My Jewish Experience in Morocco

By a TIJ Writer

The view from the top of the synagogue in Fes, overlooking the Jewish cemetery.

I sat in the back of my taxi from the airport in Fes to my hostel. I had just flown in from Bologna, the last trip I had planned for my semester abroad in Italy. Traveling was always stressful and exhausting — I like to tell people I love being places but I hate getting there. Fes was no different. Traveling within the EU had spoiled me, and securing the paperwork to travel during the later days of the COVID-19 pandemic proved arduous and expensive. Sitting in the back of the taxi listening to my driver excitedly point out the notable sites around us while proudly flexing his English-speaking skills, I was happy to be headed towards a place where I could rest. One such interesting site he pointed out was the grand and sprawling royal palace. The grand complex was one of four throughout the country, and was held for the king should he choose to visit Fes. It really was fit for a king, with pristine walls, a turquoise-and-gold-laden entrance and a litany of heavily armed guards with semi-automatic machine guns. As I marveled at the piece of regal architecture, the driver mentioned the Jewish quarter that sat directly beside the king’s palace. “The Jewish quarter?” I asked incredulously. I didn’t know that Jews lived in Fes. They did not. “Oh, no, no Jewish live there now,” he responded. “None?” “No, none.”

The story of Jews in Morocco in recent times is a bleak one, but it is hardly unique. Starting in the late 1940s, mostly in response to the creation of the state of Israel, Moroccan antisemitism turned increasingly violent. Pogroms in 1948 and 1953 shook the community to its core, strongly encouraging emigration, largely to Israel. The story of the Moroccan Jewish community is one that should be familiar to anyone who understands the histories of contemporary middle eastern Jews. In a 20 year span, nearly a million Middle Eastern Jews fled the homes they had lived in for generations, fearing the violence of their neighbors. A quarter million from Morocco. 150,000 from Algeria. Almost 100,00 from Egypt. From Yemen. From Iran. From Syria. Iraq’s Jewish population has dwindled from nearly 150,000 in 1948 to 4 today. Afghanistan and Libya, once home to sizable Jewish communities, are now Judenfrei. Today, Morocco is home to some 2,000 Jews — fewer than Colombia, China or Costa Rica. And the history has not been reckoned with.

The proximity of the Jewish quarter to the royal palace presented me with mixed feelings. On one hand, what an achievement it was to be placed so close to royalty! This was certainly in line with the trends of European Jewish communities, groups that had so often been the financier of kings, adjacent to power but never in control. On the other hand, what a fall from grace it was now — the ally of the ruler to an empty historical monument for a forgotten population. On our first full day in Fes, my travel partner and I (hi Max) were led through the streets of Morocco by a lovely man by the name of Mohammed. He clearly knew his stuff, but his English was little better than my Arabic. Still, when we asked him about the Jewish quarter and its history, his answer was not a great comfort. He replied in broken English that Jews were close to the palace, as Jews always are. Perhaps he meant this as a compliment. Perhaps he was expressing an idea he did not have the language to communicate. But it occurred to me that perhaps he was reflecting the classic stereotype of Jews as clinging to kings and mooching off of power wherever they can. Again, to say that he certainly had evil intent behind his words would be a stretch. But he probably didn’t know many Jews, either. It crossed my mind that at his advanced age, Mohammed was likely an adult, or close to it, at the time of the Jewish expulsion.

The inside of the preserved Synagogue.

That afternoon, we visited the Synagogue, once the hub of a bustling Jewish community that existed for over 1,000 years. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site. We paid, ironically, a small fee to enter the restored 17th century synagogue. We received a brief breakdown from the woman who seemed to run the site as she explained in passing detail what the Torah was, that Synagogues had a lot of Hebrew, and the purpose of a Mikvah. Synagogues like these have always bothered me. She left us to explore the space, and what a bleak sight it was. It’s not that the building was dilapidated — it wasn’t. If UNESCO is good at one thing, it’s preservation. No, it’s the fossilization of something that should have been living. When the woman opened the ark to show us the Torah, no one was there to stand up, and she didn’t close it to indicate that it was appropriate to sit back down again. There were a variety of Jewish books, perfectly appropriate for a Synagogue, but they were locked in a glass case. The Mikvah was full of water, but it was dank and musty. It did not shock me that a country low on water would not use their precious resources to freshen the ritual bath that had not served a practical function in decades. Certainly, it wouldn’t have felt purifying.

Like any Sefardic Synagogue, there was a separate section for men’s and women’s prayer. The women’s segment loomed at the back of the congregation, separated from the men’s section that stood beside the pulpit where a leader had once stood before his congregation. My travel companion and I, thoroughly depressed by the hollow shell of a Synagogue we were mired in, decided to explore the upstairs. On our way up, we passed a room on the landing of the stairs. I couldn’t get a good look inside — it was covered in a thick curtain. The room gave off an air of privacy, but from what I could glimpse, there appeared to be a few beds and a young child or two. As we walked up to the upper floor, the UNESCO heritage site began to betray signs of habitation. There were scribbles on the wall, the controller to a remote control car on a bench, a princess backpack and a few spare rugs in the corner. This fossilized building was once the center of Jewish community that met the same fate of murder and exile of nearly every other diaspora Jewish community across existence. Now, it was just… someone’s house. I don’t begrudge this young family their place of residence, but it was hard to miss the irony of the government granting the holy sites of its expelled inhabitants to its current population as real estate. I understood why the family hung a curtain over their room. It must have been odd for them to see strangers walking around their spaces, completely oblivious and largely indifferent to their experiences. In that Synagogue, I was starting to feel the exact same way.

A thick layer of garbage lies behind the Synagogue.

No community, especially a Jewish community, is complete without a cemetery. As we ascended to the Synagogues rooftop, we were granted a beautiful but, frankly, depressing view of the gleaming white Jewish graveyard. I was pretty disillusioned with what was generously described as a Synagogue, but the layer of garbage, maybe a foot or two thick, that lay In the Synagogue’s backyard, in the same view of the cemetery, was the final insult. Descending from the rooftop in a somber and upset silence, we made our way to the cemetery through the crowded city markets and past the opulent royal palace. We had to pay to enter (again). The cemetery was, by contrast to the synagogue, pristine. It felt very much like Jewish cemeteries I had visited in my own communities. White marble headstones with names and dates were organized in neat rows, families were buried together, a plain and respectful board listed the names of all those entombed in the graveyard.

Well-maintained and authentic as it was, it was hard to take any comfort in the positivity emanating from a field of dead Jews. The metaphor was a little on the nose, frankly. The Synagogue, the life of the community, was a shell of what it had once been. It was a building that was physically well-maintained (up to a certain level), but was deeply hollow, devoid of anything that made it itself, save for four walls and a roof. The death of the community, however. That was a different story. The dead were looked after, cleaned, washed, and cataloged. The life of the Jews was to stay empty, non-existent. But the death of Jews? That was something to be carefully maintained. The metaphors make themselves.

I understand the paradox of a writer who supports and has deeply benefitted from the existence of the state of Israel writing about the removal of groups from the land on which they once lived. And obviously, these conversations are important to have. Absent from these discussions, however, are the cities like Fes, of which there are too many to count. Places where life is removed while the maintenance of death is handled with the cautious kind of care one assigns to an ancient manuscript or a delicate flower. Jewish communities in Fes, and the thousands of communities in thousands of other cities, are absent of discussions of indigeneity. To me, at least, it is no great mystery as to why.

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