. So many of us felt that we would never go to even SEE Germany – and then it turned out that thousands of our people – from ISRAEL no less, and from the U.S. – and especially – for different reasons – from Russia and the former Soviet Union --had chosen to do more than visit Germany – had actually established a new Jewish life there! Our musical mission was largely a celebration of Lewandowski and the great German Jewish musical masters of the 19th century. Performing this gorgeous and excellent music in some magnificent venues was unforgettable. Mission-wise, it was probably more important to the non-Jewish German population, as the new Jewish German population have mostly moved forward, or away from traditional synagogue practices.
Going to Spain, the heart of what became Sephardic Jewish tradition, was our natural next destination, even though we of the Cantors Assembly are overwhelmingly Ashkenazic in lineage. Our President two times after me is Alberto Mizrahi, whose family came from that part of the world. Alberto’s family wasn’t from Spain, but rather from Salonica. Yet that means they were once from Spain.
And that phrase – “once from Spain” – is at the heart of more Jewish life than we tend to realize.
Many of you have probably visited Spain, and if so, you have likely visited the quote-unquote “Jewish sites” of Spain. I say “quote-unquote” because there often isn’t much to see—and often isn’t much to feel. The Jews left Spain by 1492 – many earlier than that. It’s not the same thing as having left in the 1930s. Not by a long, long shot.
I felt that one of the main benefits of the Cantors’ mission would be to overcome a problem that you other Jewish Spain-visitors may have experienced. That you SEE it, but you don’t feel it in the kishkes. (That shows the problem right there, doesn’t it? There are no kishkes in Spain. If I’m not mistaken, in Spain, they are tripas.)
As I mentioned, one of the leaders of our group was Alberto Mizrahi, whose heritage was Sephardi but whose training is Ashkenazi. Yet he is certainly among the most sophisticated interpreters of Ladino traditions in the world. And we had Aaron Bensoussan. Born in Morocco, he is a 3rd-generation Sephardic hazzan who also chose to study Ashkenazic hazzanut. His original melodies have a ta’am – a taste – that brings you to Morocco for sure – and perhaps back to its Spanish roots. And we have something like a minyan – maybe even twice that—of native Spanish-speakers – an influx of hazzanim who have joined our organization after having emigrated to the U.S. and Canada from Argentina, Ecuador and other Latin American countries.
Larry and Rosa can tell you whether or not that helped.
I won’t take you stop by stop through our trip. That’s available on my blog, which you can access after Shabbat by googling my name and “blog.” [jackchomskythinks.blogspot.com]
So what DO I want you to know from this experience? And what are the unique takeaways of having traveled with this particular group?
Jewish life in Spain was rich and deep. It originated probably in the 2nd century CE. It was during Moorish – Islamic – rule in Spain that Jewish life flourished. The Jews – and the Christians – were tolerated by the ruling Emirates – and those who had valuable skills could rise in the society and economy even though they weren’t considered the equals of the Muslim ruling class.
A Golden Age came about beginning at the end of the 9th century. But by the early 11th century, unified rule was breaking down – so some places were very good and some places were pretty bad. Things really deteriorated after that –
The disaster of the Inquisition of 1492 really begins with mass conversions and massacres 100 years earlier in 1391.
A new takeaway is to think of the Inquisition not as Christians vs. Jews, but rather as the Catholic Church convulsing itself through the blood of those who had BEEN Jews. The question of the Inquisition is an impossible one: How can you be a true Christian when you haven’t been one in perpetuity (though you may try to prove otherwise)? [Conversos often did create elaborate “family histories” trying to demonstrate their “yichus” – again a Yiddish term completely out of cultural context – in Christianity.]
What drove the Inquisition? From the point of the masses, jealousy against those who did better than them. Conversos were likely more successful prior to the Inquisition because, as Jews, they had been a literate community. This distinguished them from the Spanish masses and made them a threat to the Church hierarchy also, as the church really wasn’t prepared to have a literate population questioning its priests, challenging its teachings the way Jews were bound to do (culturally speaking)– even if they didn’t think they were Jews anymore!
From 1492, there simply isn’t anything Jewish to see in Spain—yet those who left Spain took with them a vibrant Jewish and Spanish culture that they nurtured in many of the places they went; a culture that continued to flower in a specifically Spanish way in some places for centuries, and a culture that affected “normative” Jewry – that which is shared by both Sephardim and Ashkenazim in ways that we typically haven’t recognized, appreciated or acknowledged.
Some of the greatest things I saw in Spain weren’t in Spain. That from Spain comes the work and teaching of Rambam and Ramban (Maimonides and Nachmanides) and Joseph Caro (author of the Shulchan Aruch that tells us so much about how we live according to Jewish law), of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. How is it possible that our people were thrown out and turned out to build so much in the other places they went?!
That’s an old story, and a familiar story; a very Jewish story.
Another new takeaway: The Expulsion from Spain is also a Muslim phenomenon. One of our scholars said that Jews chose from among 4 possible paths—going down a road to what would later become political Zionism, Lurianic Kabbalah, Messianism, or genuinely becoming Christians. And that Muslims essentially had their own versions of these paths to respond to their similar crisis. [So – although it’s somewhat obsessive to look at everything in the world through a Jewish lens, it’s something that we are likely to do, but can me moderated somewhat by recognizing that Muslims were also victims of the rise of Catholic hegemony in Spain.]
So when you see Spain today, you can see vestiges of Muslim times, and very little of Jewish times. In Madrid, you can visit the Royal Palace – built in the 1700s in the image of Versailles. In Barcelona, you can see the amazing work of Gaudi. You can appreciate it, but if you want to think Jewish (and you don’t have to), you have no access point – because he had no access point. This is less of an issue when you see the Park Guell that he designed, but for me was harder in visiting the amazing basilica Sagrada Familia. The place is gorgeous – but in a way that I can’t relate to at all emotionally. Once you have intuited the idea that God is right there in front of you—or inside you--my Jewish understanding—it can be hard to relate to a God—or his son—who is so big and imposing—so high up and seemingly far away. It’s important to see the place—but they can keep it.
In Seville, we heard from Moses Hassan, a local Jew, born there to parents from Morocco. He took us again through much of the history. He’s doing well. He grew up Jewish in Seville and has a Jewish son. He had help building his Jewish life from visits to and time spent in Israel and the U.S. There are a few hundred Jews in Seville—if that many.
There were once 700,000 Jews in Spain. Now there are 30,000 in a population of 47 million. That’s one Jew for every 1500 Spaniards.
Moses Hassan says “I don’t see why I should leave. But I don’t see why I should stay.”
I started with the words of Eric Idle, but I’ll conclude more seriously with the words of Don Isaac Abravanel – statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, financier – born in Lisbon in 1437, fled to Toledo in 1483, wrote his greatest works there and also tried to bribe the Spanish monarchy to save the Jewish community. Ultimately he fled along with his community, days after the Expulsion Edict of 1492.
Abravanel wrote “From the rising of the sun to its setting, from north to south, there never was such a chosen people (as the Jews of Spain) in beauty and pleasantness, and afterwards, there will never be another such people. God was with them, the children of Judea and Jerusalem, many and strong. . . a quiet and trusting people, a people filled with the blessing of God with no end to its treasure.”
We went to Spain in search of a trace of this remarkable people. We found little evidence remaining. Yet the evidence is with us every day.