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Reflections from Morocco

07/08/2022 12:15:51 PM


Rebecca Abbate


Over the past week in Morocco, I have been piecing together a very wobbly understanding of the Jewish history in this country. I see signs of Jewish presence everywhere. In the first century Roman ruins of Volubilis, for example, one can see epitaphs engraved in Hebrew on ancient stones. There are synagogues all over the country, many of them recently restored, thanks to efforts by King Muhammad VI and the Jewish Heritage program that he launched in 2011. Google will tell you that historians disagree about when Jews first arrived in the Maghreb, with theories going back 3,500 years, or as recently as 70 CE, but everyone agrees that Moroccan Jews are treasured members of the current kingdom and an important part of its history.

In the beautiful city of Chefchaouen, the locals agree with the guidebooks that the city’s signature blue color was introduced by the Jewish population who migrated there in the wake of the Alhambra Decree in 1492. That same blue can be found in the old Jewish quarter in Fez, which my guide happily told me was a remnant of the much loved and much missed Jewish community that had been an integral part of the city for hundreds of years at least. In many cities, an old Jewish quarter, or Mellah, can be easily located, as they were often attached to the local Royal Palace and  they feature external balconies to facilitate conversation from home to home. There is a massive pottery workshop in Fez where the Star of David can be seen everywhere: on kiddush cups, silver tea sets, even menorahs with painted messages in Arabic underneath. A weaver in the same city proudly showed me his handwoven collection of agave silk prayer shawls. I purchased a bronze Hamsa with a Magen star carved into it in the Kasbah of Tangier, and the vendor eagerly showed me a silver napkin holder depicting two men carrying massive grapes on their shoulders, presumably to present to Moses and the tribal leaders in the wilderness. Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the number of Jewish artifacts, the affection with which Moroccans speak of the Jews who moved to Israel and the ones who are still here, the stars of David that appear everywhere, in blue tiled walls, on handmade silver Seder plates, even some on the inside of a Koranic school. 

Our program guide told us that, whenever he has a group of guests from Israel, the police call him at every hotel along the route, to make sure that they have arrived safely. In 2020, King Mohammed VI established diplomatic relations with the state of Israel, and one week ago today, he insisted that Israeli-Palestinian talks resume as a condition for visiting the country, trying to do his part to foster peace in the Middle East. Descendants of Moroccan Jews who left the country between 1948 and 1961 return often. As one tour guide said, “They are part of us, and they will always be Moroccan.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, a similar feeling of loss is palpable. Before reaching the Promised Land, the Israelites have to bury Miriam, along with her joyful music and life giving wells, and Aaron, the man who so carefully connected them to God through structured temple worship and sacrifice. Soon after, they learn that Moses, too, will die before reaching the Promised Land. The Israelites, perhaps a bit like the Moroccan Jews who left for Israel decades ago, must look to their memories, their inner compass and written laws, the artifacts that remind them of their meaning, as they move away from all that is familiar and into a future where much is promised but little is known.

I will continue to look for the Jewish threads in the rich tapestry of Morocco this coming week. In such an ancient country, still inhabited by many nomadic families who live in tents, it is easy to imagine the Israelites of yesteryear, the comfort that they took in community when they knew that the winds could whip up at any moment, the sun and the sand could blind their eyes. They, too, left a plethora of emotions in their wake: nostalgia for a simpler time, anger at the injustices heaped upon them, admiration for their resilience, their artistry, their written works, their joy. Blue has always been my favorite color, but Morocco has given it new meaning. Going forward, I will be reminded of two communities of Jews, one pushing ahead in the wake of the loss of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, the other moving on to the Promised Land and leaving oh so much love and loss in their wake, both carrying the wisdom of their ancestors into a sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying future… Their losses did not hold them back from stepping into an unknown yet promising future, and I will forever stand in awe of their courage. Shabbat Shalom!


Mon, December 5 2022 11 Kislev 5783