Girona: Reflections from the Jewish Quarter

 

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Our Girona apartment stands within the edges of Girona’s historic Call, the Jewish Quarter. At the entrance there is the scar where a mezuzah was once affixed. Next door is the Jewish Center where services are still held. Down the block is the Catalan Museum of Jewish History. The history within the museum stands as a testimony to human strength in the face of prejudice and adversity.

Apologists will tell you there was a time when the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities were integrated and peacefully coexisted in Girona. In truth a wall was built around the Jewish Quarter to enforce segregation. As the Christian Church gained influence the Jewish population was increasingly reviled. In 1391 violent mobs attacked the Jews. They took refuge in the Gironella Tower for 17 miserable weeks. In 1492 the Spanish Government issued an expulsion order. The Jewish population either endured forced conversions, or were expelled from Spain.

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The loss was of course Spain’s. A thriving economic and intellectual community was driven out because of ignorance, prejudice, and fear. A people had been demonized and expelled from the only home they had known. It occurred with governmental support.

We like to believe the lessons of Spain, and certainly WWII, have been learned. Civilized countries and their citizens would never demonize a group of people because of their religion, race, or country of origin. We say, “We will never forget!”, but we have forgotten.

While waiting for the bus to Lloret De Mar I witnessed an ugly scene involving a young Muslim woman, and a tourist. It was clear that two-thirds of the waiting passengers were not going to be able to board the bus. Tourists from across the globe were jockeying for position to ensure they weren’t left behind. This mostly involved pushing their way to the front, and pretending they had always been there.

Among the crowd of passengers was the Muslim woman. She was traditionally attired. In the crowd of white faces an African woman wearing a hijab stuck out. When the ebb and flow of the crowd put her near the front a large man singled her out. With a loud voice and threatening body language he demanded that she go to the back of the crowd. He continued to harangue her. The woman’s eyes and quivering lips revealed closely held anger and fear. Yet, she didn’t back down.

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We were a crowd of tourists heading for a holiday in Tossa De Mar. It was obvious this woman was heading there to work. That’s what Africans do in Tossa. When the man started shaking his finger in the woman’s face she became one of my Muslim students. She was Nuralain, Fatuma, and Hibibo. I thought about Ahmed, Wallis, and Muhammad. I wasn’t going to make a scene, but she was going to get on that bus. She was going to get to work on time!

Recognizing her fear, and that she would prefer no contact with a strange non-Muslim male, I greeted her quietly saying, “As-salamu alaykum!”  She returned the greeting with a whisper. I then gestured for her to place herself behind Donna. Together we all got on to the bus. Six passengers later the bus was full. The door was closed.

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I don’t know who the other passengers saw when they looked at this woman. I do know the “Merci!” she gave me with a soft smile and twinkling eyes was heartfelt and genuine. A helping hand when you least expect is always welcomed!

This happened in Spain. It could have happened at home. My gesture wasn’t heroic. It was a simple recognition that prejudice was blocking an earnest young woman from going to work.

In 1391 a mob came to drive the Jews out of Girona. In 1492 the government issued a decree to do just that. In 2017 there are calls to exclude Muslims and deport Dreamers from the United States.

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At the entrance of our apartment in Girona there is a deep scar in the stone. A mezuzah once hung there. That scar doesn’t call upon us to, “Not forget!” It calls upon us to, “Remember!” It’s the last word that counts!

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