Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Oujda: Modern Jewish History

Oujda is the largest city in Eastern Morocco today and once was the home of a large Jewish community. The Grand Synagogue, the pride of the community, was built in 1930 and has served as the main synagogue in Oujda for the last 80 years. By 1936 the Jewish population stood at 2,048. In the early 1940s, the Vichy administration made life difficult for Jews in Oujda - Jews were dismissed from government work and from French schools. In the late 1940s, Oujda served as the scene of significant anti-Jewish violence and the final departure point to Israel. On June 7, 1948 a pogrom in Oujda (and Djerada) resulted in the murder of 43 Jews. By 1951 the Jewish population remained at about 2,000 persons.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Grand Synagogue in Oujda will turn 80 next year

It was built in 1930. Here is the building from the outside (I will diagram this in the next couple days).

CTM is the official transport company of Morocco. Their Oujda office is housed underneath the synagogue.

1. Is it possible to raise the funding to begin restoration for its 80th year?
2. Do any readers have memories of the synagogue that they would like to share?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Berber Vinyl and Abitbol Cassettes

On Friday before heading out to interview Raphy, I stopped by a fantastic music store (for those in Casa, the store is located at 26 Lalla Yacout Street). Le Comptoire Marocain de Distribution de Disques carrys an extensive collection of Arab and Berber music in vinyl, cassette, and cd form from mostly the 1960s and 1970s. The music is hand picked and excellent quality. I picked up a few Berber LPs. These musicians were all from the Souss region and were masters or rwais of the rebab (spiked fidle). Interestingly, there were ahwash and rwais musicians amongst Chleuh speaking Jews (including from Ighil N'Oro - a picture of the Jewish cemetery there is at the top of the blog) who eventually imported this musical style to Israel, click here to read more.

I had originally stopped by to see if they had any Samy Elmaghribi or Salim Hilali on vinyl - two universally respected (by Moroccans) Moroccan Jewish singers. Unfortunately they didn't have any. Also, there was recently an exhibit on Samy Elmaghribi at the Casablanca Jewish Museum.
In another testament to the ominpresence of Jewish life in Morocco, the store carried an extensive and possibly complete collection of the popular (shaabi) Moroccan Jewish singer Abitbol. I picked up one of his cassettes and will post a picture of the cover soon.

Names in Casa

In Casablanca and other large cities small plaques outside office buildings indicate the names of those working inside. For example: Dr. Ahmed Touwfiq, Dental Surgeon. Walking through Casablanca you encounter numerous Jewish names, as well as Muslim names, throughout the city. On one short block on Friday, April 17, I passed a Dr. Cohen and a Dr. Benzaquen.

Mimouna in Casa - April 16

Mimouna was wonderful. It was my first mimouna in Morocco and it was a special evening. On my way to the celebration I passed Muslims in Place Verte preparing boquets of wheat for the festival.

There were about 30 people at my Mimouna celebration - mostly Muslims who had come to help celebrate. One of my favorite parts of the evening was the storytelling and joketelling. For nearly an hour, individuals jumped at the opportunity to tell joke after joke after joke. And each one was a raging success. Uproarious laughter punctuated the end of every joke. Some jokes were about Moroccans and their peculiarities. Others were about Muslims and Jews. The Muslim-Jewish jokes were obviously of particular interest to me. Those jokes (or at least the ones I understood) were more self-depricating than I had anticipated and actually poked more fun at the Muslim community than the Jewish community. It was a fascinating exchange.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Just landed

Back in New York and have much to add. Will do so shortly.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Back in Rabat

I arrived in Rabat late last night. I was picked up by some old friends, a family who had taken me in on many occasion when I was lat here. We had dinner and caught up. I took a shower and slept in a real bed and it was wonderful. Today I'm headed back to Casa and tomorrow night will take part in Mimouna.

Wikimapia in Guercif

I jumped on the internet before heading to Rabat. There I checked my email on a terrible internet connection. With all my bags I looked like the many disenchanted Moroccan refugees who have no way of getting home now because of the transportation strike and gas rationing.

The owner of the cafe took an interest in me. He wouldn't believe that I wasn't actually Moroccan.

Where had you wanted to go? He asked.
To Debdou. I said.
Ah, it's so beautiful there. Surrounded by trees and isolated.
Great. I thought.

He jumped on my computer and pulled up wikimapia. I was stunned that this was the first resource he used but considering Moroccan proliferation for that website I shouldn't have been surprised.

Here is where it happened - my earlier post on wikimapia as a resource for discovering Moroccan Jewish history was suddenly right before my eyes. Here in the internet cafes of Guercif and similar small cities young Moroccans were marking space - both Muslim and Jewish. It was fascinating to see it up close.

The internet connection proved too slow to fully utilize the wonders of wikimapia (or anything else) and so I paid and headed for the train.

Getting into the hole - Guercif

Foiled again by the strike. Strikers are very serious. There are also gas shortages throughout the country which I think helps the strikers remain principled. The taxi drivers told me that if I wanted to get to Debdou I could take the train to Taourirt (true) and walk from there (not true). Perhaps I would have had better luck in Taourirt but very hard to say.

I decided to make the most of my last day in Guercif and head back to the "Jewish" cemetery. Something about yesterday didn't totally convince me that it was in fact a Jewish cemetery. It looked like one but I wouldn't be content unless I went it back.

I found it easily this time and stood opposite that hole I had earlier described for some time. The cemetery is opposite a high school and there were far too many people out for me to casually crawl under an artifical hole in the wall of a cemetery. I waited until most people and most students had cleared out. Just as I was about to make my way for the hole, 5 or 6 students climbed under.

I decided to follow them in. I headed towards the cemetery ducked and put one hand down to the dirt and pulled myself through. There were the students sitting on what used to be the entrance to the cemetery and they had now spotted their uninvited guest.

Is this a Jewish cemetery?
No it's a Christian (Nasara) cemetery.
Are you sure? I was told it was the Jewish cemetery.

They said it was both. I didn't believe them. They wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing there. I asked them why they had snuck into the cemetery. To smoke, they said. Seemed very American although we would probably sneak into a high school bathroom or a park before a cemetery.

We went around surveying the cemetery. The tombs from a far looked very similar to tombs in Jewish cemeteries throughout the country although this was indeed a Christian cemetery. The boys made sure that we looked at every tomb just to be sure. I was sure. It is an interesting find nonetheless and should be the subject of another trip. One tomb, a Christian one, was even inscribed in Arabic. But the Jewish cemetery had eluded me and I headed to the train station.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Christian cemetery in Guercif

There is a large Christian cemetery in Guercif surrounded by a wall. Some 25 tombs remain in good condition. A small hole (large enough to climb through) has been created on one of its sides. There is development all around it. Younger Guercifis arent familiar with it but older ones certainly are. Located not on the outskirts but near the center of town. Cemetery is testimony to once significant community.

I would say one could easily skip Guercif. Not much to keep you here.

Guercif but not Debdou

Transportation strike is getting frustrating. Continues. You can read about it here. Couldnt get to Debdou today.

Dinner in Oujda

Spent last night with my wonderful hosts and had another delicious meal. The oldest of the women sat down next to me before dinner and wanted to hear all about world Jewry. She wanted to know how many Jews were still in Syria, Lebanon, everywhere. She asked me about the Jews of Ethiopia and I was shocked that she even knew to ask. She asked about Iran and I told her that there were many more Jews there than in Morocco. They were all shocked and started asking if they covered their faces like all Iranian women. It was very comical.

I learned more about these women throughout our meal. One had been to Israel before but for some reason has decided to stay here in Morocco. I told them that my mother had thanked them for being so warm to me and that got them really excited. We ended our meal and they asked me to take about 4 pounds of truffles back with me to some mutual friends in Casa. I of course obliged and have now added truffles stuffed in matzah boxes to my previously light load.

One of my favorite parts of the night was when they asked me to be extra safe walking back to my hotel which was just a couple hundred feet from their house. I told them I would be fine but they insisted on protecting me. So as I exited the house two old women in bath robes and slippers walked me most of the way to my hotel. We look like an army I told them and all we were missing was a rolling pin.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Lunch in Oujda

After the synagogue I prepared to say goodbye. Shukran wa Hag Sameah. But they insisted I join them for lunch. For about an hour I sat with one of the women as she patiently conversed with me about everything and anything. I mentioned that I had gone to Rissani to see the home of the Baba Sali and that I had been to his hilloula in Israel. She excitedly told me that she was related to Baba Baruch and Sidna Baba Sali and then quickly covered and uncovered her eyes blessing him and his family.

The house I am in looks large. There is space. I am seated in the living room. The woman I am speaking to is fascinating. Her family is originally from Figuig, the oasis town of 200k palm trees about 7 hours south of here. The cemeteries are destroyed she says but I have seen at least one picture that makes me believe there are at least some tombstones untouched. Her family used to travel to Algeria she tells me. They would visit Oran. The Grand Synagogue there (which I will link to shortly) has been turned into a mosque (true). She was last there about 15 years ago. She knew all the important centers of Jewish life in Algeria. I asked her if she knew Ghardaia in the Mzab. She definitely knew it. In fact come to think of it the syangogue in Oujda and Ghardaia have many similarities including the stained glass. The syangogue is abandoned but still stands I told her.

She began to set the table carefully placing plate upon bowl upon plate and then finishing off with a checkered red and white cloth napkin. We sat – 3 Jewish women – and me. Round matzah filled the table. We spoke about everything from Israel to food prices in America. They wanted me to tell them how much I made in the US and if I liked Obama. We ate salads, meatballs, telfas (a Passover quiche), lamb and peas. Needless to say – everything was delicious. We finished our meal with fruit, tea, and coffee. I went to bid them farewell and they asked me to come again for dinner.

I cant wait.

The Grand Syangogue in Oujda

Unbelievable. We entered the building and ascended a flight of stairs. That leads you to the main sanctuary. It is huge. Mens section alone could accomodate hundreds. Benches were all there. Although I dont know the exact condition of the roof I know it is holding up well enough (despite some holes and leaking) to leave the synagogue in moderate-good shape. The teva (bima) is intact. The ark is there with beautiful stained glass. We ascended another set of stairs to the womans section. This could also accomodate many – maybe 100. There are rooms for celebrations and rooms for study. There is even a childrens bathroom with very low sinks. There are books and calendars and probably much more that is not immediately visible. On my way out I noticed a brit millah (circumcision) chair. I was stunned. We exited and I thanked God for the transportation strike. None of this might have happened without it. We walked back to their home and I thanked them profusely. Shukran wa Hag Sameah. Wont you join us for lunch? She asked.

Khubz haram

I headed back to town. There is no mellah in Oujda but certainly a Jewish area. It was there I began my search for the last half dozen Jewish women in Oujda – one of whom I hoped had the key to synagogue. I knocked at the door and a woman answered.

Who am I? I thought. How would I explain that I wanted to see the synagogue because I wanted to see the synagogue? That I hoped to help restore it.

The synagogue in question is known as the Grand Synagogue. It was the pride of Oujda Jewish community and supposedly could accomodate some 700 worshippers.

I told her who I was as best I could. Hag Sameah I said to her. I told her who I knew as best I could. Baruch hashem I said after another remark. I was sure I would be kicked to the curb but I wasnt. She told me that khubz (bread) was haram (forbidden) during Passover. Of course I said. I had matzah in my hotel. She invited me in for coffee and matzah.

After some conversation and vetting from her and a second Jewish woman they agreed to show me the synagogue. Wow.

Transit strike strikes again - in Oujda

Woke up early and headed to central bus station and grand taxi stand. Spotted taxis to Jeradda. One was nearly full...but with taxi drivers. Grand taxis continued to strike. Headed to bus station and almost all buses were grounded including ones to Jeradda and Berkane. Heading back to Oujda to find woman with keys to the syangogue.

Oujda – Day 1 (April 11)

Oujda is the largest city in Eastern Morocco and sits directly across from Tlemcen and close to Oran in Algeria. The border has been closed for some years but you can imagine what the city was once like when Algerians and Moroccans passed back and forth – like they did historically. Most people I have spoken to on the subject have told me that the East is not as friendly as other parts of the country. Beyond a general unfriendliness they tell me, there is also lacking the nostalgia that other parts of the country have for their departed Jewish communities.

I had planned on waking up early and trying to first head for Djeradda and if that was impossible then to head to Berkane where there is a large Jewish cemetery: instead I slept in – it is my birthday today afterall – and I made the right decision. It has been raining all day and things have been moving very slowly. I decided to check out the Grande Synagogue during lunch. It is located only a few hundred meters from my hotel. I decided to eat at a restaurant next door to the synagogue and then to chat up someone at the restaurant in order to find out more about access. My hope was that with a wall in common perhaps there was a window that looked out into the synagogue or even a door that opened to the synagogue or perhaps a view from the roof – anything. It turns out I spoke to the wrong gentleman.

Is that a synagogue next door? I asked (I knew it was but just wanted to start the conversation) Yes but its closed.

Are you Muslim?

No, Im Jewish.

Why dont you convert?

Well, Im Jewish just like youre Muslim – everyone has their…

Religion (in unison)

Does anyone have a key?


No one?


Ok, thank you so much.

It turns out that there is a woman with a key. I hope to meet her on Sunday. Keys to an abandoned synagogue (one of the largest synagogues in Morocco) would be a wonderful belated bday gift.

To Oujda - April 10

I had two train options for Oujda, a 615 am qnd 1215 pm – I opted for the later. There continues to be a petit taxi strike throughout the country that is severely harming intra-city mobility. The 615 would have required a taxi and I just didnt think that was going to be a feasible option so I got some rest and hoped on the 1215. The ride to Oujda was 10 hrs with a transfer in Fes. It felt like all 10 hrs. I arrived to the city at around 10 pm. From the train you arrive at the Ville Nouvelle. The streets are wide and clean with similarly wide and clean sidewalks. Streets were well lit. I found my hotel easily.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Passover - gefilte fish + tripe

The next day I joined the same family for lunch. After more discussion I discovered I wasnt the only guest there. The Rabbi sitting next to me was also a guest. He was knowledgeable and erudite. He had forgone a family for some reason and his relatives all lived in Israel The gentleman to my left was also a guest. His family was living in Israel but he had decided to stay. I had assumed he was the grandfather but he wasnt. Another man joined us. Charity the english speakers in the family told me. I recognized him from my pilgrimage to R. David u-Moshe in Agouim. He was there to collect alms at the hilloula and I was now seeing him again in Casablanca – this time looking for a Passover meal. This family was truly hospitable. We ended the meal with a dish that I wish I could have taken a picture of. It was the spiciest Moroccan dish I had ever eaten. It was a traditional Jewish holiday meal of tripe and cheek. I ate dutifully and enjoyed but dont know that I would necessarily order it at a restaurant. I had some tea and headed back to my hotel.

Finding my family

Spent a good deal of time looking for my host family for Erev Pesach. Fascinating exercise that involved spotting Jews and asking if they knew where the family lived, popping into corner groceries and asking if they knew Jews that lived close by, etc. I eventually found my family. Two of the children live within a few blocks of me in NY. The food was delicious and the seder itself was familiar and enjoyable. It lasted until about 1 in the morning at which point I was considerably exhausted especially considering that I had arrived on a red eye that morning. Add four cups of wine and Im falling asleep at the table.

Casa – Passover Eve

At 7 we met Raphy outside of shul. It was a wonderful, lively and soulful service. 50 people in all. Raphy pointed out certain men throughout the service.

That is Meir. He is a fortune teller in the Ourika Valley. (I had heard of Meir before – he uses Talmudic and Kabbalistic texts to tell fortunes). Meir very much looked the part.

That man there is restoring the cemetery in Skoura.

That is the Rabbi and that is another.

Casa – Arrival – April 8

Arriving was like old hat and I liked that. I was at the front of the line to buy train tickets and I held my ground. When I had to change at Ain Sebaa I walked over the train tracks instead of using the pedestrian bridge. It seems I had forgotten a good percentage of my Arabic but surely enough it would come back. I met a couple of friends in the medina in Casa. We walked through the medina a number of times as I tried to find my hotel. It was a beautiful sunny day and I began to discuss how Jewish history was all around us – you just had to know what you were looking for - as we happened upon Dar R. Haim Pinto (the house of the illustrious Rabbi Haim Pinto).

We found my hotel and I received a warm embrace from the proprieter of the hotel who remembered me from my last stay. We had lunch at an old favorite of mine and then headed to the corniche by the Hassan II mosque for some beaufitful views and much needed rest.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Algerian Synagogue in Oujda

Just to give you a little taste of how the research comes to fruition. This is a photo from Jacob Pinkerfelds Synagogues in Northern Africa. In the 50s Pinkerfeld visited numerous communities throughout Morocco and much of what we know visually comes from his photographers photographs. For example, the restoration of Ibn Dannan in part used photographs from his work. This is the Algerian Synagogue in Oujda as it was some 55 years ago. It was much smaller than the Grande Synagogue and had no womens section.

This is a photograph taken last year. It is the same building, the same syangogue. It still stands and the door is locked. The star of David has been removed but its outline remains. If you look closely the street number remains the same.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Visiting Jewish Morocco - Resources on the internet

There is not a wealth of information on Jewish Morocco in English on the internet. Google searches usually yield little or repetative information. There is good information out there however (in French and Arabic) and there are resources that exist but that don't immediately come to mind when you are searching.

Google Earth and Wikimapia have become two very interesting resources for discovering Jewish Morocco. Both applications allow users to identify points on an often very clear map. So for example, an aerial view of Rabat will identify the mellah and a synagogue ("cinaguogue juif" south of the mellah and in a cluster of 3 marked areas) amongst many other sites. The information is user generated and usually by individuals on the ground.

By moving your mouse over a city you begin to learn a great deal thanks to the work of these volunteers. In the near future I plan to embed more of that information here so that you can discover for yourself at home and so that you can get an insight into my preparation when searching for sites.

Upcoming travel in Morocco - what am I doing there?

  1. Celebrating Passover
  2. Interviewing Raphael El Maleh for upcoming project
  3. Re-discovering historical Jewish sites in the East (Oujda area) including:
  • Locating specific sites like synagogues and cemeteries
  • Evaluating conditions of sites in order to determine whether they are good candidates for restoration
  • Providing practical information to potential visitors on how they can access these sites