A star of David adorns the dome of a synagogue in Essaouira.
Photos by Robert Wiener
The words “Beit Hachaim,” “House of the Living,” are inside the star of David adorning the gate of the Jewish cemetery in Fez.
A Hamsa or Hand of Fatima on sale in a Rabat souvenir shop, engraved in Hebrew with the words “Rabbi Aaron.”
Simon Levy, the director of the Jewish Museum of Morocco, points to faded Hebrew letters on a photograph of an antique Moroccan coin.
Vintage tzedaka boxes for individual rabbis’ congregations stand in a display case at the Jewish Museum of Morocco in Casablanca.
June 25, 2009
CASABLANCA — At first, the conversation I heard between the Moroccan rug dealer and the American tourist sounded typical.
“Where are you from?” asked the salesman in Meknes.
“New York,” said the woman.
“But your accent doesn’t sound American,” the salesman said, challenging her. “Where are you really from? I think you are our neighbor.”
Before she could answer “Tel Aviv,” he began singing a lilting Israeli folksong: “Hinei ma tov u’manayim, shevat ahim gam yahad.”
The translation: “How good it is when brothers dwell together in harmony.”
“Brotherhood” and “harmony” are not the first things a Jewish tourist expects on a visit to a Muslim nation, but this North African country has way of overturning expectations.
It is the only Arab nation that has a Jewish museum in operation — in a quiet Casablanca suburb called Oasis, no less.
“We don’t know anti-Semitism,” the museum’s flamboyant director, Simon Levy, insisted. “We have our religion, and we do have a new problem of Islamism; it is true that some Islamists don’t want Jews.”
But, he said, “We consider this museum is open to all persons to fight this ignorance of Judaism.”
Sitting beside a hand-carved wooden bima salvaged from a 19th-century Moroccan synagogue, Levy spoke with pride about a people who “lived in every city and every village and every tribe for 2,000 years. In time of the Romans, there were Jews here, too. Before Islam, we were there.”
At its peak in the late 1940s, there were some 300,000 Jews in a country of seven million. Today, the estimates range from 2,400 to 5,000.
While others left Morocco — many to make aliya — Levy’s family remained in Fez, where his grandfather headed the hevra kadisha, or burial society. Troubled by the emigration of fellow Moroccan Jews, the museum director expressed ambivalent views of Israel, its current prime minister, and the reaction years ago to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“All Jews generally here are on Israel’s side. Nobody says, ‘Destroy Israel’,” he said. “But there are Jews here who don’t understand Netanyahu after 20 years. I don’t understand the Jews that are against Arafat. After he recognized Israel they don’t give him response, they don’t give him anything. Now we have the situation of only the war, and Jews are tired of war.”
Evidence of Moroccan Judaism and its rich history extend far beyond museum walls. Despite small congregations, synagogues still function in large cities. You can find them in Marrakesh and Meknes, Fez, Tangiers, and Casablanca. There are also hundreds of Jewish cemeteries with thousands of graves dating back centuries.
Words praising a tzadik, a righteous man, are inscribed in gold thread on the purple cover of a tomb in Essaouira, saying, “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.”
Above the locked entranceway to the cemetery in Fez is a magen David, with the ironic inscription “House of the Living” appearing in Hebrew inside the star.
A few doors away, an Arab neighbor opened a narrow door and escorted me up several steep flights of stairs and onto her rooftop. Once there, she pulled back a set of wooden boards, revealing a sharp contrast between old and new.
Below I saw thousands of tombs encased in concrete; above, a satellite dish mounted on the railing of her small balcony.
I spotted other bits of Judaica by wandering through the old walled cities called medinas. There are six-pointed stars on buildings that have been standing in dark narrow alleyways for more than 500 years. In jewelry stores and souvenir stands, handmade bronze menoras are on display. You can find the hamsa, or Hand of Fatima — an image used by both Jews and Muslims as protection against the “evil eye” in many parts of the Middle East — fashioned into necklaces and keychains, some with Hebrew lettering.
While remnants of Judaism are sporadic, Islam is ever-present. In large cities it was not unusual to hear the haunting harmonies of the call to prayer coming from four or five different directions.
Few non-Muslims get the chance to visit mosques in America. But in Morocco, I peered through doorways to see the elegant and colorful mosaic tiles that adorn ceilings and walls. But each time I approached, as a non-Muslim I was respectfully warned by guards in the doorways not to cross the threshold.
I noticed that men with little or no facial hair greatly outnumber the full-bearded, unlike Muslim countries where the religious prohibition against shaving is strictly enforced.
Head scarves among Moroccan women are common, but I saw only a few women whose faces were completely covered.
Some of the women conceal their hair and the lower halves of their faces. Others, especially in larger cities, appear totally Westernized in trendy T-shirts and designer jeans, virtually blending in with visitors from Europe, Israel, and North America.
Tour guides, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and even panhandling street people were uniformly polite and welcoming to tourists, whatever their attire.
But one guide told that me he found women with bare arms and short skirts “disrespectful to our religion.”
From his office in Montreal, David Bensoussan, the Moroccan-born president of the Unified Sephardic Community of Quebec, told me later that Moroccan Jews are unlike those in any other in Arab lands.
“Many people try to stick the image of Iraqi Jews or Egyptian Jews” onto Moroccan Jews, he said in a telephone interview. “It is not exactly the same. In Morocco, you can be a Jew in Morocco, no problem. You have 75,000 Israelis coming there every year. A lot of Moroccans have learned to speak Hebrew now because of the Israeli tourists.”
‘A big, big fear’
Although anti-Semitic moments have been part of its history, Morocco prides itself as a relatively tolerant nation.
Despite his nation’s status as a colony of the pro-Nazi French government during World War II, King Muhammad V defied orders to ostracize Morocco’s Jewish population.
But following the war, the nation’s history has been spotted with anti-Semitism. One trigger was the declaration of Israeli independence in 1948. Two month later, 44 Jews were killed in riots in two Moroccan towns.
As the French occupation was ending in 1956, eight Jews were murdered in the town of Pettijohn, and “there was a big, big fear, and people started to leave fast, fast, fast,” said David Bensoussan, the Moroccan-born president of the Unified Sephardic Community of Quebec.
In January 1961, a ship called the Pisces sank off Tangiers carrying 44 Moroccan Jews leaving the country. Twenty-four of them were children.
In the next few years, 90,000 Jews emigrated, the majority to Israel, most of the others to France, French-speaking Canada, and the United States.
Bensoussan was a teenager when his family left Casablanca in 1965 and recalls a boyhood and early adolescence “with very good memories. Generally speaking, the life was good. But you know, we were walking on a very thin thread all the time.”
A year before his family immigrated to Quebec, he remembers “a riot with all kinds of people running down the street smashing things” in his Jewish neighborhood. As people started building barricades with their furniture, a Muslim worker announced to the crowd, “There are no Jews here,” and the mob retreated.
In recent years the Jews of Morocco have also been targets of terrorism.
In 2003, 14 suicide bombers attacked a Jewish-owned restaurant, a social club, a hotel, and a cemetery in Casablanca, killing 33 civilians; all but two of the attackers died in the attacks.
But, Bensoussan said, “the Islamists are under control, more or less. Right now our king is a moderate. I believe he respects a lot of the Jewish population.”
In fact, King Muhammad VI demonstrated that respect in April by calling on Moroccans to observe Yom HaShoa, the day memorializing victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
The king described the Shoa as “a wound to the collective memory, which we know is engraved in one of the most painful chapters in the collective history of mankind…. In its depth as much as in its tragic specificity, this duty of remembrance strongly imposes ethical, moral, and political standards which will, tomorrow, be the true guarantors of peace.”
Maimon Attias, who will retire later this month as cantor at the Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, was born in the Moroccan city of Meknes and grew up in its Jewish quarter. His family left in 1964.
He said Morocco’s royalty has always had a friendly relationship with the Jewish community, with the kings supporting peace with Israel and the Jews providing the country “with a solid middle class.”
A year ago, Attias led a mission of his congregants on a tour of Morocco. Although he found the country “had changed a lot” since his youth, “it was still a wonderful place, and, despite occasional setbacks, Jews and Arabs get along well.”
“Morocco could be a role model for much of the world,” he said.
— ROBERT WIENER