Discover the Jewish Legacy of Marrakech and Fes
A journey to Marrakech is a sensory overload of exotic sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. It is often referred to as “The Paris of Morocco,” as well as the “Red City” or “Al Hamra.” At the heart of the Marrakech, the experience is Djemma El Fna Square, which boasts a variety of beautifully colored souks, gardens, palaces, snake charmers, outdoor food stalls and fabulous shopping opportunities for Moroccan goods.
Mr. Jacques Kadoch, president of the Jewish Community of Marrakech, gave an update about Jewish life and the community to a group of visiting journalists. Addressing the size of both the Marrakech and overall Moroccan Jewish community, he said that while the community in Marrakech is less than 120, down from 138 a year ago, in the last five years, “we had more than 80,000 visitors from Israel” and anticipate over 100,000, “and for sure they will be passing through Marrakesh as it is a very special and important city.” He added that for the last two years the city had at least three weddings per month and last year celebrated over five B’nai mitzvah, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi, “as everyone here is welcome to celebrate their Simcha with us,” he said. “Our community is small but very active.”
Mr. Kadoch shared with us his optimism for a new Jewish Center to open which is under discussions with the authorities. This new center will provide additional space to accommodate a large amount of Jewish Israeli and international visitors and the increase in tourism. The current synagogue space is only limited to only 115 to 126 congregants from the two existing synagogues, with an average attendance of 300 to 400 visitors for services, so this new center will be a blessing for the community. There are also many cemeteries all over the country where new synagogues are being built and renovated and this will encourage many visitors to the Hillouloth, pilgrimages undertaken by Moroccans from around the world on the anniversary of a revered rabbi’s death.
Mr. Kadoch stated that Moroccan students are interested in learning about Moroccan Jewish history and learning Hebrew and “today we have Muslims who speak fluently Hebrew.” The community receives thousands of Israeli visitors each year for holidays, but he said they can only stay for 14 days under the law. For those who want to extend their stay, an extension can be obtained from the court. Any individual born in Morocco, however, or their kids can apply for their Moroccan passport. Mr. Kadoche told NYJTG that King Mohammed VI wishes to hold a new election in all the Jewish communities in Morocco, starting in Casablanca, the largest one, to be completed by next Passover (April 2020). He added, “This is a democratic country and we are proud to be part of this process for a new election and these candidates will be selected and elected by the Jewish communities” themselves. Regarding his own future with the community, he said he would “stay as long as possible, as I have great responsibilities to the communities first, but on a personal level I made a promise to my children and grandchildren to spend all the holidays with them in Israel.” He said, “All year long I am here devoted to my community and to my partnership to Morocco.” A famous tzaddik in Nahariya, Israel, Rabbi David Abuhasera, told him, “Your place and responsibility is in Morocco, you need to stay there; it is where the community needs you.”
Just as they care for their living monuments, so too does the community care for its departed. The Marrakech cemetery, Miara Jewish Cemetery, is one of the largest cemeteries in Morocco, covering 52 hectares, and is adjacent to the Jewish quarter of Marrakech. It includes a small exhibition detailing some of the history of Marrakech’s Jewish population as well as information on the site’s restoration. Off to the side near the entrance, in blue, are the graves of Kohanim (Jews from the priestly class). The other gravestones are stark white and stand out sharply in the blazing sun against the deep red walls. The cemetery has more than 20,000 tombs dating from the 14th century until today. The cemetery is maintained by the Jewish community and by a third-generation caretaker sibling, Khalid, and Otman Kanami.
The cemetery is accessed via a wooden door with a Hebrew sign above; inside there are spaces for mourners, congregation halls and separate burial grounds for men, women, and children. While the cemetery dates back 600 years, some of the tombstones have been built with scripts carved in Hebrew, while others are undecorated stones with candleholders. Given the limited space, the cemetery has three layers of burial grounds made from stone. There are distinctive tombstones of those who fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition when many Sephardic Jews relocated to Morocco from Andalusia.
One corner of the cemetery is dedicated to 6,000 children who died during a typhus epidemic. On the outer perimeter are 11 mausoleums where prominent rabbis are laid to rest. Among these famous Moroccan sages are Rabbis Hanania Hacohen and Isaak Delouya (a student of Joseph Caro), and each year several Hilloula celebrations occur on the anniversary of their death. This is an opportunity to pay respect to a lost community that was once an integral part of Moroccan culture and history.
Lazama Synagogue: A hidden gem of worship
Just over 100 Jews remain in Marrakech, including a handful who live in the old Jewish quarter. One of just two synagogues that remain in the Mellah district of Marrakech, the tiny blue-and-white Lazama Synagogue – whose name was taken from Al Azama, meaning “those who ran away from Spain – dates from 1492; it was later rebuilt. The synagogue is in the old Jewish Quarter of the city, an area rich in history, and is built in the traditional Moroccan riad style with a central courtyard with a fruit tree and containing a few chairs for weary travelers. A mezuzah hangs on the doorframe at the entrance to the synagogue; the walls were covered with patterns from Zellige tiles, but with stars of David.
Several rooms around the courtyard serve as a museum, with each room representing a different aspect of Moroccan Jewish history, such as the Jews of the Atlas Mountains, essentially Berber Jews. This museum explores 2,000 years of Moroccan Jewish history with fading color photographs, documents, and videos. One room exhibits Jewish Moroccan music; another room shows a school with handwritten books, and many old photographs documenting the life in the Mellah. Ms. Kati Roumani, an anthropologist from London who serves as an unofficial guide at the Lazama Synagogue, offered recent visitors a thorough explanation of its history.
Moroccan Culinary Arts Museum
To know a country, you need to know its food, and that’s particularly true when it comes to Morocco. Moroccan dishes are so flavorful and hearty that you’ll find yourself asking for seconds or even thirds. For a truly authentic and unique cooking experience in Morocco, you must learn how to make a signature dish or two and you’ll leave the country with the best kind of souvenir. Marrakech’s Moroccan Culinary Arts Museum provides the opportunity for visitors to learn how to recreate their favorite Moroccan dishes back at home. Not to worry, you will leave the workshop with detailed recipe sheets and a mind full of new ideas to try out back home. For more insight, please read NYJTG’s interview with Ms. Chamae Ait- Ouahman, Sales Agent of the Moroccan Culinary Arts Museum.
Fes, sometimes spelled as Fez, was Morocco’s capital until 1925 and has long been considered the spiritual home of the country. The Fez medina is one of the largest car-free zones in the world and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Stroll through the famous blue gate of Bab Boujeloud and you will be transported 1,000 years back in time.
A walk through the old Mellahs provides a refreshing glimpse into the history of Morocco’s Jews. The quarters’ squalor still exists, but they’re also picturesque and bustling — and that, too, speaks to Morocco’s vibrant Jewish past. This is where most travelers spend their time in Fes. Large windows and open balconies signify one’s arrival to the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. These dwellings stand in contrast to the typical homes of Muslim families, with their often small and hidden windows.
The medina also houses the Slat al Fassayine Synagogue, the oldest in the city. Simple wood doors hide the 17th-century Ibn Danan Synagogue, built by a wealthy merchant, also in the Mellah. The wooden bimah with a wrought iron canopy of Islamic-style arches and a hole in the geometric tiled floor has a peephole into the ancient mikvah below. The restored Jewish cemetery, Beit HaChaim, at the edge of the Mellah, is home to famous rabbis than any other cemetery in the country. Neat rows of white arched tombstones, some with small chambers for burning candles, slope gently down a hill.
The Bensadoun Synagogue. The 17th-century synagogue has been carefully restored, and although tiny, is a testament to the long tradition of Judaism in Fes. Still in use and perfectly maintained, the synagogue was built by Mimoun Ben Sidan, a wealthy merchant from the town of Ait Ishaq. The synagogue entrance is through a simple doorway indistinguishable from the doors of nearby houses and the door leads immediately to a short flight of stairs that lead into the high, rectangular space of the synagogue. The construction is masonry coated with plaster and the room is lit by small stained-glass windows high in the walls. It is the only operating synagogue in Fes.
From the ceiling hangs numerous memorial lamps, and the walls are lined with wood paneling with blue figured Moroccan tiles. The large Torah Ark has a cupboard filling the width of an entire wall, which is made of carved wood and the wall above is decorated with carved plasterwork. Opposite the ark is a raised alcove, separated from the main prayer space by a wooden screen elaborately carved with a series of arches. It was intended as a seating area for the congregation’s more distinguished members. The wooden Bimah is topped by an iron canopy of Islamic-style arches and floral forms culminating in a crown.
Mr. Shalom Tordgman, 60, who was born in Sefrou, is the caretaker of the synagogue and the youngest member of the congregation. He told recent visiting journalists that about 40 Jews still live in Fes and only a few attend weekly services on a regular basis, not enough to make a minyan. He added that during the High Holidays and Hiloula many visitors and tourists come from all over the world and “fill up the shul at capacity.” The synagogue owns nine Torah scrolls, covered with beautiful velvet coats embroidered with gold. The part reserved for women is separated from the main room by a light white curtain. Rabbi Abraham Sebag is the official rabbi and a shochet (ritual slaughterer). This synagogue has many original memorial lamps that were brought from former synagogues in the Mellah; these original oil lamps have their original nameplates written on them.
Mr. Tordgman, who noted that the synagogue sustains itself through generous donations from its many visitors as well as regular members, said he has no plans of leaving. “I grew up here, I want to stay here; who is going to look after this synagogue if I go? I have no family here, and I have a lot of people that love me here.”
For more information, visit:
To plan a trip to Morocco, contact the Moroccan Tourist Office or go to http://www.visitmorocco.com/en
Fly Royal Air Morocco – https://www.royalairmaroc.com/us-en/
Ride with Train Al Boraq – high-speed rail service between Casablanca and Tangier.
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch -New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Moroccan National Tourist Office.