07 May 2020
A lockdown ‘virtual tour’
of more than a dozen
Sephardic sites in Europe
Each week, Rabbi Shalom Morris of Bevis Marks Synagogue in London is welcoming scholars of Sephardi studies to discuss the state of Sephardi academia today. Each scholar is presenting and discussing their current area of research and the participants in these web seminars have opportunities to present their own questions.
On Tuesday evening, I joined the web seminar in which Professor Marc Michael Epstein of Vassar College discussed ‘Getting emotional in Barcelona, 1320: Visual Expressions of the Emotional Life of Sephardic Jewry.’
He discussed how magnificent manuscripts illuminated for mediaeval Sephardi Jews often depict the characters of Biblical narratives embodying a rich spectrum of emotions. This is accomplished through the thinnest of lines on the parchment leaves in spaces only centimetres high, showing furrowed brows, pouting mouths or mournful eyes. He engaged these acutely observed details in order to open our eyes and hearts to the particular preoccupations – the loves, hatreds, fears and concerns – of the Jews of Barcelona ca 1320.
Dr Epstein, who is Professor of Religion and Director of Jewish Studies at Vassar College, showed how these emotions are so often overlooked in the study of art but actually constitute parshanut commentary in and of themselves, how they respond to similar depictions of emotion in Christian art, and how this enriches our understanding of how these 14th century Sephardic Jews understood Scripture in light of their own experience.
Next week, Professor Stanley Mirvis looks at the ‘Sephardic Caribbean: Plantations, Slavery and Colony.’ He is an Assistant Professor of History and Professor of Jewish Studies at Arizona State University.
Later in the month, Professor Laura Arnold Leibman, Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland College, Oregon, speaks on her research on ‘Giving Sephardic Women a Voice.’
The seminars conclude with Dr Eliezer Papo of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev discussing ‘Sephardim and Ottoman Jewry in the Modern State: how they helped create the world we know today.’
Rabbi Morris is also offering weekly virtual tours of Bevis Marks Synagogue on Tuesdays at 3 pm. The fees for these seminars and virtual tours are minimal but they help to support Bevis Marks Synagogue during the present pandemic closure and the consequent loss of tourism.
As a reminder of the oft-uncharted contribution of Sephardic culture to European culture – at a time when all are acutely aware of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust – I am offering a ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen key Sephardic sites this evening. This ‘virtual tour,’ in the spirit of the ‘virtual tours’ I have been offering in recent weeks, which has included a ‘virtual tour’ of Jewish sites in Thessaloniki.
This evening’s ‘virtual tour’ takes us through three continents (Europe, Africa and Asia) and more than half a dozen countries (Austria, Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Turkey).
Bevis Marks Synagogue is often seen as the Jewish ‘cathedral’ among synagogues in London and is also the oldest operating synagogue on the British and Irish islands.
Bevis Marks Synagogue is officially the Qahal Kadosh Sha’ar ha-Shamayim (קָהָל קָדוֹשׁ שַׁעַר הַשָׁמַיִם, or ‘Holy Congregation Gate of Heaven’). It stands in a courtyard off Bevis Marks, the street in the city of London that gives this synagogue its popular name.
The synagogue was built in 1701 and is at the heart of the story of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, and the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years. But the story of the community that has been here for centuries, goes back into the mid-17th century.
Following the mediaeval expulsions of Jews from England, the first Jews to return 300 later were Marranos or Jews from Spain and Portugal who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition, and many of these families had adopted Spanish or Portuguese surnames.
A house was leased in Creechurch Lane in London and converted into a synagogue, which opened in 1657. The diarist Samuel Pepys attended a service at that small synagogue during the festival of Simchat Torah in October 1663.
The arrival in London of Jews in large numbers created the need for a much larger premises. A new committee signed a contract in 1699 with Joseph Avis, a Quaker, to erect a building at a cost of £2,650, and the committee leased the site from Sir Thomas and Lady Pointz (or Littleton).
The new synagogue was completed and dedicated in September 1701. The plain exterior and its large, clear windows are both characteristics of the church architecture of Sir Christopher Wren. Above the central doorway are the Hebrew and secular dates of its opening: 5462, 1701.
Inside, the interior décor, furnishing and layout reflect the influence of the great Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam of 1675. The Renaissance-style Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark at the east wall, holding the Torah scrolls, resembles in design the reredos of churches of the same period. Although it is made of oak, it is painted like it is made of coloured Italian marble.
As the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community grew and moved out of the City and East End of London to the West End and the suburbs, the members wanted to build new synagogues. These became the West London Synagogue, and a synagogue in Wigmore Street that later moved to Bryanston Street, Bayswater and later to Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale.
Today, the Spanish and Portuguese community in London has three synagogues: Bevis Marks, Lauderdale Road and a smaller synagogue in Wembley. Other Sephardic synagogues in Britain have associated status.
Since 2017, Shalom Morris, an American of Ashkenazi descent, is the rabbi of Bevis Marks.
The Bevis Marks congregation came to the aid of the Jewish community in Dublin by donating funds to build a wall around Ballybough Cemetery and providing an agent to oversee the works. The deeds for the cemetery were then lodged at Bevis Marks Synagogue.
Three or four families of Spanish or Portuguese descent and two or three of Polish or German origin had settled in Dublin by 1660. Tradition says the Spanish and Portuguese Jews formed a small congregation in rooms in Crane Lane, leading from Dame Street down to Wellington Quay. Some historians say this is one of the oldest Jewish communities formally formed on these islands.
Initially, the congregation followed Sephardi rituals and practices. But the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim worshipped together. Later, the congregation became increasingly Ashkenazi, although it retained certain Sephardi customs.
This community maintained close links with the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and founded the first Jewish cemetery in Dublin, at Ballybough. The small congregation continued to worship in Crane Lane until it moved to Marlborough Green, off Marlborough Street, on the other side of the River Liffey.
The Sephardic presence in Cork can be traced to arrival of Benedix or Benedick Markes in 1684 or 1685. The first Jewish community in Cork was comprised of a small group of Sephardim, who arrived in Ireland from Portugal in the early and mid-18th century. This community acquired a burial ground in Cork in 1725 and it seems there was a congregation in Cork from 1725 to 1796.
However, a gradual decline had already set in to the Sephardic community in Cork, and the synagogue had closed by 1788 and the cemetery by 1796, when the land was sold. The site of the cemetery was discovered in the last century in Kemp Street, on the south-east corner of White Street, to the rear of the Cork Hebrew Congregation’s synagogue in South Terrace, which closed in 2016. But no traces of a Sephardic synagogue have been found in Cork.
In 1239, James I granted the Jews of Valencia the same privilege as had been granted to the Jews of Saragossa. King James also assigned the Jews of the city a large quarter in 1239, on the east side of the Rahbat el-qadi and in its vicinity, on the site where the Church of Santa Catalina stands today. Five years later, he granted the Jews the whole quarter in 1244. A special gate, known as the Jews’ Gate, led to the Jewish cemetery.
In 1261, James I confirmed the right of the Jews to acquire farming and urban land from all, including members of the nobility and the clergy – an unusual right in those days. One of these owners of land, cattle, and sheep was Don Judah de la Cavalleria, who was appointed bailiff of Valencia after 1263.
The Juderia extended from the wall Aben Xemi to 'Abd al-Malik, from there to the Puerto d’Exarea or Puerto de la Ley (‘Gate of the Law’), and from that gate to the ‘horno de Aben Nulid’ and to the wall of Ibrahim al-Valenci. The boundaries were ratified in 1273, and the community had a wide degree of autonomy.
However, Jewish autonomy in Valencia was short-lived. Pedro III imposed a new levy on the community in 1282 to cover the expenses of his wars. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Adret (Rashba), then rabbi of the community, pointed out that the loans and contributions were destroying the foundations of the community. New anti-Jewish policies were soon introduced and Jews in Valencia were ordered to wear a ‘cloak,’ as was the custom in Barcelona.
The Jews of Valencia suffered during the Black Death in 1348, and the persecutions that broke out in the town in its wake. But with the continuing growth of the Jewish population in Valencia over the following half century, the Jewish quarter was enlarged in 1390, when the Juderia or ghetto was first surrounded by a high wall and was provided with three gates that were closed at night.
A year later, however, the Jewish community of Valencia was attacked on 9 July 1391 and destroyed by rioters who arrived from Castile and soldiers stationed in the port who were due to sail for Sicily. In the attack, 250 Jews were murdered, while the remainder were forcibly converted to Christianity or found refuge in the houses of the townspeople. Many of the synagogues were destroyed and others were converted into churches.
Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (Ribash) was among those who fled. On 16 July, the king ordered that Jews who had hidden in the houses of Christians should not be compelled to convert but should be taken to a place of safety. He also prohibited the conversion of synagogues into churches.
However, on 22 September, the king called for a list of the property owned by Jews who had been killed so this property could be transferred to him. In November, a pardon was granted to the Christian inhabitants of Valencia for the attack. None of the synagogues of Valencia survived the 1391 massacres.
A small community may have come together again and Jews were living in Valencia by the close of the 14th century. But the community did not recover and nothing of the Jewish quarter survived the urban development that began in 1412.
Files survive naming conversos who were sentenced by the Inquisition of Valencia in the 1460s. The conversos had an overwhelming desire to leave Spain, and many made their way to Valencia to flee. The Inquisition found in 1464 that many conversos had sailed from Valencia to the East Mediterranean in order to return to Judaism.
The Gothic rose window is the north transept of Valencia Cathedral was once known as ‘the Salomo’ because of its elaborate structure and because its principal symbol is the Star of David. It was completed in 1354, but the master builder who was responsible for the window and door below it remains unknown. Some say this is because the artists worked only for God’s glory.
Other legends claim the Star of David was the work of anonymous Jewish craftsmen or that window was paid for partly by local Jewish merchants, although many medieval cathedrals and churches display the star, including the west wall of the Church of San Nicolas in Valencia, and churches or cathedrals in Burgos, Florence, Anagni Aquileia, Orvieto, Brandenburg Stendal and Hanover.
More than five centuries after the expulsions, Valencia has a vital and pluralistic Jewish presence today, and there are several synagogues, including the Chabad Lubavitch Valencia. Valencia also has one of Europe’s most modern Jewish communities: the Kehillat Aviv Valencia, a 125-member Masorti-affiliated congregation founded by newcomers.
The Jewish quarter of Valencia was one of the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, but nothing of it has survived, and virtually all of the city’s Sephardic legacy has been lost and cannot be seen today.
I stayed recently in the heart of the old Jewish Quarter of Seville, at Las Casas de la Judería, beside the Church of Santa María la Blanca. The church was one of the principal synagogues in the area, and the hotel was an ideal location to explore the former Jewish Quarter, with its cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and twisting paths.
With the quaint charm of the area, its brightly-pained houses, boutique shops and many tapas bars and cafés, it was disturbing to realise that these walls and streets hide a dark history of deceit, destruction, death and the final expulsion of the Jewish community from Seville.
The Jewish Quarter lies between the Puerta Carmona and the Puerta de la Carne, and includes the Barrio de San Bartolomé neighbourhood. The buildings facing the central square, Plaza de Las Mercedarias, include the Convent de las Mercedarias and the former Parish Church of the Barrio de San Bartolomé El Viejo.
There is an ancient tradition that the Jewish presence in Seville dates back to the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC. Several influential Jewish families in Seville, including the Abrabanel family, claimed descent from King David.
There has even been some speculation that Jews settled in this region as far back as the 11th century BC, a tradition that rests on the identification of Seville with the port of Tarshish: ‘For the king had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks’ (I Kings 10: 22).
The Jewish district began with building a mediaeval wall that separated Jews from the rest of the city. This fence begins at Tintes street and travels through the Plaza de Las Mercedarias, ending at Mateos Gago.
The presence of Jews in Seville is clearly documented from the arrival of the Visigoths (400-710). The Sephardic Jews suffered under the Visigoths in the sixth century AD, and Isidore of Seville wrote anti-Jewish polemics in the seventh century.
This was followed by a period of harmony under Moorish rule. After the Arabs began conquered Seville in 712, it became the second most important city in the Ummayad Caliphate, after Cordoba, and the Judería, or Jewish quarter emerged in the western part of the city. The al-Shawwār Gate, known as the Judería Gate in the Middle Ages and later as the Puerta de la Carne (the Meat Gate), marked the boundaries of the quarter.
Seville provided a refuge for Jews escaping from Cordoba after the Berber conquest in 1013, and the Jewish population of Seville increased in the 11th century after anti-Jewish riots in Granada and with the arrival of large numbers of Jews from North Africa. Prominent Jews served in the Abbasid court (1023-1091).
Eventually, however, the Jews of Seville fled the fundamentalist Almohads in the early 13th century. When Seville was reconquered by the Christians in 1248, the Jews of the city welcomed them with open arms and presented Ferdinand III with the keys to the city, now preserved in Seville Cathedral.
For a period, the Jewish community experienced a revival, with about 200 families. These Jews in Seville spoke Ladino, and the Sephardim, who had higher literacy than many other Spanish communities, prospered in banking, medicine, law and commerce.
A second Jewish quarter was established, from the Carmona Gate to the Cathedral. The main street of the Jewish quarter started in the Puerta de la Judería, later the Puerta de la Carne, and ended at a gate in front of San Nicolás, extending along Calle Santa María la Blanca, where I am staying, and further along Calle San José. The busiest part was the square known today as Plaza de Santa María la Blanca, and important streets included the Cruces street and the streets of the Levíes and Archeros.
The present Church of Santa María la Blanca, next door to the Las Casas de la Judería, was a mosque before it was given by Alfonso X in 1252 to the Jews of Seville to use as synagogue. The main synagogue stood on the present Santa Cruz Square, but was demolished in 1810. Other synagogues included one that became San Bartolomé Church, and another at Madre de Dios Convent at Calle San José. The Jewish cemetery of Seville was located where the Colegio de Potacoeli now stands.
Popular animosity was whipped up by fierce anti-Jewish rhetoric in the late 14th century from a leading Catholic priest, the Archdeacon of Ecija, Ferrant Martínez. A full-scale pogrom broke out on the night of 5 and 6 June 1391. The entire Jewish community was attacked, the Jewish quarter was burned, synagogues were converted to churches, and thousands of Jewish lives were lost. Many families fell victims to the mob’s fury, and many Jews accepted forced conversion and baptism to save their lives. A once vibrant community never recovered.
The archdeacon counted 23 synagogues in Seville, and claimed he destroyed all of them. But he may have exaggerated his numbers and included yeshivot in this number. The main synagogue was converted into the Church of Santa María la Blanca. Another synagogue, also in a former mosque, became the Church of San Bartolomé. The Jewish Interpretive Centre on Ximenez de Enisco, tells the stories of the pogroms and persecutions in Seville in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Today, Seville has a population of about 700,000 people. There are few Jews in the city, but some of the names of old Jewish families are remembered in Las Casas de la Judería, such as Casa de Mose Bahari. The stories of the Jewish community are told vividly in Centro de Interpretación Judería de Sevilla on Ximenez de Enciso, and can still be found in the hidden passageways, gardens, and churches in an area that retains its unique charm.
The Plaça de Sant Juame, in the political heart of Barcelona, leads into El Call, the mediaeval Jewish quarter of Barcelona from the 12th century. The name means ‘narrow street’ or ‘lane’ but was used for the whole area. Carrer de Sant Domènec was the main street of the Call and included the Great Synagogue and the houses of the most prominent members of the Jewish community.
The Call was attacked in 1391, and 300 Jewish residents were murdered. The Call never recovered from that terrible episode. The Church of Sant Jaume on Calle Ferran stands on the site of what was the old synagogue of Barcelona. Some Jews continued to live in Barcelona, although in fewer numbers, but they were all expelled 100 years later under the decrees issued by Ferdinand and Isabel.
Barcelona Province now has the largest Islamic community in Spain today, with 322,698 Muslims in Barcelona, and the city has the largest Jewish community in Spain, with about 3,500 Jewish residents.
Last year, I went in search of the Jewish legacy of Málaga and the old Jewish quarter or Juderia. This part of the Iberian peninsula was an important colony in the Roman Empire. From here, and the Jewish community traded freely with other cities along the North African coast. But when the Visigoth hordes arrived, Jews were almost totally enslaved, and by 711 there were no Jews publicly practising in Málaga.
Life under Muslim rule attracted many Jews back to Málaga, and by the mid-11th century the city’s Jewish population had reached 200. However, the Jews of Málaga were expelled like all Jews in Spain in 1492.
Little is left of the old Juderia, the former Jewish quarter near the Picasso Museum, apart from its name. On Calle Alcazabilla, opposite the Roman Amphitheatre and under some trees, is a bronze statue of Ben Gabirol, also known as Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058), the Jewish poet and philosopher.
He was born almost 1,000 years ago and was an important and influential thinker also known as Avicebron. He is known in the history of philosophy for the idea that all things, including soul and intellect, are composed of matter and form (‘Universal Hylomorphism’), and for his emphasis on the divine will.
Now, after five centuries, Sephardic life is returning to Málaga in the form of a new heritage and community centre. Jews started to return to Málaga in significant numbers in the early 1960s, coming mainly from North Africa, and the city now has a thriving Jewish community, with more than 1,200 people and Málaga has a synagogue and a kosher deli.
Plans for a centre in Málaga dedicated to the legacy of Spain’s Sephardic Jews have been stop-and-go in recent years. The new centre is on a plot of land between Calle Granada and Calle Alcazabilla, the Plaza de Judería marks the heart of the former Jewish quarter.
The vision is for a Sephardic Cultural Centre focussing on the legacy of the flowering of Jewish thought in Spain in the 15th century and on the thinkers of the Sephardic diaspora following their expulsion in 1492.
The €2 million project was first proposed almost 20 years ago but has been delayed because of a shortage of funds. A new architect, Leon Benacerraf, took over the project recently, changes were made to the plans, including an interior courtyard, and work was due to begin this year.
The new two-storey centre will house a synagogue and include an exhibition space, a study centre and a location for cultural activities. Different parts of the museum will focus on the great Sephardic intellectuals of Spain, the flowering of Jewish thought in Spain in the 15th century, the Sephardic literary tradition, the community’s architecture and the heritage of the Sephardic diaspora.
The centre will be supported by institutions including the University of Málaga, and will highlight the ‘literary and intellectual wealth of a community that has given us great thinkers, but about which we know hardly anything,’ according to the future curator, publisher and journalist Basilio Baltasar. There are hopes to finish the project by next year (2021), in time for the programmes to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the birth in Málaga of the poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol.
The Jewish Quarter in the heart of Córdoba is recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site and its narrow mediaeval streets, with their distinctly Moorish flair, recall the prosperity of the city’s Jewish community during the Caliphate of Córdoba.
Local lore says Solomon visited Córdoba after building the Temple in Jerusalem, and built a replica of the Temple on the site of the present Mezquita de Córdoba, which has been a mosque and a cathedral at different times across the centuries.
It is known that Jews have been a part of Córdoba’s life and culture from at least the second century AD until they were expelled in 1492.
Under Islamic rule, both Jews and Christians enjoyed a degree of religious freedom within their self-governing communities, while paying special household taxes imposed on non-Muslims.
The Jewish people in Spain reached the apex of their prosperity and intellectual life in the 11th and 12th centuries. While much of Europe was living in the Dark Ages, a prosperous Córdoba was at the centre of an independent Caliphate, and Hasday ben Shaprut, the governor of the Jewish community, was an influential minister in the court of the Caliph, Abd al-Rahman III.
But with the fall of the caliphate in 1031 and the rise of the Almohad Berber dynasty, Jewish life in Cordoba went into decline. Many Jews fled to Christian areas in north Spain or went abroad as peaceful coexistence came to end in the city. Those who went into exile included Maimonides (1135-1204), who finally settled in Egypt.
When Fernando III captured Córdoba, the Jewish community prospered again, but only briefly. The last remaining Jewish neighbourhood in Cordoba was separated by walls on all sides, and stood within a triangle formed by the city walls from the Almodovar Gate to the Arab baths, Manríquez and Deanes streets and Almanzor street. The one Jewish cemetery was outside the Almodovar gate.
Antisemitic Papal bulls promulgated in the 1340s and local jealousy of perceived Jewish wealth and influence provided excuses for attacks on the Jewish area in Córdoba in 1391, and the walls separating the Jewish area from the rest of the city were torn down.
Ferdinand and Isabel presented Spain’s Jews with the alternatives of forced conversion or exile in 1492. But the Jewish presence in Córdoba is recalled in street names and buildings such as the Synagogue in Calle de los Judios.
This is the only surviving synagogue in the city, and one of only three significant synagogues remaining in Spain. It was built by Simon Majeb in 1315 and is largely unaltered. The buildings around it were probably used as public baths and a Talmudic school.
The interior includes a gallery for women and plaster work with inscriptions from Hebrew psalms and others with plant motifs on the upper part. The small size of this synagogue indicates it may have been the private synagogue of a wealthy man rather than one of the main synagogues in the city. It may also have been the synagogue of a trade guild.
After the expulsions in 1492, this synagogue was seized by the authorities, its Mudejar reliefs were covered and it was converted into the Hospital Santo Quiteria, treating people with rabies.
The building was acquired by the city’s guild of shoemakers in 1588, and they used as a community centre and small chapel, dedicated to Saint Crispin or Saint Crispian, the patron of shoemakers. It was used as a primary school for a brief period in the 19th century until its original use and decorations were rediscovered.
A gate in the east wall leads into a small courtyard and the synagogue has an unusual shape because of the layout of the surrounding streets. The entrance to the synagogue is at the courtyard with three openings: a door and two windows on either side. Beyond the façade, the entrance hall has a wooden stairwell that leads up to the women’s balcony.
Inside, the main prayer hall is small and measures 6.5 by 7 meters, with a high roof at 11.5 meters. The women’s section, which must have had latticework to act as a screen at one time, has three broad arches that look down into the main part of the synagogue. These arches are decorated with elaborately interwoven stucco and latticework that is typical of Sephardic synagogues. These three arches are interwoven with elaborate patterns and Hebrew text. The central arch is raised to accommodate the doorway.
The Aron haKodesh or holy ark, where the Torah scrolls were once kept at the east wall, was decorated with elaborate stucco in the Mudejar tradition. The bimah or elevated platform from which the Torah scrolls were read has not survived.
The ceiling of the synagogue is made of thin wooden panels above thick beams that hold the ceiling in order to hide the gabled tile roof. The wood panels and beams were richly decorated and enhanced the ornamentation of the building. The ceiling is angled upwards to give a greater feeling of height, a style common in the architecture of Spanish synagogues.
Three of the upper walls have windows for illumination, with five windows in each of these walls. The windows were 0.6 meters wide and 1.5 meters high. The lintels of the windows have classic arch shapes and may have been decorated with latticework.
The synagogue was influenced by the Mudejar tradition of stucco panels, with stylised geometric patterns and floral patterns. Hebrew verses from the Bible wrap around the windows. These are mainly from the Psalms, but also cite other books in the Bible and liturgical poetry.
An inscription on the south side of the east wall provides information on the synagogue’s reconstruction in the early 14th century and its main benefactor: ‘This minor sanctuary has been refurbished by Yitzhak Mahab son of the wealthy Ephraim in the Hebrew year 5075 (1315 CE). May God remove curses from our nation and rebuild Jerusalem soon.’
Although this inscription indicates the synagogue was refurbished in 1315, it does not say when it was first built.
The Aron haKodesh had a decorative band that praises the Temple in Jerusalem and links it with the synagogue: ‘I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything’ (Psalm 138: 2).
On the north wall, under the five arches, are two lines of inscriptions that continue on the west well. The top line on the north wall reads: ‘O come let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. We will go into his tabernacles. We will worship at his footstool. Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at his footstool, for he is holy’ (Psalm 95: 6; 132: 7; 99: 5).
In the women’s section there is a verse in praise of women: ‘Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses’ (Song of Songs 4: 4).
There were several verses of longing for Jerusalem: ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers’ (Psalm 122: 6-7). There were also many verses of pleading: ‘Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me; for my soul trusts in you; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge until these great troubles pass by’ (Psalm 57: 2).
The synagogue was declared a National Monument in 1885, and it has since been restored several times. The Spanish authorities marked the 800th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides in 1935 by changing the name of a nearby square to Tiberias Square, honouring the city in Galilee where Maimonides is buried. At this celebration, the first public Jewish prayer service in almost four and half centuries was held at the synagogue.
Another restoration began in 1977, and the synagogue reopened in 1985 as part of the celebrations marking the 850th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides. Although it no longer functions as a Jewish house of worship, it is open to the public.
During a recent visit to Tangier, I wandered through the Soukh and found myself at two of the hidden synagogues in this Moroccan coastal city. Earlier that day, my attention was drawn to some former Jewish homes as I strolled through the narrow streets of the Kasbah.
Unlike Morocco’s other imperial cities in the past, Tangier did not have a walled Jewish Mellah or ghetto. Instead, Tangier had an unprotected Jewish quarter.
Archaeologists have found ceramic objects marked with menorahs that date the Jewish presence in Tangier, then called Tingis, to the period immediately after the destruction of the First Temple.
Jewish refugees from Spain fleeing the Visigoth persecutions arrived in Tangier in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, bringing with them their culture, industry and commerce. Several Berber tribes converted to Judaism and Jews lived in peace in Tangier for the next several centuries.
Abraham Ibn Daud and Joseph Ha-Kohen record how the Jewish community in Tangier was destroyed by the Almohades in the year 1148.
Jewish refugees expelled from Spain in 1391 brought new life to the community, and the Jewish population of Tangier grew again with the arrival of refugees expelled from Seville, Cadiz and other parts of Spain by the Inquisition in 1492. These new immigrants brought with them their Andalusian Sephardic liturgy, creating a Moroccan Jewish culture with a distinctive Sephardic identity.
Small numbers from the Jewish communities of Azemmour and Safi settled in Tangier in 1541 when it was ruled by the Portuguese. However, the community eventually came to the attention of the Portuguese Inquisition, which tried to outlaw Jews living in the city.
When the Portuguese ceded Tangier to England in 1661, another wave of Jews and Muslims arrived in the city, particularly from the neighbouring towns of Larache and Ksar El-Kabir, along with a small number of Jews from the Netherlands.
Tensions boiled up in 1675 between the Moroccan-born Jews and those from abroad who had arrived in Tangier, and the rabbis of Tetuan issued an excommunication or cherem against the new arrivals. The Jews were expelled from Tangier in 1677 and did not return until 1680.
However, the English withdrawal from Tangier in 1684 ushered in a new phase of economic decline, and most Jews left the town. By 1725, only one Jewish merchant, Abraham Benamor from Meknes, remained in the city. With the support of Moses Maman, the sultan’s treasurer, he began to organise a new community as Maman encouraged Jewish merchants from Tetuan and Rabat to move to Tangier.
The new community soon numbered about 150 people, and Rabbi Judah Hadida, the first dayan or rabbinical court judge of Tangier, became its leader in 1744.
When Christians were excluded from Tetuan in 1772, many European consulates moved to Tangier and the consuls were followed by their Jewish interpreters. However, the majority of the Jewish community in Tangier continued to live in poverty.
During a brief reign of terror under Sultan Mulay Yazid, many prominent court Jews were executed, including Jacob Attal who was executed in Tangier in 1783. Jewish houses were pillaged, people were killed, and women were raped.
The Jewish community of Tangier recovered in the early 19th century, and by 1835 they had grown in numbers to 2,000. The community, however, was still poor, and life became more difficult during the Franco-Moroccan War of 1844. But the community escaped the French bombardment and celebrated a special Purim known as Purim de las Bombas (‘Purim of the Bombs’).
Tangier was the largest port in Morocco by 1856. Life improved with the arrival of a new group of Jews from Tetuan, and numbers rose to 2,600. By 1867, there was a community of 3,500 people, and a French-speaking Jewish school opened in 1869.
Many Jews were involved in founding and editing news newspapers and calling for the Europeanisation of Morocco, there were Jewish authors and poets, many writing in Spanish, also flourished, and the Jewish middle class founded hospitals and numerous welfare institutions in Tangier.
When Tangier became an international zone in 1923 administered by France, Spain and Britain, over 10,000 Jews were living in the city. But many more emigrated to South America or settled in Casablanca.
With the outbreak of World War II and the beginning of the Holocaust, many Jews fleeing Eastern Europe sought refuge in Tangier. By the 1940s, there were 22,000 Jews in Tangier.
Emigration began in large numbers after Moroccan independence in 1956 and the annexation of Tangier. Jews from Tangier helped to build a new Jewish community in Madrid, others settled in Geneva, Canada or the US, and many more moved to Israel. Today, the synagogues, cemeteries, monuments and communal institutions show how important Jewish life once was in Tangier.
At one time Tangier had over 20 synagogues. On Rue des Synagogues, many of the synagogues are now closed, but I found signs pointing to two of them.
The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century. It was restored by Rabbi Moshe Laredo in1902, and was rebuilt in 1912. More recently it has been converted into a museum of Tangier’s Jewish community.
At the very end of this twisting and turning street, behind a nondescript door, the Moshe Nahon Synagogue is the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city. This synagogue was built in 1878 and was a working synagogue until it fell into despair in the late 20th century. But it was renovated in 1994, revealing intricately covered carvings that are illuminated by hanging lamps and many Jewish artefacts. Today, Morocco has a vibrant Jewish community of about 2,000 to 2,500 people.
In the early 20th century, a new Jewish community was formed in Porto by Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, the descendant of conversos, who built a new synagogue, the Kadoorie Mekor Haim (‘Spring of Life’) Synagogue, in 1929-1937 and gathered together the descendants of dozens of Jewish families.
But it is said there has been a Jewish presence in the area that is now Portugal long before the country was established, going back to the Roman Province of Lusitania.
However, the Jewish presence in Portugal can only be documented from 482 CE. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Jews were persecuted by the Visigoths and other regional powers. The Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 was seen by many Jews as a liberation and as the beginning of the Golden Age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula.
The first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (1139-1185), appointed Rabbi Yahia Ben Yahia, a Sephardi Jew from Cordoba and the First Chief Rabbi of Portugal, as his Supervisor of Tax Collection.
Jews were already living in Porto during the High Mediaeval Ages, close to the Sé or Cathedral and inside the primitive walls of the city, and Jewish communities were living in towns and villages throughout the Douro region until the 15th century.
The good relationships between the crown and the Jewish community continued during the first dynasty, and Sephardic Jews contributed to Portuguese culture. Jewish philosophers, intellectuals and merchants played decisive roles in Portuguese life, and they were known for their financial and scientific contributions in the Age of Discoveries.
By the 12th century, the first Jewish quarter in Porto was located in the heart of the growing town, on the slopes beneath the Sé or Cathedral. The city’s first synagogue stood in what is today known as Rua de Sant’ana, perhaps on the site of the later Igreja dos Grilos. The names of many streets indicate the former presence of the Jewish community, including Rua Nova, Rua Direita, Rua da Estrela and Rua Espinosa.
As the city developed, the Jewish community spread towards the river. Prominent Jews, including doctors, goldsmiths and merchants, lived in the streets off Praça da Ribeira.
Another Jewish quarter, with a synagogue at its centre, was found in what is today known as Rua do Comércio do Porto, the area of Palácio da Bolsa and the old Mercado Ferreira Borges. A synagogue was built in the 14th century in the area of Monchique in the 14th century, and the Jewish presence in the area is recalled in street names, including Rua do Monte dos Judeus.
Three areas have been identified as Jewish settlements in Porto: the Judiaria Velha or old Jewish quarter, in Sant’Ana and the streets below the cathedral; the Judiaria de Monchique or Monchique Jewish quarter, outside the city boundaries; and the Judiaria Nova do Olival (New Olive Jewish quarter), inside the city walls.
This last settlement grew up from in 1386, grew up in an area found today at Rua de Sao Bento da Vitória, Escadas da Vitória and Rua de Belomonte. King João I ordered its formation, ostensibly as a safety measure, bringing together the Jews who were scattered throughout the city.
The area was surrounded by a fence with two doors, one giving access to the Olival, and another one to the Escada de Vitória, also known as Escadas de Esnoga or ‘Synagogue Stairs’ and the road to Belmonte. The houses were built where an olive grove stood, now traced in the streets of São Bento da Vitória and São Miguel, laid out on an east-west grid pattern with a synagogue in the centre.
However, the fortunes of the Jewish community in Porto took a turn for the worse under Portugal’s second dynasty.
After the expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain in 1492, about 60,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal, with 30 families banished from Castile finding shelter in the Olival area of Porto. But in 1496, the Portuguese king, Manuel I, who had married a Spanish princess, ordered the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims who refused to be baptised. Some Jews converted to Christianity, becoming ‘New Christians,’ many more fled Portugal, and large numbers remained but kept their faith in secret.
The Inquisition presented the city’s Jews with the choice of conversion or expulsion. The Jewish heritage of Porto was destroyed completely, and almost all documents and all traces of the Jewish quarters of Porto were lost.
The Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Vitória, a church built around 1539 and rebuilt in the baroque style in 1755-1769, stands on the site of a former synagogue. Its name hints at a triumphalism that is haunting. On the same street, the Igreja e Convento de Sao Bento da Vitória, a Benedictine church and convent founded in 1598, stand on the same street in the old Jewish quarter and may have been built on the sites of former synagogues.
The ‘Church of the Crickets’ was built by the Jesuits in 1577 on the site of Porto’s first synagogue at the top of Rua Sant’ana, near the cathedral. With the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759, it passed first to the University of Coimbra and then to Augustinian Friars known because of their religious clothing as the ‘brothers-crickets’ (irmãos-grilos) and thus the name of the church where they fixed residence in Porto.
The sites of early synagogues can still be pointed out on Sant’ana Street, at Sao Bento da Vitória Church and the Vitória viewpoint at the Escada de Vitória, also known as Escadas de Esnoga, which means Synagogue Stairs.
Jews were trading in Venice from as early as the tenth century, and there is evidence that Jews had lived in the Giudecca quarter – formerly called the Spinalonga – in the 11th to 13th centuries. Oral tradition in the Venetian Jewish community holds that there were two synagogues in the Giudecca, although these were demolished as late as the 18th century, and a plaque with a Hebrew inscription was found in the Giudecca near the church of the Zitelle in the 19th century.
The Venetian Senate invited German Jewish moneylenders to move to the city in 1385. This was followed a year later by a grant of land on the Lido for a Jewish cemetery. But, while Jews were allowed into the city, this was only for fixed times and they were obliged to wear a yellow circle sewn onto their coats.
Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496, Iberian Jews began arriving in Venice in the decades immediately after. They included marranos or converted Jews who had secretly maintained their traditions.
These Spanish and Portuguese Jews were known as Levantini because many had made their journey through Constantinople, Thessaloniki and other parts of the Levant or Near East.
Increasing numbers of Jews arrived in Venice in the first decade of the 16th century, stimulating an increase in bigotry. The Ghetto was decreed in 1516, and the Papal State instituted another ghetto in Rome in 1555.
When Jewish families fleeing the Spanish Inquisition arrived in Venice in 1541, there was no place to build in the Ghetto except to build up. Around the Campo del Ghetto Novo, upper storeys housed new arrivals, synagogues and publishing houses.
Although the Ghetto was home to a large number of Jews, they never integrated to form a distinct, Venetian Jewish identity, and the names of the five synagogues reflected the linguistic and geographical origins of the community.
The Scola Levantina was founded in 1541 by the Levantine Sephardi communities.
The Scuola Spagnola was founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews.
There are at least 13 synagogues in Rome. The continual presence of a Jewish community in Rome for more than 2,000 years has created a distinctive tradition of prayer – comparable to the Sephardic or Ashkenazi traditions – called the Nusach Italki or Italian rite, with its own order of prayer and tunes.
A number of synagogues in Rome, including the Great Synagogue, follow the Nusach tradition. The Italian chief rabbi officiates at the Great Synagogue of Rome and heads the Italian rabbinical council.
Most synagogues in Italy are Sephardic, and three of the 13 synagogues – Itlaki, Sephardic and Ashkenazi – are located under the same roof at Via Balbo 33. There is also a special synagogue for the Libyan Jews who moved to Rome after the Six-Day War in 1967.
10, Three Greek islands:
Apart from visiting the synagogues and Jewish sites of Thessaloniki, the two synagogues in Greece I am familiar with are in Chania, Rhodes and Corfu.
Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania is the only surviving synagogue in Crete. Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, while the 256 remaining Jews of Crete were being sent by the Nazis to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them from Chania to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine HMS Vivid off the coast of Santorini. In all, about 1,000 prisoners were on board, including 400 Greek hostages and 300 Italian soldiers. No one survived.
Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town where there has been a synagogue since the Middle Ages. It is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.
There were Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans.
They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the arrival of Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.
At the beginning of the Greek-Turkish war in 1897, there were 225 Jewish families in Crete, or 1,150 people in a total population of 250,000, spread across the three cities in the island: Chania, Iraklion and Rethymnon.
Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty after World War II. The sleeping building was desecrated. It was used as a dump, a urinal and a kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.
The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. His family ties inspired many visits to Crete. He returned in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.
Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter, is now crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, regularly comes to Chania from Athens to help with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
There have been Jews in Rhodes since at least the reign of Herod the Great. After the Spanish Inquisition, an influx of Sephardic refugees from Spain and Portugal saw a growth in the Jewish population and a new input into Jewish culture in the Aegean. The Jews of Rhodes were doctors and merchants, printers and bankers, craftsmen and traders. Unlike the Greek Christians of Rhodes, they were permitted by the Ottoman Turks to live within the walls of the crusader city.
For over 200 years, 12 successive generations of the Israel family provided the Chief Rabbis of Rhodes. In the 19th century, four of the five banks on the island were in Jewish hands, and the first department store in Rhodes was owned by a Jewish family.
When the Jewish community in Rhodes was at its height in the 1920s, there were 4,000 or more Jews living on the island. Today, sadly, there are only 35, in seven families; the number of adult male Jews is so small that it is increasingly difficult to find the quorum of 10 men needed to form a congregation for services on a Friday night or Saturday morning. The Holocaust virtually destroyed one of the oldest Jewish communities in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Kahal Shalom in Rhodes is the last remaining synagogue in a city that once had six. The floor inside and the courtyards outside are decorated with the graceful black and white pebble mosaic patterns or kochlaki, which are distinctive throughout the Dodecanese. A plaque in the courtyard on the east side bears the date Kislev 5338 in the Jewish calendar, showing Kahal Shalom (‘the Holy Congregation of Plentiful Peace’) dates back to the year 1577.
But more immediate history and its horrors are recalled on a plaque in the west-side courtyard: it lists the names of 100 families who were wiped out in the Holocaust. On 23 July 1944, 1,673 members of the Jewish community were rounded up in Rhodes and assembled in the square in front of the old Admiralty Building and the former palace of the Latin archbishops. From there they were shipped to Piraeus and on by train to Auschwitz. The community that had survived the Crusades and the Inquisition and prospered under both Ottomans and Italians was decimated: only 151 survived.
Today, the synagogue is used for services only when visitors or former residents and their families visit Rhodes for Friday night prayer services, High Holidays such as Passover, Pentecost and Yom Kippur, and special occasions. Memorials inside recall the victims of the Holocaust.
The remnants of the former Jewish Ghetto in Corfu are beneath the walls of the New Fortress, a stark reminder of the once vibrant community that lived in Corfu Town for almost a millennium. All that remains of the vital Jewish presence in Corfu today is a small and highly assimilated community of about 80 Jews, many of them survivors of the Holocaust, and La Scuola Greca Synagogue, built in the 18th century and still standing in what was once the ‘Jewish Ghetto.’
The first written evidence of Jews in Corfu is found in the Itinerary of the Spanish Rabbi Benjamin Ben Yonah or Benjamin de Tudela, who wrote that during his visit to Corfu in the 12th century he met a lone Jewish dyer named Joseph.
The first Jews in Corfu came from Romaniote or Greek-speaking communities in the Balkans, and Corfu became a centre for study of the Torah in the 13th century. In 1267, ‘numerous Jews lived in the island.’ Corfu was conquered that year by the House of Anjou (1267-1336), which passed decrees to protect the Jewish community. At times, the Jews of Corfu were persecuted by both Byzantine and Angevin rulers, but in the 14th century they obtained some rights, including documents of protection and exemption from most taxes.
Since the earlier years, the native ‘Romaniote’ Jews of Corfu lived on Kambielou hill, later called Ovriovouni, Ioudaico Oros, or Hebraida (‘Jewish Hill’ or ‘Mount Judaic’). It is still known by this name today.
The Venetians occupied Corfu from 1387 until 1797. In 1425, they forced the Jews to live among the Gentiles in Corfu. Some of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 settled in Corfu, and they were joined in 1494 by Jews who had been expelled from Apulia in Italy.
The new immigrants wished to integrate into the local Romaniote or Greek-speaking community. However, the Romaniotes feared they would lose the privileges they had gained under Venetian rule, and the immigrants formed the new ‘Apulian’ community in 1551. They lived within the citadel and had their own synagogue and cemetery.
When the Venetian State decided to expel the Jews from its territory in 1571, the Jews of Corfu were exempted. Some former Marranos from Portugal, led by Don Samuel Senor, also settled in Corfu in 1589.
The Venetians passed a decree in 1602 imposing a ‘badge’ on Jews – a yellow cap for men and a yellow head cover for women, or a round yellow badge.
The ‘General Pronoitis of the Seas’ imposed a harsher decree in 1622, forcing the Jews to move permanently to a ghetto that today includes Vilissariou Street, Aghias Sophias Street and Palaiologou Street.
Yet Jews continued to play leadings role in the financial, social, spiritual and patriotic life of the island, and contributed to the Venetian war effort during the Turkish siege of Corfu in 1716.
The Venetian decrees were abolished when the Democratic French occupied Corfu in 1797-1799. More Jews came from Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and by 1802 the Jewish community had grown to 1,229, out of a population of 45,000 on Corfu. The new privileges and freedoms were still valid when Napoleon occupied the island in 1807.
When the Romaniote Jews left the Kahal Kadosh Toshavim or ‘Greca’ Synagogue on Ovriovouni, during British rule, they built the Nuova or New Synagogue, which remains open today on 4 Velissariou Street, and which I visited yesterday.
The Jewish population of Corfu numbered almost 5,000 people in the late 19th century. Most of them were poor, some worked in menial jobs, and they spoke a mixture of Greek, Hebrew and Pugliese Italian.
This is the community that produced Lazarus Mordos a prominent doctor, the Olivetti family of typewriter fame, Albert Cohen the poet, and the grandparents of George Moustaki, the internationally acclaimed French singer.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish community of Corfu numbered around 2,000, most of them elderly or young children. The Nazis took control of the island in 1943. By April 1944, the Germans had lists of all the Jews. The last rabbi to hold office in Corfu, Rabbi Yakov Nehama (1931-1944), was arrested by the Nazis and was deported to Auschwitz, where he died on 8 June 1944.
On 9 June 1944, about 1,800 Jews were brought to the Kato Plateia (lower square) and were then held in the nearby Old Fortress, where they were forced to hand over their valuables. On 10 June, the Nazis prepared to deport the men, women and children to extermination camps and slave labour camps.
About 200 Jews managed to flee, and many local people provided shelter and refuge. But the rest were taken in small boats to Athens to begin a long overland journey by train. The final destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1,600 of the Jews of Corfu were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Of the 1,900 Jews of Corfu, about 180 survived the Holocaust. Corfu has about 60-65 Jews today. Only a few of the island’s Jews live in the former ghetto, an area still known as Evraiki (Jewish). The community celebrates Passover together with a Seder and services, and a cantor from abroad leads High Holiday prayers in the synagogue, but there is no regular minyan. The last Jewish wedding was in 1993.
But little is left of the Jewish quarter today: the shells of bombed-out buildings, former shops, and one active synagogue, the only one of the three synagogues at the time of the Holocaust.
The Greek synagogue or La Scuola Greca is on Velisariou Street, next to the former Talmud Torah. The synagogue (open daily from 10 to 4) is a yellow stucco, two-storey building with a gabled roof, dating from the 18th century.
In Venetian style, it dates back to the 17th century. The prayer room is located on the second floor, with a section for women on the mezzanine. The tevah or bimah (the reading platform) and the Aron haKodeshor Holy Ark holding the Torah scrolls, made of wood with a Corinthian colonnade, face each other to the west and east, in a style similar to the synagogue in Chania in Crete.
I visited Istanbul a number of times while I was working as a journalist with The Irish Times, and met and visited members of the Jewish community and Jewish community sites.
The vast majority of the Jewish community in Turkey (currently estimated at around 26.000 people) lives in Istanbul. The current Jewish community in Turkey is a remnant of the great influx that took place during the Spanish inquisition in 1492. Others are the descendants of Russian Jews who fled the Tsarist pogroms in the 19th century and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
I missed an opportunity for a family visit to Istanbul earlier this year, which included a visit to the Etz Ahayim Synagogue, also known as the Ortaköy Synagogue, in Ortaköy, near the Bosphorus Bridge. Ortaköy is a typical Jewish settlement, and the name ‘Etz Ahayim’ means ‘Tree of Life.’
The synagogue was built in 1660, but was totally destroyed by fire in 1941. Only the marble Aron Kodesh remained intact, and the synagogue was later rebuilt.
The synagogue is well maintained today and is one of the 26 active synagogues in Istanbul.
One of the many synagogues in Vienna lost during the horrors of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust following the Nazi annexation of Austria was the Sephardic synagogue. With it, the stories of the Sephardic community in Vienna and its unique traditions were destroyed.
However, some of this community story has been recovered and is retold in the exhibitions in the Jewish Museum in the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse in Vienna. This story illustrates the diversity of the Jewish community in the Habsburg empire and also shows how changing circumstances, both political and social, offer opportunities and challenges.
The Ottoman Empire twice laid siege to Vienna, in 1528 and again in 1683. The defeat of the Turks in 1683 became a turning point in history, and the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a threat to western Europe.
The provisions of the Treaty of Passarowitz, signed in 1718, allowed a group of Sephardic Jews from Ottoman Turkish lands to settle in Vienna. As subjects of the Sultan, these Sephardic Jews were allowed to establish a legally recognised community in Vienna in the mid-18th century and they built their own synagogue.
Paradoxically, the same right was denied to the Ashkenazi Jews from Central and East Europe who were living in Vienna, and many of them must have found it attractive to seek ‘Turkish papers.’
The Sephardic community in Vienna was established in the early 18th century by a group of Ottoman families led by Diego d’Aguillar. Many were the descendants of Sephardic families expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century; others were descended from families that had once lived in Italy; and in many cases they had fled cities and islands in Greece that the Venetians were forced to cede to the Ottomans, including Crete and the Peloponnese.
Two Ottoman-style finials for Torah scrolls survive from that time. They came from Jerusalem, which was part of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Although it is not known when the Torah scrolls came to Vienna, the inscriptions on the finials say, ‘Jerusalem 1741.’
A silk Torah mantle from the 19th century and a Megillat Esther or Esther Scroll made in Vienna in 1844 also survive from the Sephardic community and are on display in the Jewish Museum.
The first reference to a prayer house of the Turkish-Jewish or Sephardic community in Vienna is in 1778, although its location is unknown. The Sephardic prayer house on Upper Danube Street was destroyed by fire in 1824, and the community moved to the Great Mohrengasse.
As membership increased sharply, the community bought a plot of land at Fuhrmanngasse (today Zirkusgasse) 22 and began building a new prayer house that opened in 1868. However, major building defects soon appeared, and the building was demolished.
An elegant new Sephardic synagogue was built in the Moorish Revival style, inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. It was known as the ‘Turkish Temple’ and was built by the architect Hugo von Wiedenfeld (1852-1925) at Zirkusgasse in the Leopoldstadt district in 1885-1887.
The synagogue was built between several neighbouring houses so that the entrance could only be reached through an atrium or vestibule. The main, square prayer room had an octagonal dome that was 12 metres high. This was supported by 17-metre high walls and was illuminated by skylights and lanterns.
The Aron ha-Kodesh or Holy Ark for the Torah scrolls, like most of the interior, was covered with marble or stucco, decorated and in gold or other colours. At the opposite end was the organ loft.
The prayer room had 314 seats on the ground floor, and galleries on three sides could accommodated another 360 people, with 250 standing spaces and 110 seats. In addition, a winter room on the first floor had 105 seats.
With new laws regulating the Jewish community in 1890, the Turkish Jewish community lost its independence and was to be incorporated into the larger Jewish community. After long negotiations, however, the Sephardic community was granted a degree of autonomy.
Rabbi Michael Papo from Sarajevo served the synagogue as a rabbi until 1918. After him, this position remained virtually vacant, and his son Manfred Papo served as a rabbi in the ‘Turkish Temple’ only sporadically. On the other hand, after World War I, Cantor Isidor Lewit, who created his own singing style based on Turkish-Sephardic melodies, made a significant contribution to the synagogue and community life.
It is said there were 94 synagogues and prayer houses in Vienna before the Nazis moved into Austria in 1938. The Sephardic synagogue at Zirkusgasse, like all other synagogues in Vienna – with the sole exception of the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse, built in 1824-1826 – was destroyed during the Holocaust.
Fifty years after the ‘Turkish Temple’ was destroyed in November 1938, the City of Vienna erected a commemorative plaque in 1988 to remember the Sephardic synagogue.
I have visited many other synagogues around the world, and I had planned to visit the last remaining synagogue in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar (Burma), last month. However, all my travel plans are now on hold.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Ii and the end of the Holocaust. As two of us were leaving the synagogue in Corfu last summer, we lit two small candles at the end of the stairs by the door, and moved on to see two other monuments in Corfu that are reminders of the Holocaust.
It is important that places like this remain open to the curious, the casual visitor, and to a younger generation, particularly in a time when antisemitism and racism are on the rise.
A new generation needs to be reminded of the beautiful mosaic that is European identity, and of the need to ensure that we keep alive a memory that allows us to say that what happened to the generation before me and to the Jews of Europe must never happen again.
The webinars and virtual tours at Bevis Marks Synagogue can be booked HERE.
Some recent ‘virtual tours’:
A dozen Wren churches in London;
Ten former Wren churches in London;
More than a dozen churches in Lichfield;
More than a dozen pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen former pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen churches in Rethymnon;
A dozen restaurants in Rethymnon;
A dozen churches in other parts of Crete;
A dozen monasteries in Crete;
A dozen sites on Mount Athos;
A dozen historic sites in Athens;
A dozen historic sites in Thessaloniki;
A dozen churches in Thessaloniki;
A dozen Jewish sites in Thessaloniki.
A dozen churches in Cambridge;
A dozen college chapels in Cambridge;
A dozen Irish islands;
A dozen churches in Corfu;
A dozen churches in Venice.
A dozen churches in Rome.