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April 20, 1990 - Image 62

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-04-20

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.



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62

FRIDAY, APRIL 20, 1990

Jewish Life In Morocco

LESLEY MILLER

Special to The Jewish News

I

recently took a voyage
through the mountains
and deserts of southern
Morocco. My purpose was not
tourism or shopping (both
legitimate reasons for taking
such a trip) but rather a
search for Jewish history. I
joined a research team of an
American architect and
photographer sent by the
World Monuments Fund to
locate and photograph old
synagogues and cemeteries
throughout Morocco. I offered
my services for part of their
trip as the team "sociologist!'
With great anticipation I took
temporary leave of the poor
and old people with whom I
work, so that I could search
for the traces of their past.
Although very few Jews
still live in the isolated towns
and villages of the South,
shadows of their once signifi-
cant presence remain. Most of
the region is inhabited by
Berbers, the original people of
Morocco. Before the arrival of
the Arabs in the 7th century,
Berbers were generally
Animist, Christian or Jewish.
Many were converted to
Judaism by Palestinian Jews
who had fled to North Africa
after the destruction of the
Second Temple. Since that
time, they were an integral
part of the economic and
cultural fabric of the South.
All over Morocco, Jews
flourished in their own self-
contained neighborhoods call-
ed mellahs. Many southern
villages still have well-
preserved mellahs which
were deserted in the 1950s
when the majority of the
rural southern Jews im-
migrated to Israel. Old
wooden doors, thick mud
walls and narrow winding
streets hint at what life
might have been. With the
memories of leathered Berber
men wrapped in white cotton,
we tried to reconstruct Jewish
life in each village we visited.
It was easier to feel the tex-
ture of Jewish life than to
establish fixed numbers and
facts. I had vivid images of
Berber boys playing outside
the "Mosque of the Jews,"
screaming over the chanting
voices of a vibrant Jewish
community. Some of the old
men I spoke with remem-
bered fragments of our
prayers.
In the time of the Jews each
mellah contained at least one
synagogue. However, unlike
mosques, the Moroccan
synagogue was never built
conspicuously in a central

space. Rather, it was built
with discretion on a side
street or alley. Most were
without any exterior
grandeur or symbols to in-
dicate that they were places of
worship. The interior ar-
chitecture and space were of
modest dimensions as well,
often too small to hold the en-
tire community. Some
synagogues in southern
village still exist in
something close to their
original architectural form;
however, they have become
Koranic schools, private
houses or barns for animals.
Others were just locked and
deserted when the last Jews
left.
The most striking sight we
visited was a small village
about 50 kilometers outside
of Tarroudant. We arrived
during a torrential downpour
and had to slog through the
mud, schlepping our equip-
ment under bending um-
brellas. We tried unsuc-
cessfully to keep pace with
sandalled feet more skilled
than our own. A gate was
unlocked; we entered a cour-
tyard and suddenly I felt
myself in another world. I was
the first to crouch through the
door and I let out a yelp when
I saw that under infinite
bales of hay was an almost
perfectly preserved
synagogue.
It was a square room with
plastered mud walls, a central
square of arches and a
beautiful wood ceiling. On the
arch facing the entrance was
painted "Mah Tovu Ohelcha
Y'acov, Mishkenotecha Israel
. ." On each respective wall
was written: Tzaphon,
Darom, Mizrach and Maarav
(North, South, East, West).
The painted wooden ark was
still in its original location
and facing it we could see
pieces of the bimah under the
hay. The men sat on a mud
bench running the perimeter
of the room. The women's sec-
tion was outside in the court-
yard and adjoining it was a
mud mikvah.
The lanky Berber using the
synagogue told us he was
maintaining and repairing it
in the absence of its Jewish
owners. I'm not sure whether
he believed that the landlords
were ever coming back to
claim their property; however,
he cared for it as if they
visited regularly. Despite
storing his hay there out of
practical necessity, I believed
he respected the abandoned
place of worship. He told us
there had been about 200
Jews in the village, before
they began to emigrate. They

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