‘Mazal bueno’: Jewish life in Spain, then and now

‘Mazal bueno’ photo image
Palmade Mallorca Old Jewish Quarter.

The cobblestone streets in Toledo, Spain's old city are steep and twisting. Except for electric wires, marzipan, leather, and sword shops—plus flamenco outfits hanging outside the souvenir shops—the scene is similar to what a Toledo Jew would have witnessed 500-plus years ago.

Sephardic Jews had many freedoms until the Inquisition. Suddenly, they had no-win choices—escape, die, or become Catholic. Converts were second-class citizens. They prayed in separate churches and were forced to take surnames like Perez, Pina, or their native town. Catholics watched them. Anyone suspected of practicing Judaism was punished.

Jewish presence still haunts cities like Toledo, Cordoba, Palma de Mallorca, and Ávila.


Nowadays, few Jews live here. During the Middle Ages, Jews were so numerous, Toledo was known as "Jerusalem West." With wealth and influence, they were leaders in commerce and culture.

The oldest synagogue in Europe (1203) is now Santa Maria la Blanca Church. Its white-washed walls and multitude of pillars and arches are a fine example of Jewish splendor and Mudéjar (Moorish) architecture. Strangely enough, this church has Kol Nidre (part of the Yom Kippur service) and Purim programs at the times of these holidays.

The contrast of Transito Synagogue's plain façade and its interior—intricate Mudéjar designs, Hebrew inscriptions, and a domed, wood-beamed ceiling—is amazing. The Museo Sefardí, a treasure trove of Jewish artifacts, maps, marriage contracts, items from Mesopotamia, coins, religious items—adjoins it.


Every June, Cordoba hosts the Sephardic Music Festival. Concerts include a mixture of international Jewish music and artists, including Israeli rock bands. The Klezmer bands sound like music at a Jewish wedding.

Today, shops inCordoba's old Jewish Quarter, Juderia, brim with silversmiths and jewelry. Ancient remains are  marked with plaques baring the Hebrew inscription Sephard.

A likeness of Maimonides-philosopher, Greek scholar, physician, and Mishneh Torah (the code of Jewish law) author—sits in Juderia's Tiberiadus Square. Maimonides lived here until he was 12.

The 700-year-old  Cordoba Synagogue is a must-see. After the Inquisition, it served as a hospital, church, and nursery school. Today, it has been restored to its former grandeur with Mudéjar intricately, etched plaster, and decorative arches. 

Across the street, Casa de Sefarad, with a collection of Menorahs, jewelry, and a Sephardic Torah,  focuses on tradition. Its library of videos and Jewish multi-lingual books include—would you believe—Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed" in Japanese?

There we meet Haim Casas. This delightful young man makes up 4 percent of Cordoba's Jewish inhabitants (population is 25).

"In Spain we say mazal bueno instead of mazel tov," Casas says.

Casas spends Shabbat in Casa Mazal's courtyard blessing the wine and the bread.

"It's the only challah in Cordoba," he adds.

Palma de Mallorca

Jews found this sunny paradise around the 5th-century. By 1299, 2-3,000 Jews lived in Call Mayor. It's behind the 1,000-year-old Cathedral (Le Seu). (Check out the Rimmonims-Torah ornaments—inside the church. 

Call Mayor's mazelike, cobblestone streets are so narrow, a full-sized car can hardly navigate them. On Carrer de la Torre de L'Amore, a man once took the term "love thy neighbor" literally. Smitten by his neighbor's wife, he built a tower to watch her. The lady's husband petitioned the king and down went the tower.

The Inquisition made life hell. Jews were burned at the stake. In 1435, 200 Jews were forced to convert at Santa Eulalia Church. Primera Sinagoga Major (1300-1315) became Church Contestó. All that is left of the temple are some worn down stones. Jews still rub them for luck.

Conversos (converts) were victimized and referred to by derogatory names like Xuetas (pronounced Chewtas), Xuetons or Maranos. Church of Santa Fe (now a Greek Orthodox Church) was a Xueta church. Through the years, Conversos stuck together and never intermarried.

Today, about 300 Jews live here. Founded by some Brits in 1987, Comunidad Judia de les Illes Balear is a mishmash of Sephardic, Orthodox, Conservative, Xuetas and Reform Jews. Only two Stars of David on its gate identify it. Call (629-32-1467) before you visit. Except for the high holidays, there's no rabbi. David Kaisin Benadava teaches Hebrew, acts as cantor, and does whatever.

"It's like a family here," says Benadava's wife, Joyce Heller Cotton. "Descendents of Conversos (Xuetas)  come because they don't feel Catholic."

What a surprise to find Las Olas Bistro in Call Mayor. The restaurant specializes in Sephardic-styled cuisine like pastry-filled lamb and eggplant.

"I got the idea for the recipes from Claudia Roden's¸"The Book of Jewish Food," says Evelyne Plagie, Las Olas' Cambodian chef. 


Ávila, a walled city, looks like a movie set for a film about the Crusades.

"When the streets are empty, you hear your own footsteps. It's mystic," says guide Blanca Salana.

Three former inhabitants were mystics: the Kabalistic Rabbi Moses de León, who wrote the Zohar (the 13th century Jewish book of mysticism), St. Juan de la Cruz, and St. Teresa of Ávila.

St. Teresa's grandfather, a successful Jewish merchant, escaped Toledo's Inquisition. The family assimilated into Christian society. Though St. Teresa became a saint, many still considered her a Jew.

Today, few remnants of Ávila's Jewish past exist. The most visible is the old synagogue with an adjoining rabbi's house. Now the Hospederia la Sinagoga Hotel, a wall of each room is part of the synagogue's exterior. Room numbers are accompanied by a plaque with the name of a Jew who once lived in the town.

So many Spanish towns have Jewish history. Exploring them is a fascinating journey into the past.

Going to Spain? Call the Tourist Office of Spain at (312) 642-1992 or visit www.spain.info for more information.  

Rabbi Alex Felch of Congregation B'nai Tikvah, in Deerfield, is leading a group to Spain June 16 to 28. Spend Shabbat in Valencia; explore the historical Jewish presence there as well as in Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, and Madrid, as well as some off-the beaten-path gems. Call (847) 945-0470 for more information.

Roberta Sotonoff is a freelance writers living in Glenview.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.