A Hunger for Memory
Why would my mother serve an Arab kid before serving her own hungry children? I was about 6 years old, and my family was on one of those pilgrimages to visit the gravesite of a Jewish holy man on the anniversary of his death. Along with hundreds of other Moroccan Jews, we would camp out for a few days in some type of wilderness location, not far from the gravesite. For kids, it was a chance to ride on donkeys, play a little soccer and have some “camping fun.” For the grown-ups, it was a chance to pray and bask in holiness and blessings.
As my father was pitching the tent and we got settled in, I recall my mother cutting up slices of a megina, a type of omelet pie, to feed her four hungry kids. But before serving the first slice, she noticed a young Arab boy sitting off to the side, his eyes fixated on the pie. Quietly, she took the first slice and brought it to him, and then came back to serve us. She didn’t say a word about it — no “teachable moment” about caring for the stranger, etc. — and neither did anyone else. It was one of those innocuous moments that has lingered silently in my memory for decades, not dramatic enough to ever discuss, but not routine enough to ever forget.
Years later, when my Jewish journey triggered the memory of that moment, I brought it up to my mother. She had no recollection. Evidently, she had just followed her natural order of things — she felt the hunger of a kid, and she gave him some food.
It is a different type of hunger — a hunger for memory — that has triggered our cover story this week by my friend Aomar Boum, assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA. Aomar is a practicing Muslim who was born and raised in the southern province of Tata, Morocco. From what I’ve been told, my ancestors were also from the south of Morocco, and were called the “people of the Sous” (hence my last name).
Aomar and I share more than geography in common. We both love Moroccan culture. We both love holiness. And we both love memory.
Aomar’s story brings these three loves together. It’s the story of Muslims who for centuries have cared for the Jewish holy sites throughout Morocco. At our Shabbat table last Friday night, he elaborated on this unique attachment between Muslims and holy Jewish sites. But as he has written in the past, this is only one chapter in a larger, more complicated story.
By the late 1980s, about 240,000 Jews had emigrated from Morocco, many to Israel (we moved to Canada). Today, fewer than 3,000 Jews remain. In his book, “Memories of Absence,” Aomar explores how the Jewish narrative in Moroccan history has largely been suppressed. A good part of his scholarship is devoted to reviving that narrative.
He writes: “Called ‘people of the book’ (dhimmi) by Muslims, the majority of Jews lived under the protection of the Moroccan king.
My mother recalls the unique coziness of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in a Muslim country… and the holiness of Jewish gravesites that perfumed the Moroccan air.
“The Jews had ambivalent relations with their Muslim neighbors. Although Jewish communities resembled Muslim ones in language and custom, Jews faced occupational and social restrictions, such as in farming, and were mainly artisans, peddlers, and merchants.
“Rabbis and wealthy leaders who enjoyed special ties with Muslim authorities administered the Jewish community’s internal social, legal, and religious affairs. Around 1862, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) built schools in the coastal cities and later in the hinterland, enabling many Jews to integrate into the wider world beyond Morocco.
“Around the same time, however, political Zionism began to make inroads among the Jews of Morocco, and a century later, in 1956 after Moroccan independence, Jews were affected by the new government’s Arab-Islamic policies and a widely celebrated national Arabization program. Zionist movements began to encourage Jews to move to Israel, and many people of Jewish descent left.”
In this story of gradual physical absence, pretty much all we have left is memory.
“Moroccans are left with the memories of a Jewish life that once existed,” he writes. “The great-grandparent and grandparent generations continue to discuss nostalgically the richness of Jewish-Muslim life in the past; the younger generation demonstrates narrow and misinformed perspectives of Jews.”
My mother belongs to the grandparent generation, from the Jewish side. She may not recall an anecdote of serving an omelet slice to an Arab boy, but she recalls a lot more. She recalls the unique coziness of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in a Muslim country, the textures of an Arab culture that infiltrated Jewish life through food, music and language and, maybe above all, the holiness of Jewish gravesites that perfumed the Moroccan air.
It’s true that memory can play tricks on us — that we have a tendency to exaggerate the past, whether in a positive or negative light. It’s also true that we hunger for memories that can nourish our present.
Maybe I’m blessed that the trauma of the Holocaust did not contaminate my childhood memories, as it did for many of my Ashkenazi friends. I’m left with a nostalgia for a past I barely knew but still remember, a past that I now see through the lens of others who tell me story after story of what life was like for the Jews of Morocco.
As my own Jewish journey has progressed, I have found myself constantly looking back to my Moroccan heritage for some kind of spiritual nourishment. I want to learn more about my ancestors, my bubbes and zaydes, and I want to hand down these things to my own children.
I especially love that it’s a Muslim friend who is helping me on this journey, just like my mother helped that Muslim kid.