Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Friday, September 26, 2008

Jewish Museum of Casablanca

Went to the Jewish Museum yesterday to try and meet with one of the directors. Took a little while to find it but made it 10 minutes before closing. Wouldn’t let me in but I persuaded (a group of gap year students pulled up right after me with 10 paying customers) to let me in. It is a very lovely space with reconstructed synagogues, photos, jewelry, costumes, and religious items. Unfortunately the directors weren’t there but I was still happy to see the museum. I hope to meet with them soon.

Marrakech Cemetery

We headed to the cemetery at about 12.30. It was hot. We found the cemetery with no problems, except of course for the would-be guides who attempted to take us there. It is a large cemetery that in color very much mirrors the rest of the city. There are many tzaddikim buried there and as we snapped away photos the sun only seemed to get stronger. It has a different feel from the Fes cemetery, that I can’t quite describe but if you can like one cemetery better than another then I preferred the cemetery in Fes. We left hot and content that we had found what we had set out to find.

Kosher Catering

Are you part of the group? I asked.
No, I live here.

Last year on a trip to Morocco, Moti decided to make Marrakech his permanent home. I was confused.

I lived in Israel for 40 years but now I’ve found my home.
You’re Israeli then?
Are you Moroccan?
Yes, I was born in Casablanca but my family is originally from Marrakech.
What do your friends think?
They think I’m crazy.

He handed me a business card. He is a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, and is now a kosher caterer…in Morocco.

I‘m likely to be in Marrakech for Yom Kippur, can I pray with you? I asked.
Of course, here is where you can sleep and we’ll break the fast together the next night.

I got excited. What an experience this would be. Moti introduced me to his wife. His wife, who’s British, met Moti last year while touring Morocco. A short while later they were married. She tells this story in a much more magical way but to hear it was fantastic. She is currently studying the mellah of Marrakech and mapping the cemetery. She bakes challah in the communal oven close to the synagogue that was most likely the oven that most of the neighborhood Jews frequented. I told her I had heard that there was a map of the mellah in the synagogue and if she knew where that was. She pointed behind me and there it was pointing out dozens of synagogues and other religious institutions. I look forward to seeing her and Moti again for Yom Kippur.

Mellah of Marrakech – September 14

On Sunday we headed to the mellah with no serious operational plan but rather just to get a feel of the area. I planned on searching for two sites, the Laazama Synagogue and the cemetery – both of which are approximately 500 years old. As usual I approached two old men and they gave impeccable directions. I wanted to head to the synagogue first because I had heard from a friend of mine that the synagogue contained a map of the mellah. Once there I could take a picture and then print and study the map in order to return to Marrakech with a real understanding. I knew the synagogue was on 36 Derb Ragraga but it wasn’t difficult to miss. From the end of a narrow alley I could see at least three police officers. I knew I was in the right place. I entered to find a large tour group already there. They were Israelis, the first I had seen since arriving in Morocco. I approached one who seemed to be the leader.


In the course of shopping I am constantly on the look out for Judaica. Marrakech was full of it. This was like nothing I had seen before. Store after store filled with Judaica and clearly they knew what they were selling. Beautiful Hanukah lamps and silver mezuzot. There were torah pointers and I even saw what seemed to be a perfect condition Megillat Esther for Purim. I didn’t buy anything for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that Marrakech was far more expensive than I expected.


In the course of shopping I am constantly on the look out for Judaica. Marrakech was full of it. This was like nothing I had seen before. Store after store filled with Judaica and clearly they knew what they were selling. Beautiful Hanukah lamps and silver mezuzot. There were torah pointers and I even saw what seemed to be a perfect condition Megillat Esther for Purim. I didn’t buy anything for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that Marrakech was far more expensive than I expected.

Marrakech – September 12

Spent last weekend in Marrakech intending to mostly take a break from all things Jewish and to simply enjoy the city. It was my first time to the red city. I was excited. Beyond Marrakech stands the south. The scenery was beautiful the whole ride down from Rabat. Spent our first two days in Rabat touring and getting to know the city. I was personally disappointed by one of Marrakech’s main attractions, the Jamaa El Fna, a large open air food court complete with snake charmers and story tellers, but that could easily be that 1) my expectations were too high and 2) Ramadan overshadows it.

Sefrou – September 8

On Monday we headed for Sefrou. As one resident of Sefrou told me: the proverb once went - from the village of Fes to the city of Sefrou. Today the opposite is true. Sefrou is a quaint town about 15 miles from Fes. It was once 1/3 or so Jewish and today there are only a couple Jews left (3 according to a caretaker we met but someone informed her that one of them died). Sefrou is green and the city is split by a river that would be nice except instead of flowing with water it is overrun by plastic bags and other trash. Nonetheless it is a great small town and the perfect break from Fes. We headed to the mellah and again immediately noticed the indentations where the mezuzot once hung. Outside one home was beautiful woodwork with 6 Stars of David carved into the wood. Further down the street we found the communal oven and I spoke to the proprietor. This was the old Jewish oven. He asked me if we’d like to come and take a look around. He showed us around. He was incredibly cordial. All I could think of was challot baking here just 40 years ago. What a treat it would be to once again bake challah there I thought. He showed us the connected house which was centered on a courtyard and which was once Jewish. From there he directed us to the Em Habanim school which I knew existed but never realized was in such perfect condition. The caretaker, Fatima, lives there with her children. The school was a religious one complete with dining facilities, synagogue, and residences for the poor. She showed us the dining area, the kitchen, and then the synagogue. The synagogue is mosaic from floor to ceiling. Everything is totally in tact: prayer books in the cupboard, Rabbi’s pulpit, Aron Hakodesh, and even an old newspaper I found from about 30 years ago. Was there anything else? I asked. She showed me the library. It was once full of books but a much smaller number still remain. There were the books of Genesis and Exodus and books on instruction in Modern Hebrew, one of which belonged to a young student named Miriam. Fatima wanted to take a picture with us and asked that we send it to her. The director’s office was our last stop but we didn’t go in. I wasn’t sure if she was done or if it was the would-be faux guide that started hounding us at the entrance but we didn’t see the office. I know I will be back though and I’m excited to see what I find. Our faux guide told us that the director of the school once came back to Sefrou and upon seeing the school still preserved burst into tears. I’m not sure if this is story is true but it did provide me with that very image.

Boxing Club

The El Fessain Synagogue is located on Derb el Fessain. It is an approximately 400-year-old synagogue that was used by the toshavim, the original Jewish inhabitants of Morocco, as opposed to the megorashim, or the Sephardim who fled Spain. It is now occupied by a boxing club, an Olympic club as it calls itself, but it is still very clearly a synagogue from the inside. I had always wanted access to this site but when we arrived it was locked. I asked a young man on the street what the story was and he gave it to me but all I understood was that it was at least closed for the day. I returned the next day but I was told that it was permanently closed. It seems the boxing club has gone out of business. I am incredibly curious about this as it would be a perfect candidate for restoration. I am investigating this currently and will report back as soon as I have more information.

Neighborhood Kids

Then neighborhood kids continued to follow us as we made our way down the street. I found the communal oven on the street and was headed for #220, which I knew to be a former synagogue and now a residence. They pointed out another synagogue, which I was unaware of on the top two floors of a building. You could clearly see it from the street and I suppose that would have been enough. But for the kids it wasn’t enough. They knocked on a woman’s door and led us up an impossibly narrow and pitch-black staircase to the roof of the building. We hoped a wall and climbed to an adjacent building. The roof was full of trash and we carefully made our way to what used to be a skylight. It was now just open space. 4 of us, Jen, our neighbors, and me peered over this hole to look into what used to be a synagogue. I was sure the roof was going to collapse under our weight at any moment but it didn’t. The kids continued to point things out to us, although none of it really relevant. The whole experience was very moving. We climbed back down the stairs and thanked the kids for their help. They wanted nothing from us. Not a dirham. They were just happy to help. We later found 220 and spoke to someone outside who said it wasn’t a former synagogue although I knew it was. I had read that it was near impossible to enter this building but we tried anyways.

The Guide

Our mellah-born guide told me he would show me everything. I didn’t want to see everything, I said, I wanted to see very specific things. I decided to give him a try, although we didn’t get the best feeling from him. After about 2 minutes he stopped and pointed out to us the house of famous Frenchman which was clearly sign posted in multiple languages. Then he stopped and asked a woman where Derb al Fuqi was. We were on Derb al Fuqi. I knew because I had studied the map. He then asked where a number of other obvious streets were. I could do that I thought. We parted ways and I finally felt free to explore. I spoke to the same woman that our faux guide spoke to and got the layout of the mellah street by street. I began to walk down Derb al Fuqi and began to examine the doors of one of the main arteries of the mellah. You can still see most of the spots where the mezuzot once laid. It was amazing. The houses were clearly Jewish and there was a very visible remnant. I started looking for specific addresses on the street as a number of neighborhood kids started following us. A woman started yelling at us or so I thought. She was actually yelling for us. I told her what I was looking for and then it all began. It was really beautiful. She said:
Aziza used to live there. And Jacob her husband worked close to there. And then there was what’s his name. Oy (my emphasis), what’s his name? We were all friends. She spoke about her old neighbors at length and I thanked her profusely for the information she shared.

The Mellah – September 7

We started with the Danan synagogue and the cemetery. In the cemetery I was hoping to meet Edmond, a Jewish resident of Fes who has seen much of the restoration of the mellah. Upon entering the synagogue I noticed the usual caretaker, who I had met a few years before, and another man who I presumed to be Edmond. Indeed it was Edmond and we exchanged some pleasantries in Hebrew. I decided to take a self-guided tour of the cemetery before returning to Edmond with questions. Perhaps he was going to show me some things I couldn’t access or wouldn’t be able to find. I toured the cemetery with much more of an appreciation of its layout then I had previously had. The sea of children’s graves, the result of an epidemic, was particularly sad. I visited more tombs of tzaddikim then I had the first time I was there and returned to talk to Edmond. But the caretaker told me he was gone, gone to Meknes, a large city close to Fes. I missed an opportunity but I knew I would be back. I asked the caretaker to take a look at my map to see if he could help. He wasn’t that helpful and instead passed me off to a would-be guide who said he knew the area intimately as he was born and raised in the mellah.


We departed for Fes on September 5 for a few days. Fes is definitely one of the focal points of much of the research on Jewish Morocco. It once had a large mellah, now inhabited by Muslims, with dozens of synagogues and other communal institutions. I was equipped with old and more recent photographs, a map of the mellah detailing street names and locations of synagogues, communal ovens, etc., and even a few addresses. Fes is also interesting because it contains the beautiful Ibn Danan Synagogue and a large cemetery that is extremely well maintained and currently both sites are somewhat major tourist attractions. I did not intend to find everything but a few places. I knew that Fes was a project in and of itself and so I sought to just get a feeling for the place.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Our taxi driver, Hicham, agreed to take us to Dad but it seemed as though he was in a hurry. We followed a winding road to the structure. Inside lay the tombs of tzaddikim such as Nissim Ben Nissim but today was Sunday and it seemed no attendants were around to let us in. I was disappointed but it seemed like the area was a gold mine of history with possible real treasures out there. We returned to Beni Ahmed. Mustapha had told us that the place next to the pharmacy wasn’t a synagogue at all but rather a Jewish school, an Alliance school. It was now a storage facility for wheat. I walked up to the structure introduced myself and asked if I could enter. Sure no problem everyone said. I asked them if they knew what this place used to be. There was an arch inside that looked like an entry way and interesting wrought iron work over the door. This used to be a Jewish school I said. Maybe they said. They began to talk amongst themselves as Jen offered everyone sweets from the stash that Mustapha had given us as a going away present. I took some photos and we headed home this time via Berachid to Rabat. I now have the contact information for Mustapha and Hicham and will hopefully return to this place in the near future.

Beni Ahmed

Beni Ahmed or Beni Hmad as the locals call it was about an hour away by grand taxi. It was in a way the middle of nowhere on the road to Marrakech. Upon arrival we really had no idea where we were except that we were looking for a Jewish cemetery. I didn’t remember until I had arrived but Dad was actually 12 km from Beni Had and Beni Had also had a Jewish community. You see that pharmacy? It used to be a synagogue and there was the mellah and there is a cemetery 2 km from here. What about Dad? I asked. Dad is 12 km from here, he said, and it will cost you 40 dirhams. Do you know Shimon Peres (I wondered if they confused him with Amir Peretz)? We weren’t sure what to do as a number of men, young and old, gathered around us conjecturing about where sites of Jewish interest were located. Finally a taxi driver took charge and told us about Mustapha. Mustapha is a high school Arabic teacher who knows much about the town. He can tell you everything you need to know. Where is he? I asked. Right here, I’ll take you. He hustled us into his cab. How much? I asked. No charge, for free he said. He drove all of about 3 minutes up the street and started blowing his horn and yelling for Mustapha. I couldn’t tell what their relationship was. Finally a man stumbled outside half naked. It was Mustapha. He looked at us, the taxi driver told him our story, and he ran back inside. He came out later with a shirt on and invited us into his house. His wife served us tea and about 8 kids/neighbors/well-wishers came in to see the two Americans sitting in Mustapha’s living room. I told them I was here to discover the Jewish history of Beni Ahmed. They were very interested. Where was the synagogue? I asked. Right here, he said. His house and the adjacent house used to be one structure, a synagogue. I was totally taken aback. Where is everything? I asked. He didn’t know. They had totally renovated. He had lived there 30 years and never seen anything. He said the last of the Jews had left after 1967. He said he once saw the word yeled (child in Hebrew) written somewhere in the house. I wondered how he read Hebrew. They brought out so many sweets you wouldn’t believe it. We left and said our goodbyes.


Old city mostly uninhabited now. Found mellah, no longer any preserved synagogues w as the word we got from a local shopkeeper. Exit nice, well tended, palm tree-lined part of city to enter grittier part of city. Found market area adjacent to walled area and discover this is Jewish cemetery of Settat. There is a gatekeeper and his family who lives on the premises. A sign indicated that the cemetery was restored in April 2001. Hundreds of well preserved graves. Many deaths in 5716 or 1956. Gatekeeper told us there was another Jewish cemetery called Dad in Beni Ahmed. Beni Ahmed he said was an hour away by grand taxi.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Quick note on Asilah and studying Arabic

*In Asilah, in the non tourist suq, was a bookseller. One of the books he was selling was an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary. There were multiple copies.

We were discussing religion in class today (August 27) and somehow got on the topic of Jews. My teacher said that there were only a few Jews in Morocco and not many synagogues and thought there used to be a synagogue close to class. I didn’t tell him at the time but there is an active synagogue close to class and some 17 former synagogues in Rabat alone.


Asilah is an Atlantic beach town 3.5 hours north of Rabat. We took the bus to get there. We had planned on just a nice getaway weekend. I had read online that there was a Jewish cemetery there and seen quite an abstract picture and imagined something like the cemetery I had seen in Chefchaouen, graves but no inscriptions and all in all hard to know what you are looking at unless you know what you are looking at. On Saturday we did all manners of sightseeing apart from anything Jewish. It was Shabbat and I myself wanted to rest. The next morning we checked out of our hotel. There was a map at the front desk. It showed the city and a beach called Paradise about 3 km south of town. Near that beach, according to the map, there was also a Jewish cemetery. We set out looking for Paradise and on our way stumbled onto the Jewish cemetery. I recognized a structure on it from the abstract photo I saw online. A woman was exciting the cemetery and I asked her if I could enter. No problem she said. I entered and was totally amazed by what I saw. The cemetery sat right on the beach. There were three walls surrounding it and where the fourth wall would stand only stood an unbelievable view. Wow, I thought. I looked to the left and there were between 100 and 150 tombs, many of which were perfectly preserved. It was an amazing sight. There was the grave of Zahara Levy and there was the grave of Levy Roif (perhaps a converso) who lived to be 110 years old. Many graves were laid with marble, others had been destroyed and it looked like much marble had been pilfered. There was also a geniza perfectly intact and three sides of a structure that could have been at one point a synagogue or perhaps something more recent. I can’t totally describe it but it felt just amazing to find this place. There looked to have been at least one Tzaddik buried there and it looked like perhaps people had visited recently. We left the cemetery and headed towards Paradise.

We never found it of course. We settled on another beach and then headed to town for lunch. After lunch I went looking for the mellah. After inquiring to the oldest men in town I found a shop that had a number of Judaica pieces in the window. The shopkeeper told me that there was no mellah in town but the equivalent was Sharia Itijaraa (or Commerce Street), which we were on. Around the bend was a former synagogue, 25 meters or so from his shop. Above the synagogue I would see a Star of David. A left turn and 25 meters later I saw it. It was a structure that was completely boarded up. No key would have let me in, as I would have needed to break down the structure in front of the door in order to enter. There was a wrought iron piece above the door and above that a tilted Star of David. It was difficult to ascertain whether this was actually a synagogue or a building that happened to have a 6 pointed star above it (the 6 pointed star is a Middle Eastern symbol). I was mostly satisfied with what I thought might be a synagogue but considering the size of the cemetery thought there had to be more than this one building.

Shabbat in Rabat

It wasn’t too difficult to find Shabbat services in Rabat. I hoped online and found the address of the Talmud Thora synagogue and a picture of it from the outside. At 6.30 I headed to the building. I knew from the picture that I had found it. It is a nondescript white building. At the top of staircase sits a security guard. I asked him if this was a synagogue, if there were services tonight, and what time they started. Yes, yes, and 7.30. Would I have any problem getting in? No, he said. You are Jewish right? Yes, I said. I came back at 7 .30. From the outside I could see there were lights on in the synagogue. Esther Perez, an octogenarian who was entering the building, greeted us with her name and a Shabbat Shalom. A man walked in as the same time as us and showed us the way. The synagogue was nice, clean, and modern. There were approximately 25 men there, including me, ranging from 8 to 80 years old. It was a beautiful service. During Lcha Dodi, the men (and little boy) took turns singing. Everyone sang the chorus. I was familiar with the melody and the whole service put me at ease. I felt comfortable and at home. After the service I wished everyone a Shabbat Shalom. A young man, probably about 20, seemed to be out of place like me. Where you from? I asked. Meknes, he said. How many Jews still live there? 150, no more like 100, he said. He was probably one of the youngest members of the community and I was glad to have met him, Charles/Shalom. He was visiting Rabat with his mom and his sister although I couldn’t figure out why exactly. He asked where we lived and if we were walking home. I told him that unfortunately we had a very long walk ahead of us and we parted ways. The rest of the night we strolled through the old city, which had totally come alive. As I strolled down the small alleyways I hummed to myself Lcha Dodi and felt good.


Sale (pronounced Sla) sits on the other side of Rabat across from the River Bou Regreg. It is easily walkable from Rabat. However, it was a very hot day and so we cut our losses and took a grand taxi (again that’s 3 in the front and 4 in the back) to Sale. I again decided it would be best to first locate the cemetery and then head for the mellah and work on locating once of the 4 synagogues that I knew to be somewhat preserved. I hailed a petit taxi intending to beat the heat on my way to the cemetery?

How far is the Jewish cemetery from here? I asked. Not far at all, he responded, and gave me directions by foot. He was a youngish man and I was surprised that he 1) didn’t offer to take me by taxi and 2) that he answered so quickly. We walked outside Bab Mrisa in the old city and up and around the city. I stopped a father and child along the way if they knew where the Jewish cemetery was and the father took me by the arm and pointed me in the right (but general) direction. We decided to make a left. It seemed right at the time. I found myself staring at psychiatric hospital and knew myself to be lost. A women and teenager stopped and stared at us. Were we lost, did we need help? They asked. Yes, in fact, we’re looking for the Jewish cemetery. He lives there, the woman said, and he’ll take you there. So after having randomly made a turn it turned out we had run into a young man that lived at the cemetery (many cemeteries have Muslim caretakers who live full time on the premises). He led us for about 10 minutes to the cemetery. This time there was no question at the gate, we were simply let in and the young man disappeared. The Sale Jewish cemetery is large. It contains the tombs of several tzaddikim including that of Raphael Anqawa (there is a pilgrimage to his tomb annually). We toured the synagogue on our own and much of it was in perfect condition. There were several mausoleums and benches surrounding the tomb of Rabbi Anqawa. At the tomb there were dozens of Books of Psalms, some with inscriptions from 60 years ago. Behind the mausoleum there is what looks like a makeshift synagogue.

We finished touring the cemetery, tipped the family, and left, heading for the mellah. We located the mellah of Sale quite quickly but had difficult locating the synagogues on our own. It was a very hot day and that weighed on us. We knew that Sale was a short walk from Rabat and that we would be back. I asked a couple of folks if they knew of synagogues. There were but there are no more Jews here, they left, is what I would constantly hear. A woman emerged from a house in the mellah. There is a synagogue outside of the mellah, about a 10-minute walk from here. After arguing with a neighbor about its exact location, he led us to another couple of locals who pointed us in the right direction. A few minutes later we found it. But it didn’t look like a synagogue to me. It was too big and too far from the mellah. It looked to me like a church and I wondered if the woman in the mellah had misunderstood me. There were about 50 men in their early 20s sitting and eating outside this old structure. It was fenced off. I asked them if they knew what this building was. The best they could come up with was factory and our journey to Sale ended there. I needed to start meeting with people, both local Jews and Muslims, who would help me unravel some of the mysteries I was facing, especially regarding location and key holders of synagogues. I decided that that Friday I would seek out the active synagogue in Rabat and attempt to go to Shabbat services.