This weekend the world was greeted by the auspicious news that the Spanish village of Matajudios is considering a name-change. Why auspicious, as opposed to completely mundane? Because in Spanish—and maybe you’ve already guessed where I’m going with this, but bear with me—in Spanish, “judios” means Jews and “matar” means “to kill,” so Matajudios means Kill-Jews.
I actually passed through Matajudios once, a little over five years ago, back before the town's sudden wave of self-awareness. I was biking the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage to the northwest tip of Spain. The night before crossing into that notorious pueblo, I met a living, breathing anti-Semite. The timing was strange and felt significant. Things that I learned later made it downright haunting. And now that Matajudios is preparing to rechristen itself, I thought it was worth sharing my impressions of the place.
First, some geography: Matajudios is located in the province of Burgos, whose capital, also called Burgos, was the HQ of Franco’s fascist army during the Spanish civil war. In January, the city’s inhabitants like to wear fur coats in a way that suggests they don't miss the old regime that much. There’s something Falangist in the landscape, too: Burgos in wintertime lacks for nothing in post-apocalyptic resonance, a stark diorama of muddy wheat fields washed out by melted snow and flanked by tough, shallow hills that look like the mounds of muscle on a fighting bull’s neck.
My first stop in these environs was a town called Castrojeriz, which is carved into the side of a hill with all the grace and precision that the best urban planning and engineering minds of fourteenth-century Castile could muster. The company isn’t much better. Schopeanauer had probably never been to Castrojeriz when he said, “Amongst the evils of a penal colony is the company of those imprisoned in it,” but he captured the approximate quality of the town’s temporary residents pretty well. The only reason for visiting Castrojeriz is that it’s a stop on the Camino. To say that the sort of people who commit themselves to such a dour voyage are often spookily over-earnest, have hit some kind of rock bottom in their lives and are chronically socially maladjusted would be to use the word “often” one too many times.
There were two other pilgrims in my hostel that night: an Austrian woman with a buzz cut who loved horses and couldn’t stop talking about the importance of being a vegan, and an Irish man wearing pink nail polish. The Irish man was maybe six-foot-three and had the wiry, well-veined musculature you see on alcoholic construction workers who lift heavy things all day and don’t eat much. He had salt-and-pepper hair. He loved chocolate. I remember his name being Stephen.
The Austrian vegan went to bed early. She didn’t know it at the time, but her decision to leave the dining room rivaled for unwitting acuity the decision by J.P. Morgan, way back in nineteen hundred and twelve, to go ahead and cancel his passage aboard the RMS Titanic. It was just about immediately after she curled up on one of the aluminum bunk beds in the near-freezing dormitory of the hostel that Stephen and I saddled up to the table for a little chat about Judaism.
That was not the plan, at first. The plan was to finish off a bar of dark chocolate he had brought with him, and drink the rest of a bottle of red wine and talk amiably about nothing in particular. Stephen was quite good company. His eyes twinkled. The pink nail polish, seen through a fog of cocoa and alcohol, was appealingly twee. And if you’ve ever watched beer fizz up towards a bottleneck after the cap’s been removed, you know what his voice sounded like, bubbly and ascending. That was true even when he wasn’t interrogating anyone, as in, “Let’s have another piece of chocolate, Eric.” So we had another piece of chocolate, and another cup of wine, and our conversation buzzed along on the fuel of these twin intoxicants for some very pleasant minutes.
Then, clean out of nowhere, Stephen dropped a more or less inexpugnable stinker into the dialogue. It came in the manner of a joke. Or what he would later claim was a joke. I’m presenting it here, in any case, as close to verbatim as anything in this story:
They say a Jew would walk from Cork to Dublin to make a pound.
Yeah. That’s it. No set up and, arguably, no punchline. A sliver of folk "wisdom" from the Auld Sod. I guess. Or, maybe, given its particulars, volk wisdom. And of course, not world-historically wise either.
“That’s anti-Semitic,” I said.
Stephen looked aghast. From the rafters, the spectral members of the Matajudios Metropolitan Naming Committee cheered him on. He gathered himself.
"No, it bloody well isn’t," he said, and how dare I call him such a thing as anti-Semitic?
Me, roughly: “Well, what you’re saying is that Jews are greedy, right? That’s anti-Semitic.”
“It’s just a joke,” said Stephen, as the pale, hovering forms of the MTNC nodded sympathetically.
I proceeded to inform him that, in my view, it was not so much a joke as it was a rather unsubtle way of calling Jewish people money-grubbers. I had begun to feel, unexpectedly and very presumptuously, like a tribune for my Jewish friends, my Jewish girlfriend, my Jewish aunts and uncles and cousins, and I wasn’t about to let these distantly embattled Tribesmen and -women down. (Notice I don’t say “fellow” Tribesmen and –women; I am in terms of Goyishness right up there in George Plimpton terrain.)
Stephen rallied with a classic “I’m not anti-Semitic, but…” defense, noting with rising confidence the many rich Jews of the world, the way a prosecuting attorney might build up to a question whose answer will place the defendant at the scene of the crime.
So there I was with a bona fide anti-Semite right in front of me. We yelled at each other—I mean, really yelled—for several hours. Apologies to the sleeping Austrian vegan.
I’d like to think Stephen knew, on a certain level, that saying Jews are inordinately greedy is a slur, and that his hours-long vehemence was just a way to save face, but I’m not sure I do think that. Not with his unsteady grin, his holy fool looseness of limbs, his cracked pink nail polish.
It was, therefore, a fitting compliment to breakfast when Stephen came out of the dormitory the next morning and, fixing me with a gaze from which any evidence of drowsiness had been shaken, spat, “You and your Jews.”
When I had packed my things, and thanked our hostelier—a bearded man named Paco who made excellent garlic soup—I set off westward along the pitted highways of Burgos, hoping to forget about Stephen. Fate, alas, with its bloodhound nose for situational irony, had other plans. Not ten kilometers outside Castrojeriz, as I pedaled laboriously under the weight of my knapsack, a sign on the side of the road caught my eye. You can guess what it said.
“Castrillo Matajudios.” I had no idea what to make of it then, except to think, “This is an amazing cosmic joke.” In the next village over, some embarrassed old man with a mustache told me that “judios” referred to green beans; “matajudios” was an homage to the local agricultural sector, he said.
When I next had internet access, I did some cursory Googling. There wasn’t much to learn. An old digitized guidebook confirmed the murderous provenance of the name, but that’s about it. The internet was pretty quiet on the question of Matajudios until recently. Now, thanks to some research by the Independent newspaper in London, we know more. As it turns out, the name “Matajudios” is a relic of the Inquisition. Until the late fifteenth century, the town was called Castrillo Mota de Judios, or Jews’ Hill. (The current mayor says that’s the name the town might revert to if council votes to abandon the “mata” part.)
But why Jews’ Hill? Odd name for a medieval Spanish village. The Independent asked the mayor, whom they refer to simply as “Mr Rodriguez.” His answer was rich in historical erudition, and it sent a charge up my spine: “Mr Rodríguez says the original name came after a number of Jewish people were massacred in nearby Castrojeriz in 1035, prompting survivors to move to the Castrillo hill. A second massacre occurred there in 1109.”
Castrojeriz. The town where I met Stephen, the site of a pogrom. The creepiness still bothers me as I write this. The place turned Mota de Judios into a refuge, if only briefly. The sloping medieval village that gave birth to Matajudios. There it was—evidence of the celestial gallows humour I had suspected from the start.
I hope they change the name of the town.
But whatever happens, I have the uncomfortable feeling that Stephen is reading about this on the internet somewhere, in a hostel in Southeast Asia or Central America or Greece or somewhere else where accommodation is cheap, and laughing about the whole thing in a way that would bring back unpleasant memories.