My Trip to Spain
My wife and I just returned from a wonderful trip to Spain. On past travels it seemed that I couldn’t avoid interfaith family issues; this time was no exception.
Jewish Affinity on a Tapas Tour
In Madrid we went on a tapas tour with Luis Ortega Bofill. Luis was very friendly and eager to share his deep knowledge about Spanish history as well as food. He also was very Catholic, enthusiastically telling us how the Sudarium of Oviedo, a relic held in Spain, confirms that the Shroud of Turin was Jesus’ burial cloth. (I’ve always been fascinated by the Shroud and had never heard of the Sudarium.)
We had noticed that a lot of the items on tapas menus were ham, so we told Luis that we didn’t eat ham. When we said it was for religious reasons, he said that he probably had Jewish ancestors – the name Bofill was a common Jewish name when the Sephardic Jews of Spain were forced to convert or be expelled in 1492.
I really liked Luis – and wondered if it was because he had Jewish ancestors. It’s not the first time I’ve thought that way. My college roommate, with whom I’m still close, who never met a Jew before college, had a Jewish grandfather, and I used to wonder if that’s why we got along so well.
But I’m conflicted about thinking that way. Traditionally, Jews are supposed to feel connected with, even responsible for, all other Jews. That feels like it could be unequal and discriminatory and could set up a conflict in an interfaith relationship with the partner from a different faith background who presumably isn’t going to feel the same way. Or maybe it’s okay to feel an affinity with people who are part of your group without feeling that your group is superior or exclusively connecting only with people in your group.
Messianic Judaism in Toledo
We went on a day trip to Toledo to see what had been the Jewish quarter and specifically the Museo Sefardi (as well as El Greco paintings in several locations – I really like El Greco paintings). The museum is housed in what was a synagogue built in 1355, but it did not have explanations in English of what is on display, and the audio tour didn’t work well.
That was just disappointing. I had a much stronger negative reaction at the other former synagogue in Toledo, the Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca. I knew that it had been turned into a church, but I didn’t expect to see a small exhibit in a side building that appeared to be promoting some form of so-called Messianic Judaism. I don’t understand Spanish, but there was a poster with a lot of Hebrew and obvious Jewish symbols surrounding a drawing of what looked like Jesus, and there was a man at the door wearing a monk’s robe and a wooden crucifix with a Star of David on it.
I’ve always had a strong visceral negative reaction to Messianic Judaism – I call it “so-called” because I don’t consider it Judaism at all. It’s just not Jewish to pray to Jesus as the messiah and son of God. It added insult to injury to find it in a place where Jews had a long relatively peaceful history, until they were expelled.
Awe, Dismay and Hope at Sagrada Familia
In Barcelona our hotel was steps from what had been the Jewish quarter and we saw a very small but nice exhibit at what had been the “Sinagoga Major.” But I have to say the highlight of our stay in Barcelona was a tour of the Sagrada Familia, the cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi. The cathedral is famous for still being under construction after almost 100 years. But the interior is completed, and it is simply awesome, a vast stark space with an incredibly tall ceiling, beautiful stained glass in abstract patterns, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
The cathedral has two finished facades, one about the birth of Jesus designed by Gaudi himself, and one about the death of Jesus designed by Josep Luis Sert – which is where the dismay happened. Our guide gave an excellent tour, but at the end, when he was explaining what the sculptures depict, he said the Pontius Pilate looks disappointed, resting his chin on his hand, because he asked “the Jews” what they wanted to do and “the Jews” wanted Jesus crucified.
When the tour ended I approached the guide and said I thought what he said was contrary to the Catholic church’s changed doctrine that no longer blames “the Jews” for killing Jesus. He said he was aware of the doctrine, asked if we were Jewish and said he was glad we were there, and agreed to change his wording. That made me feel hopeful.
Jewish History in Girona
We went to Girona, again specifically to see a Jewish museum – the Museu d’Historia dels Jueus. This one was an excellent exhibit – including explanations in English. When we left my wife, who converted after thirty years of marriage, said something about not having realized the depth of the discrimination the Jews of Spain suffered and how awful the forced conversion, expulsion, and subsequent Inquisition must have been. She was upset. It wasn’t new to me – I’ve known the basic history for a long time – and I didn’t have that emotional reaction.
But it made me wonder what role Jewish history plays and will play in the future with interfaith families. I think some Jews are motivated to engage in Jewish traditions in part because Jews did so in the past in the face of a long history of persecutions, and I think that will continue to be true in the future. But I think that partners from different faith backgrounds can also find that history compelling and feel the same motivation. There has to be something very valuable and powerful about Jewish traditions for people to have maintained them in the face of tremendous adversity.
I was very moved by one panel about “the Jewish family” in the fifteenth century. Even though its description of the roles of the father and the mother were very old-fashioned (what you would expect about the fifteenth century), when it said the children “are taught the customs and history of their people” – I thought that was timeless, and still important, including and perhaps especially for interfaith families.