Professor Jonathan Ray will be our scholar-in-residence for the Spain portion of the ATS Expedition to Spain and Israel from May 25- 31, 2013. Prof. Ray, an expert on Sephardic Jewish History, will impart an in-depth understanding of what life was like for the Jews of Spain in the years leading up to and spanning the Inquisition. He will accompany us as we visit the medieval synagogues and winding streets of Madrid and Toledo, which were thriving Jewish centers in eras past.
We caught up with Prof. Ray (extended bio further down) for a brief interview in advance of the trip.
Q. Would you give us a preview of what participants on the ATS Expedition might look forward to?
Spain boasts some of the best-preserved medieval synagogues in the world. Those in Toledo, in particular, are testaments to the rich cultural legacy of Spanish Jewry, and demonstrate the deep affinities between the Sephardim and Arabic culture. That close bond between medieval Jews and their Muslim and Christian neighbors is also evident as one walks along the narrow streets of Spain’s Jewish quarters (juderías). In cities like Toledo and Segovia, visitors quickly get a sense of how small and tightly knit these Jewish communities were, and just how closely they lived to their non-Jewish neighbors. For better or worse, the lives of medieval Jews were inextricably bound with those of other Europeans. In Madrid, the Jewish legacy is less apparent. Nonetheless, the various emblems of royal power throughout the city are a reminder of the important role played by medieval kings in protecting Jewish rights.
Q. How do you envision your role as ATS scholar-in-residence?
I would like to help Expedition members see what it was like to live as a Jew in medieval Europe. There will be local Spanish guides to provide some of the basic information about the old Jewish quarters, the remaining synagogues, etc., but few of these guides will have a sense of the daily lives of medieval Jews, and how they negotiated the various social, religious, and political challenges of life under Muslim and Christian rule. This is where I come in. In addition to giving talks on a variety of subjects relating to Jewish life in Spain, I will also be traveling and dining with the group, and will be available for informal discussions.
Q. How does your most recent book, “After Expulsion: 1492 and the Making of Sephardic Jewry” dovetail with the theme of the Expedition?
The book traces the resettlement of Iberian Jewry in the years following 1492. The Expulsion was, in many ways, the end of a glorious era of Jewish life; but it also marks the birth of the Sephardic Diaspora — a chapter in Jewish history that is often overlooked by American Jews. As they left Spain, the Sephardim brought a rich intellectual culture as well as skills for overcoming even the most daunting obstacles. Indeed, the many lessons they learned during their sojourn in medieval Spain were keys to the survival of Jewish culture. Even the factionalized and internally combative nature of medieval Jewish society, which we will discuss on our trip, was a trait that allowed for the independence and flexibility needed to reestablish their communities in new lands. The book aims to show the ways in which the religious creativity and indomitable spirit of the Sephardim helped them both survive expulsion and revitalize Jewish life in the Land of Israel and beyond.
Q.Can you speak to the lasting contributions of the Medieval Sephardim?
Jews in medieval Spain are justly famous for their poetry, rabbinic literature, beautiful illuminated manuscripts, etc. But another of their many accomplishments was to transmit philosophic and scientific culture from the Muslim world to Christian Europe.
As the Iberian Peninsula shifted from Muslim to Christian, Arabic-speaking Jews found themselves in the Latin world of Christian “Spain.” These multi-lingual Jews acted as diplomats, economic intermediaries, and translators — helping to bring the great works of Aristotle, Galen and the leading lights of the Muslim world into the Latin West. European access to these scientific and philosophic works helped establish and expand the first universities. That these Jewish scholars were at home in the non-Jewish worlds of science, philosophy and secular poetry, while remaining observant and producing great Talmudic commentaries, legal codes and works of Kabbalah, have made them a shining example to Jews today.
Q. Would you mind sharing a bit about your personal background, and what sparked your interest in Sephardic Jewish history?
I am not Sephardic. Like many American Jews, my family background was a mix of traditionally religious and culturally modern Ashkenazi Judaism. The compromise for my parents was to raise my sister and me in a suburban Reform congregation. During my junior year in college, I spent a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I first encountered Sephardic Jews. I had never met Jews named “Gomez” before, and I became fascinated by what was, to me, a totally new and different Jewish culture. I learned more about Sephardic history and culture from two professors of Sephardic heritage, first at Tufts University and then in graduate school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Q. Lastly, what do you hope our participants will take away from the experience?
Spain has recently begun to promote its rich Jewish heritage as a major tourist attraction, and with good reason. The beauty of Spanish synagogues and the cultural and intellectual legacy of Spanish Jews, despite the tragic episodes of the Inquisition, have long been seen as symbols of a “Golden Age” of Judaism and of positive inter-religious relations. But even in the best of times, not all Jews were equally prosperous or in agreement on the right way to live. Philosophers argued with mystics, poets with Talmudists, and various clans of wealthy Jewish merchants vied for royal favor. The society they created was every bit as volatile and as fascinating as our own, and this is something that I hope participants will take away from this trip. Although the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry came to a close more than 500 years ago, the Jews who built that society are not so very different from us.
For more information on the Expedition to Spain and Israel, please visit www.ats.org/spain2013.
Jonathan Ray, the Samuel Eig Associate Professor at Georgetown University has lectured at prestigious institutions, studied throughout Europe and Latin America, and is an award-winning author. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in History and Religion, and a doctorate in Jewish History from The Jewish Theological Seminary. He has taught at Yale University and UCLA and is a frequent lecturer on Jewish history and inter-faith relations at the Smithsonian Institution and the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute.
His research focuses on coexistence between Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies in Iberia. He has authored and edited several articles and books including “The Sephardic Frontier,” which won the John Nicholas Brown Prize from the Medieval Academy, and“After Expulsion: 1492 and the Making of Sephardic Jewry,” to be released in January 2012.