JCC travelers at the Lisbon memorial to the Jewish massacre of 1506.
by Shelley A. Sackett
MARBLEHEAD – On Sept. 7, most of the 32 North Shore residents leaving on a 13-day trip to Spain and Portugal the next day were doing a last-minute check on their weather apps and adjusting their suitcases accordingly.
Billy Flaxer had other priorities. He had only one item on his “must pack” list – the velvet bag containing his tallis, tefillin, and kippah, items worn by Jews during weekday prayers. The retired pharmacist from Peabody, for whom davening is a daily ritual, decided he would put on his tallis and tefillin and recite the Shema in public locations where practicing Jews had historically prayed.
On this trip organized by the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead, those opportunities would be rare in the countries where the Spanish (1492) and Portuguese (1536) Inquisitions resulted in the expulsion, forced conversion, and death of hundreds of thousands of Iberian Jews. Today, Jewish Heritage Sites in these countries more often refer to places marked by plaques indicating where prosperous Jewish communities used to exist.
Yet Flaxer was able to fulfill his promise two times in Spain. The first was in Girona at the Jewish Museum located in the former Jewish quarter on the site of one of the town’s three synagogues, where he prayed “in remembrance of our fellow Jews who once lived and thrived in this town.” The other was in Toledo at the Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca, an 1190 Moorish synagogue that was converted to a Catholic church in the early 15th century.
“It was important to me that I pay tribute to the thousands of Spanish Jews who flourished in Spain until 1492,” Flaxer said.
The ambitious trip itinerary, which covered over 1,100 miles by bus and – in addition to Girona and Toledo – included stops in Barcelona, Zaragoza, Madrid, Granada, Seville, Evora, Lisbon, and Sintra, was part of the JCCNS’s travel program.
Diane Knopf, group travel leader, helped recruit and organize the trip and planned the three orientation sessions during which travelers had the chance to meet each other and ask questions about the trip. Originally scheduled for September 2020. the trip had been postponed twice due to the pandemic.
“I was awestruck by how quickly people who didn’t know each other before the trip formed a familial bond,” she said, a sentiment confirmed by fellow travelers as one of the highlights of their trip.
For Wendy Zimmer of Marblehead, waking up each day was “like getting a new surprise to open. What would our next hotel look like? What medieval town would we be walking through that day?”
In Barcelona, the La Sagrada Família Basilica, the largest unfinished Catholic church in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a trip favorite of both Alan and Donna Pierce from Beverly. “When I entered, my breath was taken away. I felt as if I had walked into a magical forest with the nature-themed columns that were so tall and bright and unlike other dark, Gothic cathedrals I’ve seen,” said Donna, a retired insurance claims manager.
A more whimsical stop was at the “Windmills of Don Quixote” on the road between Madrid and Granada. Twelve white tower windmills crown Cerro Calderico Mountain, surrounded by the sprawling plains of Castilla-La Mancha and backdropped by a striking medieval castle. These iconic towers are believed to be the windmills described by Miguel de Cervantes in his famous novel, “Don Quixote” (part 1, 1605, and part 2, 1615).
The group toured the historic Lisbon synagogue on the final day of the trip. Called Shaaré Tikvah (Gates of Hope), it was inaugurated in 1904 as the first synagogue built in Portugal since the late 15th century. The historic and functioning house of worship hosts Friday night, Shabbat and holiday services, and follows Sephardic customs. With 900 member families, its 450 seats cannot accommodate all who want to attend High Holiday services.
Sandra Montez, a Lisbon native and local guide, was a wealth of information about the Portuguese city’s past and present. She chronicled the history of the synagogue and described the current social and religious climate in Lisbon.
The Lisbon Synagogue especially moved Jean Guastaferri, who lives in Marblehead and is retired from the Massachusetts Council Against Discrimination. “As a non-Jew, I enjoyed learning more about the deep roots of Jews and Jewish history in Iberia and how the Jews and Moors lived peacefully together for so many centuries,” she said.
“Simply walking through where ‘the Jews used to be’ strained our collective imaginations,” said Salem attorney and historian Alan Pierce. The utter lack of official, public acknowledgment of the contribution that Jews made to Spain and Portugal before the Inquisitions troubled Judy Mishkin of Salem. “We saw a few symbols of where the Jews lived, but I believe there should have been much more recognition,” the senior caregiver consultant said.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of reactions were positive. Everyone experienced that special bolt of wonder travelers crave. For one, it was shock at the heavy traffic in and out of Barcelona and Madrid. Another interacted with locals and improved her Spanish skills. And it was impossible not to marvel at the breathtaking scenery of the Spanish and Portuguese countryside.
Mishkin echoed her fellow travelers when asked about her biggest takeaway: “The absolutely tremendous amount of planning that goes into a trip of this magnitude,” she answered without a moment’s hesitation.
For additional information about the JCCNS’ travel program, contact Adult Program Director Sara Ewing at firstname.lastname@example.org