The cobblestones of Toledo are smooth. Over centuries, feet and weather have worn away the jagged edges, vestiges of the picks that hewed the rock from the quarry. They are difficult to negotiate, slippery and rounded, lining the narrow roads and alleys that wind through this Spanish city, built high on a hill, bordered by the Tajo River.
Walking the streets of Toledo is an exercise in stamina and history. The roads seem to be forever straining upward. They wind steeply through the town, and I laughed that there didn’t seem to be a downside.
Until, that is, we went to visit the Jewish quarter. On the Western side of the town, it lies at its base. Was it located there so that the flotsam and jetsam of daily living, washed by rain, would flow down its guttered roads toward the Jews?
My husband, Avrom, and I spent a chilly day in February in this town where Jews once lived, some speculate, since the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. The community was the first Jewish one established on the Iberian Peninsula, and they dubbed it Tulelula, a word believed to be derived taltelah, the Hebrew for wandering.
The Jews lived under Roman, Visigoth and Muslim rule before they ever dealt with Spanish kings. They lived through forced conversions, and times of tolerance. By the 12th century, when the Spanish took over, the Jewish quarter was well established, and Toledo was a center of learning, where Jews translated works of astronomy, mathematics and other subjects from Arabic into Latin.
The quarter is marked, hemmed in by our own symbols. Small, colorful ceramic tiles bearing a chai, a star of David, or a menorah, are embedded every so often in the stony road, marking the quarter’s boundary. Our visit took us to the two remaining synagogues in Toledo and our first stop was Santa Maria la Blanca, or St. Mary, the White. Right away this tells you that at some point, the building stopped being a place where Jews came to worship and became something else, altogether.
There is some dispute when the building, once known as Ibn Shushan Synagogue, or the Congregational Synagogue of Toledo, was built – maybe 1180 C.E., perhaps 1250 C.E. The style is Moorish, and the Arab influence is overwhelming, with the “keyhole” arches lining the nave. The walls are whitewashed, and the simple austerity of the space, empty of Jews, their rituals and voices, contrasts with the ornate capitals upon which the arches rest.
The building ceased to be a synagogue in 1411 and did stints as a monastery, an armory and a warehouse. Monks took possession of it in 1550, and dubbed it Santa Maria la Blanca to drive out the Jewish darkness of its past. When we visited a small art show of Jewish-themed drawings in a gallery on the synagogue grounds, a nun greeted us.
We moved on to Sinagoga del Transito, which houses the Sephardic Museum. The setup was less spare; there was a garden entryway, the main sanctuary, some rooms off to the side that housed a collection of Judaica; an upstairs gallery where this continued, and an outside cemetery.
When we entered, we downloaded an app onto our phones that would provide narration for a tour of the synagogue; a contemporary solution to the lack of English speaking tour guides. It explained the structure, the style and the way the wooden roof had been built, pointed out the women’s gallery and its elaborate archway through which the women could see the ceremonies below.
We followed the English narration through the building, taking in older ritual objects, groggers and circumcision tools, for example. None seemed specific to Toledo, this community or this synagogue, just generic items of daily Jewish living.
This description of Jewish life, the way the narrator spoke of us, was haunting, distant and unnerving. Here I was, standing on the ancient stones of the last synagogue ever built in Toledo, all plugged into my iPhone, a practicing Jew of the 21st century, very much alive and well. And my virtual tour guide was talking about Jews and their quaint customs, traits and ceremonies as if they were no longer extant. Poof, they had ceased to be.
The tone was heavy and seemed couched in a past tense, “This is what Jewish practice was like; here is what they used to do.” Sadness hung over this beautiful place. The narrator never once spoke about this being just the Jews of Toledo, who do not occupy the Jewish quarter there any longer. And it wasn’t as if it were being directed at the Jews of Spain as a whole, who of course nearly did cease to exist after the expulsion of 1492 and the forced conversions that happened around that time.
No, it was as if we as a people were simply no longer present. It was as if I were walking through some alternative world where Hitler had succeeded in wiping out the Jews and had finally built the museum he’d always planned that would put on display the relics of the former Jewish life of Europe. In today’s Europe, where anti-Semitism is on the rise, the language of the recording is a chilling reminder that someone else had very nearly succeeded in wiping out our traces.
We emerged from the museum, and walked its winding streets. There is much to see in Toledo: a large, beautiful cathedral; a house that may or may not have been home to the artist El Greco, Toledo’s most famous son, which bears the remains of a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath in its cellar; Renaissance artwork; a mosque. Shops filled with Judaica — ritual objects, artwork and books — line Toledo’s streets. They are there for us, for the tourists. Toledo’s Jewish streets were long ago scrubbed of its residents, who converted or fled in 1492, the last departing on the seventh of Av. They settled in Fez, and other places in North Africa, in Turkey and in Israel.
History weighs heavily on a Jew in Toledo. It presses upon you, as you wind your way up through the labyrinth of roads. The cobblestones of Toledo are round and smooth as river pebbles. The edges have been worn away through time, along with the Jews, and the rich life they had built for themselves in this hilltop enclave.
But we are still here.