Global Jewish Reflections | Far From Home, Celebrating Chanukah in Spain

Now living in Spain, rabbinical student Becky Jaye describes how she's found comfort and community in the country's Jewish history.

By Becky Jaye - HUC-JIR Rabbinical Student | December 16, 2020

Becky and her partner Miguel pose for a photo while traveling from Valladolid to Segovia, to view the city's old Jewish quarter.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

The Sephardic poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol once wrote the following poem:

‘The Earth’s Embroidery’

With the ink of its showers and rains,
with the quill of its lightning,
with the hand of its clouds,
winter wrote a letter upon the garden,
in purple and blue.

No artist could ever conceive the like of that.

And this is why the earth,
grown jealous of the sky,
embroidered stars in the folds of the flower-beds.

I came across this poem only a few days ago, while reading about Jewish history in medieval Sepharad. My recent interest in this history was sparked by my move to Valladolid, Spain, to reunite with my partner, from whom I had been separated for over a year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Miguel and Becky at their home in Valladolid, Spain.

Before meeting my partner Miguel, a native Spanish citizen, I had no connection to Spain other than the little I knew from my high school Spanish language classes. I found myself perplexed by the immediate sensation of comfort I felt when I first visited this country, and the subsequent deepening of those feelings every time I returned. For some unknowable reason, this country made me feel as though it knew I belonged before I ever came to the realization myself.

Now, over 10 years after my first visit to Spain, I have a greater understanding of where that instinctual sense of belonging derives from. As an Ashkenazi Korean-American Jew from Brooklyn, I learned about Judaism in spaces informed predominantly by Ashkenazic culture. I knew very little, if at all, of the centuries of Jewish history in Spain that inform the very texts, traditions, and values we hold dear today. And though the Spanish Inquisition painfully erased that history, there are places where it still exists. There are still remnants of that history that have found me when I needed to see them and feel them most. It is in these moments when I feel most connected to this land, to Judaism, and to God.

There aren’t many times I can remember having this immediate sense of belonging. The only other comparable experience I can remember was my visit to India with JDC Entwine. There, though, this distinct sense of connection didn’t come from my immediate connection with the land, but rather from the incredible warmth of the Jewish communities who welcomed us into their lives. In the moments we spent with them, learning and sharing, I again felt most connected to Judaism and God

The city of Valladolid is not usually on one’s sightseeing list when visiting Spain. It is most commonly known for its gastronomic prowess, and less so for being the erstwhile home of the explorer Christopher Columbus or the esteemed writer Miguel de Cervantes. It is less known as being the former home of a large and thriving Jewish community, at one point having eight different synagogues scattered around the city, to serve two Juderias, or ‘Jewish quarters,’ where many of the Jewish elite paying court to royalty lived, close to the Royal Palace.

In the center of this large expanse, which bears witness to the comings and goings of both life’s ordinary and most intimate experiences, Judaism is at the heart of it all.

A few years ago, while briskly walking across the city’s Campo Grande Park to run an errand, I was shocked when I saw a silver placard in Hebrew reading “Kahal Valladolid.” A few meters away lay more silver placards, scattered like Tetris blocks in the smooth, gray pavement. In Hebrew, Moses Ibn Ezra’s poem “I Behold Ancient Graves” is etched into the stone. Neither Spanish nor English accompany this text as a translation — only Hebrew. In the center of this large expanse, which bears witness to the comings and goings of both life’s ordinary and most intimate experiences, Judaism is at the heart of it all.

A little probing led me to discover the rich, and often unstudied, history of Judaism that exists in this relatively small suburban city. With not one of the eight synagogues still standing, I made it a custom to revisit these words whenever I felt homesick for my Jewish community. Many a night, I stood in the middle of that expanse, watching as the sun slowly reflected light on different words, as it descended into darkness so the stars may grace us with their light.

This Chanukah season, surprising even myself, I am feeling particularly homesick, though elated to be reunited with my partner. I miss my mother’s latkes; I miss watching my toddler nephew gaze into the candles’ flames; and I miss my father’s unique, rapid recitation of the Chanukah prayers.

Becky in India with JDC Entwine.

Naturally, I was off to the Campo Grande to remind myself of the Judaism that surrounds me in the history of this land, to gain some comfort from the Hebrew etched in the ground. Just a week before Chanukah, there is no large menorah waiting for a community to gather and celebrate its light; instead, an adorned tree is being erected in anticipation of Christmas. Seeing this just made me feel more lonely.

It has been over a year since I had last been in this place. And it, too, has changed. As the sun set, the pavement, once a monochromatic cool shade of gray, became littered with a universe of small, scattered, twinkling lights, shining their warmth back toward the stars they mirrored in the lapis sky. And then, suddenly, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” sounded from the speakers of a church just across the way.

And this is why the earth,
grown jealous of the sky,
embroidered stars in the folds of the flower-beds.

I don’t think Solomon Ibn Gabirol would have equated the pavement of Campo Grande with the lush flower-beds he speaks of in his poem. But to me, that night, those lights, embroidered into the land on which I stood, reminded me of the ways in which I find home in the history, tradition, and fatih of my religion. This was literally my Chanukah light. And this feeling, of being at home, and being with God, was my Chanukah miracle.

Becky Jaye is currently a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. She is proud to serve as the rabbinic intern at Temple Emanu El of Westfield, New Jersey. She currently lives with her best friend and husband in Valladolid, Spain. She traveled to India in 2019 as part of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship in Global Jewish Leadership at HUC-JIR and is an active member of the Entwine alumni community.

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