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The Jews of Valencia

In the thirteenth century when Jaime I conquered the Kingdom of Valencia ending 500 years of Moorish rule, he sent out the word: Jews throughout Christian Spain were invited to settle in the reconquered territory. Inducements of free land and five year tax-exemptions had the desired effect as  Jews flocked to the strategically situated towns along the mountainous routes, to the port cities along the Mediterranean, and to the capital city that shared the kingdom’s name, blue and gold Valencia in the midst of the fertile orange-growing plains where the Tura River flows into the Mediterranean Sea.

Manuel Ruzafa Garcia, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Valencia, estimates that Jews formed a significant five percent of the city’s population in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  They worked as translators, tax collectors, civic administrators; one, Ruzafa says, was chief advisor to the king.  But on July 9, 1391 all that ended abruptly when in a climate of nation-wide anti-Semitic attacks, a riotous mob stormed the Juderia.  Two hundred fifty  people were killed; many fled to ships in the port and towns in the surrounding mountains. Some seven thousand saved their lives by converting, and all evidence of a Jewish presence was eradicated. Today, not a neighborhood, street or plaza, not a gate or former synagogue stands as reminder of  its one-time existence. For more than five hundred years, nothing Jewish existed in Valencia. And then, Samuel Serfaty came along.

A gray-haired man of late middle age whose twinkling eyes betray a mischievous sense of humor, Serfaty was born in Tetuan, then part of Spanish Morocco. “My ancestors came from Spain. My mother tongue is Spanish.  The Spanish army was stationed in Tetuan while I was growing up. I always felt I was living in Spain,” he says.  “So, in the early 1960s when Morocco achieved independence and the political situation seemed unstable, I decided to emigrate to Spain.”

Serfaty initially settled in Barcelona, but when the company he worked for opened a branch in Valencia, he agreed to take over its management.  He found life agreeable enough in the city of blue domes and graceful bridges to return to Tetuan, marry the girl he left behind, and bring her to Valencia where their two children were born.  In typical Diaspora fashion, word spread about prospects in this city renowned for its Baroque and Art Noveau architecture, manufacture of Llardo porcelain, agricultural marketing, textile production, shipyards, and breweries. Jews from North Africa followed Serfaty’s lead, and before the decade had ended, Valencia’s first Jewish community in more than 500 years had been inaugurated.

Today its center is housed in a two-room apartment of a modern but modest walk-up building in a neighborhood strangely reminiscent of Rego Park, Queens.  One room is the all-purpose meeting place and office, a space bespeaking activity and clutter whose walls are decorated with children’s crayoned drawings of menorahs and Torahs.  The other serves as sanctuary, and it comes as a surprise. Seating is provided by plain wooden chairs, and windows are draped with flimsy white curtains. But the richly encased Torahs sit in a massive arc of gleaming mahogany, and ornate silver candelabras and filials adorn the bimah.  Light comes from both standard fluorescent fixtures and exotic Moroccan oil lamps.  It is a mixture of the ordinary and extraordinary, but each extraordinary item has a story behind it like the 140 year-old Torah which Serfaty brought from Morocco and dedicated to the memory of his father.

The amiable businessman is both cantor and president of Valencia’s Jewish community and conducts services every Friday night and on holidays. “We must make telephone calls every Friday to make sure we have a minyan,” says his right-hand man, the community’s treasurer, Israel Belloch.  A young man of classic Spanish good looks, Belloch was raised as a Catholic but converted to Judaism before his marriage to Marilda Adulay.  Her family came to Valencia from Casablanca in 1964 when she was three years old.

“I didn’t have to convert,” says Belloch who runs the printing company founded by his grandfather, “but I decided to because I wanted to raise a Jewish family.

“Before I met my wife at the university, all I knew about the Jews is that they had been expelled,” he explains.  “That was all they taught us.   However, my parents are liberal and felt very good about my converting.  They even paid for my circumcision.”

Belloch had to travel to Morocco for his circumcision, but the brith of Ari, his two-year son, took place in Valencia; the moehl came from Madrid.  Although the fledgling community numbers only 125, it has a support group in the nation-wide Spanish-Jewish Federation for help in maintaining a Jewish way of life.  “They provide a moehl for a brith, a rabbi for a wedding,” Belloch says. “We buy our kosher wine and matzoh for Pesach from the community in Barcelona, our kosher meat from Barcelona, Malaga, or Madrid.”

Carlos Schorr, a civil engineer serves as the president of the Federation which represents Spain’s fourteen Jewish communities and its 20,000 affiliated Jews.  (He estimates there are an additional 20,000-30,000 unaffiliated Jews nation-wide.) Born in Barcelona to parents who emigrated from Poland before the Second World War, Schorr is aware of the uniqueness of  his position on two fronts: he is an Ashkenazi Jew heading a congress that resonates with Sephardic history and culture, and his tenure is taking place at a historic period in Spanish-Jewish relations, when the Spanish government has welcomed back descendants of the Jews it exiled five hundred years before and has made public gestures of reconciliation.

“Several years ago, I met with the Justice Minister in Madrid over the issue of our receiving economic support from the government just like the Catholic church does,” Schorr says. “The king and queen are very open and supportive.  And throughout Spain, there is interest in the Jewish past, in the question of possible Jewish roots.  I would say that fifty percent of Catalonians (from the northeast province of Spain) will tell you they think they descend from Jews, and they are very proud of this.

“But Valencia, just south of Catalonia, is different,” he adds. “There questions about a Jewish past are barely heard.”

“It is curious,” Israel Belloch says, “one of the largest and most important Jewish settlements in medieval Spain was in this city. But nothing remains. We hear about excavations and restorations of synagogues, cemeteries, and Juderias in places like Toledo, Gerona, Segovia, Barcelona.  But here these  seems to be no official interest.”

Such is not the case, however, in towns and villages throughout the larger Land of Valencia, as the autonomous community is known. The port city Sagunto, an hour’s drive north of the capital, comfortably straddles its modernity with accumulated layers of Iberian, Roman, Moorish, as well as Jewish civilizations.  A Juderia of gleaming whitewashed houses descends along steeply inclined byways behind a pair of arches marked “Portal to the Juderia” uncovered during a demolition project in 1957.  There is a  “Street of the New Blood.” a “Street of the Old Blood,” and at the top of a small lane “The Church of the New Blood,” which any passerby will tell you was once a synagogue.

Further inland, Xativa, called the City of Fountains for its many fountain-filled plazas designed by the Arabs during their half a millennium rule, keeps alive the memory of its Jewish past through oral traditions. A primary school teacher welcomes us into the courtyard of  his Moorish style home in the old section of town. “We have always believed this house belonged to a Jewish family,” he says showing off the little alcoves and gardens that lead to different apartments.  “It was in this neighborhood, a few blocks from the market that the Jews moved into after the re-conquest.”

An elderly couple stops for a chat.  “After the re-conquest, the Jews lived in the best houses,” they tell us.  “But after the expulsion, they moved up into caves in the mountains.  Then they must have mingled with the population because none of us know who has Jewish ancestors any more.”

In the northernmost part of the province, Morella, the circular walled city with a castle at its crown, draws local tourists for its historic sites and vertigo-inducing vistas. Serafim Gamundi, the city’s chronicler for the past 45 years, tells us that during the middle ages when it was a strategic connecting point for the kingdoms of Valencia, Catalonia, and Castille, Jews were an influential part of the city’s population. “Over the past six years, interest has been re-awakened in this part of our history,” he says.  “Our mayor together with the Israeli consul developed grants for students to examine the archives and books in the city hall and cathedral so we can learn more about it. We know when the Jews came here at the invitation of Jaime I, they were merchants in the street with arcades where we have our markets; we know area they lived in.”

A serpentine road travels from the heights of Morella  to the valley floor and the village of San Matteu where scars of the Spanish Civil War are still visible. Here an archeological dig along the river which bisects the town revealed old alleyways, artifacts, kitchenware, a well - all believed to have been  part of the town’s Jewish settlement.   A makeshift museum showcases some of the objects, and a real effort seems to be underway to reclaim and preserve the town’s Jewish past.

If throughout the Land of Valencia interest in Jewish history is on the rise, as indeed it is in so many parts of Spain, it is perplexing that in its capital city, where a new Jewish community has taken root, there is scant official attention to the subject.  Israel Belloch tell us that even inadvertent discoveries inspire little reaction. “Some years ago, in preparing the foundations of a new building, graves were uncovered which we were able to determine were those of medieval Jews,” he says.  “The city administration was indifferent to us, and we turned to Carlos Schorr.  He obtained the permission of the Grand Rabbinate of Israel to have the remains moved to the old Jewish cemetery on Mt. Juic in Barcelona and got the officials of Valencia to cooperate.

“Afterwards, they were digging to build a new subway station, and more graves were uncovered.  The station is across the way from a shopping plaza which we believe was constructed over the site of the old Jewish cemetery and opposite one of the entrances to the Jewish quarter.  Every sign in the quarter has disappeared, but we know that once three synagogues were there.”

When he talks of such things to his Christian friends, Belloch finds they are puzzled.  “They are not anti-Semitic,” he says, “but they are ignorant.  They ask me, ‘What is a Jew?’  They really don’t know.”

Yet this cosmopolitan Valencian with deep roots in the community manages to awaken interest in the subject.  Adelina Pedros, a young graduate student of history at the University of Valencia, began examining her own heritage after meeting Belloch and his wife.  “I learned that the converts, the New Christians, had to keep their old as well as their new names which is one way of knowing who they were.  My maternal grandmother’s second name is Struch, the Jewish spelling was preceded by an A - Astruch.  According to oral history, that is a Jewish name.  She came from Carcienti, one of the places the Jews settled at the time of Jaime I.   Sometimes she would say ‘That is a Jewish name, do you know that?’

“Now I am paying attention to her words, and I think of other things as well.  In the courtyard of the old part of the university there is a statue of Juan Luis Vides, a 17th century humanist and poet.  His family was New Christian, and while he was in Belgium, his family was destroyed by the Inquisition, and  he never came home. I think his statue here in the courtyard of the university is a way of our officials saying the Inquisition was such a bad thing.”

“We were at the reception at the Madrid synagogue on March 31, 1992 when the King of Spain attended,” notes Samuel Serfaty. “It was something like his asking forgiveness, and I found it a very emotional experience.  It was more than writing a new decree; it was more than voiding the old decree.  The Jews did not go to the king, the king came to the Jews.”

“What I have found,” Israel Belloch says, “is that the descendants of Jews who come back have kept part of Spain in them. Some of the dishes Marilda’s mother brought with her from Morocco are Spanish dishes, like Tafina, a kind of  cholent which they eat every Saturday.  You can trace this dish in books back to the 15th century. In Israel, we find they have the same dishes we eat here. 

“I have heard of  people coming here from Israel who still have the key to the house their family lived in 500 years ago.  So even though we are such a small community here in Valencia, I think it’s important we are here.  We are the connection to that past.”

“There were Jews in Valencia here since before the common era,” Serfaty adds.  “Now we are starting all over again.  How do I feel as a Jew living in Spain? I cannot change history.  The expulsion, the Inquisition happened.  But today, Valencia is home to me.”  

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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