Photo: On March 23rd, 2015, the Beit Rambam Community celebrated the Hajnasat Tora at the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba. / MICHAEL SILVERMAN
ARANOA ROLDAN AND HER FAMILY ARE DEVOTED MEMBERS OF THE JEWISH CONGREGATION BEIT RAMBAM, A PROGRESSIVE SEMITIC COMMUNITY OF SEVILLE THAT ENACTS ITS FAITH AND TRADITIONS AMIDST A CALENDAR OF CATHOLIC FESTIVITIES, REDEFINING LIFE IN THE CIT Y IN WHICH THEY LIVE.
SHE WAKES UP AND GETS READY FOR WORK, simultaneously making sure everything is prepared for Michael, her husband, and Luke, their three year old son. She spends most of the day in her office, teaching and interacting with her students. She returns home for her favorite moment – dinner with Michael and Luke, discussing their days. Pasta and chicken are her favorite foods.
Aranoa, 36, born in Pamplona, north of Spain, leads a simple life in Seville, where she moved at a very early age. Yet one thing makes her stand out in the city: Aranoa is Jewish.
Aranoa Roldán and Michael Silverman are raising Luke in a Jewish household, much like Michael was. Aranoa, who wears her gold neck-lace spelling the word “Israel” in Hebrew block lettering everyday, has been considered Jewish for the past five years of her life. “I am part of a much unknown culture in this city,” she explains.
The Jewish community of Seville used to be one of the biggest in Europe, tracing back from the sixth and seventh centuries during the time of the Visigoths, and stretching through the Caliph-ate of Cordoba, the independent taifa of Seville and the Almoravid and Almohadic periods. Jewish influence declined when Christian rulers of the city no longer needed their financial or educational assistance, and called for the destruction of all 23 synagogues in the city. The persecution continued until 1483, at which point Queen Isabel of Castille ordered the exile of all 300,000 Jews from the kingdoms configuring modern-day Spain, an act which came to completion in 1492. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 Jews living in all of Spain, and fewer than 200 families in Seville.
Aranoa met Michael in 2006 while he was studying in Seville from the United States. Following his study abroad, Michael moved to Seville to be with Aranoa, spending part of the year in Seville and the remainder in New Jersey. In 2009, Michael officially relocated to Seville to participate in a teaching program with the Ministry of Education. Two years later, they were married.
However, this process was not the smoothest it could have been, especially compared to other relationships.
“From the beginning, Michael was very clear that his religion was a very important factor for him,” says Aranoa. “After meeting his family in the United States and seeing their connection with Judaism and the values that come from this connection, I wanted to be part of that.”
Photo: Aranoa Roldán. / ALYSON MALINGER
Aranoa began attending private Catholic school at the age of six, though her parents al-ways taught her about the greater world around her. Although many of the values they instilled in her as a child had Catholic roots, Aranoa’s father told her and her sister that they could practice any religion they chose when they grew up. Although she was given the blessing from her family, converting was very difficult at first. In order to begin the conversion process, Aranoa and Michael visited La communidad judía de Sevilla, an orthodox Jewish congregation and Seville’s sole Semitic community at the time. But rather than help Aranoa, they simply told Michael to leave her and look for a Jewish girl instead.
“They wouldn’t even look at me,” she recalls. “I felt disappointed, and formed an idea of this unwelcoming religion in my head.” After feeling distraught by the situation, Aranoa became even more eager to learn about Judaism and search for the entire picture. “Once I saw it, I felt more comfortable and content with myself,” she remembers.
Aranoa ended up reaching out to Rabbi Geoffrey Spector, head of the congregation where Michael had grown up in Livingston, New Jersey. Rabbi Spector agreed to help with her conversion, provided they meet in person for an interview, during which she would explain the importance of converting and demonstrate her willingness to persevere in the undertaking that awaited. The process would last a year, with scheduled weekly Skype meetings in which Aranoa demonstrated her knowledge.
Reading over 70 books – ranging from Choosing a Jewish Life, to Judaism for Dummies, to Learn Hebrew today: Alef-bet for Adults – Aranoa validated her dedication to the Jewish faith. “I studied all aspects of the Jewish culture – the interior of a Jewish town, different customs, the family, the life, religious services,” she says. “And I did it all in a place where this doesn’t really exist.”
Approximately six months following the couple’s wedding, Aranoa was pregnant with their son, Luke. This started a Europe-wide search for someone to perform the traditional bris (a Jewish circumcision ceremony) and baby naming upon his birth. “I never thought I wanted to be a part of a congregation,” says Aranoa. “I already knew the orthodox community wouldn’t accept me, and I didn’t know of anything else.”
Then, they came into contact with the congregation Beit Rambam. Founded in Seville in 2012, Beit Rambam is a network of progressive Jewish families scattered throughout all of Andalusia. When Aranoa and Michael inquired at Beit Rambam about a bris, the community responded by inviting them to a Hanukkah party. Instead of just helping them with the ceremony, the congregation wanted them to have a taste of a Jewish community as well.
“The creation of Beit Rambam in a city that once was one of the greatest capitals of Judaism in the world is more than a matter of chance,” says Jorge Rozemblum, Secretary of the congregation. “There are Jewish families from countries all over the world that – for whatever reason – move here.” Jorge deems this to be the reason for the congregation’s survival thus far. Aranoa and Michael, who have been members of Beit Rambam since Luke’s birth, participate in all major Jewish holidays.
It is Friday night in Seville. Mothers and fathers laugh over glasses of Cruzcampo as their children run in circles around the tables, relishing the evening’s sunny spring weather. The workweek is over, and families are finally able to relax together. Broken bottles and lemon rinds, still littering the floor from the night before, are pushed aside to unblock the entrance of the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba, usually still closed at this time of day.
Nobody notices the succession of 25 individuals shuffling into the building for services acknowledging the weekly holiday. Every Friday evening marks the Jewish Sabbath, or day of rest – a tradition unknown by the average citizen of Seville. Due to its short life and small member-ship, Beit Rambam runs on very limited re-sources. Once inside the building, the group passes through five doors, climbs two stair-cases and uses two set of keys to reach a small classroom that the local government allows them to use on loan.
Photo: Moment of the Hajnasat Tora celebration at the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba. / MICHAEL SILVERMAN
“Picture a typical American Jewish community,” says Jorge. “People can grow up in a Jewish school, have many Jewish friends; there are people who study Judaism and a group that maintains the Jewish community. We don’t have much of that. Everything is very difficult.”
The congregation has 28 plastic chairs, one Torah and nothing else. For prayer books, they use photocopies from originals, and there is little decoration within the make-shift temple. According to Jorge, the future of this small community lies in the hope that Jewish children born in Seville maintain their Jewish heritage and one day become the new leaders of the community. “I hope that little by little the community will grow, not just in numbers, but also in presence within the community,” explains Aranoa.
She believes this can be done by increasing Seville’s awareness of Jewish culture, and by showing how this small yet committed group lives. Having transitioned from the Catholic majority to a minuscule Jewish minority, Aranoa feels that it is her duty to her new community to maintain her recently acquired Jewish traditions, and to pass them on to her son. “Like any other person, I need to be a positive influence, first for my family and then for my community,” she explains.
Although part of Michael’s reasoning for emphasizing the importance of his religion was for a Jewish wedding, it was primarily due to his desire to raise his children in the Jewish faith. Aranoa says she does not fight against misconceptions of the Jewish people, but rather tries to discuss them in a positive way.
“I don’t attempt to tell everyone I know, but I can speak about our culture and traditions so people understand the meaning behind the word ‘Judaism’.” •