The hidden facets of history have always been a fascination of mine. Who hasn’t dreamed of traveling back in time and walking among their predecessors hundreds of years in the past? And in our case, how fascinating would it be to learn first-hand how our Jewish ancestors lived in the golden ages of Catalunya?
Recently I was presented the opportunity to make one of these time travels, maybe not literally, but somehow through the written word. My destination was medieval Girona, and my starting point – the Jewish History Museum in Girona at the heart of the city’s medieval Call.
I wanted to learn about life among the Catalan Jews at a time in which the Jewish community had set deep roots in Girona and had reached boundless prosperity: how were their synagogues, their customs and rituals, the stories of their most prominent members? I gradually found myself wandering the ancient cobbled roads of the streets of Força, Claveria, and the tiny Sant Llorenç alley; and became so deeply submerged that I began to imagine myself as a member of the Call at that time. I knew that despite a 600 year gap, our traditions were almost the same.
On my imaginary trip in time, I somehow remembered the name of a famous Jewish family which had settled in the Call during the 14th century – The Falco’s, whose members were one of the richest and most influential of their time. I wandered through the streets just as Bellshom and Jucef Falco would have done over 600 years ago. Both brothers were admired businessmen, engaged in loan charges and taxes on behalf of third parties. It wasn’t difficult to imagine them walking up and down the Call, holding giant bags of golden florins, mastering a trade which would earn them their wealth. From what I’ve heard, the Falco brothers were never given bad business as apparently they were famed for their determination and fearlessness from any adversary, commander or king, and it’s precisely this disdain that at one point nearly cost Bellshom his life.
In 1379, a Jew from the nearby town of Peratallada was processed and charged with blasphemy, as couldn’t be otherwise. A representative of the Inquisition had promised to absolve him if he paid a penalty of 100 gold florins. Although the penalty was paid, the prisoner was not released, while the quittance corresponding to the penalty transaction handed by the Inquisition was placed in the hands of our esteemed Bellshom Falco; probably because he had advanced the money and needed a receipt. Word of the injustice had spread throughout the Jewish aristocracy until it reached King Pedro IV himself, who decided to intervene on behalf of the Jew. In order to acquit the prisoner, the king demanded the penalty quittance, but surprisingly, and without explanation, Falco flatly refused to deliver the paper. There are many assumptions about his behavior, whether it was done out of a protecting distrust of losing the only proof for the release of a member of his community, or whether out of a materialistic intention not to lose the only guarantee for the collection of his loan.
And although the infuriated king ordered the governor of Girona to have the quittance delivered by Falco himself, Bellshom was left unscathed, without losing the royal favor, and continued to occupy important positions in the Call and within his own community.
The medieval town of Girona hides hundreds of personal stories like these about the Jews who once inhabited its streets. These are pieces of history which are present in documents and historical objects but are yet to be discovered by the public. Walking through the streets and letting yourself be transported back in time is one way of knowing what was part of our past, what remains with us today, and what we’ll leave as our legacy for the generations to come.
[accordion title=”TERMINOLOGY”]1. Pesaj (פֶּסַח), in english Passover, is a Jewish holiday which conmemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt, depicted in Bereshit, the first book of the Torah. The 7-day long holiday (8 days in the Diaspora) begins on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan with a festive dinner called Seder de Pesaj. During the lenght of the holiday, the ingestion of ‘Jametz’ (חמץ), foods derived from fermented cereals, is forbiden in memory of the scarcity and the rush in which the Jews moved to escape Egypt. In its place it is costumary to eat the Matzá (מצה), an unleavened traditional Jewish bread.
2. Purim (פורים) is the Jewish festivity celebrated March 14th of each year in conmemoration of the miracle depicted in the book of Esther, in which the Jews were saved from annihilation under the Persian Reign, identified by historians as Xerxes I. The night of the festivity, the ‘Meguilat Ester’ (in hebrew מְגִילַת אֶסְתֵּר), the book of Esther is read at great speed, at which listeners must jeer upon the mentioning of Amán, the wicked King counselor, so as to erase his name.
3. Yom Kipur is the Jewish day of repentance, considered the holiest day of the year. Food, drink and any kind of bathing is forbiden, as well as luxuries such as leather clothing, the use of perfums. The fast begins at sunset and finishes at sunset the next day. The day’s prayers begin with the verse “Kol Nidre” recited at sunset and end the next day with to the sounds of the Shofar, which announces the end of the fast.[/accordion]
[accordion title=”Historical Notes”]1. The last name Falcó, or Falcón, appears among Gironian Jews during the first half of the 14th century. In 1334, Bellshom Falcón and his son Falchon Bellshom (father of Bellshom and Jucef Falco) take residence in Girona; Documentation in the names of Bellshom and Jucef make their first appearance on the year 1380.[/accordion]