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Lessons from Medieval Jewish Cemetery Discoveries at Tarrega & Barcelona
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, August 27, 2008

It has been just over a year since bones from a medieval Jewish Catalonian cemetery were moved from the small town of Tarrega (120 km west of Barcelona) for reburial in the Jewish cemetery in Barcelona.  The remains came from a previously unknown cemetery discovered during construction work for a new residential complex.  Archaeologists began excavating the remains and discovered convincing evidence that the site was a Jewish cemetery.  The excavation sparked a dispute between archaeologists and Jewish leaders over the exhumation of the bones for archaeological analysis. The irony, of course, is that without archaeological excavation and examination, the site would never have been identified as Jewish.   The intervention of Jewish groups and political pressure from abroad eventually let to the release of some of the excavated bones to the Commission for Jewish Heritage in Catalonia which organized reburial under rabbinic supervision, but many boxes of bones still await reburial.

The Tarrega situation was the latest in a series of disputes in Europe over how best to deal with the discovery of medieval Jewish remains.  Previous excavations in York (England) and Prague (Czech Republic) established a few general principles, but no fixed rules.  These situations are complicated in that previously unknown or ignored medieval cemeteries are mostly discovered in the course of construction work – often for in costly development projects.  Religious sensibilities come in conflict with financial as well as political interests.  Thus, it is hard to stop excavation, though removal or bones is somewhat easier to negotiate, since archaeologists have less power than banks.

In Spain, Tarrega was the first modern incident of what we might call "scientific desecration,' and the situation demonstrated a profound lack of common ground – the result of previous lack of dialogue - between archaeologists and Jewish community leaders on the issue of treatment of Jewish burials. It is hoped that this can be reversed, especially since the archaeological evidence of Jewish history in places other than cemeteries remains so rich in Spain.  There are many areas in which Jews (even the most traditionally observant) can support archeology, and many areas where archaeologists can learn from Jews.

Archaeological survey techniques for single sites and for regions can, for instance, be used to better locate cemeteries.  Studies of surface configurations and certain types of scans and probes can help identify topographic and geologic changes over the centuries.  It is true that the prohibition of excavation within an identified cemetery (except for structures) will cause archaeologists some loss of information about Jewish populations, mostly by preventing them from studying and sampling bones.  But it is also true that a wealth of undiscovered and un-researched information about Jewish life in Spain remains in Spanish archives, and in the ground beneath Spanish urban neighborhoods.  Recent extensive finds in Lorca are evidence of this (I will write about Lorca in a later report).

This material is potentially so much richer in information, and such excavations have so much more potential for developing tourism and other cultural heritage activities that most archaeologists I have spoken to would always prefer to invest time and money into these non-cemetery sites.  Even research to identify cemetery locations without excavating them adds to our knowledge of the place of Jews in medieval society.  

The Commission for Jewish Heritage in Catalonia, established in 2006, represented three Jewish communities in Barcelona and was represented by architect and Barcelona Jewish community activist Domnique Tomasov and architect David Soleru.  In an interview with ISJM, Tomasov stressed that this effort reached across traditional lines of Jewish affiliation, and that it represented the first instance in Spain of living Jews actively involving themselves in the way in which Jewish history and cultural heritage were research, evaluated and presented in modern Spain.  Since 1992, the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, there has been growing interest (some would say a growing industry) in exploring (and exploiting) Jewish roots in Spain.  These efforts, even when expertly and successfully done, have generally been the work of non-Jewish Spaniards.  As more and more Jews settle in Spain (coming primarily North Africa and South America) and establish viable communities, there are greater opportunities (and in Tomasov's view greater need), for Jews to involve themselves in cultural heritage issues.

The situation at Tarrega is such an example.  In Barcelona, the Commission also actively and successfully worked to halt the construction of public toilets and other facilities by the Barcelona municipal government at Montjuic, the Jewish (medieval) cemetery of Barcelona, the largest known such site in he western Mediterranean region.  The site has now been designated a protected historic site by the city, and discussions are underway how best to protect the site and commemorate it history.  In Barcelona, government and popular response was much more positive than in Tarrega.  This was in part due to greater cultural awareness and sophistication in Barcelona, and the presence of actual Jews in the city, but it is also the result of more timely intervention, so that Jewish groups created an opportunity to work with city officials rather than just confront them.  Also, something of the history of Montjuic (Jewish mount) was known, so ignorance was no excuse.

Just as the debate on how to handle Jewish cemeteries has caused splits in the academic world, there have also been tensions within the broader Jewish community.  While all Jews seem to agree in principle to the preservation of cemeteries and the respect for the Jewish dead, not all Jewish groups see it as a priority, and many resist – and some resent – high-profile controversies and confrontations on the issue.  This is true across Europe, and also in Spain.  Despite some success in Tarrega and Barcelona, the unity of the Commission has not been sustained.

Instead, Tomasov and Soleru are concentrating their efforts in the newly-created not-for-profit Center of Studies ZACHOR in Barcelona to further a research agenda which is proactive in the identification of Jewish heritage sites, primarily in Catalonia. The Center is affiliated with the Jewish Community ATID of Catalonia, Spain's only Progressive congregation.  The mission meets with the wide Jewish approval, but not constant partnership.  The organizers see the diverse community instead uniting around specific projects and issues.  But the effort remains small and under-funded.  Just how it will carry out its ambitious agenda remains to be seen.  The Center may best serve as a catalyst for more collaborative research in Spain about Jewish heritage sites.

ISJM has offered to assist the Center developing research and archaeological strategies to achieve its goals.  ISJM members – and especially scholars, curator and archaeologists - who would like to be involved in the Center's research projects should contact ISJM or ZAKHOR directly.

At present, the Center has initiated three projects:

a)    The establishment of the historic boundaries of the Montjuic cemetery.  This work, in cooperation with the local Center for Studies of Montjuic, combines archival research and topographical studies of the site. 

b)    Preparation of a book on Jewish funerary traditions

c)    Preparation of education materials for Barcelona students to teach the history of Jews in Barcelona (in cooperation with Barcelona University).

Looking ahead, the Center organizers hope to develop a research project which will identify the likely sites of medieval Jewish cemeteries throughout Catalonia.

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