Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo reviews The Memory Work of Jewish Spain

Daniela Flesler and Adrián Pérez Melgosa. The Memory Work of Jewish Spain. Bloomington, Ind., Indiana University Press, 2020. 390 pp.

Review by Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo

16 June 2021

As David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2014) has shown, there is no need to count on the actual presence of Jews to partake in the world’s lasting anti-Judaism. Something similar can be said about post-Franco Spain’s philo-Judaism: with no sizeable Jewish communities to speak of Spain joined postwar Europe’s official pride in its tragic Jewish past and present. Thus, Toledo, Madrid, and Barcelona have reconstructed their old juderías and synagogues in order to highlight both democratic Spain’s maturity and the touristic allure of an even more exotic destination. The Memory Work of Jewish Spain shows that Spain’s philo-Judaism bears the inexpungible stain of the Catholic monarchy that once hosted, and then expelled and persecuted, one of the largest Jewish population in Europe. 

Armed with the theoretical weapons drawn from recent memory, Holocaust studies, Jewish studies, museum studies, and cultural studies, Daniela Flesler an Adrián Pérez Melgosa expose the silencing of past infamies within a new national appropriation and taming of the Sephardi legacy. The analogies, thus, are tempting: a twentieth-century reconstructed twelfth-century synagogue in Toledo echoes the rebuilding of the Berlin synagogue at Oranienburger Strasse. These sorts of parallels, however, are somehow overdrawn by the book. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, 1391 (a year of massive pogroms in the peninsula) and 1492 hardly require the same kind of silencing as the Holocaust. They do not carry the same weight in Spain or in England or in France, the latter which expelled their Jews before Castille and Aragón.

The book advances an excellent and useful review of the history of Spain’s modern philo-Sephardism­­­––which goes back to the nineteenth century and was developed during the Franco dictatorship. Sephardism was above all drawn from hispanismo and iberismo, centered mostly on the Spanish language and on the civilizing role of Spain in the world. It was more than a fad. It brought about the emergence of solid Spanish hebraistas, and it had legal and political consequences––such as the granting of Spanish citizenship to Sephardi Jews in North Africa, Greece or Bulgaria in the 1920s, or the Franco regime’s use of Sephardism as a moral passport to reenter the international community at the beginning of the Cold War.

The best parts of the book are in the careful analysis of post-1990s museum and exhibits, like the long-in-the-making (since Franco times) reconstruction of the Toledo synagogue, which, as the authors show, became a converso building, a Catholic temple until the eighteenth century. The authors truly walk-through exhibits, tourist paths, and their surroundings, interviewing visitors and common people. They trek through Jewish tourist itineraries across the peninsula, through Jewish museums, and assumed Jewish quarters in Girona, Barcelona, Rivadavia (Galicia), the private David Melul museum in Béjar (Salamanca), the Casa de Sefarad/Casa de la Memoria in Córdoba (Andalucía), the permanent exhibit Trágedia del call: Tàrrega 1348 in Tárrega (Lleida, Catalonia), and the bizarre festival of “Los Conversos” (including a reconstruction of a mythical Jewish quarter) in Hervás (Cáceres). The book’s ambulatory ruminations are by and large alluring and compelling.

Particularly interesting is the analysis of differences in regional Sephardism––especially the recent Catalan nationalization of the past of Jews in Girona or Barcelona, in the form of, as it were, we the still repressed Jews of Spain. What would the founding fathers of modern Catalan nationalism have said? Modern Catalan and Basque nationalisms were both born with a sense of superiority vis-à-vis Castile precisely because of the Jewish mark in everything Castilian. (As was the case for such key nationalist founders as Sabino Arana, of the Basque country, or Pompeu Gener and Enric Prat de la Riba of Catalonia). The authors insightfully contrast these various displays of philo-Sephardism with the commonplace view of the Jewish Question among the Spanish general public, which is drawn from the current Palestine-Israel conflict, often taking the Palestinian side. Though the authors do not mention it, there is a strong pro-Israel sentiment among current independentist factions in Catalonia. For instance, the omnipresent (in Catalan newspapers, radio, and TV) Pilar Rahola, or the writer and politician Vicenç Villatoro.   

The book concludes with a series of short analyses of fiction narratives, paintings, and the recent trend of some Spaniards reconnecting with their converso origins, finding, comme il faut in the biological genealogic terms current in our times, their Jewish identity. The book examines recent novels and short stories by Tetuan-born Jewish-Spanish writer Esther Bendaham. Although the authors find all the commonplaces and myths of Spanish Sephardism in Bendham’s works, they claim that she somehow challenges them by means of a sense of orphanhood––which is another commonplace, but Jewish.  

Finally, the book examines, though briefly, the ideas of the great Spanish writer and converter to Judaism, Rafael Cansinos-Asséns (1862-1964). It deals as well with the Sephardi-oriented paintings by Daniel Quintero (a prominent neonaturalist Spanish painter), and with Wolf Vostell’s 2014 tryptic Shoah 1942-1945: in memoria de la expulsión de los judíos y de las víctimas del Holocausto––a painting the authors seem to welcome despite the public reaction against the equation 1492=1945.

For all its virtues, as the volume advances it becomes a bit predictable. Indeed, philo-Sephardism is a façade of tolerance, a strategy to promote tourism, and an attempt to make a show of reconciliation and to exaggerate the myth of Convivencia, expunging the violence of the expulsion and persecution of the Spanish Jews. But could it be otherwise? Should a sense of historical guilt akin to that of postwar Germany be expected from contemporary Spain because of a Jewish past from almost five centuries ago? Historians have done a lot to show how much Convivencia has been a myth, but the idea that Spain has never taken moral responsibility for Holocaust-like violence is becoming just as much of a myth. Indeed, pre-1391 coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews was complicated and often marked by violence. But can it be equated to the Holocaust and subjected to today’s transitional justice process? Trágedia del call: Tàrrega 1348, for instance, memorializes a mass grave of the 1348 pogrom in Tárrega, but it does it, as the authors argue, for the purpose of tourism, evil disguised in order to diminish Spain’s responsibility. And yet, could it be otherwise? Moreover, would the world be better morally and politically if current Spanish people and governments were to make themselves into pariahs for something that occurred five hundred years ago? Memory and history have been a welcome academic and social concern. The need will come, as it has come in the past, to once again revalue that which ancients and moderns knew the value of: oblivion.