Girona, Spain — FOR Aida Oceransky, life as a Jew in Spain today isn't the silent burden it used to be. When she emigrated here from her native Mexico in 1968, Oceransky didn't dare talk about her family's Ukrainian Jewish past. All the Jews she knew in the 1970s and '80s went to Mass. Even a decade ago, "you couldn't find anything on Judaism in Spain -- a magazine, a book, nothing," she said.
Now, more than five centuries after Spain violently expelled its Jews, the country is experiencing a revival of interest in Sephardic heritage -- and neither Oceransky nor the 40,000 other Jews living here feel as though they have to whisper about their identity.
In fact, Sephardic culture has seen a boom in Spain in recent years. There's Noah Gordon's international bestseller, "The Last Jew" (set during the Spanish Inquisition), and the 2004 Spanish comedy "Only Human", as well as conferences, music festivals, and even restaurants specializing in Sephardic cuisine. The biggest splash is the government-sponsored initiative known as Caminos de Sefarad, or Sephardic Routes, a network linking 15 medieval Jewish cities across Spain on the first-ever travel itinerary through the diaspora in Spain.
Unlike Berlin and Prague, Czech Republic, and other European cities where a lost Jewish heritage has been a cultural steppingstone for years -- and where old Jewish quarters, synagogues and cemeteries are almost mandatory tourist stops -- the curiosity in Spain's Jewish sites has grown up almost overnight.
A growing number of tourists is coming to Segovia, a city in Spain's Castile region, not only to see its towering Roman aqueduct but also to get a glimpse of a rediscovered Jewish past. "People want to see the Jewish quarter because it's practically unknown -- and because they don't expect it," said Marta Rueda, a guide who once led former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on a tour through Segovia's old streets.
Granted, the Jewish cemetery stands on an unmarked hill opposite the town; the old synagogue has been turned into Corpus Christi Church; and about 100 Jewish homes were leveled centuries ago to make way for a vast Gothic cathedral. Nowadays, the most notable Jewish features of Segovia are its modern eateries, such as the Menora Cafe and El Fogon Sefardi restaurant. Nonetheless, the mere investigation of its Jewish legacy "is something new."
"Even people from Segovia never learned about the Jewish quarter," Rueda said. "Now people want to know their history."
Spain's relationship with its Sephardic legacy has in many ways been a centuries-long struggle against silence. In the Middle Ages, Jews played a major role in the country's success -- as astronomers, doctors, merchants and aides to the Catholic monarchy -- until King Ferdinand exiled them and the Muslims with the expulsion edict of 1492.
In the 19th century, Jewish merchants started to trickle back in from Greece, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. They built the first modern synagogue in Madrid in 1916 and many fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, which ended with Gen. Francisco Franco taking Fascist control of the country in 1939.
Decades of religious oppression forced the community into the background. It wasn't until 1968, after laws had loosened, that the Spanish council of Jewish communities emerged, giving shape to the new community.
In more recent years emigration from Morocco and Latin America increased Spain's Jewish population to about 40,000. In 1992, Franco's successor, King Juan Carlos I, addressing members of a Madrid synagogue on the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition, formally welcomed the "return home" of Jews to Spain. Since then, Jewish culture, history and identity -- like those aspects now visibly promoted on the Sephardic Routes -- have enjoyed an almost reinvented status.
"Everything remained unrecognized about the Jews for so many years," said Ana Maria Lopez, director of the Sephardic Museum in the artist El Greco's famed city of Toledo. The museum is adjoined to El Transito Synagogue, a masterpiece of 14th century architecture with ornate rafters and biblical wall inscriptions. Visits to the synagogue and museum have doubled in the last 10 years, now up to 300,000 annually, due to an interest that Lopez believes signals a deeper change in Spaniards' perceptions about their past.
"People realize there were others besides them -- and that they were important," she said.
That realization is partly the result of the Network of Jewish Quarters in Spain -- Sephardic Routes, which has worked with government, schools and businesses to highlight Jewish heritage.