When a Russian New Yorker Finds Himself Celebrating Hilloula in Morocco

Yuri Kruman finds a community that is vibrant and yet racked by scandal, and feels at one with his Jewish brethren – yet utterly different.

Yuri Kruman

We find ourselves in the deep Moroccan south, hundreds of miles – and six hours by car – from our base in Casablanca. After unending unpaved roads, unmarked detours, avoiding bikes and trucks – and donkeys – we pull in. The compound is guarded by police and army everywhere. We are surrounded by the Atlas Mountains in a verdant valley deep in the Moroccan south. Without Wi-Fi and wireless, we are nowhere in Africa.

Near the entrance, there’s a Berber market selling saffron, argan oil and local honey, with a petting zoo. Once we unload our things and enter the gate, we see men in skullcaps, women in headscarves with their children, playing. Hebrew is thrown around as much as French. And then there’s me – a Russian from New York.

This place is a Moroccan shtetl, thrown together for five days in the countryside. Everyone’s loaded – or invited – and preoccupied with gossip. There is a scandal brewing surrounding Morocco’s richest Jew, a “mini-Madoff” affair. The reports are grim: One macher lost $10 million because of him, another one $8 million, yet another $4 million.

These are the pillars of Casablanca Jewry, vacationing together in Marbella, doing business deals. The suspect took their money, gave to charity like mad, then ... poof!. Now ill in a Paris hospital, the man says the investors will recoup their losses, and then some. Time will tell.

We are 600 people, all of us, who have come from elsewhere in Morocco, France, Israel and the United States to celebrate the yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death – of Rabbi David Ben Barroukh Cohen Azogh, a tzaddik (righteous man) who died in 1953. The latter title was earned by proven blood ties to Aaron the biblical high priest, brother of Moses.

Across a plaza, two butcher’s assistants lead their lambs to an abbatoir for slaughter. Leaving our daughter with cousins, I walk down to see the gruesome ritual, in prime time. Crispin, a kosher butcher from Casablanca, is in his element. Boys young and old crowd around. As one assistant holds the poor sheep’s head, Crispin says a blessing and then, with a slice, the animal’s life force drains, in fits and starts. The sheep rotates with a formidable determination and then sulks. I feel I have been initiated now.

Night falls. We’re in the synagogue for Maariv prayers. It is packed. Traditional Moroccan tunes fill the hall. The glorious vibrato of the cantor warms all the cockles. What a treat! It’s Christmas Eve back home, I note. Good to be worlds away from frozen Rockefeller Center.

We finish praying and an auction begins, accompanied by loud Moroccan music. The auctioneer is selling candles to put on the grave, in order. The honor of being first to win and light a candle at the rabbi's grave is a big deal. Nevertheless, Millionaires’ Row here is nervous to bid too high, afraid of the tax police and cell-phone cameras. I’m told the proceeds go for site upkeep – a tithe, essentially.

After rousing ululations by the women and a couple shots of Johnnie Walker, we go out with  the throngs toward the graveyard. It is a brilliant white affair, the gravestones elevated and unmarked. In the center stands a canopy, shielding  the graves of Rabbi Ben Barroukh and his son from the elements. They say the rabbi passed through here en route between various communities; hence, the far-flung location.

Charity and basketball

A homely stranger with a Hebrew accent shakes my hand and blesses me repeatedly. He’s earned tzedaka (charity) for his thoroughness of his divine requests. He’s not a rabbi, I am told, but what’s the difference? A Jew’s a Jew; I’ll take the blessing happily. He tries again to bless me for payment throughout the evening, repeatedly, and again next day, but is rebuffed.

After acquiring packs of candles for a few dhirams, we place them on the rabbi’s gravestone and commence praying. A ner tamid (eternal light) – is blazing from a chimney off to the side.

Together, as a family, we go for snacks. Inside a small dining room, my wife’s aunt has set up long tables with red cushions. We sit, quite famished from the drive. The servers bring more dishes – shells filled with tapenade, mushrooms with onions, then spring rolls, pastries with anchovies, beef sliders, merguez sausage. Next comes smoked salmon salad and Marcona almonds. That’s a snack.

We shuffle out, already bloated. Dinner awaits us, still. The women stay behind. The guys play pickup basketball. Despite being out of shape, I manage to keep pace with three 10th-graders. We almost win; I have to run. It’s time to rock our daughter to sleep.

I take the stroller out, around the square, a large menorah standing in the center. Jews of all stripes and colors hang around here, chatting: Black-hatted and long-bearded rabbis, overage Israeli hipsters, older men in Arab dress, women in wigs. Now here’s a treasure of the Orient, I think: There is a rabbi looking straight from Safed, yellow djellaba-clad with pointy slippers, a gray beard – a mystic, with an iPad.

My wife calls me over. It’s procession time. The cousins take our antsy daughter for a stroll. We camp out near the synagogue to watch. A special chant accompanies the Cohen family, descendants of the rabbi. Awaja! The saint is coming! Moroccan shouts erupt. Yilililili! Everyone blesses an old, fragile rabbi and his family. They follow the sage for further prayers at the grave.

The feast is set inside the dining hall. Hundreds of people jockey for grilled lamb shanks, couscous and grilled chicken, every kind of salad and spicy beef-filled cigars. One can imagine the same scene – sharpened elbows, sharper looks – at any Kiddush in the world. Indeed, this makes me think of a Bukharan wedding: senseless amounts of food, a crazy band and crazy characters who could fill a novel, easily. Even the music and the singing are quite similar to that heard in a Bukharan wedding – how odd. One quickly senses gorging is a keystone of Moroccan life.

Yet the Olympic sport here isn’t eating – it’s the hosting. Here, in one corner, the three Cohen brothers pour the finest Scotch and bless each person who comes their way: L’Chaim! We squeeze in at a corner table with the family. I’m passed a plate with sumptuous pastilla (a meat pie sprinkled with powdered sugar), lamb shank, an enormous hunk of veal and salads – always salads. If I were to eat like this all the time, I would grow huge, says this guilt-filled New Yorker to himself. And yet, when in Rome The pounds will come, but life is good, thank God.

Long day’s journey

The spectacle plays out. The men out-man each other with their generosity and spending; the women prepare the food and tables, shining in their gorgeous clothes. As I wolf down delicacies, ladies eat their endive. For them, no extra alcohol – too many calories – and never any extra food. Just like back home, one notes the botox smiles, hears all the gossip and deal-making. It’s a way of life.

The singer calls the crowd to dance. After I’m done stuffing my face, I join them eagerly. It’s good to shake one’s bones after the last few months of winter misery. The band begins to perform a sentimental anthem of the Maghreb emigrant:

“J’ai quitté mon pays, j’ai quitté ma maison
Ma vie, ma triste vie se trane sans raison
J’ai quitté mon soleil, j’ai quitté ma mer bleue
Leurs souvenirs se reveillent, bien après mon adieu
Soleil, soleil de mon pays perdu.”
(“I left my country, I left my house
My life, my sad life drags without reason
I left my sun, I left my blue sea
Their memories awaken long after my farewell
Sun, sun of my lost country.”)

The song hits home. Most everyone has family in France and Israel. Enrico Macias, the singer at this event, made aliyah last year. This celebration comes two weeks before the terrorist attacks in Paris.

After a late, late night of singing, chatting, eating and wandering the grounds, we settle in our room. Our daughter fell asleep with Grandma; we are free. As we attempt to sleep, we’re interrupted by a conversation outside. The smell of grilling meat is downright suffocating; Crispin’s working late. Despite a warning to our chatty neighbors, they continue yapping. Blah blah blah, en Paris. Blah blah blah, en Netanya. A long day’s journey into night.

We wake up late. The sun is strong and welcoming. After morning prayers, there’s breakfast. Inevitably, indigestion strikes. My wife is sick all day and spends most of it sleeping. It’s all too much.

While strolling about the grounds with our daughter, I find a courtyard offering some peace and quiet. Without a word, an Arab woman living in the room next door brings out a chair for me. My little one asleep, I smuggle out my notebook and a pen for some writing. Two boys are playing in a puddle on the other side. Their parents’ tired eyes and voices tell a story.

I turn my music on. Stan Getz and Chet Baker’s “Yesterdays” pops up. Carefree and easy, no commitment. People pass by, with looks. With my hipster glasses and writer’s notebook – plus the stroller – I feel out of place. Sure, I speak French and might pass for Moroccan, on a dark night, but I’m afield and far. Not for a lack of warmth or hospitality or friendliness It’s just that I’m Soviet.

The guilt, the second-guessing, triple entendres and skepticism so characteristic of Russian Americans are hard to bleach out even with sunshine and good food. And that’s the rub about living in New York. We work like hell to earn the money to escape – not to live like kings, exactly, just survive. Here in Morocco, life is simple, full of pleasures, but it’s a gilded bubble. With all the crap that living in New York brings, all things considered, why not live here for a while? A bubble bursts, but then at least, there’s always Israel.

The little one’s been awakened by all the noise. The kids are playing, looking down, amused. Back to my senses, ruefully. My mother-in-law is calling me – she wants me to experience the Berber market. We go through the gate, nodding to soldiers and police, and see the barnyard animals for sale. Turkeys and goats and sheep and chickens – and a peacock – strut their stuff. The another merchant is selling goodies from his truck. Special raw honey is voted down as fake by my father-in-law. He knows his stuff. There is a mix of argan oil and almonds, called amloo. We’ll take a pot back home with us.

Increasingly, we’re getting restless from the schedule: Eat, pray and love if possible, but don’t forget to eat! Should we stay for Shabbat or leave? We throw around the question and decide to go. We’ll drive out in early morning, in order to arrive in Casablanca before Shabbat.

We pack our things into the car at 6 A.M. It is pitch black, save for a lonely parking-lot floodlight, and dead quiet. We buckle up, preparing to go back to sleep, while my wife’s father drives. Just as we leave the compound, we drive off the road and find ourselves balancing perilously over a ravine.

All hell breaks loose. The women in our group scream out in a sharp-edged French, thinking we’re done for; the boys are more subdued, but still freaked out. Should we get out to shift the weight back or simply trust my father-in-law? We’re in a 4x4 vehicle, he screams – it’s made for these conditions!

From the back seat, I’m tense as anything, but urging calm, evaluating options. Six years before this, almost to the day, I flipped over in a speeding car and rolled into a roadside gully with my mother at my side. Just chills.

The 4x4 roars backward and we’re back en route. Hell hath no fury like a Maghrebi woman’s scorn, husband included. Poor man barely escapes a coronary. A few days later, on a walk in Spain, I’m stung to bleeding by a stray rose thorn, just above my eye. The tzaddik’s soul is watching over me, my father-in-law tells me – watching over all of us.

Along the way, we pass La Gazelle d’Or, a five-star resort that, according to news reports, is hosting a declining Jacques Chirac. This is a godforsaken drive. We barely avoid three motorbikes, then bicycles and carts, and trucks with blinding lights.

At last, the sun comes up. Everyone’s on the way somewhere. Women in burqas, men in burnooses. Another town – Amskroud? Can’t help but make a tourist wonder: Am I screwed?

Six hours with a crying baby and 350 kilometers later, we edge with traffic into Casablanca for Shabbat, relieved. The bottleneck was to be expected; it is prayer time. Observant Muslims cover every surface of both street and sidewalk, near a mosque, prostrating themselves dutifully and in sync.

Back at our home in Casablanca, Wi-Fi comes on. The world has moved light-years ahead in the last three days. Yet, for once, we’re happy just to let it go. Our life in old New York can wait.
As if on cue, we notice that our Amazon account has been hacked. Some enterprising Englishman has purchased upwards of $1,000 in “gifts,” on us. We scramble to contain the damage. It’s a tense Shabbat.

In synagogue next morning, there’s a Madoff look-alike. I ask around – he’s a Moroccan living in New Jersey and a multimillionaire. Ironically, he’s lost $12 million in the latest scandal.

As we prepare to hear the Torah reading, a flute is being played outside. One neighbor says that it’s a wedding. Another says it’s just a pauper trying to make a few dirhams. The truth escapes us, either way. The mystery of the place remains. Behind the bimah in the synagogue, older guys are talking loudly, throwing around insults.

The morning of our flight back to New York, on the drive to the airport, we pass a minivan, filled to the brim, with five additional people riding on top! How could this madness be?

My father-in-law – ever the gracious guide – explains. It is a local prophet’s day. Police are taking the day off, along with all the rest of the country. Motorcycles, prohibted by law here, and a bunch of fools are out in force, heading north.

He shrugs. It’s a Moroccan job.

Yuri Kruman is a New York-based writer, blogger and entrepreneur. He has published two books, “Returns and Exchanges,” a novel (2013, Author House), and the novel “The Egypt In My Looking Glass” (2014, Author House).