The Jewish district, also called “El Call”, is located in the middle of the Gothic Quarter. It starts at the northwestern corner of the Plaça Sant Jaume. The name “call” means “narrow street” or “lane” and was used for all the narrow streets in the two “call” areas called Call Major and Call Menor.
The Call Major was inside the old Barcelona Roman city walls. The Call Minor was outside the Roman walls. The call was an enclosed area, but the Jewish residents also had houses and business outside the call, as well as properties and farmland outside Barcelona and a Jewish cemetary on Montjuïc hill which still bears the name “Montjuïc” meaning “Mount Jew.”
In the early thirteenth century, the population of the “Call” had grown and the neighbourhood was too small, so another area was designated this time outside the walled city, known as the Call Menor. This consisted of five blocks of houses, a plaza and a synagogue. The synagogue was since converted into a church and convent and the square no longer exists. Very little remains of the buildings.
While Barcelona was never the largest Jewish center in Spain, it did play a large role in the history of Jews in Spain. Long before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Jewish culture flourished throughout the Iberian Peninsula.
In the 13th century about 4,000 Jews were living in Barcelona, which is about 15% of the former town population, with most living in this Jewish quarter. A majority worked as doctors, scientists, scholars, merchants or money lenders for the Catalonian aristocracy and the crown. As a result of this and because of trading contacts to the Middle East and North Africa they were an important component of the economy.
In 1424 all Jewish families had to leave Barcelona because of the persecution of the Jews. During the expulsion of the Jews in 1424 by Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella valuable trading contacts and knowledge was lost and the Jewish population was decimated. The king ordered that the size of Jewish synagogues be no larger than the smallest Christian church.
This is the reason why many important and remaining synagogues are very small.
In the center of this district is Spain’s oldest synagogue and one of the oldest ones in Europe. The synagogue is called Sinagoga Major de Barcelona. It has Roman foundations and is thought to have existed in some shape or form since the 5th century. During a research project on the Jewish history of Barcelona, the true origins of this then forgotten building were discovered. After the expulsion of the Jews, the building had many uses including a storeroom and 17th century apartments on top. The synagogue was restored and finally opened to the public in 2002. At the entrance a small door leads you down to the original street level of the Roman Foundations. Today regular services are not held in here, but special ceremonies do take place from time to time.
Today narrow streets lined with 14th and 16th century buildings punctuate the tiny ancient neighborhood. Remains of the female Jewish public baths can be seen nearby in the basement of the pleasant Café Caelum at the intersection of the streets Banys Nous (which means New Baths) and Palla. The men’s baths are hidden in the rear of the furniture stop S’Oliver. There are also now four active synagogues, an odd kosher store, and a gradual influx of foreign Jews. Judaism is more present now than it has been in over 500 years.
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