Bejar

Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon

Raices de Bejar (Roots Of Behar ) 

by Robert I. Behar

(revised and republished July 1, 2004)

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A sequence of events began shortly after my wife, Jo and I moved to Washington in 1995.   We joined a Sephardic congregation, Ahavath Achim, in Portland, Oregon and soon had wonderful new friends.  I expressed an interest in our family's roots and our new friends introduced me to people knowledgeable about Sephardic history. I met members of the two Sephardic congregations in Seattle, one of whom introduced me to people in Madrid, including a well-known professor and author. The excitation mounted to the point that I had to make the trip to Spain.

There were a number of reasons for the trip.  One was clear; searching the records and archives in Spain to learn about the Behars.  I also wanted visit to Toledo since several people with my Mother's surname, Levy, had been prominent scholars there.  Moreover, I had established a warm friendship by correspondence with a family of Behars who lived in Barcelona. The parents had been born in Izmir, Turkey.  I had found them through a blind lead in a World Book of Behars.

 
Hanukah lamp 19th Century

I left for Spain on March 16, 1998. I had concocted a plan of archival research although I had been cautioned against high expectations.  Professor David Romey, of Portland, suggested a visit to the town of Hervas. I had never heard of the place. A glance at a map indicated that the town was likely to be small, and that it was near the town of Bejar, my object of interest.

Immediately upon arrival in Madrid,  I called the renowned Dr. Iacob Hassan.  He offered to write an introduction to the national archivists, but cautioned that I was tackling a difficult task. He warned that only experienced specialists successfully sifted through the complex archives and suggested I hire a  genealogist.    I had, in fact, corresponded with a recommended genealogist in Madrid.  Because of the rarity of the Bejar name, he required an initial retainer of $ 1,000 US and thereafter, payment on a daily basis until the records were exhausted, with no guaranty of results. 

I next spoke to Rabbi Baruch Garzon of Madrid.  He repeated the  precautions, and suggested that I might find something of interest in Hervas. That was the second time that I had heard the suggestion. The Rabbi explained that a cultural preservation group of Sephardics met  in Hervas  periodically.  

Despite the advice , the  next morning I presented myself at the Biblioteca National (National Library) in Madrid. I explained what I needed and the Librarian expressed her regrets. She explained that the archives had been declared obsolete and were scattered about Madrid branch libraries for storage. Because an indexing system had not been developed, searching the records could be endless.  It also required dealing with ancient handwritten Castillian script.  My ambitious plan was dashed.  I  realized that my expectations had been unrealistic and I decided to make the most of the trip.

 

Castillian document, 1486

Jewish Quarter, Toledo
 

Madrid is a large, beautiful and cosmopolitan city.  I enjoyed it and the amiable Spaniards.  I visited Toledo and was particularly moved by the two original synagogues, now no longer Jewish. The visit to my new friends in Barcelona was marvelous.  It was an immediate bonding, with desayuno, a tour of the city and its Juderia (ancient Jewish ghetto) and the later comida with all of the trimmings. They even introduced me to a self-taught Sephardic antiquities historian who showed me how to identify original Juderia dwelling construction.  I returned to Madrid that night with only one day left in Spain.

I arose in the morning without any prior notion of what I would do. I dressed, had breakfast, and without having contemplated it, was headed by taxi to the bus station to purchase a ticket to Bejar and Hervas. 

The bus arrived in Bejar 3-1/2 hours later.  Bejar looked contemporary.  That seemed odd, because the countryside on the way to Bejar was full of  Roman ruins.  I had, in fact, been told by the Behars in Barcelona that they had been in Bejar years before and that there would be nothing old to see there. They were right.

 

City of Bejar, Spain
Jewish Quarter In Hervas
 

 I stayed on the bus and went on to Hervas.  Hervas is off the main road, up in the mountains. The town square reminded me of Mexican villages.  I soon located the Juderia.  It had been left as it had been originally constructed hundreds of years ago; a humble series of rock-pile dwellings, lining twisting narrow alleys, on a down-slope on the backside of the town, not easily seen. The two synagogues which had existed had been stripped and could not be identified as places of worship.  No one knows which buildings had housed the synagogues. All that exists now is a commemorative marker on one alley which says Calle de las Sinagogas (street of the synagogues). 

I stopped at the tiny gift shop in the Juderia to see if any books about the town were available.  There were none, but as I prodded, the saleslady produced a pamphlet and Xerox copies of two writings which had lain under a pile of items.  They were her last copies and they had no price marked on them. I paid what seemed fair and walked off with the things in a bag.  I returned to Bejar for a final look around and, not having seen anything noteworthy, I returned to Madrid. (5)

In my room after dinner, I finally turned to one of the Xerox copies, the one labeled  Sefarad,  written in 1997, and I began to read in Castillian.  The author, Marciano de Hervas, explained that this paper was his presentation to the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, del Instituo de Filologia.   He had researched all known records on the history Jews in Bejar. A Dyo! Here it was!  Here in this treatise, found in the ghetto of the remote village of Hervas, was the information I had sought and concluded that I would never find.  

A little background is needed here, in order to understand Sr. de Hervas' findings. The Inquisition throughout Europe had existed for centuries. The Office of the Inquisition in Spain was officially established in 1480. Life for the Jews in Spain in the centuries prior to the Spanish Inquisition was at times tolerable and at times harsh.   Life for the Jews in Sepharad (6) peaked during the late 10th and early 11th Century, and was due largely to Islamic tolerance and protection.  

 

In 1391, Catholic fanaticism exploded.  A period of sustained violence against the Jews began. It was either convert or leave. Thousands of Jews perished throughout Spain at the hands of street thugs. Synagogues were sacked and either converted to churches or destroyed.  

Toledo was an important center.  It had served as a fortress for the Romans and later the Muslims. The Jews had centuries before, during the Muslim occupation, established Toledo as their capital for religious thought and leadership.  In 1393, however, with the Muslims ousted, Toledo became a special target for the fanatics. The two synagogues had earlier been confiscated and cleansed of Jewishness and were now converted to churches. The Jews were threatened with extinction.  

Toledo

It is against this background that we can relate Sr. de Hervas' findings. In 1396, King Enrique III prevailed upon the local official of the Bejar area, Diego Lopez de Zuniga, to allow the Jews fleeing Toledo to settle, live and worship peacefully in Hervas and in Bejar.  Sr. De Zuniga received in return a grant of the lands. The lands were later sold to Juan Hurtado, who, along with his successors, was referred to as the Conde-Duque de Bejar (1).   King Enrique III knew the Jews possessed needed skills such as medicine, law, finance, metalwork, agriculture, international commerce, and a host of fine crafts. Sephardic songs, poetry and philosophy were also prized.

Jews had wandered through the area for centuries.(2)   Because of violence in Toledo, the end of the 14th century marked the first Jewish settlements in Hervas and Bejar.  Bejar became the more prominent of the two towns.  Bejar was on the old Roman road between Avila and the road which extended between Toledo and  Caceres on the south and Valladolid and Salamanca on the North. These were important military and trade routes. The Jews prospered in Bejar. They had synagogues and were visible in the community. Hervas had always been remote. 

The growth of the Jewish population by this time throughout Spain now required some innovation in naming people.  Men were often named after popular biblical characters. This popularity resulted in many Moshes, Abrahams and Isaacs in any one community and a means was needed to distinguish one from the other. Earlier in history, most people in the world had used a single name(3).  The Jews in Bejar  began adopting the town's name as their surname. So, Jaime became Jaime de Bejar. The Christians followed suit. Later, the Jews, unlike the Christians, dropped the de and a Sephardic person became Jaime Bejar.  

One footnote from my own reading:  By 3200 B.C.E., the Las Sierras de Bejar were inhabited by a tribe called the Betones.(4)   The Betones named the area BigerraBetones  means bee-keeper, and Bigerra means the place of the bee-hives Bejar may be adapted from the Castillian word abeja, which means bee. The bee-keepers, and later the townspeople, were bejaranos if they came from the area, later to be called Bejar.(7)

Why are there Sephardic remains in Hervas, but not in Bejar?  The tranquillity of the Jews in Bejar did not last. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella married in 1469, uniting the two most powerful parts of Spain.  Shortly after unification, the Inquisition took off with a madness.  In Spain, the Inquisition and its La Hermandad thugs heralded their  Limpieza de Sangre (cleansing of the blood) slogan. Blood flowed from tens of thousands of Jews in public exhibitions known as the autos de fe (acts of faith). By the time the Edict of Expulsion arrived on July 31, 1492 at least one hundred thousand Jews had died by burning and torture, another one hundred thousand were forcibly converted to Christianity.  Over time perhaps as many as 100,000 others had made their way out from Spanish ports through Portugal to Holland, Turkey and all of the Balkans and Middle East.  Several thousand Sephardim escaped from Spanish Mediterranean ports.  By the time of the Expulsion, Bejar was leveled. 

Late 13th or early 14th century grave marker from Bejar

 

All Jewish places in Bejar  were eradicated.  The prior Roman relics also fell, leaving Bejar fully Christian. In Hervas, the Juderia was sacked to eradicate the synagogues and religious icons, but the humble dwellings were left standing.  The Church in Rome later decried the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition in Spain was  terminated in 1834.  The Spanish government issued its order nullifying the Edict of Expulsion in 1968.  The Behars had long before paid heavily in their efforts to survive and leave us their legacy.

Today, with the formal expressions of friendship by the Spanish Government in 1992, we celebrate the opening of the new Jewish Museum in Bejar on September 6, 2004 during the World Summit of persons with the family name Behar and Bejar.

I would like to thank the  many people who provided the assistance. They are Professor David Romey, Richard and Judi Matza, Lou and Bernice Menashe and Sam Menashe, all of Portland, Oregon;  Elazar Behar and Isaac Maimon of Seattle, Washington; Rabbi Baruch Garzon and Dr. Iacob Hassan of Madrid, Spain; Sr. Miguel F. Iaffa and Julia, Reina and Jaime Behar, all of Barcelona, Spain; Jean Ganz of Sherman Oaks, California;  Dr. Jose Nissim. of Los Angeles, California; and my bride, Jo.

Notes

(1) One digression from Sr. de Hervas' story is that subsequent Conde-Duque de Bejar went on to achieve acclaim in battles and earned coats of arms. One such person had the area now known as Bexar County, Texas, site of San Antonio, and originally written as Bejar before the Texans changed it to Bexar,  named after him in the early 19th Century. But coats of arms were part of a heraldry that was created for Christian heroes and had nothing to do with the Jews from Bejar). 

(2)  Small Jewish communities had existed throughout Spain since biblical times, and were widespread by the time of Roman preeminence at the start of the Common Era. 

(3) Some Jews used the father's first name as a surname, such as Isaac ben Abraham, i.e., Isaac son of Abraham). 

(4)  Las Sierras de Bejar is area constituting the mountains and valleys of which Bejar is a part.

(5)  In Toledo, I found a video of the Sephardic Hervas pageant.  This recreates Hervas ghetto life in musical and play form in those same alleys.

(6)  Sepharad is the Jews' biblical and Hebrew name for their cultural existence in Spain.

(7) I have also read the name Behar could be an acronym for the Hebrew words Ben Harav, meaning Son of the Rabbi. More intriguing is the fact that Behar is the title of the first section of Leviticus 25, the story of how the Jews received further laws at Mt. Sinai.  There are scholars who believe that Behar means people of the mountain.

Disclaimer

This is not a scholarly work.  It is not based upon scientific research.  The text represents my own conclusions after having read a wide variety of published material, having observed people and places in the USA and Spain, and having reached personal interpretations of the historical events and views of other.

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