The Many Lives of One of Spain’s Most Magnificent Remaining Places of Jewish Prayer

Jews first settled in the city of Toledo no earlier than the 7th century CE, and in the Middle Ages it became one of Spain’s great centers of Jewish life and the home of such influential rabbis as Asher ben Yeḥiel. In the 14th century, a local grandee named Samuel ben Meir ha-Levi Abulafia—who at the time was the treasurer of the Castilian king Pedro the Cruel—built a new synagogue in the city. Mia Amram describes the remarkable history of this structure, which still stands today:

One of the many things that made this synagogue interesting was the fact that in the 14th century, Spain had actually decreed a ban on all construction of Jewish educational institutes and synagogues. However, Samuel’s close relationship with King Pedro (cruel or otherwise), meant that he was able to find some legal loopholes, and more importantly, get away with them. . . . Samuel [also] quite deliberately disobeyed the regulations requiring synagogues to be plainly decorated, smaller, and lower than churches, and once again King Pedro looked the other way.

The rectangular prayer hall has a twelve-meter-high ceiling and is decorated lavishly in a mix of styles. Hebrew inscriptions can be seen even till this day which extol both King Pedro and Samuel ha-Levi. Arabic inscriptions and Psalm passages are also apparent on the walls, next to the ha-Levi coat of arms and lots of magnificent windows.

During services, a second-floor gallery was set aside for the women. . . . Contrary to the highly decorated interior, the façade of the synagogue was constructed of brick and stone, and was relatively unadorned, in order to draw less attention to the illegal structure, despite the fact that its towering roof raised the whole synagogue somewhat above all the nearby structures.

[After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492], the synagogue was turned into a church. As if they had not inflicted enough harm already, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella donated the building to the Order of Calatrava who turned the structure into a church housing a Benedictine priory. The name “El Transito,” which honors the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, was given to the building during its stretch as a church, but ironically the synagogue has still kept this name until today, which is why it is known as the “Synagogue El Transito.”

Read more at The Librarians

More about: Anti-Semitism, Medieval Spain, Synagogues

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus