By ELYSE GLICKMAN, Special to the CCJN
Although Seville, Spain has a widely advertised museum-type attraction in its Jewish Quarter, a tour with Moises Hassan skips structured display cases in favor of a more authentic, anthropological approach to Jewish history as well as insight on how approximately 130 present-day Jews of Reform and Orthodox backgrounds live in this vibrant city.
Traveling through the narrow, sinuous streets of Seville’s “Juderia” with Moises (as he prefers to be addressed), one finds an emphasis on small details and hidden surprises that would probably be missed on a self-guided tour.
In fact, what you can’t see on Hasan’s tour packs as much of an emotional punch as what you can. This is reflective of the Seville Jewish community’s downfall that predated the full-scale expulsion of Jews from Spain by a little over a century.
In 1378, local archdeacon Ferrant Martinez launched a campaign of violent sermons against the Jews, and in 1391 used his power to launch a full-scale pogrom when he became the virtual ruler of his diocese. Though many Jews converted to save their own lives, the “Jewish problem” became the “converso problem.”
“My tours are three or three and a half-hours, and while I cover the history people come to learn about, my goal is to connect past and present,” says Hasan, toting an iPad with archival photos to provide extra visual context.
“I take my clients to small corners of the Quarter where they can actually see a piece of history, which in turn provokes conversation about how Jews live in Spain today, not just in Seville but in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities. It is a Jewish approach to history – Seville through Jewish eyes.”
Hasan begins his tour at Casa De La Juderia, a rustically opulent hotel, pointing out that although the baroque and renaissance appointments in the lobby are attractive, they are not representative of the Jewish Quarter his ancestors may have experienced.
“While we are in the center of the Jewish Quarter, a lot of what we see on the surface is gentrified for the tourists,” Hasan states. “It’s a romanticized representation of the quarter. Sometimes I call it ‘Disneyland,’ though you can find the real story of what happened if you look more carefully,” he says as the tour embarks down the slender, cheerfully painted streets.
The tour encompasses various finds in nestled in and around the main streets of Santa Cruz, Santa María la Blanca and San Bartolomé, separated from the rest of the city by a wall originating from the start of Conde Ibarra street. One stop is the Church of Santa María la Blanca, where one section of the wall is peeled back to reveal its former identity as a synagogue. Even without specific signage, the building’s Jewish origins speak louder than words.
The Church of San Nicholas might be the city’s most popular shrine. Hasan adjusts his iPad to reveal the wording of signage there that was altered around 2005 to remove a blatant declaration that the child for whom the shrine was dedicated was killed by Jews. Adding to that intrigue, he explains, is the recent discovery by local historians that the child and his violent death was a myth contrived by clerics to support the efforts of the pogroms in effect at that time.
The counterpoints to these bold signposts of persecution are small, seemingly random-placed Hebrew inscriptions (possibly written by non-Jews) that remain enigmatic centuries after they were placed. One he points out is a plaque of a woman with her foot over a snake. He notes, “’Hu yeshufecha rosh,’ which roughly translates to, ‘He will strike you in the head,’ (Genesis 3:15). Some translate it as, ‘she,” and it may refer to Virgin Mary. That is why she is stepping over the snake in the tile above the text, though nobody’s yet sure of when, who or why the plaque was placed there.”
While Hasan prefers the powerful, unexpected conclusion to his tour remain a secret, it does drive home the fact that a creatively planned historic tour can not only shift a visitor’s paradigm, but has the ability to alter local opinions as well.
“My (leading tours) is part of my commitment to being a resident of this city, especially when you consider that during the Middle Ages, Seville had the second largest Jewish population in Spain after Toledo,” Hasan says.
“My job is to let people know that the strong historical roots of the Jewish community are still important, and today, several of us in the community actively endeavor to live as a Jew. In fact, I want to prove to visitors that it is possible to live a Jewish life here, even if it can be challenging to observe our dietary laws and other things.”
While his parents moved to Spain from Morocco for job opportunities (attending university in Madrid before his father was offered a job in Seville), locally-born and bred Hasan passionately considers himself a Sevillian, who also happens to be pushing forward Seville’s Jewish legacy by living a decidedly Jewish life day-to-day, taking visitors to the remnants of the real quarter beyond the manicured boutiques and restaurants, and pushing the local government to accept and embrace the continued impact of the Jewish presence in the city.
“I got into touring by accident, about eight years ago,” Hassan continues. “I became so closely associated with Seville’s Jewish community that people from outside were constantly asking me where the shul was, when the services were, and if there was a Jewish guide to show them around the old Jewish quarter.”
According to Moises, the “Orthodox” Community in Seville (all Moroccan Jews consider themselves “Orthodox,” as there is no “Conservative” or “Reform” denomination there) was created officially in 1966, when his father settled there. Through there were already some Jewish families living in Seville, many other Jews coming from Morocco as well as Ceuta (where his father was born) & Melilla (located in the north of Africa, but under Spanish sovereignty) came in the 1960s and 1970s to attend the local university and decided to stay.
The Orthodox community (around 30 families) has Shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings and there are also services for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For Passover, they provide matzoh and wine to congregation members for a small fee.
Meanwhile, the Reform congregation (25-30 families, also known as Progressive, http://www.beitrambam.es), was formed more recently with the purpose of bringing together Jews from Andalucia as an alternative to the Orthodox community. In most cases, members are either expatriates from the United States, new converts to Judaism or partners from mixed marriages. They celebrate Kabalat Shabbat once a month, in different locations, as well as the major holidays.
Hasan adds that a focus in all their celebrations is on activities for the children to keep tradition alive, and that a member of the Reform community teaches Hebrew once a week to children of both congregations in the Orthodox synagogue.
Planning meals in Seville can turn into an extension of the message Hasan wants to get across…that living a Jewish life is challenging but not impossible as long as you follow certain guidelines and remain true to yourself. For example, when ordering fish or vegetables such as piquillo peppers or mushrooms, it is imperative to inform waiters that “kosher” cannot involve clams or other shellfish in the broth.
His recommended restaurants include San Marco (a 12th Century arab bathhouse tranformed into an Italian Restaurant in the Quarter), as well as El Contenedor on Calle San Luis 50; Habanita at Calle Golfo 3: La Cava del Europa at Puerta de la Carne 6: and Vega 10 at Calle Rosario Vega 10.
To contact Moises Hassan, visit his Jewish Sevilla site.
Travel to Seville and Jerez by train through RENFE, which has routes originating in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities. Plan and book ahead, as train routes fill up quickly during major national and regional holidays.