Discover Morocco’s Berber Jewish Past
I have always been drawn to and interested in the Jewish history and culture of Morocco. I began to uncover some fantastic and even hidden places where the Jews once lived, traded, mingled, and even thrived.
Heading back across the high passes into the mountains, there are many remote communities of the High Atlas where traces are still visible of Jewish Berber communities. Many Jewish Berbers called the mountains of the Atlas Mountains home and lived side by side with their Muslim tribesmen. Jewish traders traveled over the Atlas Mountains to trade with and lived among Berbers. Many ended up adopting Judaism and strong influences from the religion that remain in Berber spirituality.
In small Berber villages, there are still reminders of the Jewish past even though Jews themselves no longer live there. For example, in Ouirgane, there are several tombs of revered rabbis at the Shrine of Haim ben Diourne. Every May there is a festival where the faithful come to pay their respects. In the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains, the small city of Sefrou, just outside of Fez, played an important role in trade routes and was one of the few Moroccan cities with a Jewish-Berber population that had played a prominent role in Moroccan-Jewish history.
The Berbers have been in Morocco for centuries – Islamic (Sunni Muslim) make up most of the Berber community, but a large Jewish Berber population could be found in Morocco up until the 1960s.
Another place where Muslim Berbers and Jewish Berbers lived in relative harmony was in the region of Tinejdad where each had their specific role to make the agricultural region well-known and prosperous.
The Ourika Valley is a region known for its Berber villages and local souks and is most sought after by the inhabitants of Marrakech during the summer months. It is filled with gardens, land cultivated by palm tree plantations, summer homes, cafes, and restaurants, where you can have lunch in a traditional auberge (inn).
Tomb of Rabbi Shlomo Bel-Hench
Just outside the Ourika Valley is the 500-year-old grave of Rabbi Shlomo Bel-Hench. He was an emissary from Israel, who came to Morocco to raise funds and eventually settled down in the area. In the 1950s only 300 Jewish families lived there. There were two synagogues, Jewish schools, and rabbis to perform circumcisions, bar-mitzvahs, and weddings, and plenty of kosher food and matzah for Passover. Many people have traveled from around the world to visit his tomb in search of cures for illnesses and healing miracles. One example was linked to the name of the Rabbi, nicknamed “Ben Lhench” (Son of the Snake) because “a snake encircled his head before dying” and others believe that he would have «turned into a snake to protect the village’s horses from thieves». Rabbi Shlomo (Salomon) remains one of the most venerated Jewish saints in Morocco, including by Muslims, who call him “Moul Asguine.”
What makes the preservation of his grave a remarkable one is the story of the last Berber Jew born in Ourika, who had been guarding the tomb of the Tzadik. His name was Hananiah Alfassi, and his picture can be seen now by the side of the Rabbi’s Tomb. The Alfassie’s Berber-Jewish family and friends joined a wave of Moroccan immigration to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. Only Hananiah, his mother Saada, and his wife Yamna remained, and he had no children. The grave of his mother Lalla Saada can be found outside the entrance of the Rabbi’s tomb, which became a pilgrimage site. Hananiah Alfassi passed away in 2016 at the age of 80 and is buried with his wife Yamma, who passed away in the late 1990s at the age of 78 in Marrakesh. Fatima, who had been taking care of Hananiah while he was old and sick, is now the caretaker of Rabbi Bel-Hensh’s shrine. Fatima told NYJTG that Hananiah traveled to Marrakesh to attend services and buy kosher food. “I have been living here with Hananiah all my life for over 40 years, and I grew up with his wife and his mother,” she said.
Today, the shrine is visited annually by thousands of visitors from Israel, France, Morocco, and around the globe. It was renovated by Mrs. Zohra Georgette Elkaim Moyal in memory of her family. Fatima added, “Many visitors spend the Shabbat here where we have several guest rooms, a kosher kitchen, and a synagogue which was restored four years ago by the generosity of Mr. Greg Caplan of London.”
Shrine of Rabbi David Ben Baroukh – Taroudant
Taroudant is a walled city much like Marrakech, but smaller in size. The Jewish presence in this town goes back to the 11th century and the city was a major stopping point for the caravan trade that went from Marrakesh to Timbuktu. Taroudant’s Jewish community numbered about 1,000 through the beginning of the 1950s and played an important role in the city’s economy. In the late 1950s, over 40 percent of the Jewish population was supported by the community. To escape poverty, many Jews immigrated to other Moroccan cities, France, and Israel in the early 1960s.
There are many Jewish shrines and cemeteries throughout the country, with 322 Tzadikim believed to be buried there; only 75 have marked graves that are visited every year by Jewish pilgrims from Israel, Europe, and around the world.
Every December over 2,000 of the world’s Jews come together at the shrine of Rabbi David Ben Baroukh in Tinzert, a town in the Taroudant province Taroudant, to celebrate his life and recite Jewish religious prayers. The shrine offers 300 rooms for visitors who come annually to celebrate this sponsored annual event with food and lodging. The Hilloula, entails hours of praying, feasting, and singing, and participants pray for whatever they and their loved ones need (wisdom, forgiveness, health, livelihood, etc.)
After he was born in the Atlas Mountains, his father observed the Divine Name on his forehead. He warned family members not to take him out of his house without covering his forehead, because of the belief that seeing the Divine Name can cause blindness. Rabbi David Ben Baroukh married the sister of Rav Kalifa Malka and was immersed in the study of Kabbalah. With a reputation for healing incurable ailments, humility, and kindness, the sainted rabbi died around 1785.
In Taroudant, we visited an artisanal shop that was once a synagogue and the residence of Mr. Sisso Zafrani. One of the rooms was used as a synagogue for the community to pray and celebrate the High Holidays.
He was married and had four children who are living in Agadir. Mr. Zafrani’s primary business was mainly assisting the Jewish community with their daily transactions such as selling businesses or homes to those leaving for France or Israel. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 102 and was buried in Agadir. His house, which is now an artisanal shop, was sold at an attractive price to the Taroudant community. Today approximately 15 to 20 Jewish families live on the outskirts of Taroudant and are mainly of French origin.
Taourirt Kasbah – Ouarzazate
For centuries, Ouarzazate served as a trading center for Sub-Saharan and Moroccan trade, due to its location south of the Atlas Mountains. In the 17th century, an Amazigh (Berber) leader built the Taourirt Kasbah and Mellah (Jewish Quarter). In 1954, approximately 170 Jews lived in the Mellah.
Ouarzazate’s only real sight of historical interest is the former el Glaoui palace, the Taourirt Kasbah. The Glaoui brothers were the most powerful tribal leaders at the turn of the century and the Kasbah of Taourirt was one of the most beautiful Kasbahs in all of Morocco. It consisted of a network of luxury apartments, simple clay houses, and crenelated towers which were beautifully decorated with geometric motifs. Some of the upstairs areas afford fabulous views of the remainder of the kasbah as well as the Oued Ouarzazate in one direction and the High Atlas in the other. Ait-Benhadou is one of the most exotic and best-preserved Kasbah in the whole atlas region and has been featured in many cinematic masterpieces such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” “Gladiator” and “The Mummy.”
Taourirt’s Old Synagogue – A Hidden Pearl in Morocco
A well-preserved museum, this former synagogue dates back over 400 years and contains many interesting details, both in the building’s structure and the artifacts stored inside. These details give a glimpse of the old Jewish community in the region. The museum is in the heart of the Mellah and can be recognized by the Star of David located at the top of the wall.
Inside you will find a Berber Jewish collection, Judaica, and many pictures of various Rabbis and tzadikim. This museum is a unique piece of history that portrays not only the history of Jews in Morocco but also the harmony in which they lived with the Amazigh people, a beautiful coexistence between two cultures that endured for centuries. On the second floor is a labyrinth of rooms and stairs, a classroom, and a room for worship. It is an unexpected gem.
For more information:
To plan a trip to Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office or log on to http://www.visitmorocco.com/en
Fly Royal Air Morocco – https://www.royalairmaroc.com/us-en/
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Moroccan National Tourist Office.