Tudela: An Accidental Discovery
kilometers south of Pamplona where Ernest Hemingway ran with the bulls,
Tudela, second largest city in Navarre after Pamplona, is a metropolis of
many distinctions, not least among them a Jewish history of majestic
proportions. It was home to some of the most renowned figures in Sephardic
literature and scholarship; its two still-existent Juderias are among the
most extensive in all of Spain. Yet for the longest time, Tudela’s
Jewish erstwhile presence was forgotten, victim to a kind of collective
amnesia. And then a 53 year-old librarian/archivist made an
accidental discovery, and the process of remembering began.
Segura Moneo is a gentle and retiring man with a passion for old books
which makes him well suited to his position as Tudela’s archivist.
He works out of the eighteenth century palace of the Marquis of Huarte
whose indifferent facade hides an extravagant Baroque interior.
Behind its massive wooden doors is a courtyard, three stories high and
capped with a skylit dome. On either end of the courtyard, a pair of
staircases, paved with diamond-shaped marble tiles of gold and white, rise
to meet on a small landing. From each landing, four steps lead to a
larger landing seemingly suspended in the center of the court, from which
two staircases climb to opposite sides of the balcony-rimmed second floor.
Here, in a vaulted room modernized with fluorescent lights, office
furniture and computers, Julio Segura Moneo routinely examines and
arranges the documents of Tudela’s past.
day, the librarian/archivist happened upon an old record book that
contained a list of privileges conferred by Spanish kings on the
Jews from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries. “I had
always been interested in Spain’s Jewish past -- in Spain this is a
subject of interest to every student of history,” he says. “Still
finding this list made me curious to know more.”
after, he was shelving medieval volumes of notarized transactions and
noticed the binding of one had a sizable bulge. “I took a knife
and slit the cover open,” Segura says. “There were folded sheets
of parchments wedged inside. I slit the back cover open; parchments had
been wedged in there as well.”
by one, the librarian unfolded the large yellowing sheets. Although
worn, torn and faded in places, each was a legible 15th document that had
some connection to Tudela’s medieval Jewish community. Among them
were proceedings of rabbinical courts, Beth Dins, dated 1443, 1468, and
1472, marriage contracts, ketubahs, from 1482 and 1487, a Biblical
fragment in Aramaic, another with a portion of Exodus printed in double
columns of Hebrew.
sat before the weathered parchments, stunned by his discovery, aware he
was the first to see something that had been hidden away for more than
five hundred years. “I tried to imagine who would have done this,” the
archivist says. “Was it someone who was about to go into exile?
Or was it someone who had converted and continued living in Tudela?
What was his state of mind like? He must have felt some kind of
desperation, some great desire to preserve evidence that Jewish people had
once lived here. He was clever to hide these documents in a book of
notarized accounts. I expect he knew such records would probably not
be destroyed, and so his trove would be safe.
was a New-Christian scribe who wrote the first history of Navarre in
1632,” Segura adds. “His father had been a notary, and he claimed to
be Jewish in his heart. Could he have been the one who hid the
documents? We can never know.”
the people of Tudela did get to know about the archivist’s accidental
discovery, and it awakened an interest in this long forgotten part of
their collective history. In the eight years that have passed since Segura
noticed a bulge in the binding of an old book, Tudela’s Jewish past has
become part of Tudela’s present. The actual streets of the two
well preserved Juderias have been identified and signposted. A
synagogue beside the Romanesque cloister of the Cathedral has been
restored. And the illustrious nature of this medieval Jewish
community has become part of the city’s general consciousness.
peaceful cohabitation of Christian, Moselm and Jewish cultures for
Tudela’s life and appearance. Jews were restricted to certain
sections; yet their’s was a far more tolerant environment than existed
throughout the rest of Spain. The massive demonstrations and forced
conversions that spread from Seville to Barcelona in the late 13th century
never came to Tudela. There was no Inquisition here, not before nor after
the expulsion. In 1492, Jews exiled from Castille/Aragon came to
Tudela where exile was resisted for an additional six years. The
last expulsion in Spain was from Navarre in 1498.
that point, those who would not convert left for Bayonne and Bordeaux, the
Ottoman lands. Those who did convert changed their names so there is
no way, therefore, of linking the present citizenry to the past.
But in the new-found spirit of inquiry, a list of 115 Jewish names was
found. “Thanks to a thousand happy coincidences, I discovered my
Tudelian origins,” says Haim Menir Sokkar, an Egyptian-born Jew who has
lived in France since 1949. His family name was on that list along
with other Sephardim who have joined with Christians citizens of Tudela
who suspect they have Sephardic ancestors in the formation of the
Association of Friends of the Sephardim of Tudela. The group’s
major undertaking is the creation of a museum of Tudela’s
Sephardic heritage, an initiative, supported by both the University of
Navarre and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which will showcase
Tudela’s wealth of archaelogical Sephardic treasures.
parchments will be undoubtedly be deposited in the museum as well.
For now, however, they remain in the second floor room of the Palace of
the Marquis of Huarte, enclosed in a folder measuring perhaps two square
feet and labeled Documenta Hebraeorum, except for the times Mr. Segura
arranges for their public exhibition outside of Tudela.
drama of discovery has given new direction to the archivist’s
professional life. It is as if he received a message across time
that has spurred him to bring what was buried to the surface. He
hosts interested visitors, visits Israel under the auspices of the Spanish
government, and absorbs himself in learning about Tudela’s Jewish
kings of Navarre wanted the Jews to live here,” he notes. “The royalty
protected them. They were the lenders, doctors, commercial figures,
the professional class. The high standards of the Tudela Jewish
community explains why it fostered the existence of such great
figures of Hebrew literature as the poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi,
the scholar-calligrapher Abraham Ben Ezra, and the travel writer, Benjamin
his private office adjoining the archival room, Segura stores an ashlar
carved with half a Star of David which was found in the wall of the castle
and a massive bust of Benjamin of Tudela. On his desk lies a copy of the
first Spanish translation of The Journey of Benjamin of Tudela published
in 1918 with a critical commentary. “Benjamin traveled all around
Spain and beyond to Italy,” he notes. “He describes Jewish life in all
these different places in his book.
have come to feel an inexplicable closeness to the Jewish past,” Segura
says as he walks the maze of zigzagged streets of the old city, pointing
out various houses of likely Jewish origin, the street signs, the clearly
marked boundaries of the two Juderias -- one within and one without the
castle walls. He stops at the sites of the city’s three synagogues
and the two monuments to Benjamin of Tudela , one an abstract sculpture at
the entry to the Nueva Juderia, the other a bust in the Plaza of the
Juderia which previously was a garden of a palace but now belongs to
Tudela’s small university.
it is the mountain-top view from the castle grounds that seems to inspire
the archivist most of all. Down below the Queiles River meets the
Ebro which runs east across Navarre and on through Aragon and Catalonia
where it empties out into the Mediterranean Sea. The water is a dim
yellow in this late afternoon light, the medieval buildings and mountains
beyond are the color of sand. Directly ahead is the jetty from which
Benjamin of Tudela departed on his long journey. Perhaps this quiet,
scholarly man with a love of old books is thinking how, as a result of a
chance encounter with the bulging binding of an old volume, he too has
embarked on a journey. Like the Ebro, its end is out of sight; yet
already it has brought Benjamin the traveler and those of his long-gone
community back home into the collective memory of the citizens of his
Photos by Harvey Frommer
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.
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