Synagogues of Spain
By Phyllis Horn Epstein, Esquire

This past June, my family and I traveled to Spain. I was opened to the art, food, and culture of Spain but could not help sharing my trip with ghosts from the Inquisition. Plaza Mayor in Madrid is not only a beautiful arcade of stores and outdoor dining, but it is also the location where heretics (Jews) were tried and then burned at the stake in the fifteenth century. This visit was not the homecoming one experiences on a trip to Israel. And while there is nothing more fun and upbeat than a walk down the Ramblas in Barcelona, with mimes, cafes and street art, there was an unshakeable sense of alienation in a country that had inflicted great trauma and crimes upon the Jewish people a few centuries before.

Our trip included a visit to Toledo, a former center of great Sephardic learning and activity. There are two former synagogues in Toledo. The oldest is now called the Synagogue of “Santa Maria La Blanca” built in 1203. It is simple yet elegant in design built in the Moorish style with 32 white columns dividing horseshoe arches. In 1411 this synagogue was converted to a church in a wave of mob force against the Jews led by St. Vincent Ferrer. Ultimately used as a barracks, carpenter’s workshop and refuge for prostitutes, this Synagogue has been preserved and is one of the very few remaining former synagogues in Spain.

The other synagogue in Toledo is the Sinagoga del Transito, also known as the Synagogue of Samuel Ha-Levi, its founder and former treasurer and advisor to King Pedro I of Castile. Established in 1357, this former synagogue was taken over as a church by the Order of Calatrava by special grant of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492. The synagogue is an impressive structure with 30 foot high walls and upstairs seating for women. Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions adorn its walls with quotations from the Books of Psalms and dedications to its founder, the architects and the community. Adjoining the synagogue is a very small Jewish museum, with Jewish artifacts gathered from across Spain. In a garden there is a small memorial to the Holocaust.

In Barcelona, we visited the former Synagogue Major in the old City, a small two room underground building with exposed floors showing ancient foundations. The young man who gave us our “tour” explained how even the largest of synagogues in Barcelona could not exceed the height of the smallest church. We learned that Jews suffered in the pogroms of 1391 in Barcelona as they had in Toledo and other cities across Spain, one hundred years before the final expulsion of 1492. Jews throughout Europe and Spain suffered numerous pogroms and massacres in the 14th and 15th centuries, being blamed (among other things) for the Black Death or for serving too high in the employ of  Spanish/Arab administrations, for other reasons or no reasons. And yet we found no memorials to the Jews of the Inquisition or the Jews of the pogroms and no current  historical acknowledgement of the exile or inquisition.

Today, outside the Synagogue  Major in the Jewish Quarter of Barcelona, there is an ancient sign in Hebrew that indicates the Jewish Quarter. It has been obviously defaced by Palestinian sympathizers. You can imagine our delight when we entered a leather shop in the old city where a radio was broadcasting in Hebrew from Israel. The owner pointed to a photograph besides the register, where he posed in full army uniform at the Suez Canal with his comrades from a not too distant war. There are Jews who have returned to Spain and some, like the young tour guide in the Synagogue Major, from families that claim they never went into exile.

AUTHOR BIO: Phyllis Horn Epstein, Esquire is a member of the Brandeis Law Society’s Executive Committee and concentrates her practice in tax planning and litigation. She may be reached at (215) 563-1200 or

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