'People Ask Me Why I’ve Come to Israel, Thinking It's All Violent. But Europe Isn't Safe, Either'

A student from California contemplates how much Judaism she actually wants in her life; an Israeli tour guide talks about feeling perfectly at home in Morocco

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Leah Levine.
Leah Levine.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

Leah Levine, 21, lives in Palo Alto, California; flying to Madrid

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

It’s my summer vacation from university. I have slightly distant relatives and close friends here, and my closest girlfriend from high school in the United States is doing army service here. They returned to Israel. Her family lives near Kfar Sava, and when I visit Israel I always stay at their place.

What are you majoring in?

I’m studying linguistics and modern languages at Stanford – Hebrew and Spanish. That’s part of the reason I enjoyed the trip: I was able to work on my Hebrew and Spanish. I began the trip in Madrid.

How’s your Hebrew?

It’s good. I can understand most of what’s said, unless people speak really fast.

Where did you work on your Spanish?

I was at a seminar in the University of Madrid and then I traveled for six weeks in Spain, so I spoke Spanish the whole summer.

Didn’t you mix up the languages sometimes?

It really was hard. When I got here and spoke Hebrew with my friend’s family, words in Spanish sometimes came out, and then I just switched to English. When you speak three languages at the same time, you have to think fast. And the Arabic only confused me more.


Yes, before coming here, I took a ferry from Spain to Tangier via Gibraltar, and from there I went on to the mountains and traveled around Morocco.

What did you do in Morocco?

I’d always dreamed of visiting Chefchaouen, the Blue City. It’s actually more of a village than a city, but everything there really is blue – the houses, the rooms, the chairs, the curtains, the clothes.

Do you know why that is?

I think that maybe it was once a religious thing, but now it’s a tourist thing. It was amazing. It’s like no place I’ve ever been to. I met a lot of friendly people, and the food is also amazing, especially the tajine. I really want to go back to Morocco and spend a couple of months there.

Aren’t you afraid to go to places like that?

Before entering university, I started to learn Krav Maga, and now I’m learning jujitsu – it’s a matter of personal security. But I was in Barcelona now, 10 days before the attack, and that was frightening.

Your first encounter with terrorism?

You hear about what’s happening in Europe while living in the United States, but there you don’t have to think too much about the danger. We have other problems, of course, like hurricanes and floods.

Did you consider breaking off the trip because of the attack, or forgoing Israel?

Many people ask me why I’ve come to Israel – they think it’s all violent here – but the fact is that Europe and France aren’t safe anymore, either. You can’t live with the thought that something bad is going to happen.

Why do you come to Israel, actually?

I grew up in a Jewish community and I learned Hebrew from childhood. My father wanted me and my sister to go to Jewish schools, and it worked out pretty well.

Is your family religious?

My parents are quite free about it. The school I attended as a girl was religious, the high school was secular, the synagogue was Reform, and I also went to a Jewish summer camp. So I feel that I’ve been exposed to all sorts of Judaism and I could decide how much Judaism I want in my life. My sister, for example, chose to be religiously observant.

And how much Judaism do you want?

I like the communality, it’s cool for me to come to Israel and hear the language I learned for such a long time, and I like the Jewish community in Stanford, but I don’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat.

Are you happy to be getting back to university?

It’s nice studying at Stanford, because people come there from all sorts of places – for example, I have friends from India and a roommate from Texas. But it’s not easy, because everyone there was the top student in their class and they all want to be CEOs of companies they’ll start by themselves.

What can you do with a degree in linguistics?

All kinds of things. You can go into high-tech – they always need linguists – or you can study speech therapy and teach, or do research and travel abroad. I’m sure I’ll have work and that I will have a few CEO friends.

Pinhas Moyal.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Pinhas Moyal, 64, from Mesilat Zion; arriving from Marrakesh, Morocco

Hello, can I ask what you did in Marrakesh?

I’m a tour guide in Morocco by profession, and I went there to arrange things: hotels, restaurants, service. We have a lot of work at Sukkot, so we don’t want snafus. Especially because the trips are very short. 

That’s the season for visiting Morocco? 

I have two trips in October and two in November – there’s no winter or summer.

Who goes?

All kinds of people. People from high-tech and from the Knesset, too, have gone with me. These days everyone goes – it used to be only Moroccans.

I’m half-Moroccan and wanted to go, but there’s a travel alert.

There’s no problem for Israelis to visit Morocco now. The only problem is, there are no direct flights, only via Europe or Turkey. You feel perfectly at home in Morocco, you can speak Hebrew freely. We feel totally secure. During my tours, police and security personnel are in constant touch with us. But I’ve been to Morocco alone, too. There were never any problems.

Are the Moroccans nice?

They are very hospitable. They say that when the Jews left Morocco, the blessing left with them. The economy declined. They are very happy that we come. You have to remember that Morocco is a country that the Jews came to even before Islam. There’s evidence that Jews were in Morocco even before the destruction of the First Temple.

Preserved evidence?

The Jewish character is preserved in many places. For example, Morocco invested $20 million to preserve the ghetto in Marrakesh; they restored it completely. There are still synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in many places. There are active synagogues in Casablanca, Marrakesh and Fez, though there aren’t always enough worshippers for a minyan [quorum of 10 males].

Jews still live in Morocco?

There are about 3,000 Jews, most of them in Casablanca, about 150 in Marrakesh, 50 in Fez and some scattered elsewhere. It’s mainly an elderly community.

What’s your favorite place in Morocco?

It’s most interesting to visit the ancient places. Every big city has an old section that’s been preserved, and a new  part. When the French arrived they didn’t want to live with the locals, so they built an adjacent town. The custom was begun by Gen. [Hubert] Lyautey, and it became a great advantage, because they would leave the old city as it was. It’s also worth visiting the Sahara desert and Agadir, which is a summer city that resembles Eilat and is just as expensive, too. I especially like visiting Marrakesh, where I was born. We immigrated to Israel when I was a boy, and I still remember my grandmother’s house.

When did you first return to Morocco?

I went alone in 1991. I remember how I cried with emotion when I called my mother and told her I’d been to my grandmother’s house. I was the “pioneer”; afterward we all went together, all the children with Father, of blessed memory. He was already a bit blind then, but it was amazing to see how he remembered everything and guided the taxi drivers through the alleys. He was an accountant in Morocco, and would deliver salaries to people, so he knew Marrakesh well. 

Why did your father decide to immigrate to Israel?

My father was actually a double agent. He worked with the Moroccans and he helped the Zionists, assisted the Shin Bet security service personnel and others who were in Morocco at the time to bring people to Israel. In the end, he decided to go himself. He had a hard time when he got here, he didn’t speak the language, he worked in a hospital laundry room, and he cried, but he went. He worked and raised us honorably. I have a sister who’s a school principal and a brother who’s the head of a department in the Education Ministry; everyone did a first degree, a second degree.

What did you do before you became a tour guide?

I worked for years at Osem [a food company], and was bored. I like people, and I also felt that it was my obligation. I’m Moroccan, and that’s a joy. It’s important to me that people should know and feel my culture, and important for me to get across the message about Moroccan Jewry, for people to see and understand how we lived. Because, when we came to Israel, people here thought we were all from the Atlas Mountains, but we lived a city life in a full-fledged European country, where everything was highly developed and advanced.

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