By Rabbi Yael Splansky.
Adam and I have our twentieth anniversary coming up. To celebrate we treated one another to a week in Barcelona. We walked the charming alleyways. We took in the art and architecture. We drank Cava and strong coffee. We enjoyed performances of traditional guitar and Flamenco dancers. I almost forgot to be furious. Centuries of one of the great Jewish civilizations of all time have been erased from the map. Unless you are an archeologist or a linguist, it is nearly impossible to see the influence of Jewish life in Spain.
We drank cinnamon tea in a beautiful pastry shop with a mikveh in the basement. We bought Torrone, traditional Christmas candies made of almonds and shaped like bricks only to learn later from a tour guide that Torrone was originally a Pesach treat, made from almond flour and shaped like the bricks Egyptian slavery. It made perfect sense, but you have to be a detective to uncover these hints, these remnants of Jewish life. The small Jewish Museum tells the story, though most of the artifacts on display are replicas or come from elsewhere.
The only authentic Jewish life we saw in Spain was in the many Israeli tourists we met and in the Reform synagogue we visited on Shabbat. The lovely congregation with a visiting Rabbinical student is Ashkenazic in its makeup, but is now experimenting with Sephardic melodies in order to return the original Jewish sounds to Catalonia.
“Bury my bones in the land of my ancestors”
We have concluded the Book of Genesis with both Jacob and Joseph articulating their desire to return to Israel. Although they were living the good life in the Diaspora of Egypt and they were at home there, Israel beckoned. So it was with Nachmanides, the great philosopher, Biblical commentary, physician and communal leader of 13th century Spain.
Adam and I visited Nachmanides’ city of Girona and stood in the public square of Barcelona where he won the Great Theological Debate in 1267. King James I of Aragon was true to his word, allowed Nachmanides to speak freely, and rewarded him with 300 gold coins to support his academy. But the Church was humiliated and drove him out of Spain. The Rabbi was 72 years old when he set out on the dangerous journey to Eretz Yisrael. He arrived safely only to find there was not a minyan in all of Jerusalem, so he spent the rest of his days building up the Jewish presence in the holy city until like Jacob, “was gathered unto his ancestors.”
A Diaspora Blessing
Each week after candlelighting at the Shabbat dinner table, Adam and I place our hands on the heads of our boys. One by one they receive the traditional blessing: “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Why not “like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” Jewish historians trace this Shabbat custom to the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities of the Middle Ages. It seems Diaspora kids need a special kind of blessing. Ephraim and Menashe were born in Egypt. When their grandfather Jacob came from Israel to meet them, he didn’t recognize them. He asked “Who are they?” They looked Egyptian, spoke Egyptian, were thoroughly assimilated. So what could he do? Jacob adopts them. He answers his own question and pronounces: “They are mine.” He draws his grandchildren closer and gives them his blessing.
Ephraim and Menashe in Toronto
A Jewish child living in the Diaspora needs a unique blessing. It takes a unique kind of strength, a different kind of perseverance to cling to one’s heritage outside of the land of Israel. Without the solid ground of Israel under our feet, without the benefit of seeing Jewish history wherever our eyes fall, Diaspora children need parents and grandparents to teach: “Know where you come from and to Whom you belong.”
At this time of year we become especially aware of how we in the Diaspora live in two worlds, how we keep two calendars. Between Christmas and New Years we may feel a little out of sync. I find these days to can be very helpful in articulating to one another and to our children what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora.
We are so blessed to live in this good country. Jewish life in Canada is not only protected, but supported and thriving in ways our ancestors would never have dreamed possible, not even in their wildest dreams. We are witnesses to another Golden Age of Jewish history. Let us embrace the opportunities given us to learn and to teach, to commit and to contribute that it may long endure.