Five centuries after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, one certainly feels privileged cruising the streets of the ‘Call’ (the Jewish quarter) and feeling an impression of the past rushing to one’s encounter. It’s almost inevitable to imagine the 1480-era conversations that took place in these very streets, among the coming and going of furriers, weavers, doctors, merchants; a community about to experience the decay of its prosperous world.
The community’s history is told by the streets you currently walk on, as age-old doors, apparently closed, open up through the stories of their former inhabitants; like the 15th century physician Abraham Astruc des Portal, whose story in the Call is far from a distant dream. It springs from the stone, the pavers and the wrought iron of streets like Força and the alley of Hernández, both conserved intact behind the walls of the Jewish History Museum, in the heart of the Call.
Abraham Astruc des Portal was a member of an influential family, linked to five generations of doctors living in the Call, until the expulsion of 1492. Today, after centuries of waiting, we can finally open the door he locked shut on a summer day nearly 600 years ago. In fact it was last spring, during minor renovations at the Museum, when an arched door, dating between the 13th-14th centuries, was discovered. It was Abraham Astruc’s door. After the first archaeological survey it was certified that the house had suffered a serious fire in the late 14th century, coinciding with the quarter’s tragic assault of 1391, confirming the magnitude of its devastation.
Abraham Astruc did not suffer the assault firsthand; it was rather his parents and grandparents who lived through the experience. In fact, Abraham was part of an already weakened generation, knowing the golden years of their community had passed.
Unlike many Jewish doctors of his time, Astruc remained true to his faith, dismissing conversion again and again, as did one of his contemporaries, the famed Llorenç Bados, court physician of King Ferdinand II and esteemed inhabitant of Força Street whom years later would be condemned post-mortem by the Inquisition.
Meanwhile, fully rebellious, Astruc married Bonadona Na, a Gironean Jew like him, and formed a family. His house bordered the synagogue’s courtyard and opened towards alley Hernandez, then full of life. In a battered Call, he overcame the difficult times by practicing medicine and relying on his family’s presitigious name to customers, some of them Christians.
His enthusiasm, however, ended the 31th of March, 1492, when the monarchy of Spain signed the edict of expulsion of the Jews. Four months later, in July, representatives of the Jewish quarter of Girona would be forced to sell two synagogues – one of them in ruins – to individual Christians; so did Astruc, selling his home for only £60.
Shortly after the summer’s end, Astruc collected his books, his family and what remained of his world, to an exile without return; or did he? Today, watching the cannons at alley Hernández, it seems that maybe his world, the world of Astruc, continues to be present in the streets of Girona.
Strolling through Girona’s Call requires a commitment to a foregone world, and as one discovers the intricacies of the neighborhood, the sensation of intimacy grows. An encounter with century-old Mezuzahs next to new ones on Força Street does the rest.
Stones that speak and doors that open to a neighborhood that whispers in your ear stories of the past.
[accordion title=”Historical notes”] 1. Astruc Abraham des Portal was descended from a family of Jewish doctors documented in Girona since the twenties of the 14th century (first documented Mossé Abraham des Portal, as practicing Physician in Girona and Besalu in 1324). He was the grandson or great-grandson of Jewish doctor Natán Mossé des Portal, and like him, was possibly related to the important family of physicians Nathan Arles. The inventory of the books he had in his personal library in 1410 is preserved. Among the 127 titles, many are related to medicine and astronomy.
2. The mezuzah (in hebrew מְזוּזָה, «doorpost»; in plural mezuzot) is a scroll that has written verses of the Torah; the Shema Yisrael (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, “Hear, O Israel” ). It is housed in a box or holder and affixed to the rightside of the doorframes and gates of Jewish homes and cities. Posting a mezuzah is one of the oldest customs in Judaism. [/accordion]