Royal Aplomb Remains Intact as Penthouse Ripples : King of Spain’s First Visit to Synagogue in Same Scale as His First Earthquake

Times Staff Writer

The king of Spain can mark up a pair of “firsts” from his Los Angeles stay: his first visit to a synagogue--and his first earthquake.

The royal aplomb was shaken but not shattered by a little interruption called an earthquake, as a trembling arpeggio rippled the 30th-floor Century Plaza Hotel penthouse suite, where Juan Carlos I was reading, and his wife, Queen Sofia, was still in bed.

Upper-floor rooms groaned “like plastic creaking,” said one Spanish official, and the king’s military aide-de-camp rushed in to the suite to see how his sovereigns were.

“The queen felt as if she were on a plane (that was) landing,” the official quoted her as saying. “She was a little bit afraid.”


Calmly Delivers Report

Within moments, the king had inquired about the Richter scale reading and the condition of the building, and by the time the king saw the Spanish official in a corridor 45 minutes later, he told the official calmly, “The scale (of the quake) is 6.1 and the (hotel) building is built for a 7.”

By late morning, the official said, the king was joking about the temblor, and at a World Affairs Council luncheon for the king, Mayor Tom Bradley quipped, “We try to offer our visitors something special.”

Still, it is a measure of the monarch’s key role in Spain’s youthful democracy that the instant the Spanish prime minister heard the news, he telephoned anxiously about the king’s safety.


And only a life-threatening earthquake could have prompted Spanish reporters to begin their day’s stories about the trip with news of the earthquake, instead of the king’s dramatic, unprecedented visit to a synagogue--the first by a Spanish king, it is said, since Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, under an edict act that was not officially repealed until 1968.

In the last few years, Juan Carlos and his government have tried to bind up wounds that are half a millennium old, so that in 1992, when the world focuses on Spain for the Christopher Columbus quincentenary and the Barcelona Olympics, it sees a Spain that is “young, democratic and tolerant,” the king said.

At the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood--Sephardic Jews are those whose ancestors lived on the Iberian Peninsula--the king spoke in Spanish to a crowd so large that television monitors were installed in an adjacent hall so that more people could watch him speak.

The royal couple applauded the singing of 800-year-old romanzas as they sat on maroon chairs whence the king praised Jewish “contributions to letters, science and the arts during the Middle Ages"--a “rich tradition” that Spain lost when it expelled the Jews.

“The visit opens up new era,” Rabbi Jacob Ott said. “People are still on cloud nine"--among them several Greek survivors of Auschwitz who were delighted to meet the Greek-born queen, and Raoul Aglion, whose son, on a recent trip to Spain, found the name of his ancestor among the crewmen on Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria.

Ott said it is ironic that one of the few nations willing to help Jews fleeing the Holocaust was totalitarian Spain, and in 1992, Spain will host “Sepharad 92,” a rediscovery of Sephardic culture and thought, in the city of Toledo--the seat of the Inquisition.

Spain established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1985, nine years after the king, while he was visiting Washington, D.C., met with a delegation of U.S. Jewish leaders.

The king referred to those persecutions Thursday, citing the Jews’ “unjust and unnecessary expulsions, persecution and intolerance, culminating more recently in the tragedy of the Holocaust.”


Later, while he stressed the “peace and friendship” of all Spanish people, he said, “I would like finally to convey to this community the greetings of a Spain which in full conscience assumes responsibility for the negative as well as the positive aspects of its historic past.”

Stresses a New Spain

At the luncheon later, the king again stressed the theme of a new Spain, with “profound changes in the social texture,” adding that “after a period of an authoritarian regime, Spain has returned to the path that is common to the Western countries--one of freedom.”

The solemn note to the king’s speech contrasted with the lively chatter at a Wednesday night banquet at the new Museum of Contemporary Art. (Another banquet Thursday night, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, marked the end of the royal couple’s Los Angeles engagements. They leave today for San Francisco.)

At the Wednesday dinner, with guests ranging from televangelist Gene Scott to television actor Ed Begley, Juan Carlos chatted animatedly with Ethel Bradley, who was obviously enjoying the king’s company. As she later remarked to one guest, “He’s a fun king.”