Last April, we spent five days in Barcelona, the city locked in a three-way tie with Jerusalem and New Orleans for the title of my favorite on the planet. (Not counting, of course, New York.) While on a walking tour of the stony warren that was the city’s medieval (and earlier) Jewish quarter, we began chatting with some of our companions, who were impressed that my husband “happened” to know special blessings for certain types of places. He spoke the one for former Jewish homes or religious sites that have been destroyed—the same one we say when someone dies: “Blessed are you Adonai, source of the universe, the judge of truth.” At another corner, he spoke the one for places where God has performed miracles: “Blessed be the one who has wrought miracles in this place.”
“Did you go to yeshiva?” they asked. “Not exactly. I’m a rabbi.” “Really! Where are you from?” “Brooklyn; my wife’s originally from Massachusetts.” Really! Where in Massachusetts?”
Naturally, it turned out that our tourmates were members of my parents’ shul.
Our daughter, Bess, who’d come along, was five months old. This age, we’d been advised, was the sweet spot for travel: old enough to be pleasant and smiley, not old enough to hurl tapas from tabletops. Or to require kiddie entertainment or solid food. Or to crawl. So for what was possibly our last grownup travel hurrah for a while, we’d chosen Barcelona: a city we already knew and adored, where I speak the languages, where we wouldn’t worry about checking every last thing off the must-see list, where our noses would be buried in garlic, not guidebooks.
I also wanted to take back Barcelona, my beloved Barcelona, much the way an assault survivor takes back the night. Within a week or so of my miscarriage two autums ago, we wisely made plans to visit Barcelona and Paris. We needed something to look forward to: David had longed to see Paris, and I’d longed to take him to the city where I’d spent a summer in 1987 with my family and had visited many times since,
where my father had taught in a summer linguistics institute and I had roamed, practicing Catalan and learning my way around the twisting streets of the Gothic quarter. On our post-trauma trip, joyful as I was to watch David fall in love with Gaudi and Cal Pep and crema Catalana, I could also never forget: This was not Plan A.
Taking Bess to Barcelona this spring brought it all full circle. I carried her everywhere in her BabyBjörn. Facing out and grinning, she cut a “swath of joy,” as we called it, through the crowds of delighted passersby. At the same time, I remembered walking those same streets the year before, swaying between bliss and grief.
And if there’s one city that’s appropriate for such textured layers of memory, such mottled layers of meaning, it’s Barcelona. Blessings for death, blessings for miracles. Turn onto Marlet Street in the Gothic quarter and you’ll notice—or maybe you won’t, since the streets are so crooked anyway—that one wall of one building juts out at a particularly funny angle. Turns out that wall faces southeast, toward Jerusalem. Turns out, in fact, that it’s the southeast wall of the Sinagoga Major, the oldest known Sephardic synagogue, and the oldest in all of Europe. With foundations dating back to Roman times, it became the property of the Crown of Aragon in 1391 and of the Inquisition in 1487. Only within the last decade have its two tiny surviving rooms been unearthed, excavated, and opened to the public. There’s no congregation, but the synagogue offer tours and makes the space available for religious ceremonies. Today, more than five hundred years since the Jews’ expulsion from a country in which we thrived—and which thrived, in part, because of us—Jews travel to the Sinagoga Major from all over the world, from flourishing synagogues of their own, becoming bar and bat mitzvah, standing under the chuppah, serving as living proof of our survival.
Walk a few blocks to the grand gray building housing the Archives of the Crown of Aragon, and go around to the left side. Look at the large rectangular stones that form the walls. Keep looking. Here and there, you’ll see Hebrew letters carved into the rock. But this building never welcomed Jews. Those building stones are gravestones—some upright, some sideways, some upside down—pillaged from the Jewish cemetery after the expulsion. “Blessed are you Adonai, source of the universe, the judge of truth.”
Take the train an hour or so north to Girona, a smaller city where Jews once thrived. Its winding, hunched stone alleys have remained virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages, though the storefronts now offer handmade espadrilles and excellent chocolate. It is the birthplace of the great rabbi and Kabbalist Moshe ben Nachman, or Ramban; it is a birthplace of Kabbalah itself. There, you can walk the narrow, windowless streets—street, really—of the Jewish ghetto, whose location one block from the cathedral nods to both the Jews’ importance to the court and the adage about keeping your enemies closer. I was fortunate enough to spend a summer there, too. In 1992, while my father taught in another linguistics program at the local university, we stayed in an apartment with a grapevined balcony, overlooking a patio in the Jewish quarter containing a modern mosaic of a Jewish star. An innovative Jewish museum has been built since my stay there, but there is no synagogue, no congregation, no Jewish community. And yet, there we were, outside the door of the home where I spent the most magical summer of my life—my husband, my baby, my new family, together.
Back in Barcelona: in the back of a modern furniture store, the clear remnants of a medieval mikvah (Jewish ritual bath). On the wall of a house, embedded like a fossil, are the remnants of an arch over which Jews were said to have climbed to escape a pogrom. They tried to destroy us; we survived to bear witness. A community nearly vanished; we, representing our own—and not just in Lexington, Massachusetts—now walk in its footsteps. In these places, in this place, do we see destruction or salvation? Which blessing do we say?
I believe we say both. Redemption, happy endings, new beginnings, they—as I have learned from the birth of my daughter, and as Barcelona always reminds me—may replace suffering, but they do not erase it. The most important thing about blessings is that we say them at all.