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A New Year in Sefarad

Over the holidays, I visited Cordoba in Spain. At the Casa Sefarad museum, the region’s rich Jewish past came alive. Although there’s little physical evidence of the city’s old Jewish neighborhood, La Juderia, nestled near the imposing Cordoba Mosque - now a Catholic Cathedral - the Jewish presence remains strong in people’s minds.

The museum curator explained how Cordoba became an intellectual center in the tenth century AD. The city welcomed Muslim and Jewish scholars from the Islamic world in the sciences, arts and philosophy and produced major works of architectural beauty. The esteemed Jewish thinker Maimonides was a Cordoba native, influential in both the Arab-Muslim and Christian worlds.

Although historians debate the degree to which Muslims tolerated Christians and Jews - and religious persecution often erupted - these three monotheistic religions enjoyed relatively peaceful relations. This Golden Age represented the cultural apogee of a civilization marked by a balance between political and military power, wealth, and brilliance of civilization - in particular when compared to what was to follow. In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II, and Isabella reconquered Southern Spain and soon afterward either forcibly converted the Jews to Catholicism or expelled them.

Bill with Maimonides

Most of the Jews fled, but some stayed as Anusim or Marranos, as the converted Jews were called. They maintained as much of their Jewishness as was safe. Even though Cordoba and Spain’s Jewish community is small in comparison to what it was before, it is remarkable that catholic Reconqistators did not succeed in destroying all its traces. The most vibrant and strongest part of this Sephardic heritage is the Ladino or Judeo-Spanish language, best expressed in music. Marty Eisenstein played and sang a Ladino song, Ocho Kandelikas, at one of our Chanukah Zoom candle-lighting events.

Visiting Cordoba, I realize that we in Europe have also enjoyed our own Golden Age since the Second World War. For almost eight decades, Jews have been living in peace and prosperity in Europe. But we now confront the winter of war and also an increase in antisemitism. The uncertain situation we are living through now can feel overwhelming and scary.

This New Year, it is important, more than ever, to remember what happened to our ancestors in Spain and to keep the lights of our faith shining and sing the age-old songs. When we pray together, with our community the darkness feels less omnipresent. I hope to see many of you at our services and other events this year. Happy New Year.

Anu Ristola

IJC President


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