Dying Jewish Marrakesh buzzes with foreign tourists

The king of Morocco’s restoration of the Marrakesh Jewish quarter is paying off – never before have there been so many Jewish tourists in Morocco. But tourism cannot mask the death of the local community. AFP report (with thanks: Ruth) :

The once teeming Jewish area of Moroccan tourist gem
Marrakesh is seeing its fortunes revived as visitors including many from
Israel flock to experience its unique culture and history.

“You’re
now entering the last synagogue in the mellah,” the walled Jewish
quarter in the heart of the ochre city, Isaac Ohayon says as he
enthusiastically guides tourists in the courtyard of the Lazama
synagogue.

“Many visitors come from Israel — you wouldn’t believe the demand!” adds the jovial 63-year-old hardware shop owner.

This place of worship and study was built originally in 1492 during the Inquisition when the Jews were driven out of Spain.

Known
as the “synagogue of the exiles”, it hosted generations of young
Berbers who converted to Judaism and were sent from villages in the
region to learn the Torah, before finally being deserted in the 1960s.

In classrooms now transformed
into a museum, fading color photographs tell the story of a
now-dispersed community, with many having left for France, North America
and especially Israel.

The caption on one sepia shot of
an old man sitting by a pile of trunks says it all: “They are travelling
towards a dream they have prayed for for more than 2,000 years.”

Rebecca is now in her fifties and grew up in Paris, but she has “great nostalgia” for Morocco and returns as often as she can.

“The
Jewish Agency began recruiting the poorest in the 1950s and then
everyone left after independence (from France), at the time of King
Hassan II’s policy of Arabization,” she says.

The Jewish Agency of Israel is a semi-official organization that oversees immigration to the country.

Before
the wave of departures, Morocco hosted North Africa’s largest Jewish
community, estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000 people.

There are fewer than 3,000 left, according to unofficial figures.

Marrakesh at the foot of the Atlas mountain range was home to more than 50,000 Jews, according to a 1947 census.

 


Succot Prayers in the Marrakesh Mellah (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP)

 

Now, 70 years later, around 100 are thought to remain, many of them extremely elderly.

Jewish-owned
homes inside the mellah were sold to Muslim families of modest means,
and the walls of the district were eroded by time.

“Sometimes
we can’t get even 10 men together for prayers,” says one woman
worshipper at the old synagogue, preferring to remain anonymous.

But
at celebrations marking the end of the festival of Sukkot, which
commemorates the Jewish journey through the Sinai after their exodus
from Egypt, and the Simchat Torah holiday, the place is buzzing with
song, dance and traditional dishes.

The worshipper says she has “never seen so many people” there.

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