Searching for Jewish heritage in Marakech, once the heartland of Moroccan Jewish life, can be challenging. The Mellah, or the walled district housing the old Jewish quarter, where Jews thousands of Jews once lived, is now empty of Jewish life and run-down.
Where there were 30 synaoguges and yeshivot, today only one remains active, the Lazama synagogue. With a courtyard and blue tiled walls, the 15th Cenury synagogue is typical of the Sephardic architecture, the last vestige of the large influx of Jews from Spain. Outside, it is undifferentiated and not easily found - its entrance is unmarked. But it does draw its share of tourists and religious travelers.
If not in architecture and buildings, Jewish presence can be felt in Marakech's bustling souks, once filled by Jewish merchants and where you can still find Judaica in many shops. It is also represented in the cuisine of Morocco, dominated by tagines, couscous and pastries. Jews first arrived in the nearby Atlas mountains over two millenia ago, possibly Israelites fleeing persecution and later as traders on the caravan routes. Jews and Berber tribes coexisted for centuries in the region. The mountains are dotted with sites where Jewish sages once dwelled.
Home of Rabbi Salomon Bel-Hench. Photo by Richard Nowitz
In the Ourika Valley village of Aghbalou, about a 30-minute drive, is the 500 year-old tomb of Solomon Bel-Hench, revered chief rabbi of Marakech. The site, a courtyard with private houses and a preserved small synagouge, overlooks a river to Berber villages on the moutainside. Thousands of visitors, mostly Israeli and French Jews of Moroccan origin, visit the tomb annually, paying tribute to the ancient sage.
Tagine, Rial al-Moussika, Marakech. Photo by Richard Nowitz
The local Jewish community, numbering about 400 members, holds services at the Beth-El synagogue outside the walled city. Though the community is very small, it is much respected, along with the others in Morocco. "Jews live in Marakech in harmony with our neighbors," says Henri Assouline, Vice President of the Jewish Communities of Marakech and Essouria. "This is a very tolerant society, with a royal family that has led the path to coexistence".
Henri Assouline, Vice President, Jewish Community of Marakech. Photo by Richard Nowitz
Indeed, with the intertwining of Jewish and Berber culture over the centuries, Marakech, with it tiny Jewish population, is a welcoming city for Jewish visitors. Over 30,000 a year journey from Israel, many of them on heritage trips.
The best food in Marakech is to be found in the riads, the traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard. Over 900 in the city have been converted into boutique hotels, many in the medina, the walled city with its maze of narrow streets. Maison Arabe, the first riad in Marakech, with dining around the tiled pool, offering a selection of sumptous tagines, pastillas, and couscous. It also offers a 'shuk to cook' culinary class.
Tomb of Rabbi Salomon Ben-Hench. Photo by Richard Nowitz
Another, Riad al Moussika, Another is Riad al Moussika, the former home of the Pasha of Marakech. Its several rooms overlooking the courtyard are artisanally crafted. Its gourmet restaurant, surrounding an Andalusian pool, serves a selection of traditional and nouvelle Moroccan cuisine. While these hotel/restaurants aren't for the kosher-minded, there are ample options for fish, Moroccan salads and vegeterian dishes
Contact, Jewish Community of Marakech and Essouria.
Beit El Synagogue Tel. +212 524 44 87 54