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A Culture Rich in Tradition: The Jews of Morocco

From Henna, to Huevos, to Sages, the Jews of Morocco add richness to the history of the kingdom. The Jews of Morocco represent a remnant of an ancient, thriving community numbering more than a quarter of a million in 1956. The Jews descended from three different branches of Judaism: Sephardim, Berber Jews and Ashkenazim, the predominant stem being the Sephardic stem.

Vocabulary Box

Remnant - a small portion of something larger

Mecca - any place that many people visit, or hope to visit

Autonomy - independence

Sages - people considered very wise and knowing

So...What is a Sephardic Jew? Well, one of the world's largest Jewish populations came from the Mediterranean and in this case, from Spain. So, how did the Jews from Spain end up in Morocco? Take a close look at the map and you will see that Spain is a hop, skip and a jump from Morocco. Just hop in your canoe and you are there. OK, maybe not a canoe, but there are plenty of boats to take you back and forth! Anyway, back in the old days, or about 2,000 years ago, the Jews of Spain found their way to Morocco. By 1000 C.E., Morocco became a thriving spot for the Jewish people. It was a mecca for scholars as Morocco was often a stopping point for travelers on their way to Europe. In 1492 a wave of Jewish refugees came to Morocco after being expelled from Spain. These Jews built a strong and traditional community in Morocco. In 1438, the Jews of Fez were forced to live in special quarters called mellahs. A Mellah? The word Mellah is derived from the Arabic word for salt, and the Jews in Morocco were forced to carry out the job of salting the heads of executed prisoners before they were shown to the people. YUCK!

Moroccan Jews on a pilgrimage to the tombs of the holy sages
Life was not easy for the Jews of Morocco. Things really did not take much of a turn until 1912 when the French gave them equality and religious autonomy, as the French had control over Morocco. However, this did not last for long. During World War II, France was ruled by the Vichy government, which prided itself in anti-Semitism. Luckily, King Muhammad V would not allow the deportation of the Jews to Europe where they would have most likely ended up in the concentration camps.

The Story of a Sage
Baba Sali
Rav Yisrael Abuchatzeirah

Rav Yisrael Abuchatzeirah was born in 1890 on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in Tafillalt, Morocco. From an early age, Yisrael showed a knack for Torah Study. While the other children were frolicking about outside, Yisrael was dedicated to his Torah study.

"One Day, Yisrael stormed angrily into his house. When questioned by his father, he explained that he had just had an argument with one of the boys in the neighborhood. His friend had taken something of his, and although little Yisrael repeatedly had asked for its return, the boy would not give it up.

"So, what did you do?" asked Rav Massoud.

With lowered eyes, the child replied, "I cursed him."

When Rav Massoud heard this, he rebuked Yisrael. "Your mouth has a power the strength of which you cannot yet measure; your words can seal the fate of men. Promise me that you will never curse anyone! You must only bless."

The child gave his word. He heeded the words of his father and never cursed. He would "only bless."

-From: The Sephardic-Moroccan Page

In 1956, Morocco gained its independence. This did not ease the worries of the Jewish people. In neighboring Arab countries the Jews were mistreated. Fearing the same treatment, many Jews left for Israel, the United States and Canada. For those that did stay, King Muhammad V was kind and granted the Jews of Morocco citizenship for the first time. Several Jewish leaders rose to the top and were appointed major positions in the government.

However, as many Jewish students do their studies abroad many do not return to Morocco. Thus, the Jewish population of Morocco is dwindling. But, those that are still there create a tight knit community, full of tradition, culture and history.

The largest Jewish community in Morocco resides in Casablanca, home to 5,000 Jews. Other Jewish communities are Rabat, Marrakech, Meknes, Tangier, Fez and Tetuan. All of these communities are home to synagogues, and several kosher restaurants.

So, how are Morocco Jewish traditions different from American Jewish traditions? Well, much of their traditions stem from Morocco influences. For example, you may have seen that the latest fashion rage is to get Henna tattoos--tattoos that are not permanent but made from Henna. Well, one of the origins of this practice comes from the Jews of Morocco. A Moroccan Henna or "Beberiska" is a traditional ceremony performed for the bride before her wedding. Henna "tattoos" are drawn on the bride's hands and feet. Many Moroccan women also make their wedding dresses out of Henna.

Here's a recipe for CHAKCHOUKA (Moroccan Jewish Salad)

Source: "Mediterranean Diet Cookbook." By Nanci Harmon Jenkins.

8 Large Tomatoes
1 Slivered garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
4 green bell peppers
1 small green chili
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 preserved lemon
  1. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook tomatoes and garlic in it, stirring frequently, for 15-20 minutes, until oil separates from tomatoes.
  2. Roast and peel the peppers and chili. Dice them. Add them to tomatoes, along with paprika.
  3. Sprinkle with parsley
Serve at room temperature with bread for scooping.

From: The Sephardic-Moroccan Page

The traditions don't stop there. The Jewish community in Morocco developed a fascinating set of rituals and pilgrimages to the tombs of the holy sages. There are 13 sages buried in Morocco, and once a year Jews from Morocco go to the graves.

Well, after a pilgrimage to the tombs of old sages you surely need to eat! Lucky for us, the Moroccan Jews have created a rich tradition in their cuisine. From traditional to Moroccan couscous to Armudigas, which are Moroccan meatballs served with chickpeas, the foods are a reflection of the richness of the culture of the Moroccan Jews.

Although the Jewish community is small in numbers, their presence has been a large part of Moroccan history. To learn more about the Jews of Morocco visit: The Sephardic-Moroccan Page


Monica - Hijab, the Muslim Woman's Head Covering
Monica - I am Tariq, Hear me Roar
Team - Henna: Patterns Woven through Time
Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D.-- She's Making a Difference

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