After centuries hidden in rubble, Catalans Jewish history revived

barcelona, spain (ap) | Spain’s Catalonia region suffered some of the most virulent anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, and most Jews were driven out nearly a century before all Jews were expelled from the rest of the country in 1492.

For centuries since those times, Catalan Jews were a forgotten people — but recently there has been a revival of interest in Catalonia’s Jewish past.

Barcelona’s oldest synagogue, dating from the ninth century, has been restored, and it recently received a gift of a medieval Torah.

With the 500-year-old Torah installed in its ark, the synagogue is now consecrated and can begin to function as a house of worship, although at present no congregation regularly meets in the synagogue.

“The Torah has a message, not just for Jews but for all the people of the world,” said Miguel Iaffa, the 66-year-old retired businessman behind the synagogue’s restoration. “We don’t own this Torah, but it’s our grand responsibility to care for it.”

In 1985, the Argentine immigrant discovered that a rubble-filled basement deep in the city’s old quarter was also the remains of what was the central house of worship for Barcelona’s thousands of Jews during the Middle Ages. Since then, he has served as the director of an association that bought and restored the building, and now administers it.

The donation of the Torah, valued at $30,000, was made by Lorenzo Rozencwaig, a Jewish attorney from New York, who bought it from a dealer in antique Judaica. It is the latest step in recovering and reviving Jewish Catalonia, uniting its past and present. About 15,000 Jews currently live in Spain, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona.

The synagogue has been receiving visitors since 2002 and in 2005 posted a record 20,000 visits, said Iaffa.

There has been a surge in interest in tracing the route of Catalonia’s medieval Jewry, which stretches 45 miles northward from Barcelona to Catalonia’s second largest city, Gerona. There, a medieval Jewish neighborhood has been painstakingly reclaimed and restored.

The first written reference to Jews in Gerona dates from 890. The Jewish neighborhood thrived for over 500 years, although it was the target of periodic outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence.

The last synagogue built in medieval Spain was completed in Gerona in the mid-1400s, and today it is beautifully restored, housing the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, with a museum about Catalonia’s Jews, as well as a historical archive for scholars to consult.