A Purim Sameaj in Spain
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A Purim Sameaj in Spain

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Costumed revelers (catch the plastic nose?) hold up the bright yellow scroll from which the Purim story was read. Lois Goldrich

I ate hamantaschen this Purim.

Before you say “big deal,” let me point out that I was in Barcelona.

Sure, the 500 year decree expelling Jews from the country ran out in 1992 – better late than never, joked one of my guides – and efforts are under way to encourage the repatriation of heirs of the long-expelled Sephardim, but hamantaschen, and synagogues, are not that easy to find in this Mediterranean city.

I began my search for a shul by speaking with the receptionist at my small boutique hotel. Not much luck there – or at the tourist office – but one helpful person suggested that I visit some mysterious sounding “Jewish society” tucked in the backstreets of the old Jewish quarter, which itself is tucked into the old Gothic quarter.

Traveling, as I was, with a capable map reader, I ultimately found a small room, down several stone steps, that seemed somewhat Jewish. (The volumes of Judaica on its shelves were a dead giveaway.) I tried using my best high school Spanish to ask the woman seated there if she knew of any local synagogues holding Purim services.

(In the interests of full disclosure, let it be said that my high school Spanish apparently stinks. I tried it in one bakery, and the exasperated server told me she didn’t speak English.)

At any rate, I was handed a small strip of paper bearing the names and telephone numbers of four synagogues. Addresses could not be provided, I was told, for security reasons. Indeed, it was suggested that I might well have to provide my passport information when making inquiries.

The four synagogues included one Chabad (Jabad Lubavitch), one Orthodox (Ortodoxa), and two Progressive (Progresista) congregations. I called them all, but only one answered. Yes, said Yael, answering the phone at Bet Shalom and apparently able to understand my fractured Spanish. The Progressive shul would be having a Purim celebration on Sunday night at 6 p.m. I was welcome to come.

With the help of my map-reading friend, I found the building, though which bell to ring was anyone’s guess. Ultimately, I chose the bell associated with an unmarked structure, lying behind a corrugated metal door. The man who opened it did not speak English, nor did he understand my mangled Spanish. Luckily, we were soon joined by an exotic-looking woman who somehow recognized the name “Yael” among the sounds I was making.

I was the first guest to arrive. The woman who took me under her wing explained that 6 p.m. was “Spanish time” and that most people would drift in later. I told her we had the same phenomenon, but we call it “Jewish time.”

Actually, most of the women were exotic-looking – thanks to their Purim costumes – with several done up in red and black turbans, shawls, and long, lush, lacy dresses. Some men wore costumes too. I spotted a Power Ranger (or, perhaps, a Star Wars character) as well as Merlin (or maybe an Inquisitor). The bright costumes were in sharp contrast to the whitewashed walls in the large room, as were the multicolored crepe paper banners draped around the four rows of folding chairs. One of the women explained that the congregation had only been in the space for four months and still had to be decorated.

On the walls were mask-like representations of Queen Esther and the others, together with hanging streamers and children’s artwork. A long wooden table toward the rear of the room contained goodies of all kinds, which, except for the hamantaschen, I was unable to sample because I had a plane to catch the next morning. The food, an almost ridiculously large amount, was contributed by the 36 or so congregants who attended the celebration, each depositing his or her offering upon arrival.

On a bench near the entrance were boxes filled with party hats, masks, and assorted gragers. I would say that I raised the demographic significantly, as most participants appeared to be between the ages of 20 and 40. Upstairs, in a second room designed for children, younger congregants were having a celebration of their own. Judging from the noise above our heads, they were enjoying it thoroughly.

The megillah reading consisted of alternating sections in Hebrew and Spanish. The Spanish was livelier, read quickly and dramatically. Both readers were women. It would have been easier to follow if I had a megillah, but there were none on hand. Even the reader’s copy was somewhat provisional, written on a long bright yellow scroll carefully removed from a cardboard mailing tube.

Maybe it was not so kosher, but it was truly invigorating. In a city where churches (many of them quite beautiful) predominate and where Catholicism is taken for granted, I had the great privilege of sharing Purim with dozens of young Jews cheering wildly at the mention of Mordechai and booing, stomping, and shaking their gragers at the mention of Haman.

I left with a smile and some hamantaschen, urged by my co-religionists not to leave without some food. Clearly, some things are universal.

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