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Dan and Noa, worn out by the sun and beaches, leave their hotel in Costa Brava behind and, with their guidebook in hand, they drive onto the road leading inland into the county of Girona; a mysterious county which, according to their guide-book, hides ‘a forgotten jewish past’. Filled with uncertainty and expectation, the couple heads towards Sefarad, the land of their ancestors.
Despite it being the first time they had heard the name ‘Besalu’, something in the word seemed familiar. The couple reach the town determined to compensate for what could possibly turn out to be a poor choice in their holiday plan, until Besalu suddenly reveals itself in all its beauty. Surrounded by two rivers, the Fluvia and the Capellades, the town’s beautiful location had also been a highly strategic one, drawing a wealth of trade during the 13th-14th centuries and hosting a rich and powerful Jewish community which left it’s clear stamp in the city landscape as well as it’s culture. In fact, the community’s presence in the county goes back to the 11th century, as evidenced by gravestones found in the nearby town of Bellsola Mas.
Examining the Jewry of Besalu reveals that the community’s existance was somewhat different of that of Jewish communities in nearby cities. Besalu was one of the few settlements in Spain spared from the 1391 disastrous anti-semitic attacks, an it wasn’t until 1415, with the Pope’s order for the segregation between Jews and Christian that the communities turned their backs on each other. On October the 8th of the same year, the bishop of the Parish of Sant Marti de Capellades read before the Jewish community the town’s new laws of coexistence. Among them was the prohibition to live outside the boundaries of the ‘Call’ (the Jewish quarter) and the construction of an enclosure wall with a single entry gate located nearby the river banks, the synagogue and the Mikveh, and named ‘Portal Jeus’ – The gate of the Jews.
Dan and Noa cross the monumental arched gate and walk into the Jewry through its narrow streets as if they were walking into a time machine. Scrutinizing every detail, the couple advance slowly towards Placa Libertad, the square in which, according to evidence, legal disputes between Jews and Christians would be settled. After a short stopover, they turn left towards the cobbled alley of Portalet which leads them towards the river. There, under the charming arch characteristic of the street, they take their first portrait in their journey through time.
The street of Portalet borders the river and returns inwards into the town. As the couple becomes absorbed by the striking landscape, they leave the crowds behind and immerse into the middle ages. For a moment they are reminded of Jaffa and Jerusalem and feel pleasantly at home. After climbing up a small hill they encounter a distinct old building of three stories, the Royal Court, and are surprised to discover a Mezuzah on the right side of it’s doorgate.
The Astruc family, one of the richest and most respected in the community during the 14th century, were a dedicated family of Lenders and Doctors whose reputation led to their fond acquaintance with renowned families such as the Cornelia’s and the Cavalier’s, to whom they lent in large sums. Dan and Noa are not aware of it, but the building before them was once the Astruc’s palace, which they regretfully sold to the Cavalier Family, the town’s Legal Adviser.
Today, it is possible to visit the palace’s three stories. On the third floor an exhibition displays a gravestone from 1446 of a young ‘Rachel’, daughter of the Rabbi, Yosef. The couple wander through the building with a melancholic feeling towards something they can’t quite discern. Finally they climb up to the third floor to the gothic exhibition hall where a video is projected. The video chronicles the history of Besalu and it’s Jewish heritage. Hypnotized before the screen and the soothing melodies of jewish composer Ramon Vidal; Dan and Noa joyously embrace Besalu’s heritage as their own, never leaving it again.
[tab title=”TERMINOLOGY” icon=”entypo-book”]1. 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 right-side of the door frames and gates of Jewish homes and cities. Posting a mezuzah is one of the oldest customs in Judaism.[/tab]