A Different Kind Of Diaspora: Moroccan Jews Looking Back

By Carel Bertram

MOROCCO: JEWS AND ART IN A MUSLIM LAND (An Exhibition Catalogue)
Edited by Vivian B. Mann Merrell in Association with the Jewish Museum
New York, 2000

After a half a century of separation, the Jews of the Middle East are finding their way home. After emigrating from Yemen, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa, some are making their way back as sentimental tourists or pilgrims to the tombs of the saints and rabbis who had protected their families through countless generations but could not follow them to Palestine, America, Canada, or France.   Those who cannot return on foot are returning through novels, memoirs, and even cookbooks. Scholars organize — and the scholarly attend — exhibits from this remembered or almost-remembered past, showcasing clothing and jewelry or synagogue and liturgical items from the Jewish Middle East of the 17th to the early 20th century.   For the Jews of the Middle East, these are items that were shaped by a shared Middle Eastern culture, and that stand as signposts along a road that leads to who they are today.

These journeys back reveal a different kind of Diaspora.   Jews had lived for well over a thousand years with a sacred rhetoric of exile, longing to return to their holy fatherland. Now, a generation after their “return,” Middle Eastern Jews are beginning to show a homesickness for their motherland, whether Baghdad or Essaouira. Thus the “return” to Palestine was simultaneously a reunion and a second exile, an exile from a Muslim culture in which Jews were deeply rooted, and which not only formed them, but which they helped to form.

"His Majesty Muhammed V, answered the Nazi commander who demanded a list of the Jews: 'We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.'"

“Morocco: Jews, and Art in a Muslim Land” explores the causes and expression of this deep rootedness, including the richness and diversity of Jewish-Muslim interaction in Morocco as well as the differences that made Jews a distinct group. Because it is a catalogue of an exhibit (still running at the Jewish Museum of New York until February 11, 2001,) it is lavishly illustrated with items of Moroccan Jewish material culture, as well a few Orientalist paintings.   But it is more than simply a catalogue, for it contains four scholarly articles on the political and social history of Moroccan Jews.  

Daniel J. Shroeter (“Jewish Communities of Morocco, History and Identity”) explains the historical context of the Jews in Morocco with rich detail. A scholar of Moroccan Jewry, Shroeter’s article reminds us that although many Moroccan Jews trace their origins to Spain, there is a long history of “indigenous” Jewish Moroccans (“Toshavim” versus the Spanish/Sephardic “Megorashim”).   By the 11th century, Marrakesh and Fez were densely Jewish. In fact, the Arab biographer al Bahri wrote of a local proverb “Fas bled bla nas’ ”   (Fez is a town without people), meaning there were so many Jews that it was as if there were no Muslims at all.   Nonetheless, the great Jewish scholar Maimonides was in Fez during this period and urged all Jews to leave because the intolerant Al Moravid Dynasty [1056-1147] was implementing forced conversions.   Along with many other Jews, Maimonides went to Egypt, where he became the Chief Rabbi of Cairo and the physician to Saladin. Many other Moroccan Jews moved to remote mountain villages, where they remained until the second half of the 20th century, although the persecutions were over by 1220.    In the mountains they interacted with local Berber tribes and integrated with Jews who had been clients of Berber tribes for at least a century.

Spanish Jews, however, were the most prosperous Jews of the Middle Ages, and their coming to Morocco in droves left a lasting impact.   They began to arrive when Christian anti-Jewish violence began in 1391, a century before their formal expulsion.   By 1438, Fez had again achieved a large Jewish population, and relations between the Jews and the Muslims were tense, probably because of a competition over urban space.   After a local massacre of the Jews, the ruler took them under his protection, obeying the duty of an Islamic Sultan. He confined them to a special quarter in Fez, an area already called Mellah. This was the first Jewish quarter in Morocco, but it was replicated in other cities and the term “Mellah” soon came to mean any Jewish quarter. These quarters were sometimes compulsory and sometimes not, as the situation of the Jews changed from century to century and ruler to ruler. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, a Mellah might be a Jewish quarter chosen by the less Westernized Jews who did not wish to integrate into Muslim areas.

The Jews lived in urban and rural areas, and were members of a variety of classes over the centuries.   In other words, they were present everywhere. Boosting this sense of their omnipresence was their activity as merchants.   They traveled between city and hinterland, staying in Muslim homes along the way, or, in briefer but still regular encounters, they brought goods and services into private houses.   Because they were not a part of the tribal system and its rivalries, the Jews were neutral intermediaries whose travel was eased and markets broadened by their contacts with the widespread Sephardic communities in Europe and the Middle East.

Although Jews come into focus in Morocco after the arrival of Islam, their own legends position them there from the time of the destruction of the First Temple in the sixth century BC. True or not, this legend serves an important symbolic purpose, for it both links Moroccan Jews to the ancient land of Israel, and gives them a presence in Morocco that predates the Arabs and Islam by at least 1000 years. Two thousand years of legendary history, plus a culture distinctively Moroccan, is enough to call a place home; and for this reason, their leave-taking was particularly painful. Nonetheless, leave they did, after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Their leave-taking is complex as they were not, in the main, Zionists.   Instead, many Jews had become highly Westernized due to the Alliance Israelite schools that flourished under the French Protectorate. Their emigration was perhaps due to a climate of fear rather than any real threat or adherence to an ideology.   In 1952, 72,000 Jews lived in Casablanca, forming one-tenth of the population; and in 1955, one year before Moroccan (and Tunisian) independence, North African Jews represented 87 percent of new immigrants to Israel.

With Moroccan independence, King Muhammad V made Jewish emigration illegal. Nonetheless, the Jews remained loyal to him, remembering him as their protector during WWII.   Moroccan Jews both in Israel and in Morocco mourned his death in 1961. His son, King Hassan II, quietly allowed Jews to emigrate, but in the late 20th century he encouraged Jews who had emigrated to return to Morocco.   After King Hassan II died in 1999, his son Muhammad VI has continued this open door policy.   In fact, Muhammad VI was a patron of this exhibition and catalogue and wrote that “the blending of cultures resulted in a sympathetic understanding that unified the people of Morocco, to the extent that My Honorable Grandfather, His Majesty Muhammed V, answered the Nazi commander who demanded a list of the Jews: “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.”

Muhammed V’s legendary pronouncement is a new twist on   “ Fas bled bla nas’ .” Clearly the memory and image of the Jews in Morocco has changed over the centuries. Today’s image, if current events have not altered it, is one of openness and welcome from Morocco, and one of nostalgia and longing from the Jews who sometimes feel themselves in a new type of exile.

The long first article places Jews in Moroccan Muslim history, but the two following articles bring this Jewish and Muslim history to life. For “Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land” goes well beyond the traditional scholarly by including two personal memoirs.

“Cradle of the Wind” by Ami Bouganim , a Moroccan-born French writer,   recalls his childhood in the Mellah of Essaouira, the hopes of the Jewish community, and the impact of the Alliance Israelite schools. Especially striking are his descriptions of his own father, a shopkeeper with an Arabic Berber dialect, who leaves his shop daily for noon prayers.   His schedule is not so different from that of his Muslim neighbors.  

In “Esther and I: From Shore to Shore,” Oumama Aouad Lahrech writes from the point of view of a distinguished Muslim author who tells of   growing up in the cities of Rabat and Sale, a childhood intertwined with the family of her best friend, a Jewish girl named Esther.   Esther’s father, M. Bitton was a Jewish Berber born in 1915, and named for a Rabbi who was worshiped for his miracles by Muslims as well as Jews.   Here, at a personal level, the author introduces us to a shared culture of saint veneration among Moroccan Jews and Muslims. Esther’s mother was from the politically powerful Ohana family, and thus, thanks to Esther’s parents, Lahrech saw Moroccan Jews as simultaneously powerful and humble, both Westernized and provincial. The interaction between the families included visits among houses, but also the celebration of the Mimouna, the feast at the end of Passover when Jews would come out of their eight days of seclusion, welcoming their neighbors with open houses and music — and welcomed back by their neighbors with gifts of food.   Because of this intimate history, Lahrech’s sense of surprise and betrayal at the emigration of the Jews is poignant and personal.  

"Two thousand years of legendary history, plus a culture distinctively Moroccan, is enough to call a place home; and for this reason, their leave-taking was particularly painful. "

The addition of memoirs invites the reader to understand the emotional dimension of culture.   Like a novel, the memoir brings a setting with it, placing items of material culture in the context of contemporary ideas, beliefs, activities, and, most importantly, places:   whether as inclusive as the Medina or shared saints tombs, or as intimate as a household wedding ceremony. Both personal stories in “Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land” give what D. Pinault calls “dramatic visualization” to scholarly facts; in other words, they provide descriptive details of people and items helping readers to visualize the setting. These bring the objects in the exhibit to life.

In “Customs of the Jews of Morocco,” Harvey E. Goldberg returns to a scholarly investigation of Moroccan Jewish culture, but now with an emotionally attuned audience. This article treats customs such as the Mimouna and saint veneration in depth.   For instance, we learn that during the Mimouna festival, Jews would dress as Muslims, often borrowing clothes from their Muslim neighbors. At Passover, the Jews disappeared from public life: for eight days they were secluded in their homes or the synagogue, prompting people to ask “where are the Jews?”   and, perhaps, “are they plotting against us?”   Goldberg suggests that the post-Passover festival was a way for Jews to re-integrate themselves into Muslim social life while maintaining their difference.

The concepts of difference and sameness are embedded in the text and the items in this catalogue, but perhaps too subtly embedded.   For example, their shared culture of saint veneration and even shared saints goes a long way toward explaining why Moroccan Jews in the “Diaspora” would feel at home in Morocco and among Moroccan Muslims, but the authors do not examine the Muslim perspective. Although Vivian B. Mann, editor of this catalogue and the Chair of Judaica at the Jewish Museum, discusses Jews as both the subjects and makers of art, and the impact of other cultures on the arts of Morocco, in “Memory, Mimesis, Realia,” this otherwise fine article, like the catalogue section that follows it, emphasizes the Jewish experience. The clothing and liturgical items are rarely contextualized as items of a shared culture,— not just because of shared materials and shared artisans, but because of shared purchasing activities, and shared ways of use (for example, textiles used on saints’ tombs.)   The shared history of amulet bowls is another example;   the subject of the impact of Jewish jewelry makers might be a far larger one.

“Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land” is a complex and highly nuanced introduction to understanding the history of two intermingled cultures without a single, distinct voice; yet it defines a cultural place where Moroccan Jews were once at home. While it documents the past, it also participates in shaping the way that these two parts of the same culture relate to each other: for both the image of their hybrid history and the form of their shared future depend very much on the way that they are “narrated” or represented. Oumama Aouad Lahrech’s quotation is, indeed, very apt:   “Tell me what you remember and I will tell you what you will become.”   With this in mind, this catalogue is a conscious and important bridge between separated relatives who actually need to be reintroduced.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 33 (Fall 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by Al Jadid


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