An Exploration of Jewish Morocco

By Sue Spector
Special to the AJN    

My husband Marty and I recently participated on a 10-day “Mission to Jewish Morocco,” which was organized by the Jewish Federation of Sarasota. Not only did we see the usual tourist sites of the country, but we were able to visit many places of Jewish interest.

The country mixes new and old elements. Modern buildings and people in Western dress contrast with ancient mosques and palaces and people in traditional dress. There are major roads with lots of traffic and a well-developed two-lane highway— but there’s also shuks in the cities with narrow alleyways and deliveries made on donkey or camel.

The vegetation was lush, with bushes, trees, flowers, and birds resembling what we see in Florida. This large agricultural country produces delicious fruits and vegetables. We were just disappointed that we could only safely eat what we could peel or what was cooked. I enjoyed freshly squeezed orange juice or Moroccan mint tea with almost every meal.

The Country’s Jewish History
Jews have lived in Morocco for more than two thousand years, especially along the trade route of the Silk Road. In 1948, the Jewish population of this North African nation was over 250,000.  But the country was poor, and after 1956 when Morocco gained its independence from the French and joined the Arab League, Jews felt even more certain that they had no future there.  The government imposed restrictions on aliya, and Zionist activity was forbidden. In 1963 when King Hassan II ascended the throne, he lifted restrictions on immigration to Israel. The Six-Day War stirred anti-Israel and anti-Jewish feelings, and some Moroccans called for an economic boycott against Jews. Many educated and successful Jews left the country, and by 1971, only 35,000 remained. At present, it is estimated that about 5,000 Jews live here, mainly in Casablanca and Marrakesh. Today, the young King Mohammed VI has provided protection for Jewish institutions and Jewish activity and worship are protected.  

Visiting the Vestiges of Judaism
We began our journey in Casablanca where we visited the beautiful Bet El Synagogue, housed in a non-descript exterior that provided no clue to the interior or the purpose of the building. We visited the Lycee Maimonides French International School, a middle and high school where in the past, most of the students had been Jewish. Now only about 10% of the students are Jewish, and the remaining students mostly Muslim. The director spoke to us in a combination of Hebrew, French, and Arabic, so a translator was needed for us to understand the philosophy of the school. The school receives funds from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (an organization the Jewish Federations of North America and our Annual Campaign dollars helps fund.)

We also went to the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca, located in a former Jewish orphanage. Photographs and objects explained Jewish life in Morocco. It was interesting that though the Torah scrolls and velvet coverings were very similar to those found in our Ashkenazic congregations today, the Torah sits on a stand and is read with the Torah in a vertical position, rather than having it lay on a table for the reading.  Lunch that day took place in a typical restaurant in the “Mellah,” the former Jewish quarter. Tiled walls and floors, beautiful carved and decorated ceilings, enhanced what was to be our typical meal—couscous with roasted vegetables and Moroccan mint tea.

In Fez, we visited another synagogue, almost hidden in a block of small shops, with police sitting outside the entrance. The synagogue itself was on the second floor, up a steep flight of steps. Memorial lamps hung all over the ceiling, each listing to whom it was dedicated. There was not a women’s balcony in this synagogue, but a sheer material “mechitzah” separated an area where women would sit. Because it was Friday afternoon, we asked if we could return later for Shabbat services but told no. The woman who spoke to us about the synagogue (through a translator) seemed very apprehensive about our request. Were they afraid? Not welcoming to strangers? Who knows.

We visited the Mellah in Fez and an old synagogue dating to the 17th century. It is being renovated but is still in need of much repair and now only a museum. Steps led down to the mikvah in the same building. The mikvah contained water but not functioning steps to enter the water. Apparently, the water comes from a nearby spring.  We walked through a number of narrow streets in this old Jewish quarter—but no Jews live here today. The old Jewish cemetery was very interesting with centuries of deceased buried in whitewashed graves, some with grand tombstones (one dating back to the 17th century and another of a young Jewish who committed suicide rather than being forced to marry an older Muslim man).

Journeying to Rabat (the administrative capital of Morocco), Meknes, Roman ruins at Volubilis, Marrakesh, and mountain villages of the High Atlas Mountains all gave us a varied picture of this country, which contains ancient synagogues as well as mosques and palaces.

Questions Remain
Even though local authorities protect the synagogues, cemeteries, schools, and museums, there is little evidence from the outside of what takes place inside. We wondered what it would be like to live as a Jew in Morocco today. Judaism is recognized as a legitimate religion, but every place of Jewish interest seemed to be low-key.  Today, many former Moroccan Jews are returning to visit their homeland and some are doing business there.  But most are now living in Israel or in other countries around the world.