From Golden to Grim: Jewish Life in Muslim Spain

The complex political situation in Muslim Spain impacted Jewish social and cultural life there.

For all its political unrest, Muslim Iberia [Spain and Portugal] sustained its economic vitality well into the 12th century. The Jews shared in that affluence. Heavily concentrated in Granada, they earned their livelihoods as distributors of the region’s sugarcane and cotton; as exporters of marble, gold, silver, iron, and copper; as retail tradesmen, artisans, and physicians.

Beyond Granada, Jewish enclaves were still to be found in Cordoba, the focus of the Jews’ original settlement, and in Lucena and Seville. During periods of civil instability, additional thousands also migrated northward to the Christian kingdoms of Asturias, Leon, Castile, Navarre, Coimbra. Yet even in the north, Spanish Jews by and large preserved their Arabic language and nomenclature, and remained extensively integrated into the Arab cultural terrain.

A State Within a State

Wherever they settled, too, the Jews continued to operate as a state within a state, exercising the widest measure of fiscal and judicial autonomy. For them, within that insular world, it was the synagogue that functioned as the communal omnium‑gatherum [all-purpose gathering place]. There were many hundreds of these, from public synagogues to synagogues erected by guilds of artisans to private synagogues attached to the homes of wealthy families, Cordoba and Granada, each with five or six thousand Jews, maintained­ at least two dozen synagogues. In Toledo, with barely four thousand Jews, there were eleven.

Characteristically, Iberian (and North African) synagogues shared most of the architectural and decorative features of the mosque. Construction was in the shape of a rectangle. The Ark of the Torah, positioned in the center of the sanctuary, was encircled by­ cushions and mats. Inasmuch as Jews were forbidden to employ human likenesses, the synagogue, like the mosque, was adorned with the carvings of­ animals and vegetation, with plaster lobes, horseshoe bows, rosettes, and sacred­ verses filigreed in Hebrew lettering.

Plainly, the synagogue, in common with the mosque and the church, was first and foremost a house of prayer. For all of Andalusia’s pleasures, worship was a serious concern for its heterogeneity of Arabs, Moors, Jews, Slavs, Visigoths, and Lusitanians. But for Jews as well as for the others, the day of rest was also a convivial delight.

Comfort and Self-Satisfaction Prevailed For Centuries

Thus, after a Friday‑afternoon visit to the neighborhood bathhouse, and its opportunity for gossip with friends, a middle‑class Jew attended services on Saturday morning. Upon returning home, he and his family enjoyed an ample Sabbath meal, usually of spiced meat and flatbread, washed down with wine. A siesta followed. Afterward, the home was open to relatives and friends. The family ambience was tradition‑bound.

It was sustained, as well, by self-satisfaction. Iberia’s affluent Jews envisaged themselves as the aristocrats of the Diaspora. In its condescension, the assessment evinced at once economic success, superior education ­and often a highly cultivated, characteristically Iberian elegance of personal demeanor. Appraising the Jews of Ashkenaz (the Hebrew term for Trans-Pyrenean Europe [that is, basically, Poland, France and the German lands]), a Sephardic intellectual could write:

[The Ashkenazim] eat boiled beef, dipped in vinegar and garlic . .. and as the fumes … penetrate their minds, they then imagine that by these viands they have achieved an image of the Creator …. They have no fixed ideas except on rutting, eating, and drinking …. Stay clear of them and do not come within their embrace, and … let not your pleasant companionship be with any other than our beloved Sephardic brethren … for (the latter] have intellectual capacity, understanding, and clarity of mind.

Ironically, well‑born Andalusian Jews experienced few similar con­cerns about “staying clear” of their Muslim peers. Relations between the two elites generally were equable. Although each of Spain’s religious communities lived within its own quarters, well into the 12th century, mass violence that followed the assassination of Joseph ibn Nagrela, a Jewish vizier to the court of Granada, in l066 was uncharacteristic even of the restive Muslim lower classes. Among the affluent, business and professional contacts were extensive, and social visits between prosperous Muslim and Jewish families were by no means rare.

The Berber Almohade Tribesmen Smashed This Idyll, Driving Jews to the Christian North.

In the mid‑1100s, however, a force majeure decisively shattered these placid multicultural relations. Led by Abd al‑Mu’min al‑Mohade, scion of a fundamentalist North African Berber dynasty that has traditionally been called the Almohades, a new wave of Islamic warriors swept down from Algeria’s Atlas Mountains. Engulfing the North African littoral popula­tion, the invaders pressed across the Strait of Gibraltar to overrun central and southern Iberia.

Decades of brutal Almohade persecution followed—of forced conversions equally of Jews, Christians, and “backsliding” Muslims. Thousands of Andalusian Jews accordingly fled to the Spanish Christian kingdoms of the north. The grim interregnum continued for six decades, until 1212, when an alliance of Christian armies finally destroyed the Almohade minions at Las Navas de Tolosa, and with it Almohade rule in the Iberian Peninsula altogether.

In ensuing years, as local Muslim governments began reviving in Andalusia, large numbers of Jews returned to the south. But if they anticipated resuming the former tempo of their lives, they were shortly undeceived. Religious passions by then had been too widely stirred and diffused.

Once again, Muslim rulers began enforcing the old sumptuary laws  [regulating Jewish dress and life style] and this time with a new rigor. Jews were obliged to wear badges or distinctively colored turbans. Jewish courtiers, physicians, and commu­nal officials faced new vocational restrictions. Jewish families were ex­posed to new refinements of social isolation. Jewish merchants were held responsible for bad harvests or food shortages, and often endured a gaunt­let of insults and petty humiliations in street and marketplace. By the latter 1100s, any lingering hope for Jewish revival in once‑genial Andalusia seemed all but foreclosed. The departure of Jews northward, once tenta­tive and temporary, now gained momentum, swelling irretrievably from a rivulet to a stream.

This article is reprinted, with permission, from Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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