Travel

As a descendant of Sephardic Jews forced to leave Spain during the 15th-century Inquisition, the author visits Toledo seeking citizenship, only to discover ties to the ancient city can sometimes be set in stone. By Mark Dapin.

Studying language, history and culture in Toledo, Spain

Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca in Toledo, Spain.
Credit: Bernardo Galmarini / Alamy

At the opening of an exhibition of art from Spain in Broken Hill in November 2012, I was introduced to the Spanish ambassador, Enrique Viguera. Since I never miss an opportunity to make friends and influence people, I immediately told him, “You expelled my family in 1492.”

Well, replied the gracious and amiable diplomat – and I’m paraphrasing here – we’re about to make that up to you.

He said his government would soon announce a scheme whereby the descendants of Spanish (or Sephardic) Jews who had been forced to leave during the Inquisition would be granted citizenship if they could prove a direct family link to a 15th-century refugee.

Of course, I had an iron-clad case. When I was growing up in England, my mum talked about the Spanish Inquisition as if it were a recent event, and the Inquisition’s originators, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, were routinely decried as “wicked”.

In 1492, given the choice of conversion or expulsion, my ancestors – or, at least, one or two of them – fled to Portugal then, via North Africa, to the Ottoman Empire, before they somehow found their way to the East End of London.

My great-grandmother Frances Bensusan was the last of my relatives to carry a Sephardic name, but my mum’s family always imagined ourselves as part-Sephardic.

In 2015, the legislation promised by Viguera passed through the Spanish parliament, and people like me were invited “back” to the country that had so recently spurned our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.

But it turned out that gaining Spanish nationality wasn’t as easy as sending Enrique Viguera a photograph of Frances Bensusan and her favourite fried-fish recipe. Suitable candidates had to be able to show a basic level of proficiency in Spanish (I’ve got two years’ university study, so no problem); pass a Spanish citizenship test (a couple of hours’ study, easy); prove their direct lineage to an expellee, with about 20 generations of birth and marriage certificates (you try it); and demonstrate an involvement with Spanish culture.

In June 2016, Britain voted to return to the 19th century and withdraw from the European Union. My personal response – as a dual Australian–British national – was to return to the 15th century and become Spanish.

Which is how I came to be in Toledo last year, studying a course called “Sefarad: Language, History and Culture in Toledo” and thereby displaying my ongoing engagement with the (very) old country.

The course, delivered in Spanish at the University of Castilla–La Mancha, was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Toledo is an ancient, walled city in central Spain, about half an hour’s train journey from Madrid. It was once the capital of the Visigoth kingdom, and later known as one of the most successful sites of La Convivencia, the period in which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in imperfect harmony, before Ferdinand and Isabella upset my mum by expelling or converting everybody who wasn’t Catholic.

Toledo’s barely spoiled mediaeval streetscapes offer passageways into lost times – but these are best navigated at dusk. In daylight, the heart of the city fills with tourists, who crowd into a curious mix of shops selling cheese, marzipan and replica swords, alongside some wildly imaginative representations of Don Quixote and Jesus Christ, including a Holy Family snowdome and a life-size Quixote made of marzipan.

But I was in Toledo to learn, and my one-week course comprised five hours of lectures each day and an optional Spanish conversation workshop each afternoon. The other students (many of whom were aged 50-plus) came from all over the world, including England, Greece, Brazil and Japan, but everyone used the lingua franca of Spanish – except the native English speakers, who sometimes opted to communicate with other nationalities using sign language.

Generally, the lectures were delivered at a simplified first-year undergraduate level. They covered the history of Toledo; the lost Jewish and Muslim communities; the mediaeval School of Translators; the workings of the Convivencia; and the prelude to the expulsion. My Spanish was just about good enough to handle the strain, helped by the fact I was fascinated by the Sephardic story.

This was particularly true after the second lecture, in which we were told of Toledo’s two great mediaeval synagogues, the Sinagoga del Tránsito and the Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca.

At the end of the lesson, I asked the lecturer, Daniel Muñoz, if he’d heard of the Bensusan family.

Yes, he said, they built the Santa María la Blanca.

I was astonished. I had no idea I had any connection with Toledo, but Muñoz believed the money for the construction of the 12th-century synagogue – widely held to be the oldest surviving synagogue building in Europe – came from the great Josef ben Susan and his no-doubt bumbling and ineffectual sidekick, Abraham ibn Alfechar.

In fact, the building was originally known as the ibn Shushan Synagogue and – as every Toledo schoolkid probably once knew – “ibn Shushan” is the Arabic form of Bensusan.

Muñoz cautioned me that there were once many Bensusans in Spain, and it was possible I was descended from the Bensusans of Sevilla, rather than the Toledo family, but this did not stop him – and the course’s originator, the redoubtable Gloria Jordán Giménez, from thenceforth introducing me as a son of the city to anyone who happened to cross our collective path.

That evening, we enjoyed an excursion to the two synagogues. The Sinagoga del Tránsito has become the Sephardic Museum, while Santa María la Blanca did time as a church – hence its spectacularly non-Jewish name. Santa María – although I still think of it as “ibn Shushan” – was designed by Muslim architects in the Mudéjar style and looks a lot like a particularly ornate mosque – apart from a single Star of David and a very large crucifix. But its stately parades of arches and blinding white walls could move even an atheist to prayer.

A woman came up to tell me how beautiful it was. “I love it. I love it,” she said. “It was made by your family.”

I happily took the credit and – since I now think of it as “the old place” – went about looking for bits in need of repair.

Only three out of 30 students on the course were Jewish. Giménez told me they had never attracted more than six, and only one man, a Canadian, had arrived in search of his ancestors (who, ironically, had founded the other synagogue). This was a puzzle to the university, whose administrators had imagined classes packed with Sephardim, but it turned out that Christians and Catholics were the most interested in Jewish history. Of course, this could be because there are more of them around, thanks to events such as inquisitions and expulsions, but it seems churlish to dwell on such thoughts – especially since we’ve been invited back.

I returned to Australia from Toledo feeling at least twice as Spanish as when I’d left.

Now all I have to do is find 20 generations of birth and marriage certificates and the next time I bump into Enrique Viguera, he’ll be my ambassador too.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Holy Toledo". Subscribe here.

Mark Dapin
is a journalist, novelist and historian. His latest book is Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History.