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Macalester College

Publication Date

Spring 2006

Program Name

Spain: Cultural Landscapes and the Arts


Lately it seems to me that anything I ever do is about me trying to define myself. I did not grow up with any “this is unequivocally who you are, you are x” kinds of messages and mostly I feel grateful for the open perspective this has allowed me. However, sometimes I can feel the power of being a part of a community based solely on one’s own heritage. It is attractive to feel that you belong somewhere just by virtue of being you and that some fundamental part of you is held in common with others. The few times that I have felt this sense of commonality based on heritage it has always been amidst the Jewish community. I am not sure why I have picked this part of my heritage. Maybe it is because Jews are so often in the minority and have so often had to struggle to maintain their identity. It is easier to define yourself by how you are different. I am me because I look different then most people, because I have different ideas than most people and because unlike most people, I am Jewish. The world has always been full of conflict over cultural identity but recently the situation has become more extreme. With globalization cultures are inescapably in contact with each other. We have to learn how to make this work without simply having the smaller cultures get obliterated by the more powerful ones. Spain, in particular, has recently started going through this process. It’s immigration rates in the past 20 years or so have shot up as the country has opened up to embrace its post-Franco reality. Spain has had a high degree of homogeneity for years but also remembers a time when it had three strong cultures coexisting in varying degrees of peace. This period, which crashed to a halt with the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella has always been fascinating to me and seems to be the connection point between my interest in the Spain, my interest in the Jewish people and my interest in identity construction. I wanted to investigate what it was like in modern Spain for a minority that has had so much painful history here. I began to wonder about contemporary Jewish communities in Spain. I knew that they were small but that they existed. I decided to investigate what these peoples’ lives were like, where they were from, how they had preserved their culture. I hope that the exploration of this modern Spanish minority, along with an understanding of their history can illuminate important questions of cultural identity. Spain has had a Jewish minority off and on for centuries and now they have many more minorities. I contend that the Jews are not only a crucial part of Spain’s past; they also have bearing on Spain’s multicultural future. I went about my investigation by visiting several Jewish communities, one of the largest (in Spain) in Madrid and two smaller ones in Andalusia. I also visited monuments to pre-expulsion Jewish culture to explore this history while looking at the role of modern tourism in cultural preservation. Most of my research was conducted through observation and interviews, essentially I wanted to understand what it felt like to day to be Jewish in Spain. In my paper I begin with an overview of key historical points in the relationship between Spain and it’s Jews to give context to the modern reality. I then explain my experiences visiting Jewish communities and highlight some of the issues with which they have to cope. Next I explore what is being done to preserve Jewish culture through cultural associations and tourism. Finally I have included a section on anti-Semitism in Spain, which elucidates the continuing relationship between Jews and the wider Spanish community. I conclude by exploring what I have come to understand through the process of this project and reflecting on the questions that face all of us in the modern construction of cultural identity. Over the course of writing this paper I believe that my Spanish has improved, along with my understanding of Spanish culture, Jewish culture and, of course, my own culture.


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