Segovia's aqueduct bridge. Photo credit: George Dragicevic
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot broke a smaller, but still exciting story in 27/12/2009.
A Spanish decree from 1412 had forced the Jewish population of Segovia to live in a specific area - it went from the Almuzara, to the section of the city walls located between the old slaughterhouse and San Andrés Gate. The area was closed by seven gates and the main street was Calle de Judería Vieja/Street of the Old Jewish Ghetto.
Segovia's Calle de Judería Vieja is still clearly marked today
Don Abraham Senior (c1410-93) became one of the most influential Jews to serve the Spanish royals, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Together with his friend, statesman and financier Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel, Don Abraham Senior undertook to farm the revenues and to supply provisions for the royal army, under contract from Queen Isabella. As royal treasurer and court Rabbi, Don Senior enjoyed a very close relationship with the royal family, at least until the two monarchs decreed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
Even then the relationship continued - in June 1492, Don Senior and his son were baptised in Valladolid with the king and queen and the primate of Spain acting as sponsors. Presumably Senior converted to Christianity to be able to remain in the country. Still, if he did maintain a secret synagogue for his fellow Marranos in his home, even the very influential Don Senior would have been taking a huge risk.
screened women's section of synagogue (Yediot Achronot)
This is the story of how Mrs Udiya Band, a distant descendant of Don Senior, visited the palace and searched for a synagogue that presumably had not hosted a Jew for 517 years. Any knowledge of the synagogue in Don Senior’s palace had been totally lost! The local Segovians were certainly not aware of its existence.
A thorough family investigation done by Mrs Band and her children before arriving in Spain suggested that a synagogue had indeed once operated in Don Senior’s medieval palace. The family knew that the palace was now kept by UNESCO and by the local authorities. On arriving in Segovia, Udiya Band planned to stay for two days, to see the palace and the synagogue, and to continue on. She had already seen the testimonials written by Abraham Senior describing prayers held in his house and stairs to another (secret?) storey. What Mrs Band found was that half of the Segovian palace had been taken over by the Franciscans, and was now being used as a monastery.
synagogue's holy ark (Yediot Achronot)
Despite not believing that there had ever been a synagogue there, the Department of Culture of the municipality was helpful to the visitor; the mayor provided Mrs Band with a guide and announced that the whole palace would be open to her. The guide pleaded with the priests in the monastery and he was finally informed that he would receive the key the next morning, under the condition that no one must see where Mrs Band was exploring.
One wonders why, if the municipal mayor was interested in the project, were the Franciscans so secretive?
Mrs Band received the key and a second guide spirited her into the monastery via a small back door and through some corridors. She finally came to a large room – on the right side was the women’s section with star of david signs and in front were the bima/reading desk and the holy ark. Udiya Band was gobsmacked, and so was the guide. On the Jews’ holy ark, there was an altar and a crucifix to be sure. But otherwise it appeared as if the last of the Jewish congregants had just departed for a spot of Sabbath lunch. 517 years ago!
The guard said that everything has been kept in its original form except for one difference: there had been no windows originally - just small vents near the floor through which air could come in. Here the secretive Marranos could pray without being seen from the street. And there was indeed a side stair case which was not being used these days - that was the stair case Don Abraham Senior had used to reach the synagogue.
Segovia is just north of Madrid
Apparently Mrs Band’s story did not end in Segovia. Upon returning to Israel, Udiya Band got in touch with historian and ex-President of Israel Yitzchak Navon and the historian Chaim Berneit. I will be very interested to hear what happened next because there are so many questions to ask. If Don Abraham Senior really did die in 1493, for example, who continued running the secret synagogue for the Marranos in the Senior palace?
Almost as an afterthought, I want to clearly differentiate between Don Abraham Senior's clandestine synagogue and the Main Synagogue of Segovia. The latter synagogue was never secretive, although the front entrance was not directly from the street, but via a courtyard. The Main Synagogue was also confiscated by the Catholic Church and the Crown, and converted into a church in 1419, dedicated to Corpus Christi. Within a couple of years, the bishop of Segovia gave the building to the Monastery of Santa María de Párraces who used it as a church until a terrible fire in 1899. The church was restored in the early 20th century and is now open to the public; its synagogue origins are still clearly visible and readily acknowledged.
Segovia's Main Synagogue, later Corpus Christi Church, front entrance
The white walls, horseshoe arches and elaborate capitals in Segovia's Main Synagogue appear to be very similar to the synagogue architecture I have seen in Santa María La Blanca in Toledo.
Segovia's Main Synagogue, later Corpus Christi Church, columns
In fact the Juderia of Segovia is full of beautiful old medieval houses, as Slice_n_dice has shown. These houses are two or three storeys high, with exposed wooden beams and whitewashed facades. The whole historical centre has been lovingly restored and conserved, which might surprise people who think of Spain as being a major player in life-threatening medieval anti-Semitism. Apparently there had been five synagogues, a Jewish cemetery, two butcher shops, a hospital and two Talmudic schools in Segovia's Jewish Quarter, during the halcyon days of Spanish Jewry.