Spain's Catalonia region suffered some of the most virulent anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages. Most Jews were driven out nearly a century before the rest of the country expelled the others in 1492.
In the centuries that followed, Catalonian Jews were a forgotten people. But now, interest is growing in the region's Jewish past, sparking a revival movement that is drawing Jews back.
Barcelona's oldest synagogue, dating from the ninth century, has been restored, and on Jan. 22 it received a gift of a medieval Torah, valued at USD 30,000, from Lorenzo Rozencwaig, a Jewish attorney from New York.
With the 500-year-old scroll installed in its Holy Ark, the synagogue now lacks only a congregation to pray there regularly.
"The Torah has a message not just for Jews but for all the people of the world," said Miguel Iaffa, an Argentine immigrant to Barcelona who has been a leader in the revival. "We don't own this Torah, but it's our grand responsibility to care for it."
In 1985, Iaffa discovered that a rubble-filled basement deep in the city's old quarter was also the remains of what was the central house of worship for Barcelona's thousands of Jews during the Middle Ages.
Since then, he has served as the director of an association that bought and restored the building, and now administers it. The synagogue has been receiving visitors since 2002 and in 2005 posted a record 20,000 visits, said Iaffa.
"An increasing number of Jews are coming to live in Barcelona, and they are insisting on their historic right to be here," said Iaffa. "We want to see it become normal for Jews to live here and to be considered as Catalans and not as foreigners."
About 15,000 Jews live in Spain, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona. Barcelona has been home to three congregations — Orthodox, Reform and Hasidic. The medieval synagogue that Iaffa has spent the past 20 years nursing back to life is not affiliated with any branch of Judaism.
There has also been a surge in interest in tracing the route of Catalonia's medieval Jewry, which stretches 45 miles northward from Barcelona to Catalonia's second largest city, Gerona. There, a medieval Jewish neighborhood has been painstakingly reclaimed and restored.
Gerona and Barcelona were home to drastically different Jewish communities.
Gerona was one of Europe's main centers of kabbalah, or Jewish mystical teachings and some of the great kabbalistic writers and teachers of the Middle Ages lived there.
Barcelona hosted a community of rationalist scholars — and even today the city's rabbis are consulted for their lucid explanations of Jewish law and doctrine.
The first written reference to Jews in Gerona dates from A.D. 890. The Jewish neighborhood thrived for more than 500 years, although it also saw outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence.
The last synagogue built in Spain was completed in Gerona in the mid-1400s, and today it is beautifully restored, housing the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, with a museum about Catalonia's Jews, as well as a historical archive for scholars to consult.
After 1492, Gerona's Jewish neighborhood was closed off, bricked over and obliterated from the city's collective memory until the late 20th century, when it was excavated and restored. The Centre Bonastruc, at its heart, was visited by over 100,000 people in 2005, according to director Assumcio Hosta.
Some 15 miles north of Gerona is the small town of Besalu, an impeccably maintained medieval village with a lovely main plaza, where Jews thrived in the 12th and 13th centuries. A Jewish ritual bath, the mikva, has been excavated and restored. There are three guided visits a day to the baths.
The town is planning to undertake a second round of excavations shortly, according to Mayor Lluis Guino. A scale model of the town's medieval synagogue is to be built at its original location close to the baths.
The new respect for the Jewish past in places like Gerona and Besalu is drawing tourists and scholars from all over the world. Barry and Elaine Hershkowitz, who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. until they retired and moved to Jerusalem, said they were excited by their tours of the medieval Jewish neighborhoods of Gerona and Barcelona.
"Even though our guides weren't Jewish, they were proud of what they showed us, and they made us feel very comfortable," Barry Hershkowitz said. "It has been wonderful."