Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

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.