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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
|Judith Cohen (center), Mara Aranda (right) and Guy Mendilow (left) during a concert of Jewish Sephardic Music at the Theatro Principal of Zamora, 2014.|
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
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 http://www.campanton.com/
*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 firstname.lastname@example.org