BARCELONA — In the narrow alleys behind Barcelona Cathedral where the city’s Jewish community was centered in the mid-14th century, an English guide is showing a small group of American tourists the limited vestiges of Jewish life before the Inquisition.
Most of the tall, close-packed buildings of El Call (its name perhaps originating in the Hebrew kahal, community) were torn down hundreds of years ago, she recounts, but the Sinagoga Mayor, believed to date back to the 13th century, survived, and has been excavated and reopened since an immigrant Jewish businessman from Argentina intervened to prevent the city demolishing it in the mid-1990s.
Barcelona’s Jews felt the inquisition a full century ahead of time, the guide — a friendly, passionate and apparently well-informed young woman — tells her group: On August 5, 1391 — Saint Dominic’s Day — at least 200 and perhaps as many as 1,000 members of the community here were massacred by their neighbors, who had convinced themselves that the Jews were responsible for importing bubonic plague.
A statue of Saint Dominic stares down from the third story of the building that, below ground, houses the excavated synagogue. It was placed there, she speculates, to underline the primacy of Christianity over Judaism. The abiding ubiquity of pork in the Spanish diet, she further suggests, was also a defense against any Jewish revival.
There are very few remnants of Barcelona Jewish life in the Middle Ages for the group to see: the new-old synagogue; markings on an adjacent door post where a mezuza used to sit; faded Hebrew letters from gravestones recycled in the walls of a grand building on nearby San Jaume Square.
Along the alley from the synagogue on Carrer Marlet, a stone plaque commemorates a study center in the community that was — with a dedication to “Rabbi Shmuel Hasardi, his light burns forever.” This is not the original plaque, the guide reports, rediscovered 200 years ago, since that kept getting vandalized. Anti-Semitism, it would appear, is not entirely a thing of the past here.
Still, Spain’s Jewish community is slowly growing again — to perhaps 20,000 today, with a quarter of that number in Barcelona — bolstered by immigration from South America in recent decades. Among those arrivals was Miguel Iaffa, the Argentinian immigrant who saved the synagogue. “And believe it or not,” the guide tells her group when describing this Jewish businessman, “he didn’t actually have much money.”