Lenore and I had the privilege of traveling to Israel and Spain last month. Though there are so many ways to summarize my impressions I think what stands out the most is the stark contrast between both countries regarding the quality of Jewish life.
Israel is "the" place in the world where we can feel most at home and safe in our Jewish identity. We hear Hebrew spoken as a living language, stores close for shabbat and almost every restaurant is kosher. The best sign of knowing that Israel is Jewish is one we saw traveling from the airport to Jerusalem. On that road one passes several agricultural fields. This Jewish year happens to be the "shemitah" year. In the book of Leviticus we learn that the land of Israel should lie fallow every 7th year. Only farms in Israel need to follow this law and some of those fields had signs saying - "this field is observing "shemitah".
We also attended a most joyous wedding. Julia Kraut - daughter of Rhea Siers and Joe Kraut - married Omer Dekel at a beautiful setting on a kibbutz outside of Netanya. Several Shaare Tefila members were in attendance and it was marvelous to celebrate such a joyous occasion in Israel. I was honored to have participated (click here to see that part of the ceremony) and it was very moving and exhilarating to watch the next generation sing and dance. We were so glad to be there.
From Israel we traveled to Spain and while there we spent time in the cities of Barcelona and Girona. We took walking tours of the old Jewish quarters of both cities and were saddened to be reminded that Jews - after a pogrom in both cities in 1391 - either left or forcibly converted to Catholicism at that time. There were no Jews in Barcelona again until after WWII, and there are still no Jews in Girona today. But before 1391 both cities had substantial Jewish life - in fact Jews were 40% of the population of Barcelona. In Barcelona today we see only remnants of that golden age. There is a Jewish museum in what is thought to be a synagogue from that period and there are stones in the walls of buildings that highlight the Jewish past. When the Jews left or converted, the Jewish cemetery of Barcelona was sold and the gravestones were used in building projects around the city. One of those was the expansion of the cathedral to include the new home of the Inquisition. In one of the walls one can clearly see Hebrew writing - gravestones from the Jewish cemetery. There were also mezuzah stones - stones that had been in the doorposts that had a deep and long indentation which obviously housed a mezuzah. These mezuzah stones are also randomly found in walls in the old city. In Girona the house of the great Nachmanides has been found and it is today a gay bar. When we went to Friday night services in Barcelona we were greeted by an Israeli security guard who checked our passports and then unlocked the door of the synagogue. When we entered the door shut behind us with a loud thud.
My travels outside of America have mainly been to Israel. I take it for granted that as a Jew I can travel, live and observe freely. I think nothing of wearing my "kippah" on my head in public everywhere I go. But my time in Spain shook me awake and made me realize how precarious Jewish life is in Europe. Where Jews once thrived and prospered there are now only fleeting reminders of the past. We can't rest on our laurels in America. We need to support our fellow Jews in Europe - give them strength as they cope with a rabid antisemitism and give them comfort to know that Jews in America love and support them.
It's good to be back from vacation and I'm so glad that I live in America!