Tevye: As Abraham said, “I am a stranger in a strange land…”
Rabbi’s Son: Moses said that.
Tevye: Ah. Well, as King David said, “I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue.”
Rabbi’s Son: That was also Moses.
Tevye: For a man who was slow of speech, he talked a lot.
This is one of my favorite scenes from “Fiddler of the Roof,” the musical based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem. Yes, I am a theatre guy, through and through. It was recently said of me that no matter where I go in the world, theatre just springs up around me.
In 2018, I hung my North Shore Folklore Theatre Company on a peg and have since been traveling around Europe, developing a vision for The Liminos Project, theatre that explores the dance between the human spiritual and the human physical. The journey has taken me and my service dog, Flat Stanley, from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, France and Portugal, finally, to Spain, where I came to visit my aunt for a long weekend – my first time to this part of Europe.
Due to the pandemic, that long weekend has turned into more than a year, during which I have been renting a house in a tiny remote village, tucked in amongst the fig, olive and citrus groves that embrace the lush, rolling foothills of the Cáceres, Extremadura region. It is like walking through the pages of “Don Quixote.” Indeed, I even live on Calle Cervantes in the quaint historic village of Arroyomolinos, a Templar town, not far from my aunt’s village. Arroyomolinos de Montánchez was established in 1228 CE, with a current population of around 700. We are about three hours from Madrid to the north, Seville to the south, and Lisbon to the west. It is a hidden paradise, but with a layered, dark past.
For me, there is no escaping that I am in the middle of Inquisition country, and one can really sense it, wandering the streets of Extremadura’s cities, towns and villages. There are reminders of the vast Jewish presence from that time. Some have tried to preserve the Jewish heritage and architecture, though others have forgotten it almost entirely, lost to the mists of time.
I see remnants of Sephardic Jewry in the faces of my community, in their family names and in whispers of ancient memories and rumors of being descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee, lest they risk torture or murder. It is the all-too familiar story of our people, remembered pointedly by the Exodus story during Pesach.
The very day I arrived here, I strolled the streets of the village, taking in the Spanish sunshine and the striking architecture. I happened upon the part of town that, I was told, used to be the Jewish and Muslim quarter before the expulsion following the Alhambra Decree of 1492. No Jews have lived or practiced here in the village in about 530 years. The only indication of any Jewish history in this tiny village is a street called Calle Juderia, which translates to “Jewry Street.”
How could I not wander the old Jewish quarter, imagining what it looked like so long ago? I could almost see the ghosts of the merchants, tailors, yentes and children, still wandering the streets and alleys, waiting for someone to remember them. I whispered a little blessing to myself in their memory.
As I wandered deeper into the quarter, I passed by a little corner house that looked a little different than all the rest of the homes around it. It had an exposed blond granite archway with very faded etchings, indicating that it was at one time quite ornamented. It had the only arched doorway on the street. Nothing else was particularly remarkable about it, it was for sale, and obviously needed quite a bit of TLC. Not uncommon around here. But that doorway … something kept needling me about it.
A couple of days later, I met the village’s tourism director, who spoke some English. Between her English and my Spanish abilities, we managed to communicate pretty well. I described the house and she knew immediately which one I was referring to. “Oh, that’s the old synagogue,” she said casually. I’m sure my face blanched.
“The old synagogue … old as in at least 700 years old?”
“And it’s still standing?” I asked.
As it turns out, many of the older structures here are built of solid granite – 2 feet thick – and the tiny temple was no exception. Granite stays.
I assumed, wrongly, that the building was on some kind of historic registry, and I was surprised to see it was for sale. The tourism director said she knew someone in the family that was selling it, and asked if I would like to arrange to see the inside. So a couple of days later, I got a tour.
As soon as I walked through the heavy wooden doors under the arch, I knew I was standing on sacred ground. It had been converted to living quarters ages ago, and was kept as a rustic summer place by the family for over 100 years. When they moved to a different part of the country, no one wanted to keep it and so were trying to sell it. A concrete second story had been added in 1941, and the place, though desperately in need of work, was charming with the medieval gothic rounded ceilings intact. I could clearly see the potential … maybe this place was the reason I was guided here? The asking price was outrageously cheap, as the family didn’t really need the money, they just wanted to move it.
I will have to gain residency here in Spain in order to buy it, but they generously offered to hold it for me until that was possible.
So I wait, looking forward to hosting the first seder there in half a millennium.
Henry-Cameron Allen is an actor, musician and writer who formerly led the North Shore Folklore Theatre Company in Gloucester. He writes from Spain.