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February 19, 2019 by

The Thrill—and the Pain—of Exploring Córdoba’s Lost Jewish Treasures

Arriving in Córdoba last month with my study-abroad cohort, I felt like I’d landed in a Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 1.36.03 PMmedieval fairy tale. As my classmates and I walked across the bridge separating the main road from the town, we passed a castle, a swamp, and a bustling market full of people dressed in full Renaissance garb. After years of studying the literature and philosophy of the Jews of Córdoba, I couldn’t believe that I was finally seeing the city in real life. Walking down the streets, I snapped photo after photo of the white-painted buildings, getting increasingly excited as we moved through the judería towards the old synagogue, noticing landmarks that until then I’d only been able to imagine. It felt like the books I’d studied had come to life in front of me. Soon, we found ourselves in front of a small gate, blocked by a guard who waved our tour group into the synagogue area. 

But when I walked into the small chapel, seeing the partially destroyed verses from the Psalms on the walls and the tiny gold menorah in the entrance, my giddy excitement turned to anger. Anger that this small room was almost all that was left of a massive and influential Jewish community. Anger at our tour guide for glossing over the history of the Inquisition and Expulsion, and for not mentioning why one wall of the synagogue had a giant cross painted over it. And anger that, in the minds of the countless tourists who passed through Córdoba each day, the Jewish community would be reduced to a destroyed synagogue and a single statue of Maimonides. As we exited the building into the blazing sun, Córdoba seemed more like a place of disillusionment than the culmination of my studies I’d hoped for.


After the official tour ended, two Jewish friends and I decided to explore by ourselves for a while longer. While wandering around the area, we happened upon Casa Sefarad, a museum a block away from the synagogue dedicated to Spanish Jewry and the Sephardi diaspora. By that point, my anger had turned into guilt. Removed by hundreds of years and thousand of miles from the medieval Jewish communities of Spain, I worried that my studies had exoticized them, treating the Middle Ages as a period of happy fantasy rather than one of serious grief and pain. How could I have been so excited to see a city in which so many Jews had been persecuted and tortured? I was apprehensive about entering the museum.

But slowly, as we wandered through the rooms, I felt the guilt begin to dissipate. Seeing the names of famous citizens of Córdoba on the wall, I realized that I’d learned about almost all of them in my classes, and in each room, I found myself adding commentary to the plaques in the museum, such as Bienvenida Abravanel, a matriarch of the powerful Abravanel family and one of the most influential women in Europe in the 16th century. Seeing room after room full of descriptions of the lifecycle of Jews of Córdoba, of the clothes they wore and the holidays they celebrated, reminded me that this community was made up of so much more than the persecution they faced. 

The wall of the last room of the museum featured a poem I’d read many times before, written by a woman whose name has been lost to history, known today only as the wife of Dunash ben Labrat. Standing in front of the poem, I felt a litany of historical facts run through my head, from the discovery of the poem in the Cairo Geniza to the metrical scheme of the poem. But at the same time, standing in the place where this woman herself once lived, I felt, more strongly than ever, the emotional sentiment of the poem, experiencing it both as an important part of scholarly history and also simply as a striking poem. 

When I study their writings, I’m not ignoring the fact that life for Jews in Spain was full of challenges and dangers, but rather I feel I’m celebrating the fact that the Jewish community in Spain flourished despite those challenges. While anti-Semitism was of course a part of the lives of this woman and her contemporaries, it was just one facet. Her poetry, just as the poetry of her contemporaries does, paints a much fuller picture of life as a Jew in Medieval Spain than would records of the Inquisition or partially destroyed synagogues. Buoyed a little by this thought, as I left the museum and walked through the bustling streets of the city, I allowed myself once again to feel overcome with excitement at actually being in the place I’ve read about and imagined so many times.