Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hamishi in Fez!

We arrived in the historic town of Fez on Thursday after two days in Meknes. Meknes was founded by a Berber tribe in the 10th century. While there we took a day trip to the fabulous archeological sight at Volubilis, a Roman city where among the ruins archeologists found evidence of early Jewish settlement. (It appears that the first Jews who came to Morocco may have been slaves carted off by the Romans in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70!)

Both Meknes and Fez went through a series of various tribal rulers, alternating between those welcoming Jews for their crafts and commercial acumen and those bent on persecution. Jews fled during Almohad rule and returned in the 13th century with the Merinid take over. Meknes became the capital under Moulay Ismail with Jewish support in the 17th century. Jews were appointed to high office in the royal palace with others in charge of diplomacy. They paid high taxes receiving protection. (This seems to be a recurring Moroccan theme.)

The Jews were allotted a strip of land close to the palace, close to the Sultan's storehouse of salt, that became known as the Melakh (Arabic and Hebrew for salt, one of several explanations for the name of the area designated for Jewish settlement in all towns where Jews lived.) Though otherwise a cruel and sadistic ruler, Jews thrived under Ismail. By the time his grandson became ruler, resentment at special privileges granted to Jews caused resentment and upon his death, the Melakh was attacked and looted. With ongoing instability, the capital was moved to Fez. The great grandson angered at being refused a loan from the Jews had the former courtiers hung by their feet until death brought them relief. Into the modern period Jews built a new Melakh, creating synagogues and community associations.

During the French occupation Jews became intermediaries and interpreters between themselves and the greater Muslim population, making them military officers, creating additional tensions. In 1937 Muslim rioters stormed the Melakh, destroying buildings while the French turned a blind eye. Again two years later an attack left three Jews dead. Thus the added tensions with the 1948 Arab-Israeli War caused some Jews to emigrate to Israel. The bulk however left in the mid 60s. Carol and I visited the Jewish cemetery where the enormous number of graves gave us insight into the size of the community that was. It is but one of two Jewish cemeteries, the older of which goes back 600 years.

Fez is the most ancient of the imperial cities founded by Idris II in 789c.e. (Idris I was a direct descendant of Mohammed coming to Morocco to escape Abbasid tyrrany. However the Baghdad rulers pursued and had him assassinated, sending his surviving son fleeing. Fez became known as "the Jewish city" when 8000 Jewish families arrived from Spain fleeing a Muslim tyrant in Cordoba in 817 c.e. Fez became the spiritual and intellectual center for both Muslims and Jews. It's reputation was what attracted Maimonides family when they fled the Almohads in Cordoba in the 12th century. However he left for Egypt after just 6 years because of Almohad pressure to convert to Islam in Fez.

By the 13th century the more favorable Merinids aware of the Jews' skills in running the economy and engaging in foreign trade became the authorities and granted them preferential treatment and various concessions. Resentment eventually led to anti-Jewish riots here too. When Jews fled Spain in 1492 Fez was a favored destination. The communities of original Jewish residents and Spanish newcomers led largely separate existences. But the area was plunged into periods of political turmoil. Jewish support brought strong leadership in 1660 and the situation of the Jews largely stablized. The French moved the Moroccan capital from Fez to to Rabat where it remains to this day.

Through the 50s and 60s the Jewish community of Fez departed for Israel, France and Canada. Today only about 100 mostly elderly Jews remain. King Mohammed VI who is universally beloved ordered the rehabbing of Jewish synagogues which have deteriorated. Of the original 38 synagogues in the Melakh, only two have undergone work. We visited one, but the other was closed.

The only functioning synagogue is in the newer part of the city. There is also a Community Center. We went to services this morning, Shabbat haHodesh. About 25 men and one local woman attended. It's actually quite beautiful and a testimony to the community that once was. A man who looked familiar asked where I was from. I also looked familiar to him. When I told him Portland, he couldn't believe it. He taught in our Hebrew School when he lived in Portland about 8 years ago. I was called up to hold one of the three Torah scrolls we read from today and I was honored to receive the fifth Aliyah to the Torah. I really felt part of a long and distinguished history as I stood at the Torah. Unfortunately this history appears inevitably to be coming to a sad end in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Moroccan Jewish Remnants

Tangiers was our first stop in Morocco. It is less than an hour by ferry from the southern coast of Spain. We checked into our hotel in the Medinah (old city inside the walls) and began exploring. A short distance from the hotel we walked into a shop with jewelry and what appeared to be old things, perhaps antiques even.

We thought of ourselves as fairly savvy about the ways of bargaining...don't indicate right away what you are interested in, be casual, be prepared to walk away, no offer is too low, etc. But there staring us in the face were what appeared to be very old amulets with defiantly Hebrew writing on them, Wow! Had we hit upon hidden Judaism that had to be rescued for posterity? As we explored further in the same store we found more: a hamsah, in fact many of them in various sizes with stars of David, a yad, a silver container that might have been used for a manuscript like a scroll of Esther, etc. We tried to keep our cool. We asked about other things first, but even before we got to the Judaica, the shop owner picked us out as Jews. Was it something we said that blew our cover? Do we somehow look so Jewish that we are a dead give away. We are Ashkenazi after all, not the more familiar Sephardim which would be more familiar in these parts. In the end we did the best thing. We didn't buy anything. Since our hotel was so close, we knew we could easily return.

But that experience was now to repeat again and again. Store after store had Judaica on display and ready for sale. Not only merchants, but all kinds of people we met along the way talked rather lovingly longingly and nostalgically about the Jews who were an integral part of Moroccan society. Somehow we started to feel like we had the letters JEW on our foreheads. It was certainly nothing we wanted to hide; quite the contrary, we were anxious to uncover remnants of what was a thriving and dynamic long standing Jewish community that with very few exceptions is no more. But we still were puzzled as to how both Arab and Berber knew instinctively that we were Jewish.

Nevertheless we began to find Judaica in many stores, some of it obvious, much of it kind of obscure. I wanted to buy it all of course. We entered what appeared to be a shop with fine and expensive antiques. There in the large display case were exclusively Judaica items and in the very center a Sefer Torah. Again I had the instinct to rescue. Where would I even get the money? These items had price tags in the thousands.

And then I began to think, how did these many shops come to contain these items. Did individual Jews sell these things before they departed for Israel, France, Canada and the US, or were these items abandoned by the Jews and the Jewish community in their rush to leave? In purchasing a piece of Judaica, was this rescue, or was it really buying back what already actually belonged to the Jews? I do not know the answer to this question. However the question continued to haunt me.

I have not totally resisted however. I purchased a silver Yad. It's a bit unusual. And yesterday I bought a silver Hanukiah. I really tried to resist. The initial price quoted was $700. I said no way. The merchant after working me over wanted to know how much I would pay. I finally told him $100. He didn't want to listen and asked me twice more to which I repeated my low offer, which was coaxed out of me. They are very good at this. Alright, he finally said, would I buy it for $150? I agreed and the sale was completed.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Salam Alaikum,

Salam Alaikum to which the appropriate response in Alaikum Salam, just as the appropriate response when someone greets you with Shalom Aleichem is Aleichem Shalom. We continue our fascinating adventure in Morocco.

This country, for its relatively small size, has more than its share of world renowned cities: Rabat and Casablanca, Tangiers and Fez, Marakesh, Meknes and Agadir. Since this is my first exposure to Morocco, these were nothing more than famous names. As we travel I am gaining an appreciation for why they are names known around the world and what distinguishes them one from another.

Being embarrassing ignorant of Moroccan history in general and Moroccan Jewish history in particular, I am learning a great deal. Morocco has endured many varied administrations, both foreign and domestic: Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Berbers, Almohads, Portuguese and French among others. The Moroccan capital has moved several times as well.

Morocco became home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. Jews were among the earliest of inhabitants, arriving long before the Arabs came storming across North Africa in the 7th century. Life for Jews was not always without persecution, but Jews lived with more protection in Morocco than they did in other Arab lands. In most cities and towns Jews were confined until modern times in an specified area known as the Melakh. Though the source of the name is a matter of some controversy, a prominent opinion has it that it comes from the Hebrew/Arabic word for salt, a commodity which Jews imported. Salt, of couse, is not only important for taste, but as a preservative, especially prior to the availability of refrigeration. The Melakh was invariably located next to the palace, at once an indication of Jewish influence and the designation of Jews for special protection. But it also served to separate the Jews, at least for housing from the rest of society. The Melakh in some areas at least was closed at night.

Although the famous story that the King of Denmark wore a Jewish star when the Nazis demanded that the Jews wear them is not true, evidently it is true that when the Vichy government called on Moroccan King Mohammed V to identify the Jews, he is said to have declared, "We have no Jews here, only Moroccans!" He also told the Vichy authorities that they should make an additional 50 Jewish badges for his family. The Jews of Morocco never wore distinguishing stars.

Jews functioned for centuries as traders and craftsmen, in government and even as fishermen. That Jews were settled in big cities is of couse no surprise. What is surprising is that Jews lived in communities throughout Morocco. They were part and parcel of this society, very much like we Jews are in the U.S. Surely there are higher concentrations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but we are in Salem, Corvallas abd Ashland as well. Thus Carol and I came to the Atlantic port town is Essaouria without any expectations. I had never even heard of the place. There we found no Jews, but three synagogues, two in the old Melakh, even here and one in the very center of town. As a result of the declaration of the current king, these synagogues, as are synagogues in all communities, are undergoing renovation. The craftsman who had restored the glorious ark at one synagogue was there and was clearly proud of his work. There had in fact been more than three synagogues in this small town, but the others no longer existed. Some Jews return each September to the Jewish cemetery in which are buried beloved rabbis. We then took the bus through Safi to El Jadida. (You can look these places up on a map.) Both also had Jewish communities. Today I saw where two as yet unrestored grand synagogues stood in a section of town built by the Portugese, overlooking a Jewish cemetery with over 500 graves and I was told where the synagogue in the newer area of town was. Amazing.

But now the grand history of Moroccan Jews is no more. Shabat before last I attended services at the only functioning synagogue in Tangiers. Only five Jews attended, two of them being the rabbi and his son. There are larger remaining communities of Jews, primarily businesspeople in Rabat abd Casablanca, but otherwise few Jews remain.

In the 1950s and 60s most Moroccan Jews immigrated primarily to Israel, but also to France, Canada and the US. Unlike the other Arab countries, there was no official pressure to leave though some Jews may have been made to feel uncomfortable in Morocco after the creation of Israel in 1948. Rather the Moroccan Jewish community was largely a religious community. The creation of Israel stirred traditional Zionist longings. As well the new government of Israel put strong pressure on Moroccan Jews who were seen as a needed labor force to make Aliyah. The trickle soon became a flood. Some sold there holdings. Many others unable to sell simply abandoned their holdings here. The king has urged Moroccan Jews to return. A few have. We will see what the future holds for any of the others.