We were sitting down to dinner under the stars in the palm and citrus tree-filled courtyard of Si Said, a riad in the medina of Marrakech, when manager Luc Fougère appeared through one of the arches and purposefully placed a chanukiah, with all of its nine candles alight, at the end of the table.
“We” were a small band of Jewish journalists, being whisked through “Jewish Morocco” at breakneck speed. Fougère was the genial general manager of Angsana Marrakech, a collection of six luxury riads (large private townhouses) in the ancient heart of the city, complete with trickling fountains, limpid pools, exquisite zellij tilework and an exotic atmosphere straight of One Thousand and One Nights.
“I’m not Jewish,” explained Fougère, “but a Jewish friend of mine gave me this [the chanukiah] a while ago. I don’t know what it’s for specifically, but tonight seems the perfect opportunity to use it.”
His chanukiah solecism was good-naturedly ignored by the group. This was, after all, a touching gesture even if eating in the sultry heat of the evening to the sound of gnaoua (Islamic and West African music) at a table now lit solely by Chanukah candles in mid-May was a slightly odd experience.
The Jewish Past and Present
Such courtesies and experiences are not unusual in Morocco, though. The country was once home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world, and Jews have lived here – largely free from oppression apart from some rocky periods – for more than 2,000 years. And even though most of Morocco’s Jews left the country either at the time of the creation of the state of Israel or later, after the Six-Day War in 1967, Jewish life has continued to exist untrammeled in the major cities, namely Casablanca, Marrakech and Fez.
The number of Jewish visitors to Morocco is now soaring for three reasons: the ever-increasing support from philo-Semitic Moroccan King Mohammed VI, the 2020 normalization agreement following the Abraham Accords between Morocco and Israel, and the easing of Morocco’s harsh Covid lockdown.
And Morocco, where travel and tourism account for nearly 20% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, is taking full advantage, rushing to accommodate Jewish travelers as never before. On a practical level, Royal Air Maroc is already operating four weekly non-stops between Casablanca and Tel Aviv in a codeshare agreement with El Al, as well as regular flights from New York, Boston, Washington and Miami, while Israeli airline Arkia now flies nonstop between Tel Aviv and Marrakech. Moroccan Jewish sites – already the beneficiaries of generous financial support from the king pre-pandemic – are scrubbing up ever more glossily. And, to cap it all, the hospitality industry seems to be on a crash-course learning the laws of kashrut.
The very minor downside of this surge of Jewish interest can be a tendency to amplify slim Jewish connections to promote tourism, so you need a top-caliber, government-accredited guide (as opposed to a locally-licensed, over-imaginative one) to make sure you’re getting facts and not fiction. We found our guide, Zak, in Zakaria, who is based in Marrakech and is often called upon to escort visiting dignitaries. Zak speaks eight languages including Arabic (naturally) and Malayalam, and is currently teaching himself Hebrew. “Boker Tov,” he cheerfully greeted us each morning of our week-long tour, as if we were native Ivrit speakers ourselves, rather than Americans.
Monday in Marrakech
At the start of our trip, we went to the mellah (Marrakech’s Jewish quarter) – where until the 1950s 40,000 Jews lived cheek by jowl. We jostled with other groups of American, Israeli, French and Spanish-speaking tourists to admire the restored La’Azama synagogue located at No. 36 Talmud Torah Street and dates, remarkably, from 1492. In 2016, King Mohammed VI, following the repair of the country’s myriad Jewish cemeteries under his aegis five years earlier, earmarked a further $20 million for the restoration of synagogues and known Jewish houses and streets, simultaneously reinstating their ancient Jewish names.
Our Moroccan tour focused on the southwest of the country (Morocco is 32 times the size of Israel, or just a shade larger than Texas). Moroccans, who are by nature gracious, hospitable and perspicacious, seemed genuinely pleased to welcome Jewish visitors. “Safe journey, l’hitraot!” said the smiling, white-jacketed saleswoman at the upscale herbalist store at the edge of the mellah as we departed, even though what she sold our small group following her long and informed sales patter was honestly negligible.
On Tuesday, we headed to Ouirika Valley, an hour’s drive south of Marrakech. Before the 1960s, the valley, in the foothills of the High Atlas, was, according to the writer Raphael David Elmaleh in his seminal book, Jews Under Moroccan Skies, home to several Jewish families who lived in no fewer than 18 different settlements along its length. Today we were visiting compound housing the tomb of Rabbi Shlomo Bel-Hench, a great tzadik and doctor who, the story goes, had come to Morocco more than 500 years ago from his home in Jerusalem to collect money for his yeshiva back home. But he fell ill and died in Ouirika, and there, over the years, his tomb has become a great center of pilgrimage, especially for the sick and those battling infertility. As we left the small compound where the tomb is housed, a busload of Israelis swarmed in en-masse, one of the ladies immediately hurtling herself towards it, swaying her shoulders and sweeping her long black hair across the marble slab.
On the second floor of the compound, Fatima, who serves as guardienne of the site, showed us the small beit midrash which had recently been added, along with some basic guest rooms and a dining-hall for use as a spiritual retreat, or to accommodate small groups of tourists for shabbatons.
The Town of Red Earth
Past the Ouirika Valley, heading south towards the desert now, the landscape quickly changed, as our valiant – slightly aging – Mercedes minibus scaled the famed Tizi-n-Tichka pass, its hilltops ablaze with wild flowers and lush ravines and gullies below. Hair-raising hairpin bends and vertiginous drops brought us eventually to Ouazazarte, the town of red earth, often referred to as the gateway to the south, with the Sahara beyond.
Jewish life was once extremely rich in Ouazazarte. Before the 1950s, in fact, this entire area would have been peppered with Jewish Berber villages and settlements, shtetls by any other name. The Berber Jews of Ouazazarte, according to Elmaleh, made their living trading in camel hides, silver, and the buying and selling of dates.
The town’s mellah has a tidy Jewish cemetery – restored, once again, thanks to the king’s munificence – and adjoins the town’s magnificent Kasbah, or citadel, which is currently under restoration itself. The first floor of one of Ouazazarte’s two former synagogues, meanwhile, is now a small museum, containing “not for sale” Jewish artifacts, “collected” – this is perhaps a euphemism – from the 70 or so families who lived here before they left for Israel in 1956, at the time of Morocco’s independence from France.
In a series of sinuous rooms behind and above what had likely been the sanctuary, a young Moroccan man named Lakshan (‘lokshen’ was my Jewish mnemonic for remembering it), who seemed to be in charge of the building, allowed us to pore over the Judaica and ephemera for sale – books, Torah breastplates, besamim and even tallitot, along with jewelry and framed photographs (provenance all uncertain). Lakshan applied no pressure.
On the third floor, a box-room purported to be a former schoolroom. I certainly wouldn’t have envied any children, Jewish or not, having to study in this small and airless room, but the rather modern-looking blackboard, conveniently chalked with Hebrew letters, suggested the scene had been staged rather than historically accurate, though perhaps I was just being cynical.
We struggled too, to find convincing vestiges of Jewish life, as well as the shrine to another 16th century tzadik, Rabbi Reuben Wiseman, in a village east of the saffron producing town of Taliouine (where top-quality saffron sells for just $3.50 a gram). Even a 98-year-old fellow, perhaps the oldest inhabitant of the village, said he had no recollection of where the shrine was, which was temporarily disheartening.
Rabbi David Ben Baruch
Across the Souss valley, about 40 kilometers away in the hamlet of Bizou, where the landscape was already becoming softer and decidedly greener and empty plains had given way to orange orchards and fields of barley, our patience was rewarded. In a field in the middle of nowhere was a huge, white-walled encampment. And there, within its plaster walls, quite incongruously, was an impressive newly varnished oak door with a perfectly affixed mezuzah.
This was a somewhat surreal experience and we could have been forgiven for thinking we were in Wizard of Oz country, but in fact we had arrived at the tomb of Rabbi David Ben Baruch, an 18th-century Moroccan miracle worker. The impressive site, complete with nearly 300 guest rooms, dormitories and synagogue, is the center of a major annual pilgrimage (or hilula) for Jews of Moroccan origin. Up to 3,000 pilgrims, chiefly from Israel, the United States and Canada, but also Europe and South America, fly in each December for a few days of prayer, singing, dancing and spiritual immersion, which reach their climax on the eighth day of Chanukah.
We were heading west now, towards Agadir and the slightly cooler climes of Morocco’s Atlantic coast. In the nearby town of palm-fringed, palm-filled Taroudant, one with a long and distinguished Jewish history (Elmaleh describes its Golden Age in the 16th century), the mellah no longer exists, but once again the Jewish cemetery named Baba Dudu (where David Ben Baruch’s great-grandson is buried) is in excellent shape.
A few hundred yards away, a former rabbi’s house is now a repository full of paintings, furniture, artifacts and jewelry, much of it very beautiful. My eye went immediately to a pair of huge amphoras (two handled ceramic storage jars), bearing pesukim in outsized Hebrew letters and finished in a fetching eau-de-nil (light green) glaze. While I quickly realized that these were modern, decorative items rather than relics of antiquity, they were no less lovely. Again, an ancient Jewish connection had been – I hesitate to say “appropriated” – let’s say, “developed” by enterprising retailers to appeal to the Jewish tourist market.
The ‘Real Jewish Deal’
The takeaway here is that you need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yes, there is a staggering amount to see and absorb regarding Jewish life in Morocco and not only in Marrakech, Meknes, Fez and Casablanca, all of which, in addition to their storied Jewish pasts, still have active Jewish communities today. But smaller towns too, such as Ouezzane (home of the 18th century rabbi, Amram Ben Diawan, the most venerated of all Morocco’s tzadikim), Tetouán and Chefchaouen are all extremely rewarding, always bearing in mind the pinch of salt with which you may need to take some assertions.
However, one last town to mention, Essaouira, which we did not visit on this trip but where I had the opportunity of spending time a few months ago, has no geegaws or ersatz Jewish history to sort through. This charming walled town on the Atlantic used to be called Mogador and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is undoubtedly the real Jewish deal.
Under the control of Portugal, Mogador was a thriving fishing and trading port and home to large numbers of Jews in the 15th century. By the 18th century, its Jewish population outnumbered the Muslim. And with its partially restored mellah, two Jewish cemeteries, two ancient synagogues (there were once more than 30 in the town) and numerous other notable sites of Jewish interest, Essaouira has long been one of the most worthwhile stops on any itinerary of Jewish Morocco. But it was the recent opening, in January 2020, by King Mohammed VI himself, of Bayt Dakira, the “House of Memory” museum, which consolidated its position as a place of paramount Jewish interest and significance.
Located in the 19th century former Simon Attia synagogue and one of only two Jewish museums in the Arab world (the other is in Casablanca), Bayt Dakira tells the fascinating story of the Jews of Essaouira, from Phoenician times until their final exodus in the 1980s. Through text, photographs, costumes, artifacts and priceless old cine and video clips, we learned the community’s history and the inextricable relationship between Morocco’s Jews and Muslims.
In one section, for instance, we see the story of Mogador as a key post on the Jewish-operated cotton route from Africa to Europe, the cotton brought by land from Timbuctoo to be exported by ship to the (Jewish-owned) cotton mills of Manchester, England. In another, we learn the extraordinary story of Stella Corcos, born in Brooklyn in 1858, the daughter of a wealthy Algerian tobacco merchant who married a Moroccan Jew and later founded the first Jewish girls’ school in Mogador.
In yet another room, magnified black and white photographs show a community bar mitzvah in 1955. Punctiliously formal in splendid in top hat and tails, the bar mitzvah boy is seen cutting into a magnificent four-tiered cake fit for a sultan. Only a beaming grandfather, standing nearby in tallit and tefillin, gives away the true nature of the occasion.
Is it this dovetailing of the familiar with the wondrously exotic which makes a visit to “Jewish” Morocco so captivating? As I left Bayt Dakira on a high, pondering this question, I again encountered the local man standing outside his restaurant on the corner, the one whom I had earlier asked for directions to the museum.
“How was your visit?” he asked me, in perfect English. (Moroccans are not only thoroughly clued-in, they’re quick and gifted linguists).
“It was wonderful,” I told him.
“Good, good my friend, so now you must be hungry. Museums always make people hungry, right? So, come in and eat.”
I hesitated, looking for the appropriate answer, but his thinking was already ahead of mine. “No worries, dear friend! You are Jewish, so for you we will make it kosher!”
For more information, see the book Jews Under Moroccan Skies by Raphael David Elmaleh and George Ricketts.