The Jews in Toledo

Toledo Half-Day or Full-Day Tour from Madrid

Some historians have said that the Hebrews came to Toledo when they were dispersed through the world after Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem. They are said to have given the city the name THOLEDOTH, meaning «City of the Generations», since it was peopled by members of the twelve tribes of Israel. Similarly, a number of towns in the Toledo district took their names from places in Israel; for example, ACECA, which in Hebrew means «Strong house»; ESCALONA, from Askelon, of the tribe of Simeon; MAQUEDA, from Maceda, of the tribe of Judah; YEPES, from Joppa, of the tribe of Dan; LAYOS from Lachish, of Judah; and NOVÉS, from Nové, of Benjamin.

In later times, one tradition states that the Jews of Toledo were consulted as to whether the sentence of death pronounced against Jesus was right, and that they sent a firm reply in the negative.

Toledo Cambron Gate
What can be asserted on a strictly historical basis is that they were in Toledo during the first centuries of Christianity, for some minutes of the famous Councils of Toledo speak of them, and even assign them a special quarter to dwell in, which is still knows as the Judería. This quarter, redolent with romantic legends, with the murmur of the Tagus at its feet, was bounded from north to south by the Cambrón Gate and the height of Montichel (where the celebrated massacre of the «Toledan Night» took place), now known as the Paseo de San Cristóbal; and from east to west by what is still called the Arquillo del Judío, almost at the end of the Calle del Angel which starts from Santo Tomé. This Arabic archway gives its name to the Travesía del Arquillo, not far from the house in the cellars of which it is still possible to see well-marched remains of the Jewish baths. These are the houses marked with the numbers 11, 13 and 15, facing the Cuesta del Bis-Bis, and a few yards from Santa Maria la Blanca.

On this side the Judería or Jewish Quarter extended to the edge of the cliff over the river, and took in everything today covered by the Palace of the Count of Fuensalida, where the Empress Isabel died, the House of El Greco, Calle de los Descalzos, Calle del Calvario, the formes Convent of the Gilitos, San Cipriano and the Carreras de San Sebastian.

In this quarter, less than four centuries ago still known as the Judería, are the Cambrón Gate, so called from the large number of bramble bushes (cambroneras) which grew there; the so-called Palace of Count Julian, which in the last days of the Visigothic period is said to have housed the unhappy Florinda, ill-named «La Cava», the victim of her own beauty and of the illicit desires of the last Visigothic king. A few yards from this stands the magnificent Franciscan friary of San Juan de los Reyes, the richest jewel the Catholic Sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella left to the imperial city. It is believed to be built over the ruins of a Jewish mansion.

Moving southwards, in the direction contrary to the river's course, we soon come to the fine synagogues. The word synagogue, as is well known, was applied to Israelite houses of worship built after their kingdom had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, since formerly they had no places exclusively set aside for prayer. The word Temple had been reserved solely for that of Jerusalem.

Contributions of the Jews to Toledo

We must now pass over the influence the Jews exerted on Toledo in different spheres of industry and commerce, as well as culturally, spiritually and socially, as well as on the appearance of the city. Both they and the Saracens contributed greatly to progress in all fields of public activity.

From Cordova, fleeing from the upheavals and struggles of Arabic Spain, they brought the famous School of Translators, a brilliant centre of encyclopaedic culture which radiated its light, not only upon Toledo, but to the whole of the country.

Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca
In the square called the Plaza de la Judería they had one of their celebrated alcanas, a busy market which sold Persian carpets, silks from Damascus, Indian pearls, Arabian perfumes, cloths from Kashmir and spices from Ceylon. if we shut our eyes to the humdrum realities of the present day, we can perhaps visualize this market, near Santa Maria la Blanca and extending into the alleys round about, a clamour of voices of buyers and sellers, haggling over every kind of surprising merchandise; awningcovered stalls beneath the mediaeval sun, canvas fluttering in breezes from the Sahara like sails of ships upon the Mare Nostrum... And men with pointed beards, greedy eyes, and skins still tanned by the suns of biblical lands. And women with faces the shape of a hazel-nut, with dead-white skin and deep bright eyes and mysterious gaze, with rhythmical walk and willowy waist, women of whom we seem to have a faithful copy in Dominico Theotocopuli's «Lady in Ermine». She was probably Jerónima de las Cuevas, the Cretan painter's only love, amid the arduous hours of his glorious work. Such types, both male and female, we can still encounter if we walk about the Judería a little and keep our eyes open as we peer into the pretty patios of its narrow alleys, where the Hebrew women, beneath the cool shade of awnings, used to weave linen with their white hands.

When the Jews were finally expelled from Spain by the Catholic Sovereigns, they carried with them to countries in the south-east of Europe (where the sweet Old Castilian speech can still be heard) the keys of their houses as a token of the ownership which their descendants have for centuries dreamed of recovering some future day.

The Toledo Jews, in various ages, experienced periods of privilege and of persecution. If they obtained advantages in the reigns of some sovereigns -such as Alfonso the Seventh, the Eighth and the Tenth-, they also felt the weight of implacable persecutions, especially at the hands of the common people, who always regarded them with aversion and handed down fearful legends in which the Jew was the cruel protagonist.

See:  Jewish Toledo Route