Another Tragedy, Mimouna and a Memory of Hope in Jewish Morocco

           It is sad, that a news hook for a travel and faith piece would start with the latest global shooting, another case of a mass synagogue murder. Six months to the date of the deadliest shooting at a temple in Pittsburgh where we lost eleven souls, Lori Kaye, 60, philanthropist and woman of valor who arrived to say Yizkor for her late mother, was killed at the Poway Chabad near San Diego, California when she stepped out to check on the children. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and three others including an 8-year-old girl were injured.

From his hospital, with one missing finger, Rabbi Goldstein continued to deliver the speech that he began at Chabad just after being shot and while bleeding. He reminded us that we can put light before darkness and stand together unafraid and remarked on the miracle that stopped the gunman when his gun jammed, thus preventing another mass shooting.

I was most impressed with the rabbi’s resilience and strength as evidenced by his New York Times op-ed and video released from his hospital bed titled “A Terrorist Tried to Kill Me Because I am a Jew. I Will Never Back Down.”

This Friday, I was invited to the local Chabad in Boulder for the feast of the Moshiach and for the seventh day splitting of the sea meal. Chabad has been my home all over the world (along with Moishe House, thank you Kiev M.H.) and it’s one of my homes now, here in the Rockies.

Non-jews and Jews face special security concerns in merely worshipping their faith. This has been a longstanding problem; while living in Zug, Switzerland I saw a synagogue hidden away from view. There was heavy security for the synagogue in otherwise laidback Florence, Italy, there was an armed tank in Mumbai in front of the synagogue I lived at for a month researching the Jews of India for Tablet and BBC. I never thought I’d see a need for security at synagogues here in America.

Instead of Chabad, a friend invited me to celebrate Mimouna with them. Put simply, Mimouna is a Moroccan feast of chametz replete with dancing celebrated on the last day of Passover, which to date I only ever experienced it in magical Tsafat, Israel.

The theme, the henna, the food, and the celebration, of course, reminded me of Morocco, where I visited last year as a Jewish journalist. We dreamed up this trip over hookah bars and b’stillah dinners.

When I still lived in New York City, I attended a few of the very special Jewish-Moroccan dinners organized by my friend, activist, Irina Tsukerman and her husband, Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, the director of the American Sephardi Federation, and spearheaded by a man I call the Mayor of Moroccan New York City, Simo Elaissaoui, a Moroccan-Muslim American who happens to be married to an American-Jewish woman. There, faiths from Moroccan Muslim to Moroccan Jewish, interfaith and everywhere in between met over delicious North African food and sometimes hookah in New York City to just talk and enjoy dinner.

This is where we came off with the idea of the first official Jewish Heritage press trip to Morocco, led by Hamid Aberaouz,  a government official of tourism of Morocco and phenomenal host, who attended many dinners and brings International journalists to his home country at least twice a year with pride.

And so, when I arrived in Morocco we were all official guests of the state (which means the King), as part of eight Jewish writers of varying degrees of faith, some totally secular reform American Jews, two Orthodox and Kosher, one a Ba’al Teshuvah (born again Jew) the other himself a Moroccan Jew born in Casablanca. I was somewhere in between, fiercely loyal and protective of my people as a Patrilineal Jewess who identifies as just Jewish, yet I understand the importance of interfaith relations not just because of my own heritage and serial expatriation habit but because of the changing world going global.

We started out in Marrakech, where the market streets smelled like dates and hookah, snake charmers and herbal healers checked their smartphones for texts and women bid us to receive henna and we partook, giggling.

           At every stop, from the impressive high-tech Water Museum to the tiny Jewish Museum we heard the same story over and over again. “There are no Jews in Morocco, there are only Moroccans.” The story goes that was how King Faisal Mohammed V responded to Hitler when asked where the Jews were, “There are no Jews in Morocco, there are only Moroccans.”

At the remarkable, small but historically rich Museum of Moroccan Jewry, in Casablanca, the only Jewish Museum in a Muslim country, our passionate scholarly guide said, “When the Jews left, we felt like a piece of us also left. We were very sad. It is like having a phantom limb.”

All of our guides for the (formerly) Jewish neighborhoods were Muslim scholars. Most of the tribe left; only 2500 in the entire country remain. Yet, King Faisal Mohammed VI has made huge inroads with initiatives to restore all the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in Morocco and to protect the existing Jews there. The trip itself, organized by the government illustrates their commitment to Moroccan Jewry.

When I asked why the Jews left the answer was always the same, “Israel. The pull of Zionism during a time (World War II) while nearby Muslim nations were mistreating and expelling their Jews made them leave us, it’s so sad.” So the fear of the threats of neighboring nations and the allegiance to Israel in lieu of Morocco are cited to be the reasons for exodus. And yet the second reason rings untrue, because every Moroccan Jew we met said they were “Moroccan first and Jewish second.” To date, Morocco does not have any diplomatic relations with Israel, and the recent embassy move to Jerusalem (which occurred just after we left) was protested by tens of thousands of the Moroccans.

           What brought us all together there? Tea, food, hospitality, and people. We went to gorgeous ancient Sephardic synagogues, where there were zero guards and security. One in Marakkesh was a hand-marked and friendly local tried to help us find it.

           Morbid yet stunning, the cemeteries were the most preserved places of Jewish history in Morocco and always there was always a loving Muslim caretaker as was the case in India. Yet, I still felt skeptical. I felt sad. I felt angry that like almost every other country in North Africa and the Middle East, there are so few Jews left.

I slipped into more pessimism: from the crusades to the Cossacks we were exterminated, exiled, tortured and annihilated. And, the one place that we are told that the Jewish people choose to emigrate to (where we are often told to go to if we don’t like it here, a global here) is still a contested land; a place of joy yet constant war and terrorism, with friends maimed, and families living in fear, having Shabbat in bomb shelters. I wasn’t focusing on the miracle like Rabbi Goldstein, the ones that survived. Unfortunately, I have heard that same line and moral in Israel and in New York about survivors. I remember this line in reference to a family of five that died in a car crash and the rebbe said that the two survivors were such a miracle of life. It’s hard for me to see it this way, but ultimately it is true, all we can do is focus on the life while grieving the loss.

But, the Israeli tourists in the Moroccan cemetery we met were celebrant; they were forgiving, they were just so happy to see their heritage. They told us they are Arab-Jews and this is their land too, just as King Faisal Mohammed V said. They poo-poohed the issue of getting around flying with an Israeli visa, they just did a layover in Europe, no big deal.

Then I spoke to our lovely half-Tunisian half-Moroccan host during a alcohol-free lunch at the Four Seasons in Casablanca amidst splendid sea-themed décor perched atop the Atlantic Ocean. Her face lit up to make a connection that she worked for a Jewish company in New York and we bonded over growing up as “third culture kids”, mine, a chosen path after college, hers as a serial expat living in New York, L.A., Tunisia and now Casablanca.

When the Bedouin guide in Rabat invited us into his lovely but modest home (which was much nicer than my apartment in New York) as a surprise last visit, we all were won over by his smile and egregious hospitality.

We also visited the stunningly chic home and the brand new museum dedicated to the nice Catholic boy Yves Saint Laurent who lived openly here with his lover. Here his famous blue house nestled in hanging green gardens drew tourists from various religious garbs from all over the world. When our Moroccan hosts nestled close to us to share a joke or a coffee, I felt hope. We finally met some of the Jewish community who told us (again) that first of all they are Moroccan.

           They loved living here amongst their friends, neighbors, and spouses, almost all were of a different faith, statistically 99.9% Muslim (67% Sunni, 30% non-denominational). Many in the Jewish community moved to France, if not the US, less remained. We had a lively Shabbat at the Jewish center in Marrakesh and the owner of our stunning riad where we stayed, Riad El Amine Fès with his new wife, joined us. They smiled respectfully and laughed alongside us at the Moroccan-Jewish journalist’s famous character of a cousin who shall remain nameless he told us he was nearly punched by A-Rod for looking too closely at J. Lo’s “outfit” in New York at the wedding he attended the previous year of his relative, a Jewish-Moroccan heiress who predictably, emigrated to the US, and not middle-America but known safe haven. They asked me if it was the wine that was making us all act so silly, and I said yes it was, they replied they are observantly religious and never have a drink. This was the same in India, where six Pardesi Jews remained and the rest all scattered to New York or Israel.

Our last guide was more knowledgeable than any of us about Judaism, again, she was an Islamic scholar who taught us the tassles on the traditional dress, jilbab, represent the corners of a Torah and so the official dress of Moroccan is Jewish! Another tidbit she shared was that the original star on Morocco was not the five-pointed star of Islam, but a Jewish star. She took us through the enchanting seaside port town of Essaouira (historically, the most Hebrew town in Morocco) on the Atlantic Sea where we had a homemade kosher spread. The hosts prepared the food in a special kitchen and made us fish, couscous, and fruit for dessert. I started to understand why in Australia they called a certain catch “Jewfish” (though I protested at the time) or why fish and chips were indeed originally Jewish, fish is always a safe kosher food, which we ate often in Morocco, and though monotonous it was always delicious.

           When the Minister of Tourism warmly welcomed us into his office with tea, I personally felt comforted. However, when we finally met Jackie Kadosh, President of the Jewish Community in Marrakesh and the patriarch of the Jewish community I finally felt at ease. Kadosh maintained the 2000 person community in Marrakesh. He wanted Sephardic Jews who are now living in Israel or America to come to visit, to explore their heritage but admitted that his own thirty-something son is better off living abroad as he has a better chance of finding a same-faith wife. He is a medical doctor, giving charitable care to all Moroccans. Similar to Jewish India, most of his patients statistically (of course) are Muslim, not Jewish.

Jacky was charming and reassuring, he wore a stylish fedora with a yarmulke underneath it. “I am Moroccan,” he said. We all didn’t want to him to leave after mint tea, his role as the mainstay of the community is palpable. Then something incredible happened. Hamid asked Jacky to remove his hat, the group all became tense that he may be breaking a religious custom for Jacky, some even exclaimed. Jacky did so with a trusting smile. Hamid leaned in to kiss his yarmulke’d head. “This is a custom here. It is a traditional act of reverence for an honorable man,” he explained. This photo is forever embedded in my mind and sums up the entire story from this week’s shooting to hope for peace.

Again in life, I was reminded that people are not their governments, they are not their politics, not even their faiths if the manifestation of that faith takes away our common language: humanity. Plus we all love food and travel. Morocco’s meleh’s (Jewish quarters) are sights to be seen and are visited by 3000 Israeli’s and American Jews every year.

I bought date-scented perfume at the 5-star luxury hotel in Marrakech, La Mamounia, where French Montana filmed his latest music video and celebrities like the Kardashians prefer to stay. After lunch in the rose garden and over mint tea, we all felt warm and safe and taken care of by our hosts and I thought to myself, I could live here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Alyssa Pinsker is a writer, teacher and coach living in Boulder, Colorado. She writes travel and food features and reviews for BBC Travel, Lonely Planet, Fodors, Matador, Huffington Post, Time Out New York, New York Magazine, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, Tablet, Forward, and more. In addition to being a writing teacher and business coach she is a former stand-up comic, storyteller and model. She’s lived and loved in Tokyo, Paris, Kiev, India, Switzerland and of course, New York and is finally settled in Colorado, for now.
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