Morocco’s Rich Jewish History Analogue

One of the miracles of the nation of Israel is that Jews from all over the world, with different mentalities and cultures, arrived to the nation state of the Jewish people, Israel, unified and created a modern Jewish-Israeli culture.

Bashert is a word in Yiddish, its meaning destiny, fate. There are times in life when something happened and one can only relate to it as bashert. My meeting Vanessa Paloma Elbaz at a fundraising event in Los Angeles was simply bashert.

What fascinated me about Vanessa is the project she took upon herself to accomplish. She is documenting the Moroccan-Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) music, Haketia*, which is part of the big story about the Moroccan ancient Jewish community colorful and rich history and culture.

Vanessa, who born in the United States to a mother of Moroccan ancestry and a father of Western Sephardic ancestry, is studying musical ethnography at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Sorbonne Paris Cité (INALCO) (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Sorbonne Paris [France]), Department of Middle East and Mediterranean studies is about to acquire her doctorate degree. Coming from a family of anthropologists, Vanessa was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar to Morocco in 2007. She is married to a Moroccan Jew who is a music producer and since 2009 has been residing in Casablanca, Morocco.

Vanessa Paloma-Photo vanessa paloma
Vanessa Paloma-Photo vanessa paloma

The beginning of the Jewish community in Morocco goes back two thousand five hundred years and experienced multiple waves of immigration until the largest one in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. The community was spread throughout the country, in rural and urban centers and was successful in commerce, rich in its culture and religiously observant. When, in 1948, the State of Israel was founded many Zionist Moroccan Jews left for Israel. Others, encouraged by the Joint Organization, left in the 50’s and finally, at the beginning of the 60’s, with the rise of Panarabism and after the ’67 Six Day War and ’73 Yom Kippur War when many more Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel, France, Canada and Venezuela. Unlike what took place in other Muslim countries and Arab lands, where the Jews were persecuted and their life was endangered forcing them to leave in a hurry countries where they lived for centuries, Morocco continued and continues to be a country where the Alaouite Monarchy Dynasty supported, supports and encourages the Jewish component of the country’s history.

Unlike what transpired in Moslem and Arab countries, hostile to the Jewish state, from where the Jews were kicked out, the Moroccan Jews did not flee the country with their shirt of their back, leaving all their belongings behind. The Moroccan example is amazing and particularly unique in the Moslem world, an example for the entire world. It shows that albeit the differences and sometimes even tension, there is an underlying respect and the Jewish community’s integration has existed in Morocco 1000 years before the advent of Islam for which the Moroccan people are reconnaissant.

In 2011, instead of an Arab Spring, Morocco rewrote its constitution and one of its changes was that it integrated its society Hebraic component as one of the influential elements of Moroccan identity. Nonetheless, since the 50’s and until now the Moroccan Jewish community has dwindled gradually. The main reasons for emigration were better economic opportunities and education elsewhere for the rural Jews. In the cities, after the 1967 war, there were also moments of tension and persecution which caused a large wave of emigration in the late 60’s. Nowadays, there are approximately 3,000 Jews living in Morocco.

Vanessa’s project is called Khoya, which means my brother in Moroccan Arabic and jewel in Judeo-Spanish, music and sounds of the past to remind Jewish history in Morocco.

Vanessa's Khoya Logo
Vanessa’s Khoya Logo

The whole point of the project is to keep Jewish voice available to all Moroccans, Jews and non-Jews alike, who, perhaps, never heard the fascinating stories of the past. It is about breaking the modern media stereotype so if, in 200 years, there are no Jews living in Morocco the history and music stories of this ancient, millenary Jewish community are well documented as if they are alive.

At this point the project is funded by private donations while Vanessa is forming an Advisory Board Committee and completing her doctorate dissertation.

In 1948 the Moroccan Jewish community had close to 300,000 members. Today it is ten percent of that number. They were encouraged to make Aliyah – immigrate to Israel – in order to help build the state of Israel. However, their music, poetry, prayers and memories are remembered in fragmentary ways. Vanessa makes sure these Jews’ history and music will not be forgotten in Morocco and will be made accessible to researchers, students and the general population at large.

*Haketia: is an endangered Jewish-Moroccan Romance language, also known as Djudeo Spañol or Ladino Occidental (western Ladino), that was spoken and spread throughout the North of Morocco such as in Tetuan, Tangiers and the Spanish towns of Ceuta and Melilla, in the latter of which it has become partial official before being absorbed by modern Spanish.

About the Author
Nurit is an advocate for Jews, Israel, the United States and the Free World in general and sees Israel and the United States, equally, as the last two forts of true democratic freedom. Since 2006, she has been writing about events in these two countries. From Southern California, Nurit believes that if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything.