martes, 12 de marzo de 2019

Call for Papers: Transatlantic Sefarad

Jerusalem, June 25
Four Sephardic Synagogues

Zamora, July 2, 2019
 La Alhóndiga

Enrollment available Here

Travelers from Madrid book Here 

Center Isaac Campantón, in collaboration with the Council of the Sephardic Communities of Jerusalem, invites proposals for its 7th international congress, this year with the title of Transatlantic Sefarad.

This is an interdisciplinary event welcoming professors, students, and independent scholars researching in the area of Sephardic Studies in connection with the Western Hemisphere. 
Proposals may include but not limited to the following topics:
  • Periodization of Jewish presence in the Americas; terminologies and definitions
  • First Jewish communities in the Caribbean, South, Central and North America
  • Amsterdam, Recife, New York: Judaism and Freedom of Conscience
  • Life and functioning of Crypto Jewish communities in the Americas
  • Jewish networks between Europe and the Americas: politics, commerce and culture
  • The Inquisition in the Americas
  • Crypto Jewish Resistance: Martyrs, and relevant personalities
  • Converso families in Spanish American viceroyalties 
  • Traces of Montaigne and Spinoza in the Americas Thought 
  • Jews in the Americas' Independence Wars
  • Transatlantic Jews: Paul Lafargue, Camile Pisarro, and others
  • Modern Sephardic Communities: 20th century immigration from North Africa, and Middle East countries
  • Sephardic Journeys: historical narratives 
  • Sephardic writers and artists in or from the Western Hemisphere
  • Sephardic Jews today in the Western Hemisphere
  • Emerging Jewish Communities in the Western Hemisphere
250 words abstracts should include: author, institution or independent scholar affiliation, which location for presentation, email, and specify if requiring technological support (computer, projector)

Submit proposals to Deadline: June 1, 2019. Online Enrollment until June 10 Here or in person at the conference.



martes, 19 de febrero de 2019

Zamora - the Foremost Center of Jewish Learning in Fifteenth Century Spain*

Dr. Avraham Gross
Ben Gurion University
Spanish translation available here

It is quite common in archeology to unearth a small piece of pottery in an unexpected digging site and after a painstaking work of finding, cleaning, and piecing together more fragments to assemble a beautifully crafted and ornamented vessel - a stunning masterpiece of antiquity. Sometimes, the finding of a very small piece is indeed dramatic, and it ends up as a missing link which enables a full-blown reconstruction on a big scale of an unknown or a re-discovery of a long-forgotten city or center of great importance. This is the archaeologist’s dream.
12th century Menorah in a block of stone at San Idefonso Church, Zamora

Such an occurrence is quite rare in the discipline of historiography. This is certainly true in the study of cultural, intellectual, and learning centers. Normally, writings such as correspondence, books and tracts - the fruits of the intellectual efforts - are the building-blocks for the historian’s workshop. These are, by-and-large, readily available and at our disposal. However, it was one single piece of new information, the missing link, that allowed us the reconstruction we will propose below.

I must admit that phrasing the topic of our presentation which puts Zamora unequivocally at the summit of Jewish intellectual activity in fifteenth century Spain is dramatic and that it was intended to be so! Take a look in standard historiographical works on the history of the Jews in Spain and you’ll find virtually nothing that will point to the theses embedded in our topic. This is true not only of the historiography which was interested more in the last hundred years of conversion and destruction of Spanish Jewry and which concentrated its efforts on analyzing the impossible existence of the triangle Jews-New Christians-Old Christians, Crypto-Judaism (= Marranism) and Inquisition. Even within the field of Jewish intellectual history you will not find a definition of Zamora in the fashion suggested in our topic.

Come to think of it, the reason is quite simple. Often enough we judge intellectual achievements by bulk. Specifically, by quantity of publications. Without gliding into cynical comparisons to, and comments on the main element that shapes our academic careers, one must admit that quantitative evaluation is not unimportant, historically speaking, especially when we want to evaluate one’s influence. However, when we deal with religious education and learning this is not necessarily so. This is particularly true when we study the history of Jewish talmudic/rabbinic academies (Hebrew = Yeshivot).
Learning in Jewish tradition is one of the greatest, most important religious requirements. The Torah already says that one should study it “day and night” and rabbinic literature - from the Mishnah and until the present - is full of dictums and exempla of scholars who did just that to the extreme. One might say that learning is the main trait of rabbinic Judaism to this very day. It is learning for the sake of learning even if it has no practical relevance to it. Learning is an end unto itself. Teaching and educating many students is an imperative, as put very clearly by the Mishnah.

And so, on the one hand, rabbinic literature has been written continuously, especially the halakhic genres (= that is, legal literature), in the shape of codexes and responsa), and there were schools that invested much energy in writing novelae (= new commentaries and insights into talmudic halakhic discussions). On the other hand not every great scholar saw in writing the ultimate in learning. It is therefore incorrect methodologically for us to define one’s rabbinic and intellectual stature by the sheer quantity of his literary production. Having said all this in a way of introduction, let me turn now to 15th c. Castile, in general, and then to Zamora, in particular.

The unprecedented mass-conversions, death and physical destruction of the Jewish communities in Castile during 1391, the following waves of anti-Jewish legislation and conversion campaign orchestrated by Vicente Ferrer, and finally, the mass conversions in the wake of the Disputation in Tortosa 1412-1414 seemed to have brought to its knees a Jewry which was so proud of its achievements in virtually every field of Jewish and secular learning, and in the political realm as well. One of the Jewish writers in the end of the fourteenth century expresses it in lamenting the present, describing the communities of Castile and Aragon “which were among [other communities of] our nation as the main organs of the body in comparison to the secondary ones.”

After the above-mentioned string of catastrophes, we read the following internal criticism of Jewish Torah learning in Spain:
"And the scholars eat bread of poverty, and even the little they get as payment they must go around and beg for. And this is the reason why the Torah is downgraded among them (= the Jews) and is destined to be forgotten […] because when the people see the shame of the scholars and their poverty they choose to send their sons to learn the worst of professions rather than see them suffer as rabbis".  
He goes on and compares this situation with the good living condition on the Christian clergy. This is written around 1416.
Now when we read about the status of Torah learning - both quality and quantity - in the decades prior to the Expulsion, we get the feeling that within half a century nothing short of a revolution took place in Jewish learning in Spain.

Let me quote shortly a few writers. Joseph Ya’avez, writing right after the Expulsion: “[…] For since antiquity Spain was not as full of Yeshivot and students as it was at the time of the Expulsion.” An anonymous chronicler, a refugee from Spain, writes: “And there were then [i.e. before the Expulsion] many yeshivot in Spain,” and he goes on to list ten of the largest. Judah Khalaz, who migrated to Tlemencen, in North Africa, a few years before the Expulsion writes: “Castile, the land of yeshivot and Torah students.” In one post-Expulsion elegy the poet mourns the external richness of the academies and their rich libraries which have been destroyed. We have information about large personal libraries of the Jews in this period, and it stands to reason that the ones in the academies were also sizable.

It is true that, generally speaking, we can observe a phenomenon of rejuvenation of Torah learning and Academies after great material disasters, since the Destruction of the Second Temple and until our own days [i.e. post-Holocaust]. Yet, this does not absolve us from our historiographical duty to locate and identify the fountain[s] of vitality which gave rise to what can be termed as an almost intellectual resurrection. The answer in our case is hidden in the almost mysterious personality of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Qanpanton.
The Ways of Talmud, by Isaac Campantón, Mantua cover edition,  1593

This becomes apparent when we survey short references to Qanpanton’s stature and to assessments of his achievements as found in post-Expulsion Sefardic writings.

One of the most famous Hispano-Jewish scholars of that period was Abraham Zacuto, the celebrated mathematician and astronomer from Salamanca. Zacuto was also a head of a yeshiva in Salamanca and an important talmudist. Alongside his scientific excellence, he was also a qabbalist. He is particularly known for his astronomical calculations and contribution to nautical navigation, and his personal guidance to Vasco da Gama prior to his voyage to India in 1497. Zacuto was then in Portugal after leaving Spain in the 1492 Expulsion. His odyssey led him through North Africa to Jerusalem, where he died.). In his Book of Genealogies, generally dedicated to the chronology of Jewish Oral Law, Zacuto writes:

And the great rabbi, the rabbi of [all] the people of Israel, the rabbi of the three above-mentioned scholars, the pious, humble man, who was inspired by the Holy Divine Spirit, the great light, rabbi Isaac Qanpanton […] who was called a Gaon in Castile (A prestigious term reserved for the Heads of the famous talmudic academies in Baghdad during the 7th-12th c.). And I saw him! And anyone who saw him experienced something similar to encountering the Divine Providence. And I was about six or seven years old when I saw him. And he passed away in Peñafiel in 1463.

There is no need for over-dramatization in the reading of this paragraph to feel the awe-inspiring image that Qanpanton commanded.

Qanpanton died at old age and according to one source he died at 103. From official Castilian documents we know that he participated in 1450 in a committee which was charged with the duty to divide taxes among the Castilian Jewish communities [His name is spelled there: Çag Canpanton]. At an age of about 90, his contribution was surely not in his mathematical abilities but rather in lending the decisions of the committee moral weight, authority, and respectability.

All references to him by post-Expulsion chroniclers describe him as the central intellectual figure of 15th c. Castile;. Thus we read: “[…] the Light of the Exile (again using a term reserved for an 11th c, Ashkenazic rabbinic authority) […] he raised again the crown [of Torah] and raised many students

The emphasis on the number of students that swelled under his leadership is especially conspicuous.

Representation of a 14th Spanish Jew, carbon copy by Manuel Castellanos, 19th century 

A survey of his students who assumes rabbinic and talmudic leadership during the last generation in Spain prior to the Expulsion, and in the first generation of the Sefardic Diaspora throughout the Mediterranean Basin) shows that almost all Sefardic talmudic learning can be traced to Qanpanton. Let me mention a few of the more famous names:

Direct students: Isaac Aboab (Guadalajara and Buitrago. Joseph Caro, the greatest halakhist since Maimonides and until today, relates a mystical revelation he had where he was promised that his Yeshiva will be even greater and more famous than Aboab’s.), Isaac Deleon (Toledo), Samuel Valenci (who succeeded Qanpanton as the head of the yeshiva in Zamora), Joseph Hayyun (Lisbon).

Two influential figures in the field of biblical exegesis and preaching came out of Zamora. Isaac Arama wrote Aqedat Yitz’haq [Binding of Isaac], a voluminous book of philosophical sermons on the Pentateuch. This important work has been published many times and its influence extended much beyond the Sefardic world. In his introduction he refers nostalgically to his hometown as “Zamora in the far north,” using an expression referring to the glory of Jerusalem in Psalms 48:3. Abraham Saba is known primarily for his Tzeror haMor [Bundle of Myrrh] homiletical commentary on the Pentateuch which incorporates qabbalistic passages from the Zohar. This work was published Italy and Poland in the sixteenth century, and again in few editions very recently. We know much about his wanderings after the Expulsion from Spain through Portugal and North Africa and about his personal tragedies and loss of his family which was forcibly baptized in Lisbon.

Some leading second generation rabbis: Abraham Zacuto, Jacob Ibn Habib, Jacob Berav, Moses Alashqar.
A Saba's family Ketubah from 1447, now at Israel National Library

The geographical map of the talmudic learning centers in fifteenth century Castile known to us, shows that if we take Avila as the pivot point we can say that all of them were in a radius of about 200 km. (Locations: Leon, Fromista, Valladolid, Medina del Campo, Salamanca, Segovia, Buitrago, Avila, Guadalajara, Plasencia, Toledo). The fact that most of the places, not noteworthy in terms of size, are not known to us as Jewish centers from previous centuries, and that they are relatively small towns goes well with the observation that Jewish life in post-1391 Castile moved away from the major cities.

All the above would have been very interesting, but not particularly for the present paper, if not for a small fact discovered about 40 years ago (and to that I referred in my analogy to archaeology in my introduction): Qanpanton’s yeshiva was located in Zamora.

That this town had a 15th c. thriving Jewish community, in terms of Castilian shrunken Jewish communities, is evident from the additional northern juderia nueva (Ladero-Quesada, pp. 34-40). Also we know that the share of the tax levied from it for the war against Granada was sizable. An incidental compliment to the Jewish community of Zamora comes from the pen of the converso poet Juan Alfonso de Baena who writes as early as the 1440s’ sarcastically against a certain Gonsalo de Quadros whose true faith is not clear, that although he lived in various countries “it is notorious that you live in Zamora / and others tell me that you believe in the Torah.”. And so, we learn that Zamora was notorious for its Jewish community!

And so, with the decline or complete disappearance (like in the case of Barcelona) of past centers, Zamora becomes the magnet for students.

Now, throughout the ages, Jewish students wandered from their hometowns to academies far away seeking a certain academy mostly because of its specific character or, specifically, because of the rabbi who was at its head. This is true to this day. Moreover, it was true also for medieval universities, and, indeed, to for universities to this very day, that graduate students seek to get accepted to a specific university because of an outstanding expert who teaches there. A central intellectual or spiritual figure is the crucial factor in the development of a center. (One can see it, for example, in Spain since the Moslem period in 10th c. Cordoba (Moses ben Hanokh), 11th c. Granada (Samuel haNaggid), 12th c. Lucena (Isaac Alfassi)

Now what was it that Qanpanton had to offer those students? Qanpanton himself wrote one very thin didactic tract called Darkei ha-Talmud (The Ways of the Talmud). The essence of it is that one should approach the study of the Talmud with technical tools of Logic, because literature of great people individuals must be dealt with the utmost respect, and the Talmud certainly qualifies as such. Practically, he is saying; there must be an explanation for every single written word because redundancy is not an option! In language there are no two words which have the exact identical meaning, and therefore there are no real synonyms! In other words, one must put a finger, so to speak, over each word and check whether the sentence could have been written without it. If this is the case, then one must find the reason why the extra word has been included.: What was it that the author tried to warn us from, what possible pitfall (misunderstanding, a potential wrong interpretation etc.) did he try to save us from.

Qanpanton details his method over some 20-30 pages,and extends it also to the analysis of some of the great medieval talmudic commentators, namely, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (known in his abbreviation as Rashi), the great French scholar from the 11th c., and Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides) of thirteenth century Gerona.

This is a very demanding and challenging method of learning and of hermeneutics. It is also intellectually very rewarding. It is certainly directed to the intellectual elite.

Now we are in position to assess Qanpanton’s restoration plan of Torah learning. In 1432 representatives of the Castilian Jewish communities convened and came up with the Valladolid Ordinances, where one chapter is devoted to the reconstruction of Jewish Torah education. Abraham Benvenist, the Rab de la Corte was involved in formulating the document, and knowing his financial abilities (He loaned money to the Crown), and testimonies about his charitable nature, we can assume that he was involved personally in the financial aspects of restoration. Qanpanton, complemented him by being involved in the educational process. How does all this connect to his new methodology? The answer lies in the centuries long Sefardic haunting issue, indeed struggle, between Philosophy and Religion or Faith and Reason, symbolized best by Maimonides’ effort in his Guide for the Perplexed.

In order to understand Qanpanton’s attitude, we should contrast it with that of Asher ben Yehiel, (abbreviation: ROSH), a german rabbi who arrived in Toledo in the beginning of the 14th c.. To the charge that he does not know arabic and philosophy, he answered that Torah and philosophy are inherently contradictory and that there is no possibility for a compromise between them. This represented a head-on collision between Ashkenazi fundamentalistic religiosity and Sefardi complex spirituality. This attitude could not appeal to young men who have been exposed to, and enchanted by “Greek wisdom” of the Aristotelian tradition. This is where Qanpanton came with a different attitude. He did not reject [non-Jewish] wisdom (after all he was raised by a father who wrote books in mathematics and astronomy), - but offered Jewish youth a method by which the Talmud status is raised by showing that philosophical thinking is a “maid-servant” (to use a Maimonides term), a pre-requisite for a proper understanding of profound Jewish legal thinking and wisdom. This understanding of Qanpanton’s strategy is expressed already by chroniclers in early 16th c..


If we survey the spiritual portrait of the rabbis associated with this school, we’ll discover that most of them were knowledgable of philosophy but with positive tendency to Qabbalah. This is what we know also about Qanpanton himself. And so, one reaches the conclusion that he bears also some responsibility for the spiritual leanings of Sefardic leadership in the following  two generations. Not everyone was happy, and one can find some criticism of the educational methods in the academies prior to the Expulsion,.  Thus we read the better words of Joseph Ya’avez about the young students who enter the yeshivot, “ of the great rabbis, sharpen their minds like razor blades,” and then turn to the study of philosophy. Yet, it seems that this Jewry emerged out of its struggle for survival during the 15th c. as a strengthened community which eventually followed its spiritual leaders in large numbers into Exile.

Influence of the method

When we survey learning and rabbinic writings in the wake of Qanpanton’s revolution, we see very profound traces of his system.


1. We have a number of super-commentaries on Rashi’s famous commentary on the Torah using the method advocated by Qanpanton.

2. After the Expulsion the occupation in methodology of Talmud study yields a genre of short tracts, following the example of Darkei haTalmud.

3. Joseph Hayyun, the major rabbinic figure in Lisbon, wrote commentaries on the Bible based clearly of the premise that there are no synonyms, even in biblical poetry such as Psalms. (Qanpanton does not discuss the Torah but, of course, if one needs to interpret every word of the Talmud and even some of medieval commentators, this should certainly be the case with God’s own given books.) This exegesis, I would stress, goes against the grain of medieval Sephardic assumption (Abraham Ibn Ezra, David Qimhi etc.) that the Bible does repeat the same idea in different words and there is no need to explain such cases.

Finally, the fact that the 15th c. is very poor in talmudic writings might be partially due to the example set by Qanpanton who served as the role-model for his students. (Of his students, only, Isaac Aboab, wrote extensively.) 

In the 17th c. there survived the following Ladino saying: “Ley de Castilla; Hizun y Sephrud de Portugal.” [From Castile shall the Law come forth and liturgical singing and caligraphy from Portugal.] 

It was a nostalgic memory from pre-Expulsion Iberia, probably formulated in the end of the 15th c. It is “Castile,” which had been so rich with Torah learning, in general. But we now know that the major spiritual and intellectual word which shaped the intellectual image of Spanish Jewry in the second half of 15th c. sprang out of a source located in Zamora, which became a significant milestone on the glorious historical route of Sephardic cultural history. 

* Keynote address at the I International Congress on the Jewish Sephardic Legacy of Zamora, Spain

martes, 1 de enero de 2019

Relevant entries on Zamora in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906 edition)

Understanding  medieval Spain and Portugal (Sefarad in the context of Jewish History) requires familiarity with geography, maps and timeline. The map above helps to locate referred populations and historical figures in the two entries of the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906, which are relevant to Zamora. In the second entry Castile includes León since these two kingdoms were historically connected since the early 11th century

"In the former Kingdom of León (the presence of Jews) was much larger, among the most prominent communities being those of Zamora, Valladolid, Mayorga, Medina del Campo, Salamanca, Ponferrada, Bobadilla and Ciudad Rodrigo"

Section "The Spread of the Jews in Spain" under Spain entry

"The last Rabinnical authority of Castile (and León), likewise its last Gaon, was Isaac Campanton, among whose pupils were Isaac de León, Isaac Aboab (referring to the II) and Samuel Al Valensi. The last preachers of renown were the religious philosopher Joseph ibn Shem-Tob, Joseph Albo, and Isaac Arama".

Section "The Karaites in Spain" under Spain entry (1)

The number of immigrants amounted to nearly 100,000. From Castile alone more than 3,000 persons embarked at Benevento for Bragança; at Zamora, more than 30,000 for Miranda; from Ciudad-Rodrigo for Villar, more than 35,000; from Alcantara for Marvão, more than 15,000; and from Badajoz for Elvas, more than 10,000—in all more than 93,000 persons (Bernaldez, in A. de Castro, "Historia de los Judios en España," p. 143).

Section Under John II in Portugal Entry.


1- It is not clear why the Encyplopedia authors decided adding this information in this section. Campanton and its pupils were known for applying Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah to interpretations of the Scriptures.

lunes, 31 de diciembre de 2018

Genie Milgrom: Pyre to Fire


 ENGLISH CORNER, CON LINDA JIMÉNEZ – This week’s trivia question: What are some symbols that conversos etched on their houses as a way of communicating with other Crypto-Jews?

Genie Milgrom was born in Havana, Cuba, into a practicing Roman Catholic family of Spanish ancestry. From a young age, she felt unusually attracted to Judaism. After going through a formal conversion, she began to research her family’s history and was able to document her unbroken maternal lineage going back six centuries to pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal, proving that she is, in fact, a descendent of forced converts. Her research led her to write the books My 15 Grandmothers, and How I found My 15 Grandmothers, A Step By Step Guide. The books were both winners of the 2015 Latino Author Book Awards.
Genie has travelled extensively to Fermoselle, the village of her ancestors in the Zamora region of Spain, while doing field research on the town’s Jewish past. Her new book, Pyre to Fire, is a captivating historical novel that juxtaposes the story of a Jewish family living in Fermoselle at the time of the Inquisition and her own fascinating autobiography.

Listen HERE

viernes, 7 de diciembre de 2018

A Jewish Path in Zamora

by Jesús Jambrina*, Special for The Jerusalem Post, March 23, 2016

On March 6 I gave a presentation titled “Uncovering Jewish Zamora” at the La Crosse Synagogue in Wisconsin. When in 2010 I began to look into the subject of a Jewish presence in this Spanish city of the rocky northwest, crossed by the Duero River an close to the border with Portugal, I never dreamed of the results that my curiosity would lead to. 

My first Google search on the subject of the Jewish legacy of Zamora, turned up only two results. The first was a reference to the well-known Concilio de Zamora of 1313, in which many of the prohibitions regarding the Jews that had been stipulated at the Council of  Elvira at the beginning of the fourth century were repeated. The second search result was related to the case of the “Niño de la Guardia,” a 1491 blood libel set in Toledo, in which a Zamoran Jew named Abenamías had allegedly participated. This accusation was disproved over half a century ago by Yitzak Baer, and shown to be one of many anti-Semitic fictions created by members of the infamous “Santa Inquisition” of the 15th century. [The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia states that the entire episode is “one of the most notable and disastrous lies of history.”]

Apart from these two references which are to be found in most medieval history books which mention the subject of the Jews, there was not much more available at first glance on the Internet. This lack of information surprised me, as I personally already knew of at least one essay – dated 1992 – signed by the then-director of the Provincial Archive of Zamora, Florián Ferrero, in which bibliographies related to the Jews of Zamora are mentioned.

A few weeks later I read two books which I now consider to be classics on the subject: Juderías de Castilla y León (1988) (“Jewish Quarters in Castilla and Leon”), by Guadalupe Ramos de Castro, which has a section dedicated to the city, and El pasado judío de Zamora, (1992) (“Zamora’s Jewish Past”), by Prof. María Fuencisla García Casar, which offers a historical chronicle of the Jewish presence in the provincial capital. It was through these works – which from my present vantage point I consider to be in need of editing to update the information and perspectives on the subject – that a picture began to emerge.
There are other authors which also lent substance to my research: the studies of the late Prof. Carlos Carrete Parrondo of Salamanca University, and of Julio Valdeón Baruque of Valladolid University. In his book, Judíos y Conversos en la Castilla Medieval, (“Jews and Converts in medieval Castille”) Valdeón Baruque presents an excellent study of Castilian and Leonese Jews. 

To this Spanish bibliography one would also have to add medievalist Manuel Fernández Ladero, who has published several notable articles about Zamora and the subject of Conversos, as well Prof. Yolanda Moreno Koch and Prof. Ricardo Izquierdo Benito who have compiled several conference proceedings on the subject of Jews of Spain.

A wider bibliograhy would be incomplete without authors like the late Benzion Netanyahu (father of the present prime minister), the late Haim Beinart, and Professor Abraham Gross of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, whose book on Abraham Saba is indispensable.

When I visited the city for the first time in 2010, I was shocked by the absence of references to anything Jewish. Since I have always been interested in Jewish literature and culture from Spain, and by then knew of something of Zamora’s prestigious position during medieval times, I was curious as to why this was the case. I asked a couple of colleagues and friends in the city, including a relative of mine, and some information immediately surfaced, along with various books and articles.

Following a fruitful conversation with Ferrero Ferrero I decided to write a paper on the subject. When I returned to the United States I started to research further and realized that I had stumbled upon something more complex and that I wanted to devote more time to delve into it. Additionally, the project was a good reason for me to return to Zamora, the birthplace of my paternal grandparents.

On that first trip I also met with Mario Saban, president of Tarbut Sefarad, in Barcelona, as well as the organization’s representatives in Madrid, José Manuel Laureiro and Anun Barriuso (descendants of Crypto Jews), who encouraged me to continue with the project and offered their help. I have to say that these three friends were originally somewhat skeptical about Zamora having a significant Jewish history. 
Located at the heart of Old Castile, this is a city known for its strong Catholic culture. Celebrations around saints’ days and the Virgin Mary are very common and dominate popular festivities all year long. More importantly, its 24 Romanesque churches (the largest number of any city in Europe) drive national and international tourism. So “Good luck with anything Jewish”, I can imagine my friends and local family members thinking back then. 

However, in 2013, together with colleagues Genie Milgrom (author of My 15 Grandmothers) I organized the first international congress on “Zamora Jewish Life: History and Re-encounters” which was covered by The Jerusalem Post and local media, and caused ripples in Zamoran society. The result of the congress was a promise by then-mayor Rosa Valdeón, to signpost several areas of Jewish interest in the city. This promise was kept at the end of the 2014 congress.
Five locations, crucial to the Jewish history of a city (which until 2013 barely appeared to have any at all) are now marked by metal pillars erected by the Zamora Municipality as a direct result of the interest evidenced through the presence of these congresses in Zamora. 

Illustration included in the Bible of Cervera (Castile, and Leon, 1300) used to identified Zamora Jewish Quarters signpostings
I never imagined, when I began my research six years ago, that my efforts would bear  fruit to the point of bringing together increased numbers of local and international students of and experts in Sephardi culture and history every year since.
Among the esteemed colleagues who have taken part in our congresses are the aforementioned Gross, New York University Prof. Jane Gerber, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Prof. Ruth Behar and Universidad de Lisboa Prof. Jorge Martins, as well as many other experts on the subject of Jews and Sephardim from Spain, Portugal, the United States and Israel.

Looking towards our fourth annual event this summer, I am pleased to note that writer Gregorio G. Olmos, author of the book Yucé, el sefardí, 2016 – winner of the XXXIV Novela Felipe Trigo prize – has agreed to be our key note speaker. We also hope to see the author of the prologues of Olmos’ book: author José Jiménez Lozano – who received the renowned Cervantes Prize in 2002 – at this year’s congress.

Towards the end of 2013, and riding on the success of the first congress, the Isaac Campantón Center was created as a Jewish research center for Zamora, named after the sage Isaac Campantón (1360-1463), known as “the gaon of Castille.” The name was chosen because Campantón, as author of Darche ha-Gemara, or Darche ha-Talmud (“A Methodology of the Talmud”) he represents the flowering of the Zamoran Jewish Community in which he carried out his educational labor during the last century before the exile of the Jews from Spain.

Campantón’s book was published in Constantinople (ca. 1520), Venice (1565), Mantua (1593), Amsterdam (1706, 1711 and 1754) Vienna (1891) and Jerusalem (1981). And yet, the present residents of Zamora had never heard about him until our first congress, so far-reaching was the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Spain following 1492.

Throughout the 15th century, Zamora had attracted the most brilliant thinkers in Spain and Portugal, with Campantón being the guide of a generation and clearly responsible for the later transmission of Jewish tradition to the Sephardi Diaspora.
Among his students were Samuel Valensí, Issac Abroab II, Isaac de León, Jacob Habid and his son Leví, Moshe Alaskhar, Isaac Arama, Joseph Hayyum, Abraham Saba and the well-known converso hebraista Alfonso de Zamora, among others. No other Castilian or Leonese city can count such a battery of sages among its rosta of Jewish personalities, whose influenced can be found from Amsterdam to Safed and Istambul, and from Portugal to as far away as the Americas. A large number of the visits we get on the Campanton Center webpage are from Lithuania and parts of Russia, where the work of the Zamoran sage is well-known.
All of these subjects are discussed at our congresses, which have now become real “Sephardi days” because in addition to academic presentations we have offer concerts, exhibitions and guided tours of the Jewish quarters, along with Shabbat dinners that are open to all the participants in the congress, as well as to residents of Zamora who are interested in knowing more about this celebration – so central to Judaism.
These meals, as well as others, which organized to introduce various Jewish holidays, are directed by Abraham Haim, president of the Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem, a regular visitor to Zamora during the year.
Other frequent visitors to Zamora include Canadian ethnomusicologist Judith Cohen, who has given various concerts in Zamora. She studies the Sephardi musical tradtion in the Mediterranean Basin, including the Zamoran-Portuguese region of Tras Os Montes, especiallly the area of La Raya (“the line”), as the border with Portugal is known. 

Judith Cohen (center), Mara Aranda (right) and Guy Mendilow (left) during a concert of Jewish Sephardic Music at the Theatro Principal of Zamora, 2014.
The second congress, in 2014, was dedicated to this region in particular, where Crypto-Judaism is second nature in various rural communities, among them Carçao, Vimioso and Braganza (in Portugal), where thousands of Castilian and Leonese  Jews took refuge in 1492.

This year, in addition to the July congress, this time titled “The North of Sepharad: Perspectives and Definitions” which will take place in Zamora city, we will once again have a panel meeting at Centro Sefarad-Israel, in Madrid, on June 27 at 7 p.m. in which experts who will speak at the Congress will preview of their subjects and answer questions.

On June 29, there will be a guided tour of the Tierra del Vino (Land of Wine) area, where, according to historic documents, the Zamoran Jews had their vineyards, and which today produces Protected Designation of Origin quality wines.

On June 30 there will be the usual tour of the Old and New Jewish quarters: Another annual activity which attracts many locals.
The congress itself will be held July 1. This year’s preliminary events will conclude with a Shabbat dinner at the Trefacio Hotel, where, as in earlier years, we hope to reaffirm the commitment to continue working for the recovery and value of the Jewish legacy of the city of Zamora.

The Isaac Campantón Center, which organizes international presentations and is a repository of all my investigation thus far can be found online at 
*The writer, a Cuban American whose grandparents hail from Gema del Vino, a village in the province of Zamora, is a professor at Viterbo University, Wisconsin. In 2014 he was presented with Medal of the Four Sephardi Synagogues by the board of the Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem for researching and publicizing Zamora’s Jewish past. His book The Jews of Zamora. An Annotated Chronology is scheduled to be published this year by Editorial Verbum in Madrid as part of the Hebrew Letters Collection. Jambrina can be contacted at