North Shore travelers embark on a mission to discover Spain and Portugal’s Jewish past

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?”

Billy Flaxer prayed at the Toledo Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca.

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

Israeli Innovations Energize Mayor Driscoll




Israel had long been on Mayor Kim Driscoll’s bucket list. So when she was invited to participate in the American Israel Education Foundation’s (AIEF) educational seminar to Israel for members of Congress and other politically influential people last February, she jumped at the chance.


“We think Salem, which is almost 400 years old, has an embarrassment of riches, from the birthplace of the National Guard to the Witch Trials to the great age of sail. We’re a babe in the woods compared to what’s over there,” she said.


Although she is a practicing Catholic, she was more drawn into the history of the sites she visited than the bible stories. “I really value the role history plays in the character of a place. The commitment to never lose sight of that, whether it’s good history or history that’s more tragic, like the Witch Trials — that’s definitely moving,” she said.

Western Wall

At the Kotel (Western Wall)

At the Kotel, or The Western Wall (an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem), she also felt the weight of the region’s history and the thousands of years during which there have been sometimes violent disagreements. She came away with an even stronger commitment towards peace. “It is so complicated and so hard to achieve, yet so necessary,” she said.


She was also on the look out for Israeli ideas she could bring back to Salem, and she found more than she expected. “I was struck by the drive for ingenuity and innovation in Israel,” she said more than once during the hour-long conversation.


In particular, she marveled at Israel’s ability to recycle 80 percent of its water in a sustainable, thoughtful way. “It’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Water scarcity is a big issue in the Middle East. They don’t have a choice,” she said.


Israeli engineering firms that have developed ways of monitoring water leaks to help with water loss also caught her attention. “When you think about a water system as old as ours, well theirs is a thousand times older. I think there could be some shared alignment,” she said.

Granot Desalination Plant visit

At the Granot Desalination Plant


Urban agriculture, also tied to water, is another area of potential transferability. “I think we’re all going to need to think about that as more folks move into cities. There’s already a farm-to-table sustainability food industry here. I think there’s a lot we could learn,” she said.


She also sees potential applicability for Salem to adapt the way Israeli law enforcement communicates with residents. In Jerusalem, for example, a system of colored lights signal the current level of concern about potential attacks from Israel’s enemies. Although Salem doesn’t fear that kind of attack, Mayor Driscoll came away with ideas about how to expand the system already in place that flashes a blue light when there is a snow-parking ban.


“I’m talking more about if trash is delayed a day, or if there is other information we want to get out,” she said. “Right now we rely on phone calls or web sites. Their simple lighting system communicated a universal message to a city where people were from many different backgrounds and spoke many different languages. It was very clear to everyone what was going on.”


According to 2015 Census Bureau information, 23.3 percent of Salem citizens speak a language other than English. That is higher than the national average of 21%.


The February itinerary included briefings at the Gaza Strip and Lebanese and Syrian borders, and visits to the Granot desalination plant and the Knesset as well as to top tourist sites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Capernaum.


Group photo at Visit to Sea of Galilee- Mt. of Beatitudes

Group photo at Mt. of Beatitudes- Sea of Gallilee


“I really felt like I was on a journey to better understand history and also how people interact in a time when there is trauma, stress and threats all around them. There is a real perseverance in Israel that you can see everyday,” she said in an interview soon after her return.


“We had immense opportunities to speak with everyone we met. We were told, ‘There is nothing you can’t ask. There is nothing out of bounds.’ That was very worthwhile,” she said.


The group was diverse, with members of state government, many of whom had been active in political campaigns and within different policymaking levels of government. “The discussions were really hearty. I appreciated being in a discussion with folks who had different lenses. I brought a lot of the local flavor, I would say,” she said.


What most impressed her, however, were two qualities she circled back to again and again: political consensus building and the perseverance of a people at perpetual risk.


“Israel has 26 different parties. It is very much a parliamentary form of government with lots of coalition building. Yet they can adopt a uniform policy that covers the whole country and it can have meaningful impact,” she said.


Although consensus building is harder in Israel than in the U.S., its power and effectiveness is greater. At the Knesset (Israel’s legislative body), she witnessed lots of party members expressing lots of opinions. “Yet I was struck by their ability to move something forward,” she said in reference to Israel’s policies of universal health insurance and national water conservation policy.


She contrasted that to the situation in the U.S. with our city, county, state and federal levels of government. “We get almost nothing done with two parties, yet with six parties influencing policies and legislation, they manage to get consensus,” she said, shaking her head.


On a more personal note, Mayor Driscoll described her visit to a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip where she met families who live under the constant threat of rocket attacks, yet would never consider living anywhere else.


“Seeing the bomb shelters, seeing the Egyptian border, and hearing first hand from individuals who lived there was very moving for me. The situation was normalized for them. It was normalized for their kids. If you heard the alarm, you had 19 seconds to get into a bomb shelter,” she said.


The impact that governmental actions can have on families’ everyday lives “hit me in the face. A peace process can be mind-boggling, trying to figure out who’s responsible for what and the role we Americans play in it. But the difficulties and complexities involved in that discussion didn’t matter to the kids sitting at the bus stop next to the bomb shelter,” she said.


The geography and diversity of the Israeli landscape, “mountains to coastline and everything in between” surprised Mayor Driscoll. So did the fact that she never felt unsafe for one minute. “I would encourage anyone who is remotely worried about safety to just go,” she said, pointing out that many Israelis she spoke to said they wouldn’t feel safe traveling to the U.S. with news reports of gun violence and school shootings. “We put into perspective the awful things that have happened here, normalizing them. We still haven’t passed gun control,” she added.


The AIEF trip was not all work and no play, and Mayor Driscoll thoroughly enjoyed getting better acquainted with Israel’s “awesome” food. “Shakshouka!” she exclaimed with a broad smile. “My new favorite, and they have it at Adea’s on Sunday right here in Salem!”


“I guess I had never thought of Middle Eastern food as the culmination of different places. It’s a little Syrian, a little Israeli, a little of everything. We were served small plates…but they just kept on coming,” she said with a laugh, adding, “we tried to walk as much as we ate.”


She was also surprised by the visit to a winery in the Golan Heights. “Who thought I’d be in a terrific winery in the Golan Heights? When I think Golan Heights, I think of ‘Duck for cover!’’ she said.


If invited back to Israel for a follow up trip, Mayor Driscoll would suggest the itinerary include digging deeper into Israel’s schooling and education. The February tour incorporated brief visits to schools that are trying to bridge Muslim and Arab and Jewish differences by bringing students and their families together in ways she found “smart and thoughtful”.


“We saw kids from different backgrounds being educated together and celebrating all holidays. This is sometimes under really difficult circumstances in neighborhoods where there may be a history of trauma or tragedy that exists between those with long-held beliefs or differences of opinion.


If they can figure that out, that younger generation might be the real key to achieving peace in the Middle East,” she said.


AIEF is the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, America’s pro-Israel lobby, and was created in 1990. For more information visit



Bakers Island Lighthouse Has 1,017 Visitors During its First Season

Above: Former lighthouse keepers Lorraine and Randall Anderson with 2015 keepers Mary Hillery and Greg Guckenburg. /COURTESY PHOTOS

By Shelley A. Sackett /
On Labor Day, the Naumkeag departed from the Salem Ferry dock at 10 Blaney St. and travelled the five miles to Bakers Island for the last time of the 2015 season. It carried the island’s 1,017th visitor this summer.

Passengers board The Naumkeag at Bakers Island.

Passengers board The Naumkeag at Bakers Island.

It was just about a year ago when 40 people took the same trip, their landing at Bakers Island’s rocky coast symbolic of the rocky start of the relationship between the fiercely private summer island residents and the Essex National Heritage Commission.

The 2014 visitors included a uniformed Coast Guard rear admiral, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Annie Harris, chief executive of Essex Heritage. They were aboard to celebrate the official handover of the Bakers Island Light Station from the Coast Guard to Essex Heritage, a nonprofit management organization for the hundreds of historic, cultural and natural places in Essex County.

Bakers Island is a 60-acre island in Salem Sound with a fiercely private summer colony of about 55 cottages. Its 100 or so residents tried for years to win control of the masonry lighthouse — and the 10-acre property where it sits alongside two keeper’s houses — from the federal government, which has owned and operated it since 1798.

The residents lost their battle and on Aug. 27, 2014, the deed was transferred to Essex Heritage. The organization got right to work raising money to fund restoration of the lighthouse, keeper’s houses, and the lantern and oil buildings.

“We obtained a substantial $10,000 grant from the Daughters of the American Revolution which gave us the initial ‘boost’ to take on the renovation of the lighthouse tower,” said Harris. Essex Heritage also started a Kickstarter campaign, which, owing to the generosity of the many “Bakers Backers,” exceeded its $30,000 fundraising goal and gave the project great visibility.

“Thanks to mason Marty Nally and his crew, the lighthouse project was completed on time and on budget,” said Harris.

Restoration of the lighthouse was extensive and labor intensive. Essex Heritage also made substantial progress on the renovations of the assistant keeper’s house and restored some of the original pathways on the west side of the property, cutting through bittersweet and sumac to open up some good water views.

Visitors check out the lighthouse on Bakers Island.

Visitors check out the lighthouse on Bakers Island.

The renovated lighthouse had a constant flow of visitors this summer, at $35 a ticket. Annie Harris was pleased. “The summer went extremely well,” she said. “Our volunteer couple Greg Guckenburg and Mary Hillery – and their black lab Mitch – were super. Not only did they accomplish a lot of work on both the exterior grounds and interior renovation of the assistant keeper’s house, they also were very hospitable and welcoming to the visitors. Mary studied the history of the light station and was a very gracious and enthusiastic hostess. She greeted every boat tour.”

Peter Golden, president of the Bakers Island Wharf Company, which functions as the residents’ association, echoed Harris’ assessment of how the island’s first summer being open to the public went. “Overall we were very pleased at how smoothly the tours went this summer, and we look forward to continued cooperation with Essex Heritage,” he said.

There is a lot to do to “put the property to bed” for the winter and then gear up again in the spring. The plumbing needs to be drained, boats put away and equipment stored. Harris has identified an energetic volunteer couple for next summer and will work with them over the winter to create the work plan for next summer.

Essex Heritage plans to apply for another grant soon. There will not be another Kickstarter campaign just yet, even though the first one was so successful financially. “It was a great experience – not only because of the money we raised, but also because of the excellent publicity and lots of new friends who support the Bakers Light Station,” Harris said.

For now, she is delighted to have been instrumental in gaining access to an Essex County treasure for the 1,017 visitors. “I’ve seen the light,” she said with a twinkle in her voice. “Have you?”

Finding the OM in ShalOM: Trekking Through India

View from the Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal barely visible through the smog.

When I went to India, I was braced for the traffic, the garbage, and the almost unbearable density of humanity. I accepted that cows had a divine right of way over everyone everywhere, including Mack trucks on highways. I knew I would brush my teeth with bottled water and forgo my dietary staple, lettuce, for three weeks.

I thought I had done my homework.

Preparation for encountering Stars of David on Muslim mosques was not even remotely on my radar screen.

While I easily coped with the unrelenting assault on all my senses that is the joy and intensity of traveling in India, I was much less graceful at weathering the perceived assault on the icon of my Jewish identity.

On my first day in Delhi, at the first site we visited, I spotted the familiar six-pointed star in an unfamiliar place: at the Muslim Tomb of Humayun, burial spot of the second Mughal emperor. Jewish stars inexplicably adorned entryways, ironwork windows, inlaid floors, and painted ceilings. Was this some kind of a jet-lag joke?

At right: Entrance to Humayun’s Tomb in Old Delhi.











Our guide told us that Humayun’s Tomb was the first Mughal (a Muslim dynasty) tomb. Built in 1565 by the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiya, it became the template for all future tombs, including the Taj Mahal. Had Ghiya deliberately blasphemed our sacred Hebraic symbol by splashing it all over his Mughal garden and tomb? Given our millenia of dogged persecution, this was hardly a far-fetched possibility. But here, in India, the cradle of yoga, compassion and meditation?

I vowed to get to the bottom of this.

What India lacks in traffic etiquette and control, it more than makes up for in Wi-Fi access, and I was no sooner through the hotel front door than my Google search yielded fruit. There were many explanations for why hexagrams adorn Humayun’s Tomb; not one pointed to bearing the Jews ill will.

Long before 1565, the hexagram was recognized as a potent symbol of planetary alignment in India. It signified perfection, good fortune, stability, calm and harmony. Akbar, Humayun’s son, wanted to pay homage to his father’s infatuation with astrology, and instructed Ghiya to incorporate the symbol in the tomb design.

Below: Palace of the Winds in Jaipur.

Akbar may have had additional, more practical and political, reasons. The Muslim Mughals ruled over vast areas of Hindu-majority India. Ancient Hindus revered the hexagram as divine representation of perfect union. Akbar may have cleverly bought his Muslim dynasty some popularity and legitimacy among the Hindus he ruled by prominently including their religious symbol on his first public work.

Whether or not I bought any of these explanations, there was no way to conclude that the Muslim hexagram was intended to insult us Jews or steal what was rightfully ours.

But was it really rightfully “ours?” Who had prior use claim over this six-pointed star?

As with all questions grounded in anything Judaic, there were scores of explanations. All agreed on one fact: that the symbol’s identification with the Jewish community dated no earlier than to the 17th century in Vienna, when the Jewish quarter was formally distinguished from the rest of the city. Akbar’s 1565 public use would seem to trump.

However, that had suddenly become less the point, and therein lay the real lesson. I had been searching for evidence that, once again, we Jews had been dissed and ripped off. Instead, I uncovered proof of my own knee-jerk pride and prejudice. India had given me the opportunity to appreciate the possibility of amicable common ground unrooted in anything negative, and I had nearly missed it. I was so focused on what I was looking for that I almost didn’t see what I had found.

I had booked a tour of India because I wanted to experience the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes the glossy brochure promised. The softening of a hard edge and recalibration of an inner lens was an add-on bonus.

I’d say I got way more than I paid for.


All photos by Shelley A. Sackett

A Stroll Down Our Collective Memory Lane

The warm breeze, aroma of springtime earth, and visions of buds on trees are like a sensory prize at the finish line of this year’s marathon of a winter. Surviving the winter deserves a party, and Alan Maltzman’s two-hour Jewish cultural walking tour of Boston is the perfect way to celebrate. 

A high-tech retiree, Maltzman founded Boston CityWalks in 2006. His menu included tours of the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, downtown Boston, the Freedom Trail and
Cambridge. After repeatedly hearing, “Where’s the Jewish tour?,” he decided to add one to his roster in 2009.

Malzman’s goal is to combine history and architecture, with anecdotes and humor. He delivers on all counts.

First, some tips: There are a lot of cobblestones and much of the walk is uphill, so wear comfortable shoes. Bring a snack and some water. And carry a map of Boston — it helps with orientation when roaming through back streets and alleys.

The tour covers a lot of ground, both literally and historically. We begin at the Milk Street Caf, and end at the Holocaust Memorial. In between, we explore old City Hall, Boston Latin School, Beacon Hill’s Back Slope, the VilnaShul, the North and West End, and more. Maltzman’s narrative thread on local Jewish immigration answers questions about our arrival as a people to Puritan Boston’s shores.

The knowledgeable Maltzman, 67, is a Northeastern Universitytrained industrial engineer. His professional niche was starting up new manufacturing plants for Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq; hence his interest in architecture. Born in Chelsea, he grew up loving Boston.

“I thought I knew it all, but when I started these tours I realized how little I actually knew. I now have a library as big as the Library of Congress on the history and architecture of Boston,” he said.

The Famine Memorial (Washington Street/School Street corner), sculptor Robert Shure’s commemoration of the 1845 potato famine that brought the first Irish immigrants to Boston, was our first stop. The significance, explained Maltzman, was that acceptance of the Irish immigrants opened the doors for other groups, including Eastern European and German Jews.

As we meandered towards Beacon Hill, Maltzman peppered facts and figures with delightfully arcane tidbits. We learned, for example, that the Boston Latin student body was 25% Jewish until the first ethnic survey in 1920. After that, the percentage dropped to under 10%. Ho Chi Minh was a chef, Malcolm X was a busboy and the first recipe using chocolate (Boston Cream Pie) was created at the Omni Parker House Hotel. My favorite was the story of how Filene’s got its name. Willem Katz, its founder, was a German Jew who wanted to Americanize his name before emigrating. Not finding “katz” in the dictionary, he substituted “cats,” which led to “feline” and a retail dynasty.

The mid-1880’s Back/North Slope of Beacon Hill was home to the poorest immigrants, including Jews, Italians and Irish, and other “undesirables” such as prostitutes. Maltzman pointed out the architectural differences between North and South Slopes: wooden houses (versus brick); tenement-type structures (versus single family, multi-storied homes); and the presence of stores, noticeably absent to this day in the Boston Brahmin residential area of Beacon Hill.

The Vilna Shul, the former Vilner Congregation, was for me the highlight of the tour. It is now Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, with a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service and public programs and events. Of the 50 synagogues that existed within Boston city limits during the 1920’s, this 1919 building is the only one still standing. The second-floor sanctuary is an amalgam of Lithuanian Orthodoxy, New England classical Baroque, art nouveau biblical murals, and pews salvaged from the 1840 Twelfth Baptist Church. Eclectic is an understatement.

The first floor community room houses a small but densely informative History of Jewish Immigration in Boston. It is the only museum of its kind in Boston. We got just a peek; I definitely plan to return.

On our way to the Holocaust Memorial, we stood across the street from the location of the pre-urban renewal West End House. The club was a cornerstone for West End youth for almost 70 years. In 1971, it moved to the Allston-Brighton area and, in 1976, it became one of the first to include female members. There is a West End museum, which was not included on this tour but is open to the public.

The 1995 New England Holocaust Memorial was the last monument we visited. It is no coincidence that it sits on the Freedom Trail. Architect Stanley Saitowitz designed the six, 54-feet high luminous glass towers that sit above six pits. The towers represent six concentration camps; the pits symbolize crematoria. Etched in the towers’ walls are the tattoo numbers of the six million murdered. Walking through the internally lit towers, past the engraved words of survivors, one is struck by the power of memory and impact of the evil that was World War II.

Elie Wiesel, who spoke at the Memorial’s dedication, said at his 1986 Nobel Peace prize acceptance, “For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act.”

Strolling down our collective memory lane on a beautiful spring day in Boston felt like just such an act. Thank you, Alan Maltzman, for your Jewish Cultural Tour and for providing a means to perform the mitzvah of remembrance.
To sign up for a Boston Jewish Cultural Walking Tour, visit The cost is $25 for a two-hour tour.

Pictured above: Alan Maltzman is the owner of Boston CityWalks and is a tour guide for the Jewish Cultural Walking Tour of Boston.