Jewish Spain

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This is an entry from our Honeymoon trip in 2017.

We woke up “early” and sick.  We had breakfast at our kitchie hostel: pastry and coffee, and then we are off to the old city of Toledo. I wanted to see El Greco museum and the town before we get to Madrid while Steph wanted to get to Madrid ASAP so we could get to the rowboats in Retiro Park.  

We got in the car and drove into Toledo. Because it was a national day of Spain, there was some traffic, but still not bad by US standards. In fact, I want to mention something important about Spain: in Spain is that there is virtually no traffic ever. Very smart road design and public transportation created this. Few stoplights, bike lanes, bus lanes, met metros, and a lot of scooters and paid to park everywhere. This was true in Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, and really everywhere. This way the third-largest city in Europe is free of parking!!!! Also, we never saw any accidents. Teenagers can’t get a license and a license is very hard to get and cars are really really expensive as is the license. All these things Europeans much better drivers in general compared to America. Good transportations+better drivers=less accidents and less traffic.

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This is why we found a parking spot surprisingly quickly and walked up past a giant tourist bus stuck in the tiny streets of old Toledo on the way towards the El Greco museum. First, we stopped by the “Dry Bones” shop owned by a Colombian converso  (someone Jewish whose family chose to convert during Spanish Inquisition.) The nice man with silver hair and a thick mustache is trying to bring back the memory of Jewish Spain. Outside his shop, there was a rotating brown cylinder with names inscribed on it and an olive tree on top. The spinning wheel had the names of Jewish people who were expelled. The names included many of my friends from California like Noguera Ibanez Acosta Garcia and Lopez. We talked to him about the Jewish people of Spain and Latin America, snapped a pic, and made our way to El Greco museum.

The museum had a special deal with the Transit Synagogue. We found out why: it used to be the Samuel Levy house. For some reason, the museum wasn’t happy about honoring our tickets, so not sure what’s up with the relationship there. Samuel Levy, a treasurer of Charles the Vth who built the Transit Synagogue next door. Apparently, 100 years after Jews were kicked out, the house became the property of Spain and they rented out a small part of it to El Greco, who lived out his days and finished paintings here. It was interesting to realize that this man used part of this giant house as his studio. The house where the museum was, used to be rundown and a Spanish artist and admirer of El Greco thought this part was the house of El Greco, it wasn’t. The person bought the house and then tried to re-create the house of El Greco by putting period-specific furniture around the house while also exhibiting El Greco’s art and the art of others who studied him, emulated him. Some of the art was by El Greco’s students and kids. Supposedly it was a new way to exhibit work, not sure if I believe that but it was odd to have two museums in one. It was hard to look at the furniture while at the same time admiring El Greco.

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The house is certainly beautiful and I kept thinking about the fact that  I was walking through an old Jewish home and took pictures of everything: frescos, plaster figures, woodwork. The house had a large cellar with possible mikveh (ritual Jewish bath) underneath. Large Moorish style arches would have made for a beautiful Arab bath and nice wine storage as well.

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The art was ok, however, some of the El Greco’s were clearly not the best but when situated next to the imitations, we could see clearly why the master was the master. The emotion and the mastery was clear, the colors and the contrast, and the size of paintings were striking and it was good to share that experience with Steph. She reads everything just as I do, which makes for a fun experience in a museum.

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Once finished, Steph was ready for Madrid. So we made our way back quickly to the car and within an hour we were in Madrid. The drive to Madrid was much less scenic than elsewhere in Spain. It was more like a drive from San Diego to LA, a little bit of nature but mostly never-ending businesses along the way.

As the city opened up, with its wide and winding freeways, we entered a sort of slow motion. The sparse cars, motorcycles, people, all slowed down. We were entering a city, during siesta.. all was quiet.

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We found our hotel and walked over to a bar nearby. Because of Barcelona protests, prices spiked in Madrid as all tourists fled for Madrid. This means that the hotel I found in the center of the city was not available and I found a place a little further away near two leaning skyscrapers and a round-about with a giant round golden obelisk.  

The bar nearby was quiet with a few people sitting outside. The tattooed waitress did not seem too interested in helping us as she was talking to friends. She gave us a Spanish menu on which we could not recognize anything familiar. Steph ordered something with artichokes and as we waited for the food, Steph screamed loud “Ow! Ow!”  as she jumped up. Everyone looked, including the people at a bus stop across the street.  It’s a wasp. A Wasp stung-Steph and I seem to have been stung too because I have no idea what I have to do. The bar owner didn’t either nor the people sitting next to us. Everyone was paralyzed as Steph clutched to her swelling foot. I went online to check what to do, the people at the next table ask if we need to call an ambulance. Steph is in pain. Then, suddenly a skinny middle-aged man with a mustache, big chops in jeans and a jean shirt appears with a bag of ice, a disinfectant, and a bandage. We were thankful and after I raced to the car to get Steph ibuprofen, she felt good enough to eat her lunch and limp over to the hotel.

We barely put our stuff down inside a decent hotel with a room on the attic floor with a slanted ceiling and square window that popped open to show a view of Madrid, that Steph with a swollen foot and runny nose, was ready to go! I thought we were for sure staying in, but no, Steph was set on getting to Retiro park for the rowboats. We get in the car and drive a half-hour to the Retiro park on Spain’s National day. We see kids with Spanish flags and families heading to the main street for a parade, making the streets fairly empty. Empty except for near Retiro Park. I drop Steph off and spend 20 minutes looking for a spot.

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Once we meet up, we hobble our way through the sprawling park with trimmed hedges, trees, and families and runners all around us. It seems as though the entire city is here. This park makes Central Park looks like a run-down botanical garden. This place is a Royal gift to the people of Spain and it is obvious that this place with its crisscrossing pathways and bushes and green hidden pastures and giant lake with statues in the center, is a place fit for royalty.

We get to the lake and it is teaming with people. Couples are kissing, kids are playing, Mickey and Minnie are posing for pictures, jugglers juggling, acrobats acrobat. We hobble around the giant lake full of small little rowboats racing against time. We get to the boat rental place and the line is huge! There are 45 minutes left and Steph wants to give up, but I say: they stand in line, why not us?

We get in line and wait. Time is passing, more people get behind us and we slowly move towards the front. At 7:15 we are near the gate and the couple in front of us is told that they are the last as the gates are being shut in front of us. We are stunned, but I am not ready to give up, not for Steph who braved her stung foot and running nose. I plead with the lady, telling her it’s our honeymoon and last day. She waves me in, I pull Steph in behind me and she shuts the door on a family with little kids. I pull stunned Stephanie behind me as I see from the corner of my eyes little kids looking at us with sad faces through the gate. I can’t bear to look them in the eyes…

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In a few short minutes, we are on a beautiful lake at sunset, rowing for the first time since high school. We are surrounded by boats, statues, beautiful purple skies, and a lot of ducks. We made our way back through the beautiful gates and down the roads of Madrid. However, Steph wasn’t done. This was the first night of Simcha Torah and we found a synagogue.

We made our way down the streets of Madrid, following the directions of our GPS to the Sefardi synagogue of Madrid. I was excited. I had been thinking of doing my Sam The Jewish Guy discovery of Synagogues but I didn’t dare on the honeymoon. However, I’m a lucky man, married to a woman who knows me. So we got to the synagogue in a small alleyway in the center of Madrid on the evening of Simcha Torah. It’s the holiday of Jewish people receiving the commandments from God. A festive day of dancing with Torahs all night. I was excited. With the usual security process of showing our passports, within a few minutes I was in the main hall and Stephanie in the women’s gallery above. For a country that used to have hundreds of thousands of Jews, what we saw was sad. Maybe 30 people in the main hall. About 8 men with eight Torahs were walking around the Beemah. Some men were in suits, many in jeans and shirts. Some young people and some old. They danced and sang half-heartedly around the bimah. At one point one man gave his Torah to me and I got to walk around and put the Torah inside the ark.

A few more songs with less than the passion (and liquor) that I’ve seen before in Synagogue and the service was over. We hadn’t even been there for half-hour. We talked to an American girl as we were leaving, and she was equally unimpressed. I was saddened by the event. Here was a place that was in a sense, a birthplace of the rich, Sefardi Jewish community and tradition, and the remains of it were as small and sad as those in Prague or Warsaw. At the same time, I thought back to when the men would grab hands and dance inside the synagogue. At first, it was four or five, some young and some old. With every passing minute, more would join until everyone wanted to be a part of it. However little Jewish presence is today, this doesn’t mean that with time, it won’t grow. So long as people keep dancing around the Beemah, there is someone for me and other Jews to join.

After Simcha-Torah, Steph and I walked around looking for a place to eat. Due to the holiday, most places were closed and we settled on a Jamaica place in a square. The large terrace next to the street was well lit by lights hanging from sun-umbrellas. Spaniards ate and smoked all around us. Spaniards smoke a lot. Not just a lot, they can sit at a cafe for hours on end and never have a moment without a cigarette in hand.

At the restaurant worked one waitress, seemingly from Latin America. She chased the customers and ran from table to table at lightning speed. We were so impressed, that we gave her an extra tip and even told her how well she was doing, certain that some people probably gave her a hard time for what was probably insignificant delays given the circumstances.

It was a long day, at the end of which we were well fed and felt accomplished. We drove to our hotel room with the knowledge that the last day would await us with The Prado and an Arab bath. Two things worth saving for last.

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