A thimble guarded the delicate sewing hand of Sara as she embroidered her dowry chest. What songs did Sara sing as she was sewing? Maybe a psalm in Hebrew? or was it a folksong in Catalan? Next to her, platters of nuts and sweets stand as courteous gifts from friends and neighbors to bless her match. I imagine her walking down the main street of the old Call (today Força Street) dancing under the moonlight with her bridal gown towards the Mikvah.
Centuries have now passed, and today that thimble lays in front of my eyes. No longer serving its day-to-day use, it has now become a museum piece; and as I observe it, I wonder about the lives of Jewish women like Sara and like me in medieval Girona.
The director of the Museum of Jewish History and author of the book ‘Daughters of Sara: Jewish Women of Medieval Girona’ has gone great lengths to shed light on these questions. In her book, Silvia Planas i Marce renders her answers through the stories of several Jewish heroines over five centuries of Jewish settlement in Girona; opening with a copy of an important sales document from the year 1047 signed by the stern hand of it’s dealer; the signature reads “Rachel”.
While it is true that between the 11th and 15th centuries Jewish women are mainly engaged in ‘family duties, children’s education and housekeeping’, some were remarkable traders; as was Bonafilla, a widow who administered extensive vineyards and worked as a lender. There are records of several ladies dedicated to commerce and collaboration in family businesses, demystifying the widespread belief on the role of women in Jewish communities.
Among the many characters researched by Planas i Marce, one that stands out is the fascinating story of Esther, a brave woman who had the courage to divorce in the Middle Ages by cleverly tricking her husband into granting her separation.
Perhaps due to their emotional and psychological burden, the most painful stories are those of converted women, forced to bury under an estranged Christian mask the joyful traditions with which they were brought up by their mothers. How can you wash away years of heritage with a simple stroke of holy water? How can you forget your beliefs overnight? You can’t. These women, continued living as Jews for years in threatening secrecy. These women are the authors of the last and most painful chapters in the lives of the Jews in Girona.
“Daughters of Sarah: Jewish women of medieval Girona” (‘Las hijas de Sara: mujeres judías de la Girona medieval’), is a book by Silvia Planas i Marce, edited in 2012 by CGG Ediciones. Its contents are based on original documentation from the 11th-15th centuries, some of which can be consulted in the Historical Archive of Girona. The book serves as a superb precedent to visiting Girona and its Jewish quarter (the ‘Call’), as you can read first-hand accounts of women, not unlike the women of today, only 600 years in the past.