Reporter's notebook

Back in Girona, after 500 years

Using DNA analysis to reveal her ancestral routes, the writer retraces an enthralling chapter of her family history in Spain

The writer in one of the narrow alleys of the Call, used by her ancestors 520 years ago. (photo credit: courtesy)
The writer in one of the narrow alleys of the Call, used by her ancestors 520 years ago. (photo credit: courtesy)
River view of Girona. (photo credit: Courtesy)
River view of Girona. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Have you ever wanted to meet your ancestors from a faraway time and place? Have you wondered about all the locations they lived in and what sort of people they were?

I grew up with incredible stories of my great-grandparents’ adventures and treks across continents and wanted to find out as much as I could about my ancestors. Modern, affordable DNA testing made it possible for me to uncover more about who I am and where I came from — and revealed an extraordinary surprise. This discovery took me on a trip to Spain, where my investigation of my family’s past inadvertently revealed the search for Jewish origins and identity many Spaniards are currently engaged in.

The first thing I needed was my map. In 2003, the Human Genome Project announced that it had mapped the approximately 25,000 genes of the human genome. Two years later, Gene Base founded “the world’s first online personal genomics DNA database.” Based in Canada, they offer DNA tests to help you trace your ancestral routes.

To get the most complete results, it is necessary to have samples from male and female siblings. The brother’s cheek swab will reveal the ancestral route of the males in the family, and the sister’s for the females. Fortunately for me, I have a brother. He and I scrubbed the inside of our cheeks with the special swabs, shipped them off to a laboratory, and waited for the results.

They arrived a few months later. Some of my ancestral routes were consistent with what I had been told by my grandparents. On the male side, the arrow went directly from the Near East to Bukhara (in modern day Uzbekistan). My family remained there, part of an isolated community, for around 1,000 years. However, the matrilineal analysis revealed a surprise. This is what had always been considered the Ashkenazi side of the family.

According to the DNA analysis, these ancestors lived in Catalonia for hundreds of years, a sojourn we had known nothing about. They left when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Even more amazingly, I was able to extract the name of a city: Girona! I had never heard of it before.

The writer on a bridge leading to Girona's Old City. (photo credit: courtesy)
The writer on a bridge leading to Girona’s Old City. (photo credit: courtesy)

Girona is a beautiful city, nestled on the banks of the Onyar River. It is located in the northeast of Catalonia, Spain, about one hour’s drive from Barcelona. I grew up with the oral tradition that following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the rabbis issued a herem (formal ban) that Jews were not to enter Spain for the next 500 years. Although the year 2012 is well after the herem would have expired, I wanted to verify whether this herem had really existed.

To find out, I contacted Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton. According to Shapiro’s paper, “The Herem On Spain; History and Halaka,” there is no record of such a herem. After the expulsion of 1492, a law was enacted in Spain that any Jew who was found there would be executed. The rabbis discouraged Jews from travelling to Spain because they would have had to pretend that they were Christians. Doing so is against halacha.

In 1992, King Juan Carlos formally repealed Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion order, removing the rabbi’s objections.

I decided to retrace the footsteps of my ancestors with a visit to Girona. I would be the first person from my family to return in 520 years! Serendipitously, due to my father’s work, I grew up in Venezuela where I attended first grade in Catholic school and my teachers were Spanish nuns. As a result of this formative immersion in Spanish language and culture, I slipped into Catalonia as naturally as if my family had never left.

Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi, (better known as Nahmanides or Ramban) headed one of the most important Kabbalistic schools in Europe here

Girona was founded by the Iberians, expanded by the Romans (who named it Gerunda), conquered by the Visigoths, then Moors, and finally by Charlemagne. Charlemagne incorporated Girona into Catalonia. By the 12th century, it was home to a large Jewish community. Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi, (better known as Nahmanides or Ramban) headed one of the most important Kabbalistic schools in Europe here. He was selected to advocate the Jewish position in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263 by King James I of Aragon. This was a debate in the Grand Royal Palace between the Ramban and Pau Cristia, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism. The purpose of this debate was to convince the Jews to covert to Christianity. Nahmanides prevailed, but in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Girona.

An alley in the Call of Girona. (photo credit: courtesy)
An alley in the Call of Girona. (photo credit: courtesy)

According to Assumpció Hosta, a historian and the director-general of the board of the Patronat Call de Girona (Municipal Board of the Jewish Quarter of Girona), some Jewish families chose to sell their properties to Christians before leaving Girona. Other members of the community believed they would return one day. They blocked off their properties and streets in hopes of reclaiming them in the future. The Christian neighbors who were left behind were reluctant to move into these vacant homes for fear of being labeled secret Jews by the Catholic Church. As a result, the homes of the Jewish ghetto or Call (derived from the Hebrew “Kahal” meaning “community”) remained unoccupied for 500 years. Over time, the people who lived near the Call built new structures, encroaching over the old houses. These construction projects gradually expanded, totally covering and entombing the vacant Jewish properties. This trend continued through the 18th century. With time, the Jewish Call was completely buried under the subsequent construction projects surrounding it.

The residents of Girona entirely forgot that a Jewish community had once existed there. The first clue reappeared in the 19th century, when a railway line was being built from Barcelona to France. When the construction crew dug through Mount Juic (Mountain of the Jews), 20 tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions were unearthed. Except for a few archaeologists, no one really took note of this discovery.

During the centuries following the Jewish expulsion, Girona had developed beyond the old city walls. For most of this time, the new neighborhoods were considered the most desirable. In the 1970s, the old town of Girona began to be gentrified. Mr. Josep Tarres i Fontan, a Catalan poet, was one of the people involved with rehabbing it. He purchased several 11th century buildings with the intention of building a restaurant. As work started on one of his buildings, the remains of Nahmanides’ yeshiva were discovered.

Joaquim Nadal i Farreras. Nadal was a professor of history in the University of Girona and mayor of the city. (photo credit: Jordi Bedmar)
Joaquim Nadal i Farreras. Nadal was a professor of history in the University of Girona and mayor of the city. (photo credit: Jordi Bedmar)

The discovery of such an important Kabbalistic site sparked the beginning of an exemplary model of preservation and education of a Jewish site in Spain. This is due to efforts of one very special man, Mr. Joaquim Nadal i Farreras. Mr. Nadal was a professor of history in the University of Girona. Subsequently, he was elected mayor of Girona in 1979. Mr. Nadal insisted on preserving Girona’s Jewish history.

“Why did you decide to preserve it?” I asked him. “Why did you care?”

Joaquim Nadal replied, “As a historian, I knew about Girona’s Jewish heritage from documents and other archaeological remains. When I took over the mayorship of Girona, I took advantage of the fact that in Spain there was a movement to recuperate the legacy of the Jews. We created a program to teach about the historic life of the Jewish community. We transformed this into a great project with a museum, el Museu d’ Història dels jueus (Museum of the History of the Jews), and a center of studies and recovery of historic memory, called the Instituto de Estudios Nahmànides (Nahmanides Institute for Jewish Studies).”

The mission of the Nahmanides Institute for Jewish Studies is “rehabilitating, studying and promoting the history of Girona’s Jewish community.” Some efforts to accomplish these goals include offering grants to graduate students who wish to delve into such topics as family trees, Jewish lineages, and the lives of Jewish women. A specialized library is free and available to all who wish to use its resources.

The museum and institute together comprise what is known as the Bonastruc ça Porta Centre. “Bonastruc ça Porta” is Catalan for “Nahmanides.” The Bonastruc ça Porta Centre is located on the site of Nahmanide’s yeshiva. In its courtyard is an ancient excavated water cistern. I hoped that I would learn about my ancestors’ lives in Girona at this institution.

What was my family’s life like in Girona in the middle Ages?

The writer in one of the narrow alleys of the Call, used by her ancestors 520 years ago. (photo credit: courtesy)
The writer in one of the narrow alleys of the Call, used by her ancestors 520 years ago. (photo credit: courtesy)

I wandered around the narrow, limestone alleys of the Call, just as my ancestors had long ago. The governing body of the Jewish community was called the Aljama. The Call was self-administered by Jews, and taxes were paid directly to the king of Catalonia. I went to the site of the home of the head of the Aljama. The current structure is not the original house that he lived in anymore. I call this place “the house of the seven mezuzas.” This newer structure was built with recycled stones from the medieval homes that were torn down to make space for it. Seven stones with hewed impressions for mezuzahs were incorporated into this structure. One sits just inside the well.

From the museum exhibits, I learned that Jews were merchants, bookbinders, and businessmen. I had assumed that they spoke Ladino. According to Silvia Planas Marce, director of the museum, the vernacular of Girona’s Jews was Catalan. Planas explained, “The Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, or Sefardi, is a language that was born after the expulsion of the fifteenth century. It was formed with a base of medieval Castillian, with the addition of words from all the different parts of the Iberian Peninsula from which the Jews departed in 1492. Hebrew was used for prayers and scholarship.” In the museum’s section about the professions of Girona’s Jews, there is a page from a medical manuscript written in Hebrew.

The most interesting information in Girona’s Jewish Museum was gleaned from two archives. The archive of Girona has records of property transfers dating back to 1284. These documents have helped map out the Call, and pinpoint where Jewish properties were located. Girona’s archive helped identify the site of the synagogue and Nahmanides’ yeshiva. The archive of Girona’s Inquisition lists all the Jews who converted to Catholicism. Their Jewish names were recorded, as well as the new names they adopted when they became Christians.

The most amazing item on exhibit is a priceless Torat ha-Adam by Nahmanides, printed in 1595 in Venice

What impressed me the most about this museum and institute is the rigor of scholarship and partnership with such institutions as the Israel Museum and the Jewish community of Barcelona. Private individuals were willing to lend, donate, or permit replicas from their priceless collection of artifacts and family heirlooms. The most amazing item on exhibit is a priceless Torat ha-Adam by Mosse ben Nahman (Nahmanides). This copy, donated by Rabbi M. Serels, was printed in 1595 in Venice.

The Bonastruc ça Porta Centre has a lovely gift shop. The most enjoyable part of my visit to it was chatting with Mr. Xicoira, the gentleman in charge. He told me that many Catalan visitors tell him about unusual customs in their families. “They wonder why they have these unique traditions,” he tells me. “They are here because they suspect that they might be Jews,” he continued. “What about you,” I ask him. “Are you Jewish?” “I don’t know,” he tells me. “My name Xicoira means chicory in English. Jewish converts to Catholicism were known to take the names of plants as their new last names. It is possible.”

I leafed through a fascinating book I purchased called “The Judeo-Spanish Surnames,” by Malka Gonzalez Bayo. When I reached the names listed under “N”, the name Nadal appeared.

I asked Nadal, “Is your family of Jewish origin?”

He replied, “We don’t know with certainty. Nadal is of Jewish origin. It was also a last name applied in Catalonia to foundlings who were baptized with this name meaning ‘Nativity.’”

The wall surrounding Girona's Old City. (photo credit: courtesy)
The wall surrounding Girona’s Old City. (photo credit: courtesy)

Being the first in my family to return to Girona since 1492 was a fascinating experience. Nadal’s vision, initiated in 1979, has blossomed into a vibrant institution. At the Bonastruc ça Porta Centre, Hebrew is taught, reemerging in Catalonia. Artists are invited to express their creativity by fashioning Jewish ritual objects, such as menorahs. I wasn’t certain how it would feel to visit this place. My impression of it was that it was welcoming, respectful, and engaged in earnest scholarship. Some Rabbis and Jewish tour guides I am acquainted with have criticized such developments in Spain.

“They are only there for Jewish tourism to bring in money,” I was told.

It is my observation that something much more profound is occurring. Many families in Spain harbor a secret: They are descended from Jews. Many of them still retain vestiges of the Jewish faith expressed as unique family customs. There is still a lot of fear in Spain to both discover one’s Judaism, and to express it. Perhaps one day, Catalonians who wonder about their roots will wish to reach into the past with their DNA analysis, much as I did. In the meantime, a scholarly place is a safe place to learn about Judaism. That is how the Bonastruc ça Porta Centre serves not just Jewish visitors like me, but also the native Catalonians.

The writer can be reached at 

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