Within my Teaching Box – changing culture


Open with care…

This month’s item is a bit more complicated than most. The culture that produced it originally, was damaged so very hard in 1492 that it shouldn’t exist. And yet it does. It’s something new and something old. It’s a sign of respect from a place that showed so little of it in 1492 and, right now, it’s a handy artefact to use for teaching hen I teach cultural history, and Jewish history, and change and how to put all those things into a paragraph without too much effort.

Let’s start, then, in 1492.

While Columbus was sailing far across the sea, the Jewish world in Spain was almost completely destroyed. Ferdinand and Isabella put out an edict that created an end date for Jews in Spain. The original date was the same day (in the Jewish calendar) that the Temple fell and that other tragedies happened, so, because the rulers were very kind, they gave Jews an extra thirty days to convert to Christianity, get out of Spain, or face death.

In the centuries that followed, it became clearer and clearer that conversion wasn’t sufficient for the Spanish crown and for the Spanish Church. Spain didn’t want simply to make Spain Christian by religion, it wanted to get rid of Jewish culture entirely. If you want to follow this up, there are some very good studies using the Inquisition records that demonstrate how the inquisition looked for eating habits, family traditions and so forth to prove that someone was Judaicising. If someone was Judaicising, it meant they were returning to Judaism after having sworn Christian loyalties. For a very long time, doing things like eating salads on a Saturday afternoon or having a bath on a Friday were considered as evidence that could lead to a person being burned alive.

This led to the loss of a lot of the crafts associated with Jewish Spain. One of my pesonal favourites was filigree work in silver.

When I want to Spain in 1995, I found “Jewish pottery” and other crafts that may or may not have been Jewish way back then, but were being brought out and marketed to Jewish tourists, exploring the places their ancestors were exiled from. Amid the fake crafts were some genuine ones. Sephardi music and the silver filigree were my favourites. I asked a specialist about it when I was trying to learn why these things had appeared and she told me the difference between the straight tourist things (most, but not all, of the “Jewish pottery”) and the craftspeople who had done their homework and were reviving the old arts and crafts. I bought small pieces from all the non-breakable revivals and took pictures of a Jewish pottery shop for the way Spain addresses its lost past intrigues me.

The particular piece in the photograph is the case for a mezuzah and it is only useful for one thing: attaching a small piece of parchment containing religious text onto a doorway. It’s only usable in a country that doesn’t have violent public attacks against Jews. Or in Australia. My neighbour told me yesterday “I wondered what that thing was on your door.” He’s never asked about mezuzot before, and had no idea what they were or what they meant. In Australia most Jews don’t tend to be very public about religion, so he had little way of knowing unless he asked questions or had Jewish friends or family.

There is so much teaching potential in this one item. Modern Spain, Medieval Spain, writing minority groups in a way that will address their specific culture, how to write religion into fantasy without simply adapting Christianity, civil war and its effects (for Spain changed in this way in a great hurry after Franco), why films like the Assassin’s Creed are offensive and how to not do things like this in one’s own writing, and more. Much more. I meant to use the mezuzah case by buying the right parchment and attaching it to a door, but it’s so handy as a teaching object, along with an older one that is Ashkenazi and that was used in Australia in the 1950s to 1970s: learning is so important and the silver filigree is a path into cultures that are both close and quite foreign to most of my students.

Instead of ending on  serious note, I thought you’d like to peer into the Spanish Jewish tourism phenomenon in 1995, when I discovered it.



About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.

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