Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beni Mellal Redux – November 12

Just when you think its over and you start heading back you realize how much Jewish history there really is in this country. It is almost inescapable. I was back in BM for my second anti-Rabies shot. My friend in Casa had told me that there were still a half dozen Jewish women in Beni Mellal. That was the information I had and that is what I went looking for. I started asking around. A man took me by the hand and walked me to an apartment building.

There is a Jewish woman who lives here. Her name is Alice. Everyone knows her.

She wasn’t there. Maybe that was good. What would I speak to her in? Arabic. How would I explain myself and what I was doing? I suddenly felt intrusive. I went back to the man who had helped me earlier.

Alice isn’t there.
Well you have to try her at her hair salon then.
Where is it?

He gave me a set of complicated but manageable directions and then I found her.

Are you Alice?
I’m a Jewish American and I know Raphael from Casablanca who I believe you know.

I got a funny look.

My friend here knows English. She said.

There was a man in her shop. Blond hair, blue eyes.

You speak English? I asked.

He said he was from Chicago but he wasn’t. He wanted to know where I was from. He didn’t believe me. He didn’t want to hear that I was born and raised in America. He wanted to know my roots, my heritage, and my history. It was all very confusing. How did he know English so well. Did he not believe who I was? I guess it was strange me just showing up like this.

After more questioning I got to the bottom of it. Alice and Raphael were friends from childhood. His name was Raphael too and although I earlier referred to a different Raphael it was confusing and made my whole story seem made up. He was born in BM and friends with Alice from childhood. He had left for Israel with his family and then eventually moved to Chicago. He was from Chicago. She had never left. She had a teenage daugher named Sarah. I met her. She would have fit in in Los Angeles or Israel. A Moroccan Jewish teenage hipster – almost.

I had so many questions. Was Alice married? Was her daughter being raised Jewish? Did she keep Kosher? Did she observe the holidays? What was it like to see her community dissapear? Does she feel safe? Does she think of leaving?

I couldn’t ask any of them. I was frozen. It didn’t make sense to interview, only to enjoy. There were no pictures to take. Just enjoy. And so I enjoyed the moment for what it was: Three Jews talking and having tea together. After a while I put my tea down and thanked Alice and Raphael for the visit and left.

Rissani Part IV – November 10

My friend at the hotel didn’t think I would find what I was looking for.

Did you find it? He asked.
Yes. I said.
I showed him my pictures and he was visibly impressed.

Baba Sali – November 10

No trip to Rissani is complete with out a trip to the house of the Baba Sali, the famous Rabbi Yisrael AbuHatzeira. His house is still preserved and well known. Folks make pilgrimage to this site. It was fascinating to see his house. It was surprisingly normal and humbling. I was also shown the well where he drew water from which was housed nearby.

Rissani Part III – November 10

I pedaled to the first village and quickly found the requisite old man. He said there was no mellah in the village of Kouighlyn (I now had the name) and there was only one in Rissani. No matter how many times I asked he seemed to be sure. Those around him, decades younger, agreed. I asked them if there were tunnel like structures in the village. It was an excellent game of charades. I had heard that the synagogue was almost underground and until I saw it for myself I didn’t quite understand what I was even asking for. After successfully pantomiming what I was looking for they pointed me in the right direction. The tunnels are called zuqaq in Arabic. An alley is created by the space between mud-brick buildings. What makes these structures unique is that there are dwellings above all this making for an enclosure. Only at the edges does sun peak through. At points you are walking in complete darkness. It is incredibly cool in the zuqaq and so I walked, almost blind, not knowing when I would find what I was looking for. I heard families in the darkness and animals. I finally found some sun. There were four kids there.

Is there a mellah here?
No. They said. Where are you from? Casa?
Give us some money.
You give me some money. I said.
No give us 5 dirham.

This continued back and forth for a while and it was actually quite fun because we all were good humored about it. Then an old man appeared. A blessed old man.

Is there a mellah here?
Yes, this is it. This street here.
Is there a synagogue?
Yes, just half a “block” down.

I opened an unmarked very short door. The four kids followed me inside. I had found it. 700 years old. All mud-brick. Unbelievable condition. Almost perfect. Hay covered the ground – perhaps it was used for storage. It was so dark but two slits allowed concentrated light in. The slights gave just enough light to illuminate the space. It concentrated two beams of light on where the Torah would/should be read. I had never seen concentrated light like that before. It looked solid. You could clearly see the ark and where the nerot tamid would sit. By now news of the American in the village had reached many young ears. Now me and about 25 12 year olds filled the synagogue.

Are you American Idriss? (I had told them that was my name – it sounded close enough to Chris I thought.)
Give us money.
Are you Christian?
No, Jewish.

I was so excited just to be there. Perhaps best discovery since arriving here. The old man was waiting outside. He was amused by all the commotion. Wanted to know about me. Did I know anyone from this village? He remembered folks – the Shetrits, Abitbols, and then he struggled to name others. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember but he was proud of what once was. I headed with my bike and my gang of 25 12 year olds to the main road in town. They started calling me Barack Obama as I think this was the only American that came to mind and they thought it was funny. So me and my minions had headed towards town. It was quite a sight. I was stopped by some young folks my own age that wanted to know what was going on. I was saved from the 12 year olds. We sat and talked and then I pedaled off completing the circuit.

Rissani Part II – November 9

I woke up early on Sunday and headed straight for the Jewish cemeteries. There was an old one and a new one adjacent to each other. The older one was in a significant state of decay although there were still two graves with Hebrew on them (although this looked as though it was added at a much later date). The conditions in Rissani are extreme. The heat is impressive even in November and for sure some of the destruction was heat and sand related but there was clear evidence of human tampering (discarded hairbrushes and clothing and other signs). I photographed as much as I could and then moved past the cemetery to find the newer cemetery. The graves were evenly spaced and in unbelievable condition. There is no wall around the cemetery but apparently there is a guardian.

Rissani is an important city in modern Jewish history because it is this city that produced the Baba Sali whose pilgrimage in Israel attracts hundreds of thousands annually. I returned to the hotel and had a nice, long conversation with the owner’s brother who works at the hotel. The mellah was right behind the hotel and in fact his parents had bought the hotel’s land from Jews. A few years ago an acquaintance of his mother’s returned to Rissani and happened on the hotel. She asked my friend if he knew Zubeida and he said: Yes, this is my mother! The two reunited for the first time (something that seems strange/impossible but almost very common here).

One of the main reasons I had come to Rissani was that I had heard that there was a 700 year old synagogue right outside of Rissani. My new friend at the hotel hadn’t heard of the synagogue nor did he know that there was a mellah there but he suggested I rent a bike in order to properly explore. The first village was some 5 km away and I could easily complete the 25 km circuit in an afternoon with a bike. The villages were all mud-brick and set in a series of palmeries. It was officially a plan. I had a fried potato sandwich (which seems to be the specialty in Rissani) and was off on my bike which only had one defective break.

Rissani – November 8

I arrived in Rissani successfully avoiding the hustle. I was happy to get there. I spent Saturday just get my bearings. Rissani is not very big. Another town with tremendous history that has been changed by tourism. Everyone knew I wasn’t from there and all wanted to take me to their uncle’s hotel in Merzouga (where the famous dunes are). I told them that I had no intention of going to Merzouga and that I was staying in Rissani for a few days. They were surprised/taken aback/proud/disappointed.

Er Rachidia Part II - November 7

I decided that when I woke up in the morning I would make my decision about whether to stay in Rachidia or head straight to Rissani. I had figured out last night that I would at least stay here until midday in order to meet with Latifa whom I had met the night before and to see if Brahim brought the key for the third synagogue. I woke up and decided to stay the day and night in Er Rachidia. It was the best decision I could have made. I left my hotel and ran into my faux guide but that was quick and relatively painless. I headed towards Brahim’s shop where I ran into Latifa and her sister. Brahim and I had a quick conversation and then I waited there for about 30 minutes. His shop was busy and he clearly couldn’t leave right when I showed up. He was finally relieved of his duties by a friend and he prepared to leave. He put on a heavier jacket and put a small hammer into his pocket. He went to check on his scooter and had to fill it up with a little bit of gas (which he kept in the store and used a funnel to fill up the tank). We were only going a couple blocks at most so all the ritual was very perplexing to me. We hoped on his scooter and we were off. The ride was much scarier today as instead of cruising around the small streets of the bookshop surrounds we traveled on Rachidia’s major thoroughfare. I realized he was taking me to the cemetery and not the third synagogue. He had told me yesterday that it was quite far and I didn’t realize that he planned on taking me there. We drove past my hotel about a mile and half. There was a very large cemetery (Beit Haim in large Hebrew letters) with mud-brick walls. Brahim knocked loudly on the door a few times but the guardian (I was surprised to find out there was a guardian) didn’t hear or didn’t care to hear. It was still very interesting. Later in the day I would walk back there and from a vantage point above the cemetery climb a small wall and peer over. Although many graves were destroyed or were now hidden because of the extreme weather conditions here it was definitely a sight to see. Suddenly Rachidia seemed much more than just a city one drives through en route to the Sahara. Here was a city where you could still visit three synagogues and a cemetery.

We hoped back on Brahim’s scooter. We made a wrong turn or so I assumed. Could there be a second cemetery? I had read that there was a second cemetery. We drove towards the northern entrance to Rachidia and eventually made a right turn down a dirt road. As I tried not to fall off the scooter I noticed two green doors with Hannukiot on them. We had come to the second cemetery. Now the hammer came into play as he unlocked the gate. We entered the cemetery to find 3 tzaddikim: Rabbi Moul Tria, Rabbi Moul Sidra, and Rabbi Yahia Lahlou. According to tradition Rabbi Lahlou came from the Holy Land to this area during the First Temple period. The walls around the cemetery are high so it would be difficult to get in (unless you had your own hammer). Near the grave of Moul Sidra grows a tree. The tree was dressed with all sorts of women’s clothing. I asked Brahim about this and I heard the same story I have been hearing all along. That local women believe that bathing at Jewish grave protects or heals and thus the clothing so close to the Moul Sidra.

We hoped back on Brahim’s back for a third time. Again we took an unfamiliar route. He drove me now to a third cemetery! He opened the gate, which was also decorated with Hannukiot using the same hammer method from the second cemetery. This cemetery was medium sized and again surrounded by mud-brick walls. The graves were laid out in three sections: Adults-children-adults from north to south. Many of the graves had been destroyed or desecrated and I couldn’t discern any Hebrew inscription until I arrived at the northern most spot in the cemetery. There almost every grave (maybe some 3 dozen) had a Hebrew inscription usually separated from the grave itself. In other cemeteries you saw these types of inscriptions but very rarely. These inscriptions were chiseled onto fairly flat stones and resembled some of the oldest graves I’d seen in Morocco such as the one I found in Ifrane. There was Yehuda ben Moshe, Avraham ben Massud, and so on. Completely legible and in perfect condition. It was a real treat and again made staying in Rachidia for the day very worth it. Brahim then took me to a river close to the cemetery. The waters were running rapidly due to the recent raining and flooding. It was a perfect way to end our journey.

He drove me back to his shop. There were a bunch of men there waiting to go to Friday prayer. They all greeted me warmly and wanted to know of I knew Shlomo or Isaac from Casablanca. Then they asked me if I know Chleuh. I told them “no” in Chleuh to which they all had a big laugh.

Er Rachidia – November 6

I can't believe they were finally right/accurate. It actually took 8 hours to get to Er Rachidia from Beni Mellal. It was a pretty drive and I stocked up on drinks and food and so it actually wasn’t too bad. It was very local transport, meaning I sat next to people and animals and in particular an unhappy looking turkey. An interesting thing about Morocco is that you really see food through its entire process. In other words that turkey that I sat next to on the bus could easily end up at the butcher next to my hotel who then sells it to the restaurant across the street. You see everything here, not just the end result.

When I arrived in Rachidia I unfortunately ran into a bad faux guide (meaning he’s not a good guide or faux guide and very unconvincing). I was happy to get rid of him once I checked into my hotel and told him that I was not in fact interested in going to the dunes of the Sahara again. Rachidia is one of the last stops before the sand and many faux guides here wait for tourists at the bus station and then try to hustle them into some sort of desert experience.

I headed straight to Akhawayn Bookshop (the Brothers Bookshop) to look for my contact Brahim who I met about a month ago with my friends Amir and Tara. Of course Akhawayn was closed and a neighboring bookshop later confirmed that Brahim had closed the shop for the day. I called Brahim and he was outside of the bookshop within 5 minutes. He quickly opened up the synagogue for me. Again, I have to reiterate that it is the perfect candidate for restoration. It is beautiful. Tall ceilings. Hand carved wood. Bima still in tact. Ark still in tact. The problem is one of age and extreme weather. The roof has partially collapsed and water sits on the remainder. Rachidia has been subject to serious flooding recently (so serious that the King made a visit to express sympathy/solidarity) and the synagogue is of course in danger of further deterioration. So much is there right now. Not only the synagogue structure itself but also boxes and boxes of books including everything from prayer books to Aleph Bet instruction. In addition there are boxes filled with tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefilin (phylacteries). All of it is incredibly moving.

I had heard that there was another synagogue close by with a unique door. The door apparently was emboldened by a large Hannukiah and apparently was the only of its kind in all of Morocco. Brahim put me on the back of his scooter and we were off. First he showed me what he believed to be the oldest of the three synagogues left in Rachidia. No roof but bima surrounded 4 columns. Bench was visible. Not restorable but would be good to clean up and clear trash. Paint it and install a plaque with its history. Still had a door and I tried to push it open at which point one of the glass panes shattered on my hand but I was luckily left unscathed.

He then scootered me over to the third synagogue. Indeed the door had a large Hannukiah on it. I didn’t get a chance to look inside (only a few peeks through holes in the wall because the door was locked and Brahim had left that key at home). It looks like the bima is still intact. He told me to come back the next morning and he would bring the key.

As I was taking pictures two nice ladies approached me and asked me what I was doing. After I explained to them that I am interested in preserving these synagogues they started to tell me about what sounds like a wonderful non-profit they run in Gourama. They help young kids with after school type programming, women with business, and older illiterate folks learn to read. They wanted my help. I wasn’t sure what I could do but I promised that if I could do something and it made sense that I would help.

Beni Mellal – November 5

I had extra time the night before and decide to skip the terrible night’s sleep in Demnate and head for Beni Mellal (BM). BM sits at the crossroad of every major city in Morocco and there would be onward transportation from there to Er Rachidia. There was also a cemetery in BM that I wanted to check out. That morning I headed to cemetery. There was a guardian and his dog. I’ve always been scared of dogs. Guardian had me wait outside while he procured food for himself and his guardian. The whole 5 minutes he was gone that dog barked. I entered the cemetery with the guardian. He started to tell me how well maintained it was when the dog ran over and bit me! I couldn’t believe it. This was my worst nightmare. I am a baby. The bite barely broke the skin but I was paranoid. Dogs here are not well taken care of and there is a problem with rabies in this country. This was my mother’s worst nightmare. We continued the tour of the cemetery and Mustapha was concerned about my leg. I should go to the clinic he thought. There was a visible geniza and folks from Israel had visited yesterday. I couldn’t concentrate. I thanked him and left.

I headed straight for the “Jerusalem Pharmacy.” They told me to head to the clinic. The clinicians were surprised to see me.

What happened? A dog ate your leg?

I did not have the Arabic skills to explain the situation but they understood.

Where did it bit you?
In the Jewish cemetery…

The whole thing was ridiculous but they were so good to me. Didn’t charge me anything. Were happy to find out I was Jewish or so it seemed. I noticed on their forms that they have to fill out whether someone is Jewish or Muslim. I thought that was very interesting. They gave me my shot and treated me. I was relieved and am totally fine.

Demnate – November 4

I had dreamed of Demnate since first conceiving of this trip. Demnate of course once had a very large Jewish community (was known as a Jewish city). The whole area around Marrakech is incredibly dense with all sites Jewish. Demnate for some reason was off the beaten path. Jen and I had tried to go during October but Ramadan thwarted our plans. Demnate is a walled city with a Kasbah and is situated in the mountains. I took the bus there. The ride was about 1.5-2 hours, much longer then I thought it would be. There were two hotels in town. Neither of which was of any interest. The first was closed for good. The second was open but shouldn’t have been. I prepared myself for what I thought would be an unpleasant nights sleep. The hotel was only 30 dirhams for the night (about 3 dollars and very cheap even for Morocco). I put my bags in my room and headed for the cemetery. I took a winding road up the mountain to get there. Once again everyone knew where it was. It was huge and protected by a wall. In reasonably good condition although no longer totally protected. There was a tzaddik's grave that had been desecrated and I found the very sad grave of a Bar Mitzvah boy. There were hundreds of graves with visible Hebrew on them. Destruction that I had seen in other places had not totally reached Demnate. There was an adjacent section that was much better protected then the first but only a dozen or so graves remained visible. There was a third section with graves in excellent condition. There was a high wall and another layer of protection that I hadn’t seen before. A tall row of cactus made entrance almost impossible. It had to be deliberate I thought. It was impenetrable. I headed to the mellah although everything had been torn down and rebuilt. One curiosity was that the neighborhood next to the mellah was called Mimouna. Hay Mimouna. Mimouna School. Mimouna pharmacy. Mimouna is a Moroccan Jewish holiday celebrated at the end of Passover. I wonder(ed) if there is any connection at all.

Marrakech - November 3

I was now in Marrakech. I wanted to head to Aghbalou to see the last Jew in the Ouiraka Valley. He guarded the tomb of Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hensh. Unfortunately I was thwarted by tourists and the grand taxi mafia who wanted me to take the whole taxi. I could not find enough other passengers to make it worth my while. I decided to head back to town and meet my friends in the Laazma Synagogue in the mellah. It was nice to think that I had friends in Marrakech, especially ones who lived in a synagogue. They were both sick but very excited to see me. We sat for about a half hour together and exchanged stories. They had missed me at Yom Kippur but it was wonderful to catch up.

Marrakech was so busy. I thought the high season was over but the price to quality ratio of my hotel told me it wasn’t. I decided to get out of Marrakech by morning.

Agouim – November 2

I checked out of my hotel and headed in the wrong direction to the bus station. I turned around annoyed that I wasted so much time. I didn’t know what to expect of the pilgrimage but I expected to spend the night there and hopefully have some sort of accommodation. At the big pilgrimage sites there is usually accommodation although very sparse. The ride through the Atlas Mountains was almost comical. Anything we could fit in the taxi we did and this included a bike on top and sheep in the trunk. My bag sat behind my head. I got out at Agouim and started asking around where the pilgrimage was. It wasn’t exactly in Agouim but a few km past. They would take me for 50 dirhams. Considering I just paid 20 for a much longer ride I knew something was amiss. But what could I do? At that moment a bus pulled up. Some 40 Israelis piled out. Bingo. I went over to approach them. I was cautious as I knew the situation was bound to be confusing. I just wanted to know how much it should cost to the hilloula.

Wait you are Jewish? What are you doing here? Who is he? Check his bags.

All range of emotions were on display from those who wanted me to join them to the hilloula to those who were so frightened by my sudden appearance that they demanded to search me. After checking my bags, my Hebrew, my name, my purpose, my story (over and over again), they put me on their bus to head to the hilloula. Many were still nervous. One sat next to me to make sure I wouldn’t do anything. He again went over my story. At the hilloula we filed out of the bus. I just had to trust that everything would work out. As long as I was sufficiently cautious these types of experiences had made my Morocco experience. The pilgrimage was to an incredibly tiny Berber village. There was a freshly whitewashed Jewish cemetery. Outside candles burned. Dozens of Israelis from the bus and other Jews sang and danced as they prayed. It was a sight I hadn’t seen for a long time. Although totally out of place I was comfortable. An old man started crying. People were joyous. We ate lunch after that. Canned tuna, corn, and bread. They all kept kosher. Something quite difficult to do outside of the major cities here. I sat next to my former interrogator/friend Simon. He offered me anything I could need. The man to the left of me who was probably in his 60s said that today was the first day in his life that he cried. It was the sight of the tomb of R. David u-Moshe that had been the catalyst. He couldn’t eat, he just cried. The man across from me again wanted to know my story. We painstakingly went over every detail as Simon and others came to my defense. But how he kept asking. I didn’t understand what he meant but he basically wanted to know what language I was speaking when I traveled. I said I knew Arabic. This satisfied him. After praying we had some sweets and they poured me a large glass of water.

Drink, drink Gedalia (my Hebrew name).

I drank. It wasn’t water. It was Arak – aniseed liquor. My first alcohol in months. It was officially a celebration.

We headed back to the bus. I didn’t really know where I was heading but I had a day and half to kill. Did I want to go with them to Marrakech? Sure. Ha, another adventure. By now most on the bus had warmed to me. They wanted to know where I was from, everything, what I was doing there. It wasn’t coincidence that we all met today they warned me it was fate. I would be married within the year they said. Simon asked me if I knew why everyone was nervous. I said because they thought I was a terrorist. He said yes and that this reaction was natural. I agreed and understood. But it made me sad. It made me hope for end to the conflict even more. At least so that people can start trusting again.

The bus ride was illuminating. All were of Moroccan origin. Some had been born there, some had been to Morocco before, and for others it was their first time. On the bus they recalled their parents fondly and their parent’s mix of Hebrew and Arabic (Haji l’po and Lisgor et haBab). And then there was a drum. I noticed it when I first got on. For the next two hours there was non-stop singing and drumming. It was beyond festive. It was awesome.

Ouarzazate – Nov 1

Pretty unhappy to be in Ouarzazate but made sense to go there given my time constraints and where I had to end up. Checked into my hotel on recommendation from a friend and it was truly comedy of errors. No light in my room. Then I went to wash my hands and the knob on the faucet blew off and water shot up like a geyser. I spent the night in Ouarzazate and thought I would just check out in the morning. There was a Jewish cemetery in Ouarzazate but not much else besides that. There wasn’t a bus for Er Rachidia until Tuesday. A friend suggested I check out the pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi David u-Moshe in Agouim and that I leave Sunday morning.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Special Night in Taroudant - Oct 31

By this point I am ready for different food. There is only so much kefta one can take. That being said after my kefta dinner tonight I decided to take a stroll. My plan was to walk off dinner and perhaps buy a dvd to watch before bed. I was stopped dead in my tracks by an antique store bearing a typical Jewish last name. In the two store front windows were two enormous Moroccan style synagogue lamps. Glass with beautiful Hebrew writing and large about two feet tall. These were the real deal. I decided to enter. I had heard of a store like this from a friend in the know who had said that this man’s merchandise was legitimate. Its so hard to tell here usually. He greeted me in Arabic and we continued to explain pleasantries in Arabic until he wanted to confirm that I was Moroccan. I told him I was American (and Jewish) and he had me sit down. He asked me what I wanted to drink. He was drinking a beer. I figured I would pass and had tea instead. He was drunk and we spoke in a mixture of Arabic and English. His grandfather was Jewish although he has no taste for religion at all. His son was there and his brother eventually joined us. His merchandize, which was expansive, included every antique you could ever want. In the Judaica realm he had silver hanukiot and mezuzot. He showed me a silver with pearl inlay shofar case with shofar inside (he told me it wasn’t old, new in fact, but it looked oldish to me). He had everything. He said he didn’t care about money and that thank God he had plenty. I had never heard this before from anyone here so either he was very special or very drunk. He sold me some things at cost (not Judaica). He said it was his pleasure and that all he wanted was a letter from me when I get to America. I later called a friend to tell him of this adventure. He said that the proprieter is the real deal. He said that those two lamps once hung in village synagogue between Taroudant and Talioune, a village so small that he didn’t even know the name.

Hacham Tioute - Oct 31

I didn’t sleep well last night and had trouble getting out of bed this morning. In the afternoon I headed to Tioute. Tioute is about the same distance from Taroudant as Arazan. It is a series of small villages centered on a palmary. At the top of one of the mountains sits a beautiful kasbah (castle). At the foot of the mountain that leads up to the Kasbah is the tomb of the Hacham of Tioute. Upon arriving in Tioute I asked a couple of men who looked like they were in the know for directions. The whole way there I was trying to figure out how I would explain to them what I was looking for. But they knew. Baruch haba, one said. The Hacham? He asked. Yes, is it close to here? I asked. Both he and I said 2 kilometers from here at the same time. This is a commonly quoted distance. He asked if I needed help finding it, I said no but thank you. I walked the 2 or so kilometers and found the Kasbah. One the side of the mountain is a painted staircase that leads up to the Kasbah. Half way up there is a short turn off and there lies the Hacham of Tioute. Although close to Taroudant you are removed from any sort of hustle and bustle. You are alone with the mountains and there I sat at the tomb of the Hacham. It was quiet and cold. The tomb had been partly destroyed and shards of pottery surrounded the tomb. There was a bench to sit on. I sat there for a while: just me, the Rabbi, and the mountains.

Ighil Noro - Oct 30

This village does not exist on any maps I have seen. Some grand taxi drivers knew it and some didn’t. Luckily mine did. We first had to drive to Talioune, about an hour and a half from Taroudant. I was uncomfortable the whohle way there. At Talioune I had a delicious tagine and then headed to the grand taxi stand there. Everyone there knew Ighil.About 8 drivers gathered around me. When they learned I was Jewish they all began to talk exciditly. I should not only see Ighil but this and that and this. They had a list of things they thought I should see. The argued over memories and how things were. I hopped in an almost full grand taxi and a short while later I was there. No cell phone reception. It was almost as if they were purposefully being kept off the map and the radar. It is a mudbrick village, like Akka but smaller. The population is Haratin. I finally entered a small convenient store to ask for directions when a very helpful woman learned that I wanted to see the restored synagogue there and led me straight to it. This is what I consider my first real failure here in Morocco. I have usually just shown up places and prayed that the guardian is around. Everytime that has been true except for this one. The guardian was in Casablanca for the day (but who knows how long really) and she had the only key. It was in everyone’s interest to help me (and they did) but unfortunately I would have to be content with looking at the outside. I walked back and thought it wasn’t a total loss because there was supposedly a very interesting Jewish cemetery not far from there. I walked by two boys playing marbles in the sand. A man appeared from an entrance way and pointed me in the right direction. The cemetery was very large. Many tombs maintained their shape. Many were also completely desecrated. There was underwear everywhere. All sorts of outer and underwear in fact. There is apparently a local belief that washing at the tomb of a Jew has certain healing powers and thus women will come to the cemetery wash at a tomb (after trying to open the tomb) and rid themselves of their clothes there. There was also a structure partially intact which could have been the Hevra Kadish building. There were three graves that still had Hebrew inscriptions. One wasn’t destroyed and the other two were partially destroyed although you could still make out partial Hebrew words and letters. One of these was in very bad condition. It had been tampered with in such a way that was particularly emotional. Shards of Hebrew lay around the rubble. I began to pick some up to take a closer look but then it started raining. I moved away from the tomb and the rain stopped. I walked around the whole cemetery and back to this very interesting tomb. It started raining again. I thought that if I was a more religious/spiritual person then this might seem even stranger then it actually was. I moved away and the rain stopped. I walked around the cemetery a second time and headed back to this tomb. It started raining again. It was far too centralized. It appeared to be raining only on this tomb. It was inexplicable and I wont try to explain here but I wanted to make sure that I wrote that particular memory down.

Arazan – Oct 29

I decided to sleep in as I was exhausted from all my travel. I headed to the grand taxi station around 10.45 am and waited until 11.15 or so but could not get a taxi going to Arazan. One of the drivers told me to come back around 2 and so I went back to the hotel, rested a bit more, and then headed to lunch. After lunch I headed straight for the grand taxi station and was the 6th and final person for the taxi headed to Arazan. Much easier than the morning. The ride to Arazan was easy. Arazan is a small Berber village. It was not too difficult to locate the mellah. I was in Arazan for one reason. I had heard that there was a synagogue left in excellent condition. Although everyone and everything else was gone an elderly Muslim man had watched over the synagogue for some 45 years. Apparently when it was rediscovered by the lone Jewish tour guide here the elderly man chided him, asking, “What took you so long?” A group of men directed me to a young girl who took me to the guardian’s house. He was surprisingly tall. He took me to a wood door and had me unlock it as the lock was small and his eyesight poor. We then walked to another wood door that was also locked and this time he unlocked it. This led us into the courtyard of the synagogue that also doubled as the women’s section. He then opened a third door, a set of double doors actually, a beautiful bright blue, and I finally saw the synagogue. It is incredibly small but tugs the soul right away. Painted on one of the beams that surrounds the bima is written in Hebrew: How good it is Jacob to dwell in your tents and Know Before Whom You Stand - the King of Kings, Blessed Be He. On each wall the corresponding direction in Hebrew is painted. The walls are mud brick and the roof is thatch with a skylight. Surrounding the bima is the bench on which people could sit at the appropriate time during prayer. Above the bima is a shelf with a small burner for light. The ark is small but exquisite painted ornately. I know I have said this before but this synagogue has to be one of the highlights of my trip.

Before we left the men’s section and the main sanctuary I asked the guardian if he knew any Hebrew. A little he said.

Baruch haba. Baruch Ata Adonai. Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Shavua tov. Mazal tov. And finally: Shalom Aleichem wa Aleichem Shalom.

He then led me to the women’s section and the mikvah which was an astonishingly good condition. Totally unexpected he then invited me into his home for tea and tagine. We sat and broke bread together. We discussed as much as my language skills would allow me and had a wonderful time as his 7 month old son/grandson (I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to ask) kept us entertained. He was an incredibly cordial host. I again began to let my mind wander. I can’t wait to show this synagogue to people. It would make for a really a nice bike ride from Taroudant and then to wander through Arazan’s alleys to the mellah…

Taroudant – Oct 28

I arrived yesterday in Taroudant and quickly found a hotel by Bab Zourgane. It was one of those bus rides where everybody decides to throw up simultaneously so I was very happy to arrive. Taroudant sits at the foot of the High Atlas mountains. As usual it once had a significant Jewish community of some 1,000 years but not much remains. I found my way to the cemetery by following the inside of the surround mud brick walls. The cemetery was very large and obviously once boasted many more graves than I could at the time see. There was a full time caretaker who showed me around including to the tombs of the tzaddikim. Very few graves had Hebrew inscriptions on them despite the good condition of most of the visible graves. The Taroudant Jewish cemetery has a very interesting history that I am just beginning to discover. As I left the cemetery I asked the guardian to point me in the direction of the mellah and he did. The older pictures I had seen of the mellah showed narrow streets and alleys and all mud brick construction. It seems that over the last 50 or so years much of that has come down and been replaced by cement structures. I toured the mellah a bit but could not identify any of the buildings shown in the pictures I have.

Heading to Tagadirt – Oct 27

I headed to Tagadirt roughly the same way I came. On my way back I encountered a group of men and women doing laundry in the pool but the one of the many palmaries. They quickly offered me a cup of tea and I obliged having been trekking through the heat for hours. They also offered me a very large handful of fresh dates and nuts that I couldn’t figure out how to eat. This lived up to all my expectations of an oasis.

I entered the small village of Rahala and noticed the first taxi I had seen all day. I had been wandering through dirt streets surrounded by mud brick homes and a taxi just seemed sort of out of place. Even more out of place was the Obama ’08 sticker in his back window. I went up to the driver and asked him if he had lived in America or spoke English and he hadn’t and didn’t. He simply loved Obama. He then directed me to his front seat where an Obama hat sat on the dashboard. He then gave me a ride to Tagadirt and pointed out the adult Jewish cemetery that would have been slightly difficult to find without him. I thought if this isn’t inspiration I don’t know what is. A family pointed me to the cemetery. Graves were discernable but only a few really resembled finished graves. Only one had a Hebrew inscription on it but it was impossible to read as it had been broken and scattered.

I was approached by a tall teenager who wanted to show me the children’s cemetery and the synagogue. I was suspicious of him and have thus far relied on my instincts quite well. He rushed me out of the Jewish cemetery and towards the other Jewish cemetery, the one reserved for children. We walked into town to the mosque. Next to the mosque was a cemetery but it was clearly a Muslim cemetery. I told him that. He said that it was a Jewish cemetery. I pointed out why it wasn’t a Jewish cemetery (it should have been obvious to him) and then a boy of about 10 confirmed that I was right. Then they both took me to the mellah and to a serious of closed doors that I tried to open but couldn’t. The younger boy pointed out the Jewish school, “Mosque,” and oven. The oven door was open but I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. I had been looking for a synagogue and the building I was in could have once been a synagogue but I will wait for confirmation from some friends. They again rushed me out of there. I was annoyed and couldn’t shake them. I then stumbled upon the Baal Hamaayan foundation that was the water source for the Jewish community in Tagadirt. One of the last buses was leaving soon and Akka was not the type of place you wanted to stay in over night. I thanked the boys but the older one insisted on walking me back to the original cemetery. I obliged and eventually headed back to Akka and caught a grand taxi back to Tata.

Akka – Oct 27

I hoped on the first (9 am) bus to Akka and arrived only to really begin to understand what the middle of nowhere means. Every time I think I have found the middle of nowhere I realize that I was previously at the edge of somewhere and I am crossing into nowhere only now. Akka is an oasis, a palmary, close to the Algerian border. It is an ancient caravan route and an ancient area of Jewish settlement. Akka is composed of the city Akka and small douar or villages (about 7 in total). I initially had to set up and figure out which villages I was exploring. After interviewing a few of the towns elders I realized that I was going to visit two villages: Zawiya and Tagadirt. How far was Zawiya? Zawiya was the northern most village and about 8 kilometers by foot through dry riverbeds and through mud brick villages from where I stood. I enlisted the help of a high school student who walked me to Tagadirt and from there I continued on my own. It was some of the most stunning scenery I have yet to see her. Everything you could want from an oasis including intense heat, palm trees and sudden pools. I finally reached Zawiya. In these villages I was clearly an outsider. I couldn’t even attempt to blend in. Some men directed me to the Jewish cemetery. The pointed to a distant mountain and told me to walk until there and I would find the cemetery. In a way these were some of the clearest directions I have gotten in Morocco but of course nothing is that simple. I climbed over rocks and hills until I reached the mountain but found rocks. I had a feeling I would be looking for desecrated graves that would resemble rocks. It’s a funny thing to be looking for rocks amongst rocks. I combed the edge of the mountain only to find nothing or rocks or possibly a cemetery but in reality nothing. There was a group of 5 local woman herding sheep on the mountain. They were coming my way. I shouted to them in Arabic to ask where the cemetery was. I was afraid I would scare them but that definitely was not the case. In perfect Moroccan Arabic one shouted back: I don’t know Arabic, I only know Chleuh (Berber). She was too young for that to be true. They headed towards me and I finally communicated that I wanted to see graves. They waved me on to follow. So here I was at the edge of an oasis by a mountain with women herding sheep following them to find the Jewish cemetery. They didn’t identify the cemetery as Jewish when we arrived. Only that it was an infidel’s cemetery. I knew I was in the right place. We had a good laugh throughout the process, especially when they tried to squeeze me for a few dirhams.

I searched as widely and as carefully as possibly. I had clearly reached the Jewish cemetery of Zawiya but none of the graves were in a good condition. They had all been destroyed and theoretically for reasons associated with superstition. Surround the graves were broken tagines, clothes, and hairbrushes (Interesting note: When I passed by a Muslim cemetery earlier in the morning I noticed a broken tagines everywhere. I’m now wondering if there is significance to the practice of breaking pottery in a Jewish cemetery or if it just a cemetery that is needed). I was about to head to Tagadirt when I noticed a couple of structures in the near distance. I walked down towards them pretty sure I was at any moment going to be stung by scorpion and found that they were mausoleums for tzaddikim. The graves still maintained their shape and I made out three distinct graves in two separate buildings. Unfortunately I could not find any Hebrew inscription anywhere but it looked to me like tzaddikim that were once visited but no longer. They were Berber independence symbols on the wall and I even found a Star of David crossed out. It was disappointing and exciting all at the same time.

Tata – Oct 26

I successfully and luckily arrived in Tata from Tiznit. Tomorrow I am off to explore Akka, about an hour away, and will be specifically searching for a 300-400 year old synagogue that is in an advanced stage of decline, a cemetery with a geniza, a communal oven, and the Baal Hamaayan fountain. Just finished a conversation with the local butcher in Tata who originally hails from Akka. He spoke to me in very decent English that he says he picked up from the local PC volunteers.

Tahala Mellah

After leaving the cemetery I struggled to find anyone in town. I asked a storekeeper where the mellah was and he gave me vague directions. I asked another woman but somewhere between her Arabic, Chleuh (local Berber language), and my Arabic we both burst into laughter at not being able to understand the other. Finally she motioned to two men who spoke much clearer Arabic and helped me to find what I was looking for. Excitingly I identified that indeed the map that identified Tahala as being somewhere close to Fes was incorrect. This was the same Tahala that I had photographs of and it was nowhere near Fes. I also identified the same home that had been photographed and the entrance to the old synagogue (apparently a newer synagogue had been built in the 1940s). I followed that, along with the two men helping me, to what was once the synagogue. The roof was gone but there were four beams that once supported the roof and surrounded the bima in very good condition. Skylights/windows were built in just the right places to let light in to this synagogue that clearly never had or only very late received electricity. It was enjoyable walking with these two men who had now clearly become my friends and who were excited to show me Jewish Tahala. They showed me where the market was and where they used to make silver (they showed me how also but I didn’t quite understand that part). Then as if sensing I was hungry and thirsty invited me into their home for tea. It was so kind and although I had become accustomed to this sense of overwhelming hospitality over the last few days it was still unbelievable to me. They served me tea, water, and a bunch of sweets including amlou (almond mixed with locally produced argan oil), and pomegranate that they had picked shortly before meeting me. One of the men was an Arabic teacher in the local school. The other was a sommelier back in Tafraoute. He then started speaking all the Hebrew he had learned over the years from his Jewish and Israeli clients (Boker tov, laila tov, beseder, todah rabah). The sommelier told me how his father used to do business with the Jews and lease land to them. He withheld this information from me earlier or perhaps we hadn’t come to that part of the conversation but it both interesting and difficult to consider how much oral history is being lost. It seems that everywhere you go, everyone you encounter, has some story (overwhelmingly positive although I imagine these are the stories that people like to share with visiting Jews) involving the former Jewish residents of these communities. But this is another project in and of itself.

I thanked them and they helped me hail a taxi back to Tafraoute. I waited two hours in Tafraoute before we had enough passengers to warrant the trip back to Tiznit.

Tahala – Oct 25

I woke up early, as usual, and left in search of two places in and around Tafraoute that I knew still claimed Jewish cemeteries: Tazoulte and Tahala. For the life of me I could not find a grand taxi to Tazoulte and so opted for Tahala instead. I was more excited by Tahala anyways. I brought with me 55 year old pictures of the ancient synagogue in Tahala and a street scene. However I also had a hand drawn map that located Tahala close to Fes and not close to Tafraoute and so I was interested to see if this was the same Tahala and if it had been originally misidentified on the map.

I arrived in Tahala and quickly found an amicable old man who pointed me in the right direction. Tahala is a small village about 15 km outside of Tafraoute. It was a Saturday and even quieter than usual. If I saw anyone around I asked them to point me in the direction of the cemetery and the happily did so. I finally arrived to a construction site. The Moroccan equivalent of a McMansion was being built in Tahala and seriously blemished the landscape. The construction workers motioned me forward past the site and to what looked like construction materials at first glance. But at second glance it was much more than construction materials. It was the remnant of the Tahala Jewish cemetery. There were about 12-15 visible graves with visible, clearly written Hebrew on about 6 of the graves. Some of the graves lied under construction materials and many had been destroyed. There was broken pottery, mostly tagine lids, strewn about and a good number of the graves that were still in good condition had been desecrated from the top. A number of people I have spoken to on this matter seem to think that local Berber traditions have identified Jewish cemeteries as sources of certain powers and the broken pottery and even the desecration is part of these rituals. As construction moved along and as I moved on it seemed to me that this cemetery only has a few years left before it is totally destroyed. Sadly it was one of the most moving cemeteries I have seen since arriving in Morocco and was at a loss of what to do. If the Hebrew inscriptions are not moved to a museum (perhaps in Casablanca) then they will completely disappear in the near future.

Tafraoute – Oct 24

Beautiful administrative area at the entrance to the Ameln Valley. The mountains here are startling and stunning. Checked into the hotel and took a short walk to a few of the notable physical sites. One of the most beautiful areas of Morocco and quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Ifrane de Anti-Atlas – Oct 23

It would have been easier to arrive by car but of course I didn’t have that luxury. Instead I took a grand taxi from Tiznit to Bou Izakern and from there another grand taxi to Ifrane. For some reason I keep on expecting there to be some sort of signage in these places but there never is. Ifrane of the Anti-Atlas is one of the earliest settled areas in Morocco. It also claims one of the oldest Jewish communities in Morocco. Some years ago the 1800-year-old synagogue was restored. All traditional building materials and methods were used. I must say that seeing that synagogue was definitely one my inspirations for coming to Morocco. I arrived in Ifrane to learn that the mellah was 3 kilometers further than where I had arrived. I had some walking to do. I decided to walk through the villages that line the dry riverbed and that are flanked by palm trees rather than follow the road. I crossed over from the road noticing the unique Berber cemeteries that are really a site to see (I promised I will post when I get back to the US and have a reliable internet connection). Walking through these small villages was definitely worth it. Time had really stopped here or at least appeared to and it was a wonderfully relaxing walk only interrupted by my stopping woman working the field or doing laundry to ask if I was headed in the right direction.

Finally, finally, I arrived at the mellah. I saw a construction site and asked the men there and the only ones I could see where the synagogue was. It was right next door. The guardian came and opened the door for me as his 10 year old son watched me take pictures of this beautiful synagogue. You could imagine men praying in here. You had to use your imagination but it was possible. It was mud brick with a skylight. Just enough light was let in to be perfect. Benches wrapped around the exterior of the interior and there it was in the middle of nowhere. I asked the son to take me to the cemetery that I knew was nearby (there are actually two but I only went to the adult cemetery). I didn’t expect to find anything knowing that some of the last tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions had been removed the Jewish museum in Casablanca. There was a mausoleum there and by the mausoleum I noticed a unique stone. I looked closer and asked my new friend to take a look as well. There was Hebrew on this stone. Who knows how old it is exactly but it was part of a 2000 year old community no matter how recent the inscription was. I put the stone in the mausoleum to protect it from the weather. The word SHNAT (as in Hebrew for year, as in the year of death) was visible. I headed back to the synagogue and the guardian started showing me what the construction was for. He was building an auberge, a guesthouse, next to the synagogue. He was going to call it “Auburge du Mellah.” I actually thought it was a great idea and told him to email me when it opens. I was cold and not feeling great however. I was sort of tired of talking and asked him if it was easy to get back to where I could pick up a grand taxi.

You’re not going to join us for lunch? He asked.
Sure. I said.

I was so hungry and tired and it was the perfectly placed invitation. He invited me into his home and put on a dvd for me. It was a Moroccan news story on the Jewish history of Ifrane of the anti-Atlas. His daughter then brought out a beautiful tagine for us. We all ate together: me, the guardian, his son, the construction workers, and one of their sons. It was a very fun and warm experience. We finished our tagine and in my mind I admitted to myself that it was good but I was still a little hungry. Then the daughter brought out a second tagine. I was very happy. We finished our meal with fresh pomegranates and thanked everyone for the meal. The guardian then handed me the Arabic language dvd on the Jewish history of his village. I couldn’t accept it but he told me I must and that he had a second copy. I was full and walked away with an amazing gift.

On my walk home I envisioned how special it would be to spend a night in the auberge with a group of young Jews. We could easily walk to that old, old synagogue and pray there once again. Hopefully this can be arranged in the near future.

Back to Tiznit – Oct 22

I arrived back in Tiznit a little disappointed but realized that just going to this village would have been enough (in the spirit of dayeinu) but speaking with folks there and seeking out the remnants of Jewish history was an accomplishment in and of itself. For the life of me I couldn’t find the cemetery in Tiznit. This is usually the easiest thing to find in a city. I decided to call it quits so to speak and to hop into a taxi. The driver took me straight to the cemetery. It was surrounded by wall but clearly there was no guardian. The only door in was locked. The walls were high. There was a pile of rocks in which I could peer over just enough to confirm that this was indeed the cemetery. Only a few dozen graves remained and I couldn’t get a good enough look to determine whether or not there still remained any Hebrew. I decided to try and jump the wall. I first had to make sure there were no guard dogs inside that were ready to attack. The whole experience was surreal and eerie. There was decaying livestock around the cemetery and I had a bad feeling about the whole thing. I nonetheless pulled together large stones and cement block in order to get myself to such a position where I would be able to pull myself to the top of the wall. I did so successfully (after a few tries) and walked the length of the wall to an area where I could safely let myself down. I approached the remaining graves, constantly looking behind me, but found no Hebrew inscriptions left. Then I noticed a dog. A dead dog. I couldn’t figure out how it got in or how it died but it was very, very unpleasant. I took my pictures and left quickly having been just a little bit spooked.

Assaka – Oct 22

I headed for Assaka the next morning. I had a few old pictures of Assaka that I was hoping to employ to my benefit. There was once a mellah in Assaka and I hoped something of it still remained. I also hoped to find the cemetery. I took a grand taxi to Assaka but the driver overshot it (maybe just to emphasize its size) and I ended up having to take another grand taxi back in order to finally reach Assaka. I got out of the taxi and realized I had finally reached the middle of nowhere. The only shop in town was the butcher who I quickly asked about the Jewish cemetery. He was old enough to remember Jews and indeed he pointed me in that vague straight head direction that I often get here. I started walking in that direction when I heard someone whistle at me. My friend had enlisted the help of his younger friend Larbi. Both spoke Chleuh (Berber) and Arabic. They asked me if I spoke Chleuh as there was a Peace Corps volunteer in the area who had apparently mastered it, I obviously didn’t. I explained to them what I was looking for and they took me straight to the mellah which was a few kilometers back. It was in complete ruins due to lack of upkeep, the mud brick nature of the dwellings, and the extreme weather conditions. It was still very interesting to try and visualize this site. They then took me to a house adjacent to a mosque. One of the oldest men I have yet to see in Morocco exited. He was the local expert on all things Jewish having worked with (or for, I wasn’t sure) Jews decades ago. He gave him a few names I was curious about and he pointed out there houses to me. He then directed Larbi and his older friend (who was also named Larbi) to where the cemetery was on the mountain. The old man could not endure the walk and instead proceeded to shout directions to us for the 20 minutes (higher/to the right/those are just rocks). We found the cemetery but it wasn’t much to look at. You had to seriously use your imagination but it was there. We headed back and the Larbis helped me hail a grand taxi. The younger Larbi began to impress with his knowledge of Jewish history of the area. He referenced Ifrane (which has an 1800 year old synagogue and where I was headed the next day) and the Tafraoute region. I was impressed.

Tiznit – Oct 21

After discussing my itinerary with my friend I decided to skip Agadir and head straight for Tiznit. It was truly one of the worst bus rides of my life but I survived and lived to tell the tale. I decided that I was going to use Tiznit as a base, exploring nearby cities in the morning and returning the afternoon to explore Tiznit’s old and new mellah and cemetery. I was hoping at least to find the Shimon Bar Yochai Synagogue in Tiznit but I didn’t. The first day I arrived I simply got my bearings, found the mellah, and headed to bed relatively early.

Essaouira: Part II – Oct 20

I had asked my friend the previous night if I could shadow him as he gave a tour to an elderly couple from Australia. I woke up and met them at the Jewish cemetery and from there we headed to the second cemetery just across the road. This cemetery contained the grave of Haim Pinto, a tzaddik whose annual hilloula draws thousands from across the world. From there we headed to the Haim Pinto synagogue in the mellah which has been restored by the Pinto family and is one of the few well signposted Jewish sites in all of Morocco. Inside we met a lovely Jewish couple from Seattle. We ended up walking through the mellah together, passing the last Jewish shop in Essaouira (there are 4 Jews left in Essaouira), the outside of the Attias Synagogue (closed for restoration since 1993) and having a drink together in the main square. My friend then continued his trip and I for the first time played the part of tour guide. I took the Seattle couple to take a look at the Jewish cemetery (which they hadn’t seen) back through the mellah and for a fresh fish lunch. They were so excited and so interested and I only wish I had met them earlier to give them a tour of all that I had seen.

Essaouira – Oct 19

I decided to skip in Safi in order to meet a friend (in fact not just any friend but the only Jewish tour guide in North Africa) in Essaouira. We were to discuss my itinerary and some plans for restoring some breathtaking synagogues and cemeteries here. Upon arriving in Essaouira I headed straight for my hotel, which was located in the old mellah. I threw my stuff down and headed for the cemetery. Essaouira, like the other coastal towns, once had a significant Jewish community. The cemetery was well kept (by the famous Pinto family) and including a number of tzaddikim. I headed back to my hotel through the mellah noticing the sorry state of the neighborhood but also a number of obvious remnants of what was once Jewish including Stars of David above a number of the houses. I ate fresh fish on the boardwalk and had a wonderful conversation with my friend. We discussed restoration priorities and trip details. One interesting note is that there is so much Jewish history here that it is often difficult to keep track of. So for example I had shown my friend my itinerary and had added question marks if I was unsure whether synagogues or cemeteries were in any sort of shape or still existed. He told me in most cases that I should keep the question mark, as he was not sure if the cemetery still existed either. We drank tea and coffee until the wee hours of the Moroccan night (about 11) and then headed back to our respective hotels.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Azemour Cemetery

A number of people I had met with had told me that if they could choose a cemetery to restore it would be the one at Azemour. I of course had to find it. I knew it would be outside of the old city and close to the mellah. I left the old city to find a spot where I could survey the area adjacent to river. I saw a small grass area about 1.5 miles to the north of the city and what looked like white tombs in terrible condition. This had to be it I thought. There was no way to get there other than to hike. The area seemed deserted except for a few kids playing in the river and a lone fisherman. I reached the site that I had seen from the old city and discovered that I wasn’t looking at a cemetery but instead mounds of rock, plaster, and concrete. I knew the cemetery had to have been close but I couldn’t find it. It was surprisingly hot and I was still sick and decided to head back. On my way back I noticed the oldest man I had seen in a long time. We exchanged greetings and I asked him where the cemetery was. He gave me directions back to the place I had already been. I decided to walk back that way anyway to give it another shot. Then I saw a father with his two children. Fathers with their children are always a safe bet for me.

Do you know where the Jewish cemetery is?
Sure. Head straight to the river…
Yes, I was already there but where exactly?
You see that collection of trees?
Amongst the trees?

So I headed back and got lost. A man passed and he told me I need to climb up the hill and on the other side I would find the cemetery. Normally it is not that difficult to find a cemetery as it is surrounded by walls and has a single entrance. However there were no walls and so I didn’t have an obvious land marker. I climbed up the hill and found it. The first graves I found were worn and without inscription but as I ascended further I could see why this cemetery was so special. Beautiful, old tombstones with legible Hebrew inscriptions everywhere. I kept walking. I noticed a sign in Arabic. It said: Entrance Forbidden. Hmm. Who does this apply to I thought? What were the consequences? I heard a dog bark. Then a man about my age appeared. He had a bloody nose and was holding a rusty saw and a 2 x 4. Well I thought, I guess it is forbidden to enter.

Can I enter?
It’s forbidden.

This continued for a minute before I explained to him who I was and that I was Jewish myself. He agreed to show me the cemetery, including the most recent tombs. I asked if I could walk around by myself and he said no. We played that game for a short while until he gave me a couple minutes if I agreed to walk back to the city with him. As we left he told me that the area was dangerous. There were many thieves. Sometimes people say things like that. I can never tell how real the danger is or who they would actually rob as I was the only one walking this path when I returned. Nonetheless he walked me back. He showed me his ID. He was only a year older than me. I told him that. He finally smiled.


The tomb of Rabbi Abraham Baal HaNess lies at the edge of the mellah in Azemour. I’d seen many pictures of the sight but was still excited to “find” it for myself. It wasn’t too difficult to find. I had heard that local kids will follow you to the sight and then ask for compensation for their troubles. I was prepared but it didn’t happen. I found the tomb and the guardian. As he opened up the gate an Israeli couple and the wife’s elderly mother approached with a guide. What were the odds that we would all show up at the same time? I spoke to the wife in Hebrew. She seemed surprised to find me there and perhaps suspicious of whom I was. The tomb and surrounding complex are in perfect condition. I spent about 15 minutes inside and left. I left to find myself surrounded by about 10 local kids and women who to invoked the Rabbi’s name when begging.

Tea with Brahim

I woke up much earlier then I hoped to wake up. I’ve been sick for the last couple days and last night I didn’t sleep well either. Lots of things race through my mind at night and I’m always trying to strategize for the next day right before I head to bed. This morning I woke up, took a shower, had a croissant, and headed straight for the mellah. I had a little bit more trouble locating the synagogue but after a few minutes I found it. It was indeed the Aaron HaCohen Synagogue and I brought the 55-year-old photo with me for proof. It looked impossible to get in and I stared at it for a very long time. I walked up and down the street looking at it from different angles but couldn’t figure out if it was somehow possible to get in. Finally I heard a voice call me to from above, literally. It was a man from a window adjacent to the synagogue asking me what I was looking for. I shouted to him that I was looking for the synagogue that used to be here. We exchanged some more information and he told me to walk to the other side of his building and he’d let me in. His daughter let me in and let me up to his apartment. We’ll call him Brahim. Brahim invited me into his home for tea. It was exactly what I needed for my throat and for this alone I was happy. He told me how he grew up close to the synagogue and that the Jews used to give him sweets and chocolate. Lots of Jews lived here he kept reiterating. He had a lot of art on his walls. He told me that he painted and that he used to work with marionettes.

I’m not Arab you know. He said
I was very surprised that he said that. Then what are you?

He struggled to pull out his necklace that was tucked into his shirt. It was a cross. He directed me to the walls again where many an image of Jesus hung. He had converted years ago. I had heard of some Moroccan converts to Christianity from some friends but this was certainly the first I met. He then told me that it was impossible to get into the synagogue. He would help me climb over a serious of walls to get a better look at a synagogue and the former home of the Hazzan family. So we climbed up to his roof past Oscar the dog and over three walls. The roof of the synagogue is in bad condition. There is a skylight that provided a tantalizing peak inside but that’s about it. I was elated and a little disappointed at the same time. He told me that young kids sneak into the synagogue through a small hole but he tries to keep them out.

Why do they go inside? I asked.
To play. He said.

He pointed out a few more Jewish sites from the roof and we descended back into his house. He then showed me a few pictures. Some years ago he had met an Israeli of Moroccan decent who had come to El Jadida to search out his family’s synagogue, home, and where they were buried. While I had not been the first to meet Brahim in my search for Jewish Morocco, I knew I was in good company.

I asked him if he knew BenSimon Street as I had heard that there is a synagogue there that you can actually enter. He directed me to a street but upon later searching I couldn’t find it. We finished watching an Indian film and I thanked him for his time. As we exited I thought it would be appropriate to hand him some money for his trouble, if not just for the tea. He refused, I thanked him and we parted ways.

El Jadida

Arrived in El Jadida sick and early. I was surprised. It is very manageable and friendly town. The guidebook steered me towards the perfect hotel. I had lunch and then headed to the old Portuguese city. My first stop was the cemetery, which was very easy to find. After speaking with the elderly guard, who was hesitant to let me in, he let me in and wished me good luck in finding whomever I was trying to find. He told me to go slowly and take my time. The cemetery is beautiful, much like the one in Asilah but on a much larger scale. It lies just outside the Portuguese walled city and only a wall and road lie between the cemetery and the ocean. I spent about an hour walking around the cemetery and found that a woman was buried there as recently as 2006. I left the synagogue and walked around the ramparts to get a better sense of the old city.

El Jadida once boasted 12 synagogues. I have a 55-year-old picture of the Aaron HaCohen synagogue and committed it to memory before touring the old city. I saw a building that looked (in my mind) very much like the one I remembered and snapped a photo. I decided to call it quits after that as I was only feeling sicker and sicker. I returned home and checked the photo I took against the photo I had. They were similar but ultimately different.

I returned to the old city by night to use the internet at a place called Mellah net. I showed the patron a photo of the outside of the BenSimon synagogue to see if he recognized it but unfortunately he didn’t. I decided to do a little bit more strolling before heading home. I walked the tiny streets of the mellah only to notice that I was standing in front of what looked exactly like the 55-year-old photo I had. I stared at the building for a long while. I took a right where I remember there should have been an arch and it worked. I had found the synagogue. I obviously wasn’t going to get in at night but it seems that thick concrete has been poured over the entrance and I’m curious to see if or how I will get in tomorrow. As I walked down the streets I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. The streets of the mellah all maintained their former names. There was Joseph Nahon Street and Abraham Znaty Street, respected Jewish citizens of El Jadida. I continued to walk until a young boy came up to me to tell me that the street was closed. You come across this in Morocco all the time. But I realized he meant that there is no exit the way I was going that it was leading me to a dead end. He was just trying to by helpful. He then asked me if I was speaking Egyptian Arabic. Yes, I said.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sukkot in Casa

Shortly before Amir and Tara left we popped into an internet café to check on a few things. Casa as a city is somewhere between organized and disorganized chaos. The internet café was on the roof of a four-story building. As we reached the top of the stairs and turned towards the internet café we found ourselves in the shadow of Sukkah someone had just finished building.

The Synagogue

We were all (the 6 of us – 3 old Moroccans and 3 young Americans) stunned. It was a beautiful synagogue, even by night. The roof had caved in on one side but all in all it was completely in tact. The bima was there and the ark was in near perfect condition. The benches were set up so that you could start praying right there and then had you wanted to. Boxes of prayer shawls, kippot, and prayer books were stacked on the left side of the synagogue. We took pictures and paired up to discuss what we were looking at. Using the light of our cell phones we illuminated that synagogue for the first time in a long time. I taught my new friend some Hebrew as he fondly recalled growing up in Er Rachidia with his Jewish friends. At that moment I knew that this site alone was worth me coming to Morocco and I am eager to share with everyone pictures and video and am working on putting together a presentation for when I return. It wont cost much to restore this synagogue and I am going to start work on the synagogue while I am here. When I get home I hope to start raising funds and getting together volunteers to come to Morocco who will help me seize this historic opportunity.

Waiter and Synagogue in Er Rachidia – October 7

We continued north and stopped in Er Rachidia for dinner. It was our second stop in Er Rachidia, having had dinner there the night before on our way down. Er Rachidia was surprisingly hectic on the first night we were there but had calmed down the second night. Er Rachidia, formerly the much older Ksar El Souk, was a former French foreign legion town. The new city was on built on a grid and easy to navigate. We stopped to have dinner at the main drag in town, the Imilchil Restaurant. Our waiter was curt and refused to speak to us in any language that we were speaking. If I spoke Arabic he responded in Spanish and when Amir spoke Spanish the waiter responded in broken English. We finished our meal and began to pay. There was a mistake on the bill and I explained it to the waiter and he quickly corrected it. We were about to go and then he said in Arabic:
You know I used to work in Israel.
I thought I had heard wrong.
What? I said.
I used to work in Israel at a Latin restaurant.
I couldn’t figure out why he was telling me this. Did I look Jewish to him? Was he confiding in me?
Yes, I lived there for 4 years. I have an Israeli passport. When the Palestinians stopped working in Israel, I went to Israel and worked.

He said much more and I continued to incredulously ask him questions. I asked him to describe someone here in Morocco I was sure he would know to test him. He very much knew whom I was talking about. I couldn’t believe this. What were the odds? I decided to seize the opportunity.

Where are the synagogues in town?
Just two blocks up on your right, he said.

I thanked him and we left. I asked Amir and Tara if we could stop to see if we could find anything. They were happy to oblige. On our way I saw three older men talking. I stopped them and asked them for help. They were so excited. Was I Moroccan they wanted to know. They had found memories of the Jews in Er Rachidia. They said it was very good that I was helping my Jewish friends (Amir and Tara – who isn’t Jewish) look for the synagogue. I told them I was Jewish but they refused to believe I was no matter how many times I told them I was. They told me that Amir and Tara looked like Jews who would have lived here 50 years ago. It was a very funny situation.

I walked over with the oldest of the three gentleman using my upper arm for support and to guide me. One of the three men eventually figured out that my Arabic was not native and switched to perfect English. He was after all an English teacher in Casablanca. We found the building with in minutes. On the outside in large Hebrew writing it said Beit Knesset (synagogue). We found the young man who has been entrusted with the key and as darkness finally settled he three open the doors to a 300-year-old abandoned synagogue.

Erfoud – October 7

On our way back up (north) from Merzouga I continued to call out the names of cities and villages that once had significant Jewish populations and that in all likely continues to possess Jewish cemeteries. Amir told me he was interested in seeing something Jewish. Show me something, he said. I had shown both of them some sights in Rabat including the former Alliance Israelite Universalle school, a (former) Jewish owned paper shop, a synagogue and some Judaica for sale in Rabat storefronts. I told them we would stop in Erfoud and find something. I didn’t bring any of my notes with me on the trip and so most of what I could show them would have to be drawn from memory. I had remembered that the Erfoud cemetery continued the tomb of R. Eliyahu Abuhatzeira of the famous Abuhatzeira clan. The problem was we were pressed for time. We were trying to cover too many hours in too short a time. We would be forced to drive at night if we made any stops and anyone who has driven in the south of Morocco knows that night driving can be slightly risky. I kept my eyes peeled as we drove north from Rissani to Erfoud. Pull over here, I said. I spotted what I assumed to be the Erfoud Jewish cemetery. I had never been there of course but was sure I was in the right spot. I entered the cemetery as Amir and Tara trailed quite far behind. There was a caretaker on premises but no one came out to greet us or ask us questions. The cemetery is in fairly good condition. As you enter there is a row of graves directly in front of you and also to the right of you. The cemetery is walled on all sides. Many of the graves had stones on them, the traditional Jewish mark of visitation. Between the two blocks of graves is the grave of R. Eliyahu Abuhatzeira. There is large room for participants who partake in the annual hilloula. I also noticed some broken pottery on the ground in the cemetery. I had heard that there was a Berber superstition that associated breaking pottery in Jewish cemeteries with some sort of good luck. I’m not sure if this is true but I did see a broken tagine. For Amir and Tara it was one of their first tastes of Jewish Morocco and there we were only an hour or so away from the Sahara.

Amir and Tara come to visit

Amir and Tara came to visit on October 4. I planned for them a weeklong itinerary that included stops in Azemmour, El Jadida, and Ouarzazate. I had intended to spend Yom Kippur in Marrakech at the Laazama Synagogue before heading back on Friday morning to get them to the airport. Upon arrival we all discussed and quickly decided to rearrange our plans completely. We came up with a new schedule that put us in Fes for Yom Kippur and had us racing to the Saharan dunes of Erg Chebbi on Monday - coming back up towards Fes for Yom Kippur. I was skeptical but we did it. On Monday we took our time, driving from Rabat to Erfoud (a distance of about 10 or so hours) with stops in the Berber village of Azrou, a quick stop to check out the Barbary apes of the Ifrane Forrest, and countless photograph and bathroom breaks along the way.

Shana Tova

Spent Rosh Hashana in Rabat. There was a much larger turnout then usual, around 75 men and women, including a few out-of-towners like myself. Everyone wore his or her best. The shofar was loud and clear. It felt like the New Year.

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.