Where is Spain’s Oldest Synagogue?

Not surprisingly, it lies in the ancient capital of Spain, Toledo. Although it was built around 1180, and improved in 1260 to make it the central synagogue, Jewish worship only filled the space for 211 of the 839 years it’s existed. The temple was one of ten in that city before the 1400s. Currently only two remain. Santa María de la Blanca (Saint Mary of the White), as the structure is now known on Toledo maps, is world heritage site owned by the Catholic Church. Jews call it Ibn Shushan synagogue, once the center of the Hebrew faith in Spain and is one of the oldest remaining in Europe.

The fortunes of the Jewish people rose and fell in the Iberian Peninsula. Under the Catholics, the experience of the Jews in Toledo was feast or famine. In 1350, Pedro became king and his half-brother Enrique disputed his reign. Pedro was friendly to the Jewish community, so his brother was the opposite. Enrique and his cohorts attacked the Toledo Jewish neighborhood in 1355, killing 1200 men, women and children. In other cities, he reduced the Jewish population to zero. Later, Enrique vanquished and beheaded Pedro. Enrique II punished the Jews of his kingdom for their support of his brother.

In 1391, a priest called Ferrand Martínez preached in inflammatory sermon which incited a Toledo massacre of Jews and the destruction of the Jewish quarters, in the pogrom of 1391. This was one of many stops on Martínez’ preaching tour of Spain. This violence was 100 years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, I mentioned in an earlier post.

Vincent Ferrer (who became St. Vincent) may have a part in the history of the repurposing of the temple, but his connection is downplayed in current Catholic histories because his zeal in forcibly converting Jews is now realized to be antisemitic. The temple was converted into a Catholic church and renamed Santa María la Blanca between 1405 and 1411. In 1550, it became a convent for repentant street walkers until around 1600. Then it was abandoned for a century, followed by serving as the barracks for the Toledo military. After that it was a warehouse, if one article is to be believed of bullfighting swords, until the mid-1800s when it became a national monument.

The building has not served as a Catholic church for over 400 years, but it remains in the possession of the archdiocese of Toledo, Spain. Franco put the monument under the care of the church in 1936. Currently, it is a museum, the third most visited attraction in the city after the Cathedral and the small church that houses a famous El Greco painting. Entrance fees to Santa María la Blanca earn an average of 750,000 Euros per year.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain petitioned in 2013 for restitution of the landmark building. Sephardic Jews who have repatriated to Spain want to reclaim the beautiful synagogue. Unfortunately, under Spanish law, those who request the return of property must be the descendants of the Jewish families who founded or attended the synagogue before 1391. Since the supplicants are not genetically related, the Church is not required to comply. Considering the history of massacres and violence against Jews, especially those in Toledo in the late 1300s, a hereditary tie would be a challenging stipulation to meet.

Sephardic Jews have been offered Spanish citizenship, if they apply between 2015 and October 2019. That seems a small olive branch considering what Jewish families lost when they forcibly left the Iberian peninsula. Now several years have passed since the petition, how’s that request for the synagogue going? Not too well. So far the answer is no. However, some small sea change has occurred, because the Archbishop of Toledo and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain co-organized a worship service and conducted it in Spanish and Hebrew in the former synagogue in the beginning of December 2018. That collaboration may signal a new era of diplomacy between the Catholic Church and Spanish Jews.

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco. Olé! -Rebecca

[Dear Readers, I perused about 30 articles about this subject in English and Spanish before condensing the information into these 700 words. Many of the accounts conflicted as to the historical dates and numbers of people involved. After all, the reputation of a saint is on the line, in the case of St. Vincent. The facts above are my best investigative summary of the internet sources available. Newspapers like The Guardian carried more weight than Wikipedia articles. -Rebecca]

sinagoga de toledo 1987
Ibn Shushan Synagogue (Santa María la Blanca), Photo credit: Rebecca Cuningham






Rebecca Cuningham

18 thoughts on “Where is Spain’s Oldest Synagogue?

    1. So it seems. I thought I was about to tell another story that began in 1492, this time about the synagogue. But I found the chain of events that culminated in the Expulsion of the Jews started much earlier. -Rebecca

      Liked by 2 people

  1. “realized to seem anti-Semitic”? Trying to parse that. This is from the UK’s “Catholic Herald’s” article on Vincent Ferrer: The Jewish question, however, remains a blot on Vincent’s record. From the early 1390s he had determined that Judaism should be rooted out of Spain.

    No doubt some Jews were honestly converted by his eloquence. His virulently anti-Semitic sermons, however, sparked riots in which thousands were killed.

    In addition, Vincent was an active force behind the Ordinances of Valladolid (1412), which imposed harsh restrictions (albeit not always enforced) upon the work and residence permitted to Jews – a prelude to their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments Jane. I was being ironic; Vincent is known as a Catholic Saint, but he was a cruel man. Jews were forced to convert, and attacked by the mobs he incited into violence. Not surprisingly, Catholic histories of St. Vincent downplay his role in the elimination and coerced cultural assimilation of the Jews, however, that is what brought him fame. Uniformity of religion was more important than human life in Spain at that time.


      1. A friend turned me on to a novel called The Walking Drum by Louis L’Amour, a lot of it takes place in 12th century Spain. The setting descriptions are fascinating, an era of Spanish history that’s rarely talked about.

        Liked by 1 person

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