With one side of his family having lived through the Holocaust, and the other through the Inquisition, Bruno Frydman knows a thing or two about discrimination and racism – and the horrors they can lead to. As a half-Ashkenazi, half-Sephardi Jew who grew up in Morocco, he also knows a thing or two about being a minority who has found a way to live at peace with one’s neighbors.
And as the owner of a rather unconventional, to put it mildly, business for a Jew in a Muslim country – Frydman runs the largest pig farm in Morocco – he also knows a thing or two about doing his own thing.
His is definitely a unique background, the 60-year-old will allow, and one that has informed and shaped his understanding of the world: He hates prejudice. He believes in the possibility of coexistence. And he feels no need to toe a common line.
This week, Frydman brought his values, beliefs and independent thinking to Israel. He was among a 100-strong delegation of Jews who came to learn firsthand about the Israeli-Palestinian situation – and to express what they see as the need for an end to settlement building, and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“I have always loved Israel, and believe in it as the peaceful, forever state of the Jewish people – but not one that occupies or controls another people,” says Frydman, of why he joined the trip, organized by JCall, a liberal European Jewish advocacy group that describes itself as “committed to the state of Israel and yet critical of the current choices of its government.”
“I wonder if we should talk about peace, or about divorce when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians,” he says. “But what I do feel, in part because of my life experience, is that it is incomprehensible for one to be Jewish and discriminate against anyone else,” he says. “I truly feel it is our role, as Jews, to sustain and lead the fight against racism and discrimination here and everywhere.”
A complex tapestry of identity
Frydman’s paternal grandfather, one of the leaders of the Jewish trade union “Bund” in Poland, was expelled from that country before WWI because of his Socialist militancy, says Frydman, recounting his family history a mile a minute over breakfast in Tel Aviv. So, this grandfather, Borouch Frydman, left his wife, the daughter of a rabbi, and five young children behind in Warsaw – and found asylum in France, working as a carpenter. Some of the family eventually joined him in Paris a few years later, but many others, left behind, perished in Auschwitz.
His mother’s side of the family, meanwhile, escaped from Toledo, Spain to Tetuan and Tangiers in northern Morocco after the Inquisition. Frydman describes them as Jewish aristocracy -- the kind that studied at Cambridge and Oxford, were officers of Portuguese cavalry, became bankers and diplomats, and spoke half a dozen European languages.
Frydman’s parents met after WWII, when his Polish-French father came over to Casablanca for a few months to manage a luxury men’s clothing store – and fell in love not only with the country but with a local girl. The couple was married in 1950, and Frydman was born, in Casablanca, two years later. Those were days in which Jews, protected by the king, made up close to five percent of the population (some half a million Jews out of the nine million Muslim population), and felt, by and large, like equal citizens, says Frydman.
Things changed in time, and between the rise of the Arab League, the creation of Israel, and Moroccan independence from France, many Jews felt less welcome and left in droves for Israel, Canada or France. But those who remained insisted they continued to feel at home. Such was the case for Frydman’s maternal uncle Leon Benzaquen, who was a respected minister in King Mohamed V’s government, as well as Frydman’s father, who went on to become a prominent businessman in the country, procuring and designing all the uniforms for the Moroccan military, and later helping to pioneer the fishing and travel industries.
After graduating from local French schools, Frydman left for Paris to study law and then voyaged further afield – to pursue a master's in international relations and business at Columbia University in New York. From there, armed with his degrees and fluency in seven languages, he went on to an international career in entertainment, living in half a dozen countries, and rising to top positions at Warner Bros. and AMC theaters.
Along the way, back home in Morocco after his father’s death and taking care of some of the family businesses (which by then included a resort in Agadir), Frydman fell in love with a beautiful tourist – a German actress who later converted to Judaism, adding yet another thread to his already complex tapestry of identity.
These days, with their two sons all grown up, and nearing retirement, Frydman and his wife, Carolin, today a jewelry designer, divide their time between a chic apartment in Paris and a farm outside Agadir, set amid an orange grove on six acres of land that used to belong to his father’s resort, providing it with fruits, vegetables and meats.
“When we sold the resort in 1986, I kept the farm, which employed 16 people and basically was the main livelihood of this small Berber village in the Souss Valley, 35 kilometers inland from Agadir,” says Frydman. Tourism was beginning to boom at the time, he continues, with millions of tourists coming in from Italy, Germany, Ireland, England, Scandinavia and France: “There was a great new demand for pork meat and cold cuts – so I decided to focus on that,” he says.
While the vast majority of Morocco’s approximately 32 million Muslims (not to mention the 4,000 or so Jews who still live in the country) don’t eat pork, Frydman has had no trouble with his neighbors, the local public administration, or the government, he says, despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism around him.
These days, Frydman has more than 1,500 pigs and his pig farm is the largest of only three in the country. He makes a small profit, he says, but is playing it safe, with no plans to expand yet. “I maintain a reduced production capacity and hope that, in order to protect its tourist industry, the government will not ban pig farming,” he says. “Wine-making has developed a lot in Morocco in the past decade as a support of the hospitality industry – I hope the same will happen to us, eventually.”
Frydman was happy to return to his roots, “to speak Arabic and Berber again, and to deal with Morocco on a daily basis,” he says describing something of an idyllic life on the farm, where, incidentally, he also keeps three pet donkeys – Primo (Levi), Hannah (Arendt) and Golda (Meir) – for company. “It feels good to be pursuing a 2,000-year-old tradition of being a native Moroccan Jew.”
“It’s unusual,” he admits. “But it works.”
The driving force of Jewish humanism
This is not the first time Frydman has visited Israel. He has been several times, and has family living in the country. But this JCall trip, in which he criss-crossed the country, speaking with everyone from Palestinian leaders to settlers and soldiers, and from Knesset members to archaeologists and activists on the ground, was a particularly intense experience, he says.
“I am not a religious man, but I am very connected to Jewish traditions and values,” says Frydman, trying to sum up his thoughts about the complexities of the country. “In fact, it is these values of Jewish humanism that drive my life. And the message of Judaism for me is that we should lead the way for all others when it comes to law, respect for human rights and the values of enlightenment. That is my Judaism,” he says. "It might seem unusual but it should work."