LUCENA, A CITY OF JEWS by Lucena de Lower
On Sunday afternoons my father, a librarian, would often sit in our living room, browsing the pages of encyclopedias, reading entries here and there. I knew better than asking him the meaning of a word.
“Look it up,” he would unfailingly say. I don’t remember how we came to discuss our last name, Lucena. I thought it was Arabic, not a stretch, considering that we come from the south of Spain.
“Lucena is not Arabic,” my father told me. “Somos Judíos. Somos muy Judíos,” We are Jews. We are very much Jews. The notion seemed so foreign and odd, I did not buy it. “Look it up,” he said.
It so happened that shortly after this, in 1992, Spain celebrated the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas, paired up with the acknowledgment and remembrance of another event of 1492, the expulsion of the Jews. That year, there were all sorts of exhibitions and publications honoring the contributions of Spanish Jews. I was living in Rio de Janeiro at the time and had befriended a Sephardic Jew, the wife of the Consul General of the Netherlands, who invited me to one such gathering. There, she introduced me to the writer of a book entitled, Raices Judías en España, Spanish Roots in Spain. Upon hearing my last name, the writer replied, “Oh, one of us.” I was stunned.
It did not take a lot of digging to discover that my father was right, Lucena was a Jewish name. In fact, his family was of Jewish ancestry on both sides, descendants of Converso Jews who did not leave Spain in 1492 but stayed, having converted to Catholicism. My grandfather, Emilio Lucena, came from the province of Cόrdoba, Spain, where his ancestors lived in a city that still bears our name.
Lucena is the Castilian form of Eliossana, Eli ossana, from the Hebrew אלי הושענא, meaning “God Saves Us.” Christian sources and Sephardic lore ascribe the foundation of the city of Lucena to the descendants of Japhet, a son of Noah. In fact, two of Japhet’s grandsons are supposed to have come to Spain. Tarshish gave Spain its biblical name, later Hellenized as Tartessos. Eliossana or Lucena is derived from Tarshish’s brother, Elisa or Elisha. There are even tales claiming that the patriarch Noah is buried near Lucena, in a mountain we call Mt. Aras, our very own Ararat.
Strategically located at the crossroads of Andalusia, amidst olive groves, Lucena was labeled “The Pearl of Sefarad” and “The Lost Jerusalem.” The medieval city played a central and unique role in Sephardic culture. Most Spanish cities had Jewish quarters, the so called Juderías. Lucena, however, was entirely populated and governed by Jews, its inhabitants having bought their freedom. The Muslims who ruled over much of Spain at that time, referred to it as Al-Yussana Ay-Yahudi, Lucena of the Jews.
Until the 10th ACE all existing yeshivas were in the Middle East. Lucena had the first European yeshiva and grew to be a beacon of Jewish learning and Talmudic studies. Isaac ibn Gayyat was its first gaon. Maimonides’s father is supposed to have attended the Lucena school. In the twelfth century, the invasion of the Almohads, a Berberic tribe from the North of Africa, marked the end of Lucena’s independence. The population was forcibly converted to Islam. Many fled and took up residence in Toledo. Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra wrote about the destruction. “My eyes cry for the city of Lucena…The tears of my eyes cry for a city free from stain…its people have been left as widows, orphans of the Law, without Scripture, the Midrash sealed, the Talmud sterile, the splendor gone…” Ferdinand the III, King of Castile, conquered Lucena in 1240, ending Muslim domination. Some Jewish exiles returned at that point. It is not clear how many Jews lived in the city by 1490. Sixty years later, the census records 15,000 inhabitants. By then, the people of Lucena were Christians and descendants of Conversos.
I have no idea whether my father’s ancestors were anusim, forced Converts to Christianity who kept their faith hidden, or whether they belonged to the ranks of the mesumad, who converted freely. From what I have learned, it really did not matter. One way or the other, Conversos were tainted by ‘the infamy of their Jewish blood.’ What is certain—because the Inquisition kept exacting records—is that the Lucenas suffered persecution. Some opted for exile, went to Portugal and fared no better. Several died at the stake, victims of religious and racial prejudice and intolerance.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s heroine wonders dismissingly; a rose is supposed to smell as fragrant with any other name. I could not disagree more. It does matter what a name means, where it comes from, and what it connotes. The story of Lucena and of the Lucenas have yielded a trove of history and legend, lost voices that revealed a forgotten inheritance and connections to roots buried deep in the soil of my country. These roots have illuminated pages of the past for me. Because of them, I no longer see that past in the same light.