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Remnants in Spain
Last uploaded : Wednesday 10th Dec 2003 at 03:21
Contributed by : James Todd


A Book on Jewish Life in Spain That Was Worth Waiting For
After 44 years, emeritus professor completes a personal study of the lost world of Jewish culture in Spain

Friday, December 05, 2003 | Sidney Markman?s latest book was 44 years in the making. But he finally has finished it.

Markman is 92 and has survived several heart attacks during the past three years. So it?s understandable that he felt a sense of urgency to publish his eighth and latest work, Jewish Remnants in Spain: Wanderings in a Lost World.

"I feel very strongly about this book," said Markman, a retired professor of art history who published seven architecture history books over the course of his four-decade career at Duke (from 1947 to 1981) and 13 years of retirement.

"It?s written as much with my heart as with my head."

The research for the book began in 1959, when Markman made his first trip to Spain.

"I was looking for churches," Markman said. "And I found synagogues by pure serendipity."

He was doing research in his field, colonial Central American architecture and urbanization. In Toledo, on his way to examine a cathedral, Markman saw a sign for "Synagogue of El Tr?nsito." Because he was personally interested in Sephardic Jewish history, the name piqued his curiosity. Markman entered the 14th-century, brick building, which had been converted into a church after its original owners were violently expelled in the late-15th century. (It is now a national monument.)

As he listened inside to a tour guide, Markman remembers, "Suddenly it dawned on me, ?What the heck is going on here? Have Jews become a tourist attraction? Has the tragedy that happened to these people who died in fire and in flame - are they now just something for tourists to talk about?"

"I got very emotional," said Markman, who is Jewish. "I ran from the building like from a fire."

"The emotional experience was so strong to me, it was like an epiphany," said Markman. From then on, whenever he traveled through Spanish cities and towns, he noted remnants of Jewish communities: the Plaza of the Jewish Quarters in Zamora, a crumbling Roman wall enclosing a medieval Jewish cemetery in Astorga, the former Street of the Jews in C?rdoba.

Some sites surprised Markman just with their names. "I look in the guide book and see and take a double take," he said. "It says, ?La Sinagoga de Santa Mar?a la Blanca,? ?La Sinagoga de El Tr?nsito.? In other words, ?The Synagogue of the Virgin Mary,? ?The Synagogue of Our Latest Transit to Heaven.? Still called -- still called -- ?Synagoga!?"

During another four trips to Spain over three decades, Markman documented remains of Spanish Jewry with a notebook, tracings of city maps and a German Lieca-brand camera.

The result -- 44 years after his original epiphany -- is Jewish Remnants in Spain, which was published last month by Scribe Publishers, a small press in Arizona. Markman, who lives in Durham, finished writing it several years ago, and has been working to get it published since then.

The book mixes history, architectural commentary and travel anecdotes in its survey of Jewish remnants in 27 Spanish cities and towns. Accompanying the stories are tracings of city maps, which Markman has labeled by hand and photographs of alleys, plazas and crumbling synagogues, which Markman took with his 1959 camera.

The book begins with a primer on the history of Jews in Spain, who lived under a series of conquering powers: the Romans, the Visigoths, Muslim rulers and Christian kings. That history largely concludes at the end of the 15th century, by which time most Jews had been expelled from Spain.

In the subsequent chapters, each devoted to a town or city, Markman draws on his architectural expertise to carefully catalog clues about Jewish communities abandoned hundreds of years ago. "Moldings above/below clerestory arcade decorated with Hebrew inscriptions taken from the Psalms," Markman notes of an interior wall of Synagogue of El Tr?nsito.

Tales from Markman?s travels, which were guided by published histories of Spanish Jews, are interwoven with the architectural and historical details.

In the northern coal-mining town of Bembibre, for example, Markman searched out the keeper of the Church of San Pedro, a former synagogue, to gain access to the building.

The old church-keeper explained that the sanctuary?s only remaining ancient object is a Sacred Heart of Jesus icon. All the others were burned by communists during the Spanish Civil War, the sacristan explained. After noting that the Sacred Heart icon had usurped the place of the Torah scrolls in the former synagogue?s east end, Markman muses, "Did the 20th-century [residents of Bembibre] revere and respect the holy image of Christ as their 15th-century ancestors would have the sacred scrolls of the Torah?"

In the town of Zamora, Markman found that the wall of a medieval synagogue now serves as the back of an auto repair shop.

After greeting the garage?s mechanics, he imagined that the three men working on a motor are "huddled about the disemboweled engine in the very spot where centuries ago men huddled around and peered into the unrolled Torah scrolls."

That kind of discovery brought the story of the Spanish Jews home to him.

"I knew the Jews had been in Spain," he said, but he needed to see the evidence for himself. Until then, "It isn?t real to you."

We are grateful to Duke University News for this review.

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