A Testament to Jewish Life in Morocco

As Diaspora communities shrink, preserving Jewish centers and sites are key to ensuring the memories of Jewish communities live on, to serve as a bridge between Jews and non-Jews.

Yael Miller
Yael Miller
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Yael Miller
Yael Miller

The Museum of Moroccan Judaism re-opened last month following renovations, and I couldn’t have been happier at the news. Located in Casablanca, the museum is the only one of its kind in the Arab world, and stands among just a few other memorials of its kind in the Middle East.

Once numbering around 300,000, the current Moroccan Jewish population currently stands at 5,000 and is dominated mostly by older generations who have lived in the country for decades. At its peak, Jews represented about 10 percent of Morocco’s total population. The majority of the Jewish population left during Israel’s War of Independence and the Six Day war, fearing an outburst of violence toward them.

I was fortunate enough to have spent a month with a Jewish family in Marrakesh, Morocco about seven years ago during my undergraduate studies. I came to the country for the purposes of studying Arabic and Islam, and the program in Morocco, led by a professor who had spent years in the country, gave students the opportunity to participate in a “home-stay”. I stayed with a Jewish family.

Morocco, and particularly Marrakesh, is a glorious assault to the senses: the harried pace of professionals headed to their jobs in the morning; the bursts of horns honking in the streets at all hours of the night; and most deliciously, the wafting smell of grilled meat and bread emanating from the many food stalls scattered along the street and in the markets.

Indeed, while I came to study Islam and Arabic, I learned much about Jews in Morocco and my connection to a broader Jewish community. I was extraordinarily lucky to gain this new, Jewish perspective. Shabbat dinners, for example, to which I had been accustomed to experiencing with Ashkenazi tunes and flavors, became a veritable slew of Moroccan traditions, from the hardboiled egg in the cholent to new tunes for Shabbat songs. Spending time with this family taught me different ways of celebrating holidays and Jewish events in a way that enriched and enhanced my appreciation for the Jewish Diaspora.

My hosts, who stand to date as the most gracious people I have ever met, truly brought me into their family: from sitting in their living room eating dates and walnuts while I heard of the struggles and successes of living in Morocco as a Jew, to the beautiful Shavuot celebration I spent in the mountains of Morocco, I became so much more appreciative of my own Judaism and of how our people, who were so spread throughout the world, were really one community.

Not everyone is as lucky as I was to experience first hand a different Jewish tradition than one’s own. For that reason, I am truly happy that the Museum of Moroccan Judaism is open once again. It stands as an important testament to the vivacity and tenacity of the Jews of Morocco, and also helps to spread understanding about the community’s influence on Moroccan and Jewish history.

A good friend of mine who traveled through northern Iraq showed me pictures of an extraordinarily old synagogue he saw during his trip. In his photos were talitot strewn on the ground, walls crumbing, and the entire grounds of the building in terrible disrepair. It was horrible to see a synagogue that once brimmed with life so dilapidated.

So many historically significant Jewish sites remain underfunded, without any intention to preserve them. By supporting projects like the Moroccan Jewish museum’s renovation, we keep historical sites and memories of Jewish life alive and safe. Just as importantly, or perhaps even more so, Jewish centers, museums, and cultural sites like the one in Casablanca can promote understanding and tolerance by presenting apolitical information on Jewish life to all who visit. Thus, new generations of Moroccans can learn and understand that Jews are not only those who live in Israel today, but were once the neighbors of their parents and grandparents.

As Diaspora communities shrink worldwide, we must do our best to ensure their memories live on.

Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

A still from the documentary 'Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah,' showing Aicha Elkoubi, left, and Hannah Schmouyane, Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel, reminiscing about the old days in Credit: AP / Les Films d'un Jour

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