I spent some time following in the footsteps of Kabbalists who lived in Catalonia, an area that straddles parts of the coastal and southern mountain areas of now Spain and France, and includes the beautiful, eclectic city of Barcelona. The strong sense of Catalan pride and identity and the excitement over the then- impending vote for independence from Spain was very much evident in my conversations with people, as were all of the “Si” graffiti and banners everywhere I visited.
In the backdrop of the current political situation, much of my time there was spent wandering the slippery, winding stone streets of former Jewish ghettos in medieval towns to visit mikvahs and synagogues, trying to piece together what life was like for Jews who had a flourishing society there until their expulsion in 1492. The small city of Girona was the epicenter of Kabbalists and the home of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (the Ramban) who eventually was the chief rabbi of Catalonia.
I had an unexpected detour in my travels last year and ended up in Portugal, a place I hadn’t planned to visit and certainly not during Jewish holidays. Portugal had initially been a refuge for Jews fleeing Spain during the Inquisition but it subsequently followed in Spain’s footsteps, expelling or forcing the conversion of its Jewish populations. It was surreal at times to return to the country which now has a Jewish population of 1500 people now, spread amongst a few cities and towns. I spent time in the stunning Algarve region on the southern coast, including the town of Faro, where previously there had been a Jewish population, though the cemetery and museum were closed when I tried to visit. On the other hand, there’s a small but vibrant community in Lisbon, where I spent Simchat Torah. It is a spectacular, dramatic mountainous coastal city filled with the most beautiful buildings whose exteriors are covered in the most colorful tiles. It is quickly becoming an international cultural and technology destination and I predict it to become “the next Berlin.” Continue reading →