Tag: Jews of Morocco

The last Jew of the Marrakesh mellah

The last Jew in the Marrakesh mellah is a cloth salesman, Mushi Halioua. La Prensa Latina met him:

Mushi Halioua with a bolt of cloth in his shop

Halioua’s shop as become popular with tourists, who exchange a few words with him in Hebrew.

He has even received the chief of the Israeli General Staff, who included his shop in his official visit to Morocco at the end of July. “I’m the only one, there’s no one else,” he says.

Halioua remembers growing up among many Jews in Zagora, but they all left in the 1960s, he says.

“All these stores that you see around here belonged to Jews. In the neighborhood there were no Arabs before,” he says, sitting at a table surrounded by colored fabrics that are sold by the meter in a country where many people still make their clothes in dressmakers and tailors.

He remembers how the Jewish quarter, a crossroads of streets in the ancient city, was closed every Friday and reopened on Saturday night for Shabbat. “There was a wall and the Muslims did not enter.”

Halioua says he does not want to go live in Israel, where he had already tried living in the 70s. “It didn’t go well and I came back, I work very well here,” he says.

His relationship with his neighbors is very good. “I don’t work with the Jews, but with the Arabs,” he adds.

Halioua, who lives with his wife on the top floor of his store, remembers how in Marrakech “there were many synagogues and there are only two left.”

One of these is Alazmah, located a few blocks away from Halioua’s shop. It was built by the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, earning it the nickname of ‘the synagogue of the deportees’.

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Morocco recognises Judaism as component of culture

Acting on ‘royal instruction’ from King Mohammed VI, the Moroccan interior minister proposes reorganization of the country’s Jewish community groups, The Times of Israel reports. This is the latest development in an official policy to promote Judaism as part of Moroccan culture. In 2011, the Hebraic component was acknowledged in the Constitution:

Mohammed VI on a visit to a synagogue

RABAT, Morocco — Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has authorized a reorganization of the country’s Jewish community, a “component” of national culture in the North African country, according to the royal palace.

The measures were presented to a council of ministers meeting attended on Wednesday by the country’s monarch and crown prince, at Rabat’s royal palace.

Acting on “royal instruction,” Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit proposed the establishment of new representative bodies, acknowledging the Jewish tradition as “a component of the rich Moroccan culture,” according to the official news agency MAP.

Race is on to preserve Sephardi women’s culture in Morocco

As the Jewish population of Morocco ages and dwindles, the race is on to record the rich oral  heritage passed down by Jewish exiles from medieval Spain. The songs reflect this history but also include ballads and lullabies. Aida Alami reports for the New York Times:(with thanks: Michelle, Leon)

Cambridge scholar Vanessa Paloma Elbaz: she has inventoried over 2,000 voices, videos and photos

TANGIER, Morocco — They sang to put their babies to sleep, or in the kitchen preparing Purim cakes. They sang in courtyards at night when the men were at synagogue for evening prayer, songs of love, loss, religion and war.

Today, most of those women, members of Morocco’s dwindling Jewish population, are gone. But they have left behind a rich historical trove of northern Judeo-Moroccan Sephardic culture, passed on from one generation to the next through oral history, that scholars of Judaism are striving to preserve before it disappears.

These fragments of history tell powerful stories from times long past, before the Moroccan-Jewish population that once exceeded 250,000 dwindled to the few hundred remaining, after several waves of emigration.

The women were for centuries confined to Jewish quarters, captivated by a world very distant from theirs, singing ballads that eventually became tonal elements of their culture. They latched on to music to preserve their identities and traditions.

The songs, known as “romances,” are a heritage of the Reconquista, or Reconquest, when Christians in medieval Spain waged a centuries-long battle against Muslim occupation. As the Reconquista was nearing its end in 1492, Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled. Many of them ended up in Morocco, bringing their Spanish heritage with them.

The songs reflect this history, with many taunting the Spanish rulers and priests who drove them out. Even though northern Moroccan Jews spoke a hybrid language of Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic, the songs are in Spanish.

But they are not just political statements. They are ballads and lullabies with metaphorical lyrics that do not just speak of history, but are deeply intertwined with personal memories and cultural traditions.

Oro Anahory-Librowicz, a Moroccan-born expert in Judeo-Spanish music, who donated 400 recordings to Israel’s National Library, says that the songs weren’t originally Sephardic but were learned from Spaniards and retained in the culture even as they disappeared in mainland Spain.

“It’s a way of preserving something,” she said over a Zoom interview from Montreal, where she moved in 1973. “Natural transmission isn’t possible in a community that is dispersed all over the world. It has become a sign of identity. Women recognized themselves in this Hispanic heritage and it allowed them to retain a dimension of their Judeo-Hispanic identity.”

One Friday in February, in the hours before sunset and Shabbat, three friends got together as they have on many occasions at the apartment of a pillar in the community, Sonia Cohen Toledano, which overlooks the bay of Tangier in the northern tip of the country, only a few miles across the sea from Spain.

In animated conversation, they interrupted one another frequently, often finishing the others’ sentences. Sifting through a pile of black and white photographs, yellowed with age, they remembered happy times and talked about the shrinking of their community and their urgent need to make the past part of the present and also of the future.

The three women are among the fewer than 30 Moroccan Jews now living in Tangier.

And during many of their gatherings, they end up singing romances.

That day, music rose in the air as they clapped and held hands, smiling while they sang. The sometimes joyous and other times deeply romantic words in Spanish filled the spacious living room, as the women sat on a couch, sipping Moroccan mint tea, in a moment that felt like traveling back centuries.

“We heard them at weddings all the time,” said Julia Bengio, 83. “My mother sang in front of me, but I never thought about telling her, ‘Come here, let me write the lyrics down.’” But she did find cassette recordings of her mother singing and has transcribed the lyrics so they won’t be lost.

“We were never explained what it was, but later in life we looked into it and I want to preserve them,” she added. “Simply not to forget.”

The women sometimes read from handwritten notes, or referred to YouTube videos of the music to jog their memories.

One song mocks a priest who impregnates 120 women. In the song, all the women give birth to girls, except for the cook (from a lower social class), who has a boy. It so happened that she asked the priest explicitly to get her pregnant, and the story connects to some interpretations of the Talmud that says that when women have sexual pleasure, they conceive boys.

Todas paren niñas, la criada varón.

Ciento veinte cunas, todas en derredor,

Menos la cocinera que en el terrazo colgó.

(“They all give birth to girls, And the maid to a boy. One hundred and twenty cradles, all around, except the cook’s child who hung on the terrace.”)

The central message: If their husbands want boys they should give pleasure before taking pleasure.

Mrs. Cohen Toledano, dedicated to keeping connections with the past, is a treasure trove of everything related to northern Morocco’s Spanish Judeo culture

“Before we had aunts, cousins, family here,” said Mrs. Cohen Toledano, 85, who is the only one of 16 children in her family who stayed in Morocco. “Slowly, everyone left. We are so few that we are close. We see each other all the time. It’s hard, but we get used to it.”

Her home is a mini-museum of Spanish-Judeo culture, a mix and match of embroideries, artwork, photos and a collection of ancient dresses, some over 150 years old — pretty much anything she could get from departing Jews or that she could dig up in flea markets. “Every time someone died, they left me something,” she said.

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, an American scholar of Judeo-Spanish music at Cambridge University, has spent the last 15 years collecting and archiving the voices of aging Jews in Morocco. To date she has inventoried over 2,000 entries (mostly recordings, and some photos and videos); a pilot of the archive is available online. Dr. Paloma Elbaz has family roots that date back five generations in Morocco.

When she was a child living in Puerto Rico, she learned her first romance while singing in a children’s choir. That stirred her interest in Judeo-Moroccan history, and while she no longer lives in Morocco, she still visits regularly and records as much as she can.

“If we think we have no written text from the women, we are wrong,” she said. “Some archives were sitting in Spain and nobody was paying attention to them.”

“It’s about learning how to read them,” she added. “They sent all kinds of messages. If they were sad about something, they would sing some of these songs to pass a message on to their husbands.”

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AB Yehoshua: great author with deep Middle Eastern roots

One of Israel’s greatest authors, AB Yehoshua, passed away today at the age of 85. The author of 12 books, he spoke fluent Arabic and was from an old Jerusalemite family on his father’s side. His mother was Sultana Rosilio and her family was from Essaouira, Morocco. Obituary in The Times of Israel:

Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in 2013. (Martine Halban)

Abraham Gabriel Yehoshua, known to many Israelis as “Buli,” was born in British-controlled Jerusalem in 1936, the younger of two children. His father, Yaakov Yehoshua, a fourth-generation Jerusalemite, worked as a translator for the Mandatory government of Britain. He spoke and wrote Arabic fluently, authoring 12 books in that language. His mother, Malka, one of 11 children, was born in Essouira, Morocco. She was brought to pre-state Israel by her widowed father in 1932, and was quickly, and rather unhappily, married to Yaakov Yehoshua.

In Yair Qedar’s recent documentary, “The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua,” the author says that his parents’ somewhat acrimonious marriage was what cemented in him the notion that “My wife, I will love. And I will not compromise on that matter.”

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Jewish tourists stage Meknes ‘hillula’ for first time since 1960s

Morocco is reaping the tangible  benefits of ‘normalisation’ after Jewish tourists of Moroccan origin returned to the Jewish cemetery of Meknes for the first ‘hillula’ since the 1960s. The cemetery has been recently restored, one of 160 Jewish sites renovated by the King of Morocco. But the local community in Morocco itself stands at 1,500 Jews and there is little sign of its resurgence.  This AFP report has been widely picked up by the international media (With thanks: Leon):

The Mellah, or Jewish quarter, of Meknes

“This gathering is proof that you can turn a field of ruins into a place that keeps alive the memory of Moroccan Jews,” said Serge Berdugo, head of Morocco’s Jewish council.

Rabat’s normalization with Israel prompted only muted protests in Morocco despite widespread public support for the Palestinian cause.

Yousseph Israel, from the northern city of Tetouan, said Morocco “has always been an example of religious co-existence.” He is a judge at the Hebrew court in Casablanca; Jews in Morocco are allowed to have family cases settled under Jewish law.

Israelis were allowed to visit the kingdom even before relations were reestablished. Morocco is now hoping that newly-established air links with Israel will boost the number of Jewish visitors from around 60,000 per year to as many as 200,000.

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Postcript: Normalisation, as represented by the Abraham Accords, can work in both directions. Here’s a Royal Air Maroc travel agency ad. designed to encourage young Moroccans to make the trip to Tel Aviv. (With thanks: Ariel)


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