Morocco: the bittersweet lingering of times past

There has been a recent effort to revive Jewish life in Morocco, but Sarah Levi, writing in the Jerusalem Post, can’t help thinking that all that remain are relics of the past. (With thanks: Lily)

Contrary to the assumption that the Jews of Morocco are all of Sephardi
origin, Moroccan Jewry, much like Morocco itself, has a varied and
layered past. Starting from the destruction of the Second Temple, exiled
Jews sought refuge in Morocco, where they lived among – and possibly
intermarried with – the indigenous Berbers. A second wave of Jews came
to Morocco around 200 CE, primarily from Greece. Jewish merchants set
up shop and communities along the coast in cities such as Casablanca,
Rabat and Essaouria.

The next wave occurred during the seventh
century during the Islamic invasion, shortly after the death of
Muhammad in 622. It wasn’t until nearly a thousand years later that the
exiled Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in
the late 1400s began pouring into the country.

From that point
on, the traditions and practices of all four waves of these Jews meshed
not only with each other but with the land they inhabited. Their
artisanship, architecture, cuisine and style of dress are noticeably
indicative of Moroccan culture.

Warding off the evil eye is
something that was picked up and has been adopted into the culture;
this is not unique to Jews but is found among many of those who inhabit
the kingdom. In addition, people pay homage to their tzadikim in the
form of “hilulas” or prayer festivals that take place annually in
cemeteries all over Morocco. Thousands of Moroccan Jews, mostly from
Israel but also from Canada, France and Morocco come on the anniversary
of their tzadik’s death and joyfully pay their respects through lively
meals, prayer and psalm readings near their graves.

While
European Jews were typically found in shtetls and praying at a shul,
Moroccan Jews lived in the mellah and prayed at their local sla’ats. To
be clear, mellahs were not a means to exile the Jews and they were not
considered ghettos; on the contrary, they were to safeguard the Jews
during times of instability.

These mellahs (literally salt
marshes) were established shortly after the Sephardi Jews arrived in
Morocco, and can be found in all four royal cities as well as cities
like Sale, Essaouira and Meknes.

Jews of Morocco have historically enjoyed a relatively quiet and prosperous coexistence with their Muslim neighbors.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that they were always considered second-class citizens within the kingdom.

Their
overall safety and quality of life were often not affected by this
lower status and many will recall friendly, almost family-like,
relationships between one another.

Sla’t Alazama in Marrakesh (photo: Sarah Levi)

 

At
its peak, there were over 250,000 Jews in Morocco, but following the
establishment of the State of Israel, those numbers dropped
dramatically to around 3,000. A majority of those remaining resided in
the seaside city of Casablanca; around 1,000 Jews still live there
today. Casablanca holds the largest Jewish community in the Arab world
and has the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. Guests can glimpse
historical Moroccan Jewry – including clothing, old photographs, ritual
paraphernalia and even a small synagogue on display. The only thing
missing is a gift shop.

The city also boasts more than 30
synagogues, a handful of kosher restaurants, Jewish schools, community
centers and a Jewish cemetery outside the no-longer-inhabited mellah.

The
rest of what remains of Jewish life in Morocco is scattered throughout
the country, mainly tucked away in the somewhat deserted mellahs in
the cities. The remains of this dwindling community are a bittersweet
lingering of times past.

However, as the Jewish population
shrinks in Morocco, there has been a recent effort in reviving these
places throughout the country, as an increasing number of organized
tours of mostly Diaspora and Israeli Jews, as well as Moroccan Jews
taking a family roots trip are coming to visit and learn.

One of
these places is the Sla’at Alazama in Marrakesh. Hidden behind an
unassuming blue door in the mellah is the oldest active synagogue in
the city.

Upon entering, an impressive blue and white courtyard
leads guests into the decorative sanctuary that is a popular spot for
tour groups and bar mitzvas.

To keep up with this surge of
tourism, artisans and merchants inside the medinas are ready to offer
Jewish tourists an array of Moroccan Judaica, both old and new. In the
bustling medina of Fez, one can purchase hanukkiot, mezuza cases, old
Torah scrolls, dishes with intricately painted stars of David and even
old dowry chests for young Sephardi brides. (“Free shipping! We take
cash, euro, dirham, whatever you want”). Also in Fez’s medina, tourists
can take a peek at Maimonides’s former dwelling place, which also
serves as a cafe, adjacent to the famous water clock.

Visiting
Jewish sites in Morocco, like the dozens of synagogues and cemeteries
scattered throughout major cities and outskirts can evoke mixed
emotions.

On the one hand, it is amazing to see relics of our
shared past intact and open to the public. On the other hand, they are
just that, relics from the past.

Despite all of this, the
Moroccan Jewish community is convinced that a revival is coming and
Jews of Moroccan descent will in fact return to the land of their
ancestors and bring life to these relics.

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