This blog post comes from Linnea Hurst, who interned in the ISJL’s Community Engagement department last summer.
I wasn’t raised with religion. Growing up, I always learned about religion through my friends or communities I have lived in—including through my internship experience at the ISJL last summer, where I gained a much richer understanding of Judaism.
This winter, my religious education took a new twist. I had the opportunity to travel around Spain after studying abroad in London. The first stop on my Spanish adventure was a sleepy medium-sized Southern city named Córdoba. To my surprise, I learned that in the 10th century Córdoba was the largest city in Western Europe, boasting 500,000 inhabitants. Even more spectacular than this fact was the fact that at the request of King Alfonzo, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars were all brought to his court in Córdoba to learn together and translate books from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin.
These three religions clearly existed in Córdoba without serious strife during the 10th century; a fact that today seems far-fetched. Although there is no synagogue left in the city, there is a large mosque which dates back to 784. Yet as with almost all non-Christian religions sites in Spain, something was built atop this mosque: in this case, a large cathedral sits smack dab in the middle. The contrasting architectural styles of the Cathedral and the Mosque depicts how although the Jews, Muslims, and Christians learned from each other as scholars in Córdoba in the 10th century this peace did not last long.
Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Only a lucky few synagogues and mosques, such as the mosque I saw in Córdoba, did not get completely destroyed.
When I reached central Spain, I still had not seen a synagogue and was curious if there were any still in the country. Jewish life seemed more like a memory there. In every city I visited in Southern Spain, there was a “Jewish Quarter,” where a thriving Jewish community had once lived very long ago, and none remained. When I visited the city of Toledo, which used to be Spain’s capital before Madrid, I finally found something more than a sign saying “barrio Judío”. In Toledo I visited Synagogue El Transito, founded in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia who was the Treasurer to Peter of Castile. The building was not big, but as soon as I entered I could not take my eyes away from the ornate stucco decorations covering the walls. As I got closer I noticed that the walls were beautifully inscribed with both Hebrew and Arabic, a testament to the close ties between Judaism and Arabic culture in medieval Spain. The synagogue was temporarily turned into a Catholic Church after the expulsion of the Jews.
Leaving Spain was hard, and on the last day I decided I needed just one more adventure, just one more new city. I took a day trip to Segovia, where I spent all day entranced by the larger than life cathedral and imposing yet beautiful medieval castle. It wasn’t until the sun had set that I chanced upon a landmark from Segovia’s 14th century Jewish community. I was following a hiking trail back down a hill where I had watched the sunset when I came across two large pits with stone slabs. I knew immediately they must be something very old and very important and I just had to figure out what. Not far from the slabs were historical signs mostly in Spanish but with a little English. “Old Jewish Burial Ground…” the title read. It turns out that the Jewish quarter of Segovia, which was right across from this hill, was where the burial procession would originate.
I don’t know if I would have looked for those hidden remnants of Jewish life if not for my summer in the South, working for a Jewish organization. That was one great exposure to culture, which many might find unexpected; and now this, learning about three religions simply by walking the old medieval streets of Spain, where I learned there is something about being right there, something about the weight of history, that is truly unique.
Today’s post was written collaboratively by Education Fellows Elaine Barenblat, Dan Ring, and Allison Poirier
This February, the ISJL launched the Linda Pinkus Memorial Labyrinth in not one, but TWO locations!
First, Elaine, Allison, and Rabbi Marshal Klaven took the labyrinth to a launch party in Greenville, Mississippi. There in the heart of the Delta, we celebrated the memory and legacy of Mrs. Pinkus with several generations of her family. In the same weekend, Dan brought our second labyrinth all the way across the South to Greensboro, North Carolina.
A labyrinth is a two dimensional meditative device. Unlike a maze, which twists and turns into dead ends, a labyrinth has a single path to its center and back. Their history goes back at least 3,500 years, and in Judaism they are often connected with the battle of Jericho. Today, we are using our labyrinth (pictured somewhere on this blog post) as a meditative exercise. We walk the paths in silence, concentrating on slow, even, steps, and reflect on spiritual matters. This project is the brainchild of Rabbi Marshal Klaven, created in memory of Mrs. Pinkus as a way to bring new spiritual experiences into the lives of Jews in the South.
Elaine and Allison check in from Greenville:
“We enjoyed seeing how different participants approach this new experience. We expected children to try to race through, but were also pleased to see that they enjoyed it when we encouraged them to slow down. We were surprised to learn that some people saw the labyrinth as a coordination challenge, and feared they were too clumsy to attempt it. Many adults who did try found that walking so slowly and purposefully did, in fact, change their sense of balance. But all who attempted it were pleased to have had this new experience and said they enjoyed learning about a new Jewish spiritual practice.”
Dan checks in from Greensboro:
“The labyrinth was a huge hit! I used it as a religious school program on Sunday morning, and thanks to the help of Beth David Synagogue’s religious school director and the religious school teachers, it worked out perfectly. It was fantastic to see rambunctious, energetic students completely transformed into contemplative, introspective scholars, discussing in detail the intricate differences between a labyrinth and a maze, and bringing these complicated ideas into a larger discussion about our own lives and life decisions. With the tool of the labyrinth, I believe the students also truly began to understand the power of silence and meditation – a benefit which I’m sure will resonate with most any religious school teacher!”
The two labyrinths will be making the rounds throughout our ISJL region, and we hope you will be excited to bring it to your community soon. In the meantime… did you catch the “Green” connection? Don’t worry – it’s not a community requirement or anything!
There are two words powerfully associated with the Southern Jewish experience: Shalom Y’all.
In just two little words, so much is conveyed. A greeting of peace, a connection with the Jewish people, an instantly-recognizable Southernism, a welcoming, a phrase that is naturally plural and inclusive.
It’s hard to think of any other two words that, when paired together, express so much with so little.
It’s also hard to picture anything cuter than this baby in a Shalom Y’all baby onesie.
Here’s to everything our favorite phrase so quickly conveys! Shalom, Y’all!