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Exploring the Judaism of Morocco

  • Morocco2
Just the mention of the names “Casablanca”, “Marrakesh” and “Fez” and you conjure up images of bustling market places in these ancient cities with Arabs and Berbers in traditional dress, selling their wares.
by HUGH RAICHLIN | Dec 07, 2017

You think of heavily-laden donkeys being led through the narrow, winding streets of the medina, filled with the aromas of typical Middle-Eastern spices. You think of buckets of black and green olives and brightly coloured fabrics strung across the walls of the marketplace. 

Further afield, kasbahs (mud castles built on good vantage points, in varying shapes and sizes made of local sand and stone) blend in perfectly with the red and brown hues of the surrounding desert sands. The contours of the kasbahs are breached by the tall green date-bearing palms. 

These are the images that give Morocco the allure that draws millions of tourists each year to its shores from Europe and other parts of the world.

All this and more came to life for 10 days at the end of October into November this year when I, as the scholar in residence for Eddies Kosher Travels (www.koshertravelers.com), toured the country with a group of about 30 Jewish people from South Africa, Israel, Canada and the United States.

We were intent on learning more about Morocco and, in particular, the ancient Jewish heritage of this unique Muslim country that is bound by two different oceans on the north-east corner of the African continent.

The Jewish presence in Morocco dates back over 2 500 years, to the time of the Carthaginian state, centuries before the founding of Islam in the seventh century. When the first Jews arrived in Morocco, they settled among the Berbers and adopted their languages.

After the Roman conquest of Judaea in the sixth century, more Jewish settlers arrived in Morocco and engaged in agriculture, cattle raising and various trades.

The city of Fez was founded in the year 808 of the Common Era, and attracted a diverse population. Among the newcomers were Jews who contributed to the commercial capabilities of the new developed economy.

They settled in the Medina of Fez and formed a stable community which was an integral part of city life. The golden age of the Jewish community of Fez lasted for almost 300 years from the ninth to the 11th centuries.

Fez’s yeshivot attracted brilliant scholars, poets and grammarians. The famous Maimonides lived for about eight years in Fez, dressing as one of the local population in order not to bring attention to his presence in the city.

Our group was privileged to visit his former home, situated in a small alley off the main marketplace in the Medina of Fez. Today his home has become the site of the “Rambam Restaurant” which regrettably is not kosher.

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal in 1496, brought a large influx of Jewish refugees into Morocco. The Ibn Danan family from Spain built their own synagogue in Fez. It is in excellent condition, with beautiful woodwork and beautifullamps providing light.

We also visited the grave of the famous Sol Hachuel who, when she was 17, was falsely accused of apostacy (abandonment of religious or political belief) by a Muslim neighbour (whose advances were rejected by her). He claimed that she had converted back to Judaism after having converted to Islam, a capital crime.

Despite many pleas to her - by the rabbis and others in the community - to rather convert to Islam than be put to death, Hachuel chose to die a martyr’s death rather than forgo her Jewish faith.

To this day, Jews refer to this young heroine as "Sol ha-Tzaddikah" (The righteous Sol), and the Arabs continue to refer to her as “Lalla Suleika” (the holy lady Suleika). Her grave, which is in the cemetery in Fez, remains a place of pilgrimage for both Jews and Muslims alike. They are in awe of her tremendous courage in remaining true to her faith.

In 1940, the Nazi-controlled Vichy government issued anti-Semitic decrees, excluding Jews from public functions. It will always remain to the credit of the king of Morocco of that time, Sultan Mohammed V, that he refused to apply these racist laws. He is quoted as saying: “We have no Jews in our country, only Moroccans.”

In 1948, approximately 265 000 Jews lived in Morocco. Today there are only approximately 3 000 Jews in the entire country, mostly in Casablanca, but also in Fez, and other cities.

We were extremely privileged to have met with the only Jewish adviser to the present king of Morocco, Mohammed VI. His name is Andre Azoulay. Azoulay advised us that he holds a record in the Guinness Book of Records as being the longest serving adviser to two kings in Morocco - 27 years. He served King Hassan II for 10 years and King Mohammed VI for 17 years.

He told us that he was a proud Jew, and simultaneously, a proud Moroccan. He has made it his life’s mission to show that it is possible to bring Muslim and Jewish culture together. This is shown in an annual music festival which takes place in the ancient city of Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador, where Jews and Muslims create harmony through the universal language of music.

Our group brought the “Shabbos Project” to Marrakesh for the first time in history.

We spent a wonderful Shabbat with Rabbi Jackie Kadosh, and his rebbetzen Frederica, who have led the community for many years. It was truly a unique and unforgettable experience to contemplate that we were in a Muslim country and were able to experience Shabbat in the city with such acceptance and tolerance of the locals.

In Casablanca, we visited a religious Jewish day school where all the children wear kippot in a beautiful school with modern facilities. There are approximately 130 children in the school.

In Rabat, we visited the ancient synagogue in the mellah (Jewish quarters). Two sisters, Rachael and Sarah who now live in Israel, had returned to visit the synagogue in which they had grown up.

They left Morocco in the early 1960s in the middle of the night, with only a small suitcase each. They were on the 12th voyage of the boat known as the “Egoz” which tragically sank on its 13th voyage ferrying Jews out of Morocco.

Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar (known as the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh) born in Meknes Morocco, is one of the most famous commentaries on the Chumash. Rabbi Isaac Alfasi Ha-Cohen, (1013-1103) a Talmudist also known by his Hebrew acronym (Rif) who spent the majority of his career in Fez (hence his name “Alfasi” meaning “of Fez” in Arabic).

Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, also known as the “Baba Sali” a miracle maker, has become legendary to Moroccan Jews and made aliya from Morocco in the middle of the 20th century.

My enduring memory of Morocco will always be the experience of walking through the streets of Marrakesh on erev Shabbat, and Shabbat day, dressed in our Sabbath best and donning kippot, feeling warmly welcomed by the local Arab and Berber population with whom we interacted.

It is what I imagine the world will experience in the times of the Messiah!

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