Monday, June 2, 2014

Thoughts from Morocco

           Last month I travelled with a group of rabbis on a week-long trip exploring Jewish Morocco. Here are two “postcards.” During the next few months, I’ll share my experiences, including a Marrakesh Shabbat on Friday, July 25.

           On our first day, we met with representatives of the Jewish community of Casablanca, the largest in the country by far. There are some 4,000 Jews in the city, from all over Morocco. My first impressions were that this is a very conservative and isolated Jewish community. There are no conversions in Morocco and virtually no intermarriage.
            At the same time, the Jews seem to be the biggest fans of the king! In Morocco, the picture of the king is everywhere (I have many photos of me with him – or at least his image!), and we were told that the king is the unifying element in Moroccan society. The current king, Mohammad VI, claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, and, as such, he plays a role as the leader of all Muslims in Morocco.
            The one thing that impressed me the most is that Jews in Morocco do not celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). It is simply unthinkable to me that there are Jews nowadays who do not put Israel at the center of their identity (not in public, at least, in Morocco). At the same time, the Jews of Morocco are the ONLY free and thriving Jewish community in an Arab and Muslim country, so they are in a very unique position.
            We also visited synagogues in Fez and Meknes, both cities which used to have very large Jewish communities until the 1950s. Sadly, the synagogues and cemeteries we visited are now museums and very few, mostly elderly, Jews remain in those cities. Most other Jews have moved to Casablanca or immigrated to France, Canada, the United States and Israel. We are heading to Marrakesh tomorrow.

            Erev Shabbat in Marrakesh was interesting. The synagogue we attended (one of two functioning in town) could accommodate 60 people at most. Men and women sat in separate areas. The arrangement of the synagogue was typical of Morocco, with the bimah in the center. The service was chanted entirely in Hebrew and no pages were announced.
           Our group was to have dinner at the home of Cantor Isaac Ohayon, so we stayed until the end. What we did not know is that most of the people in attendance were in the same boat! So, after the service ended, the few locals left and the other 40 or so followed the cantor through the streets of modern Marrakesh until we reached his apartment building. Inside we were greeted by his wife (and some Muslim helpers), and showed into our dining area. The space was big enough to accommodate a table for eight, but eighteen of us managed to fit (barely). The other half of the group (Israelis) sat at an even bigger table (the apartment is not large by any means). Isaac and his wife served us all!
            The dinner was abundant and delicious –Moroccan-style salads, chicken, meat, couscous, etc. After dinner, Isaac told us about the dwindling Jewish community of Marrakesh – 60 mostly elderly Jews are left of a community numbering 20,000 just five decades ago. We were deeply impressed by Isaac’s family and their willingness to welcome groups like us week after week. The groups do make a contribution to the community, which is the least we could do, but by no means does it cover all this couple puts into it. We left moved by the realization that Isaac and his wife are truly doing a great mitzvah –there is no other word to describe their dedication and love for the Jewish people.