Off The Beaten Path In Morocco
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Jewish Journeys

Off The Beaten Path In Morocco

Jewish sites abound in the country’s mountainous north and desert south.

  • The “blue” city  of Chefchaouen.
    The “blue” city of Chefchaouen.
  • Ornate Arabic calligraphy can be found inside Tangier’s Moshe Nahon Synagogue.
    Ornate Arabic calligraphy can be found inside Tangier’s Moshe Nahon Synagogue.

Over the last several years, Morocco has become a hot spot for American as well as Jewish tourists drawn to its prominent cities along the coast and inland such as Casablanca, Fez, Marrakesh and Essaouira.

But repeat travelers to the country and those interested in the fuller story of the history of Moroccan Jewry would do well to visit some other gems in the north and south, from Tangier and its Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, to Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains to southern towns such as Erfoud and Rissani on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Starting in the north, Tangier, across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain and a mere ferry ride away from the Spanish town of Tarifa, is also easily accessible by the Al Boraq high-speed train from Casablanca, in 2 hours and 10 minutes. After the requisite picture taking at the sign where the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea meet, head back toward the Bay of Tangier and start exploring both the old and newer sections of the city. Just outside the Bab Mericain (American Gate) of the medina (the walled “old city” of Tangier) is Beit HaChaim, the Jewish cemetery, which has views of the harbor. You can wander randomly through the cemetery, where you will find graves in various states of repair, many with Spanish inscriptions, or search a map of all gravesites online by names and dates of death. While entry is free, efforts are ongoing to maintain and renovate the cemetery, so donations are welcome.

The medina, one of many walled cities in the country, is replete with history and evidence of the various political powers that have governed the area for centuries, including French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The city was designated a special international zone from 1923 to 1956, when Morocco achieved independence. A tour guide in the medina, Mohammed Harrak, told a group of American-Jewish journalists visiting in November that there were once 16 synagogues in the city; there are only two now in the medina. He also recalled his mother serving as a Shabbat gentile for Jewish community members.

The exterior of Tangier’s Chaar Refael synagogue. Photos by Lori Silberman Brauner

On the other side of the Old City wall from the cemetery is a prominent historical attraction in Tangier, the American Legation (8 rue d’Amerique). The Tangier American Legation is the only U.S. National Historic Landmark abroad, and the first American diplomatic property. Visitors can learn about the history of American-Moroccan relations, as well as the legation’s role in helping to rescue Jews during World War II. On one wall hangs a letter from Renee Reichmann, the representative in Tangier of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to Chargé d’Affaires J. Rives Childs, thanking him for his role in helping to issue visas for Hungarian Jews fleeing the Nazis. “Thus 1,200 innocent souls owe their survival to Your Excellency,” she wrote to him in a letter of gratitude.

In addition, a small but striking exhibit, “Customs and Costumes of Sephardic Morocco,” highlights costumes and jewelry of Jewish Moroccan brides from the collection of Sophia Cohen Azagury, a Jewish woman from Tangier. As of press time, the exhibit was slated to continue through Jan. 25, according to curator John Davison.

Near the Legation is the one of the medina’s two synagogues, the 19th-century Moshe Nahon and the Synagogue Rabbi Akiba, which are occasionally used for celebrations but mostly function as museums.

In Ville Nouvelle, the newer city, the synagogue Chaar Refael (Gate of Rafael), at 27 rue Pasteur, is the center of worship for the tiny community that remains in the city. Its caretaker told the visiting journalists that some 10 to 20 people attend Shabbat services, led by Rabbi Jacob (Yaakov) Tordjeman, and its members help fund the synagogue building through real estate holdings. He said there are about 70 Jews left in Tangier, which has a large expat community whose former members live in such places as New York, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Canada, Lisbon and Jerusalem.

Ornate Arabic calligraphy can be found inside Tangier’s Moshe Nahon Synagogue.

Almost 40 miles south from Tangier but still in the northern part of the country, Tetouan is another city with a once-thriving Jewish past but dwindling community. Previously nicknamed “Little Jerusalem” for its large Sephardic Jewish population, there are now only 10 Jews left, according to Leon Bentolila, a Spanish- and Arabic-speaking community member who opened one of the only synagogues left in the medina to visitors, La Sinagoga Isaac Bengualid. Located in the mellah, the old Jewish quarter, it was built during the beginning of the 19th century and was named for a Sephardic rabbi of the same name who served as Tetouan’s chief rabbi between 1820-1870, according to the Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.

Like many rabbis in Morocco, Bengualid was not just a religious leader, but a “tzadik,” Bentolila said, and his legacy is the reason why he chooses to remain in Morocco. Bentolila’s three children, like many of the once-several-thousand-strong members of the community, moved to Malaga, Spain; others who left the city in the late 1960s live in other southern Spanish cities. He visits his family three or four times a year, including on Yom Kippur, as regular services have not been held at the synagogue since 1968, when the Jewish population was 1,000 and there were some 16 active synagogues. The Bengualid synagogue is only utilized for visits or occasional pilgrimages from former residents.

Bentolila, whose wife helps look after the remaining Jews (the community also receives kosher food from the organized community in Casablanca), showed visitors a furnace where matzas were made for Passover, as well as a mikva for tevila, or immersing dishes.

A grave in the Jewish cemetery in Erfoud.

Why does he stay in Tetouan? Besides the legacy of Bengualid the “tzadik,” Bentolila said he also enjoys good relations with his Muslim neighbors, who check in on him regularly. He said he even plans to be buried there, too; Tetouan has a large Jewish cemetery.

Another northern Moroccan city with a strong Spanish influence is Chefchaouen, located at the base of the Rif Mountains. Originally a Berber village, it was established in 1471; in 1492 the Spanish “Reconquista,” or reconquering of the Iberian Peninsula, led to the expulsion of the Jews and Moors and their subsequent influx to havens like Morocco. Known as the “Blue City” for its walls painted in various shades of blue and indigo, the color became official in 1994, said Yousef, a local guide. This tradition is believed to have Jewish origins, as blue represents the sky and is considered to represent the power of God, Yousef said. (Visitors to Safed, a mystic-oriented city in northern Israel, will also find blue-tinged walls throughout the older sections.) While signs demarcate “El Mellah El Yadid,” the old Jewish quarter, all Jews left Chefchaouen in 1968, he said. The hilly city is both charming and stunning at the same time; wear comfortable shoes to climb up and down its many steps.

After exploring Spanish Morocco’s charms, visitors can head in a number of directions, from Essaouira on the western Atlantic coast to Fez and Marrakesh further inland, with the Atlas Mountains crossing the country from the northeast to the southwest. For a completely different adventure, head through the mountains to the desert, where local nomadic families are happy to invite visitors for tea and camels and jeep rides are known forms of transportation. The Jewish legacy, particularly its reverence of tzadikim, who hold a status akin to saints, is also strong. At the Jewish cemetery in Erfoud, not only are there hundreds of graves, visitors will also find an indoor shrine to Rabbi Shmuel Abuhatzeira, part of a famed family of rabbis; Rav Shmuel was the grandson of the revered Abir Yaakov and cousin of the legendary Baba Sali, widely known in both Morocco and Israel as a miracle worker and giver of blessings. There is also a new synagogue on the premises; during a recent visit on a Monday in November, a group of Israelis were holding morning services that included a Torah reading. They were guided by an Israeli tour operator, Anat Levi Cohen, whose mother is from Morocco. One of the tourists, Zehava Benabu, was born in Tangier and had not been back in Morocco since immigrating to Israel in 1955; she told this reporter that her brother, Shlomo Ben-Ami, is a former Israeli foreign minister.

The “blue” city of Chefchaouen.

Another member of the Abuhatzeira clan, Rabbi David, the Baba Sali’s brother, was killed in 1919 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Rissani. Reuven Elharrar of Montreal, a consultant to a project that is organizing the cemetery’s renovation as well as the on-site construction of an Ohel, or shrine, to Abuhatzeira and a kosher kitchen for visitors, said the builder had told him there are some 6,000 tombs on site. While the cemetery was in the midst of renovations during a visit in November, Elharrar told New Jersey Jewish News/The Jewish Week on Dec. 17 that much of the work had been completed, with the kitchen and ohel almost finished as of press time.  

Lori Silberman Brauner, deputy managing editor at New Jersey Jewish News, visited Morocco in November with a delegation of Jewish journalists hosted by the Moroccan National Tourist Office.

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