by Dr. Moshe Gershovich
This is part II in a three-part series about Morocco’s Jewish history. Part I appreared in our Nov. 22 edition; look far part III in the coming weeks.
An Orphanage in Sefrou
The following morning we left Fez and drove east to Bahlil, a charming Arab-speaking village in the midst of a Berber-speaking region, where we were treated to a tea ceremony in a cave-dwelling. From there we continued to Sefrou, the region’s administrative center. Located at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains, 28 km (18 miles) from Fez, this town of some 80,000 inhabitants has played an important role as a trading center on the route of caravans from the southeastern oasis of Tafilalt, birthplace of Morocco’s ruling dynasty. Nowadays, the local economy is based mostly on agriculture, and the town is known for its annual cherry festival in the month of June.
Sefrou used to be a cultural crossroads where Jews and Muslims, Berbers and Arabs peacefully coexisted for centuries. This cultural mosaic led numerous American anthropologists, notably Clifford Geertz, to choose Sefrou for their field research. For much of its history, Sefrou had been one of a handful Moroccan villages with a high percentage of Jewish population. By the time of Moroccan independence in 1956, Jews still composed a third of Sefrou’s population, about 5,000 living in the small Mellah. Only a few remain there since the mass exodus of Morocco’s Jews in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Jewish Mellah is now inhabited by Muslims and the property left behind is taken care of by them.
Our group visited one of these places, an orphanage named Em Habanim (“Mother of the Boys”), situated just outside the Mellah in an enclosed compound. The orphanage had been part of the Em Habanim network of Jewish Moroccan schools, established in 1912 by a group of Jewish women as a counterpart to the Francophone system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. The first school and orphanage was established in Fez and the Sefrou school was inaugurated in 1917. It provided elementary education to Jewish children for five decades. Today, the place is deserted for the most part, except for groups like ours who visit it occasionally.
Our tour focused on the orphanage’s synagogue, which is well preserved and contains a small library of Hebrew prayer books (Sidurim) as well as some books in French. The pastel-colored walls and decorations hint at the identity of its original residents. A short clip from a 1997 documentary film by director David Assulin, called Haaretz Hamuvtahat (The Promised Land) contains original footage, presumably from the 1950s, depicting Jewish boys eating and praying at the school.
A Museum in Casablanca
On the last day of our tour we reached Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca. As we approached the city from its southern side, having arrived from Marrakech, we stopped at the plush suburb of Oasis to visit the Museum of Moroccan Judaism. This is the only museum of its kind in any Arab-speaking country and one of only two museums in any Muslim country (the other is located in Istanbul, Turkey). It is also the only museum in the entire city of Casablanca, the fifth largest city in Africa.
Situated behind the thick white walls of a lovely villa, it once served, just like in Sefrou, as an orphanage. The museum is surrounded by a beautiful garden, which blends well into this plush neighborhood. There are no signs to guide the visitors to its location and only when you get there can you notice a generic plaque stating it’s a “museum” in Arabic and French. A second sign above the inner entrance provides more proper introduction in four languages, including English and Hebrew. Another plaque, in French only, is dedicated to the man who founded the museum and the foundation for the preservation of Moroccan Jewish culture, Simon Levy.
Widely regarded as Morocco’s foremost authority on Moroccan Jewish culture, Levy was born in Fez in 1934 and died in Rabat 77 years later. He was a professor in the Spanish Department of Mohamed V University in Rabat since 1971. A devoted activist since his youth to the cause of Moroccan independence and human rights, Simon Levy had been imprisoned numerous times during the late colonial period and again during the reign of King Hassan II. He was a leading figure and active member of Morocco’s Communist party, in which he held key positions for more than 30 years. He was also the Secretary General of the “Foundation of Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage” and the Founding Director of the Museum in Casablanca.
The museum contains a permanent display of artifacts related to the rich history and culture of Moroccan Jewry. These range from large items, such as the restored bimah from a synagogue in Tetouan (Northern Morocco) to small dolls depicting Jewish brides in their wedding dresses. Full-size garments are also displayed, along with stunning jewelry pieces worn by brides. Various religious artifacts such as mezuzahs (doorposts), Hanukiah menorahs, Kiddush cups, etc. can also be found in the exhibit halls. Other than the permanent collection, the museum also organizes occasional exhibits on related topics.
Moshe Gershovich is Professor of History at UNO, specializing in Middle East History. He also serves as the Director of the Natan and Hannah Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at UNO.