September 25, 2018

When Life Hands You Etrogs

It wasn’t exactly the pampering honeymoon I’d had in mind. With no electricity, no running water and no bathroom to speak of, this was about as rough as it gets. The view, however, more than made up for the lack of luxury. Our accommodations, a two-room mud hut, were nestled in the Dumdir wadi between two mountains in the Anti-Atlas range in southern Morocco. 

There is plenty of greenery in the valley, where the land is more fertile and an aqueduct cuts a path between the mountain on one side and a 700-foot drop on the other. The Anti-Atlas mountain range is a sprawling terrain stretching some 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara Desert. 

Two very valuable trees are indigenous to this area. One is the argan tree, whose seeds are the source of argan oil used for cooking and, increasingly in the West, for cosmetics. The second is the citrus medica, or as it is more commonly known by Jews around the world, the etrog. My husband, Tsvi Dahan, deals in the latter. It has been his passion — and in good years, a source of livelihood — for the past two decades.

The story of the etrog is thousands of years old and almost as fascinating as the Bible itself. It is a tale replete with rabbinical disputes, historical debates and no small measure of scandal. Capturing the passions of many men throughout the ages, it is small wonder that the Talmud likens the etrog to the human heart. Many Jews hold the belief that the etrog was also the forbidden fruit that led to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 

The story of the Moroccan etrog harks back to the first century C.E., when Jews first settled among the Berbers in North Africa after being exiled from the Holy Land following the destruction of the Second Temple, right through to present-day Brooklyn, N.Y., amongst Satmar Chasidim, who continue to wear the modest clothing and black garb of their 18th-century Eastern European ancestors. 

Photo by Deborah Danan

It is the day before Yom Kippur, 2017. Tsvi occupies a tiny storefront on Lee Avenue in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. With jeans and a knitted kippah, he is clearly an outsider and will not make many sales. Still, quality trumps quantity in the Moroccan etrog industry, and Tsvi’s merchandise is nonpareil, allowing him to demand upward of $50 per fruit. A man enters. He examines the wares, gingerly picking them up one by one. He selects a yellowish, slightly corrugated etrog for closer scrutiny, using a magnifying glass and a lamp. 

“It is totally clean,” Tsvi tells him proudly. 

The man’s sidelocks sway as he nods his head in agreement.

“And look at the shape. Completely symmetrical and with a gartl,” Tsvi says, referencing the belt worn by Chasidic men. 

Tsvi Danan inspecting Etrogs.

Satmars covet an etrog with a slim waist that dips inward, resembling a Coca-Cola bottle. They also insist on it having as few marks as possible. 

Blemish-free is the holy grail of etrogs, but achieving it is more the realm of a horticulturist than an etrog farmer. For Tsvi, it’s mostly a matter of trial and error.  One year he’ll spray his trees with extra pesticide to deter insects, while another year he might try growing the etrogs in gauze bags to prevent dents from rogue branches. 

Apart from ritual use by Jews as part of the four species on Sukkot, the etrog’s other main use is in perfumes, and for that they don’t need to look pretty. 

Tsvi’s grandfather from Marrakesh learned the etrog trade from his mother and uncle. He then bequeathed his knowledge to his six sons. In 1998, Tsvi and his twin brother, Gadi, were employed by their uncles to help with the harvest in Morocco during Elul. That was also the year I met Tsvi. I was 16 and Tsvi was the soldier and medic accompanying my summer camp in Israel. It would be another 14 years before fate would cross our paths again and we would fall in love and marry. 

The following Elul, the twins decided to go it alone. In the years that followed, they would fail, many times, and lose a lot of money in the process. 

In 2007, Tsvi wrapped up a master’s degree and quit his job at a bank to go and spend time in Dumdir. For two months, he lived on the mountain with minimal contact with the outside world, learning the etrog trade from the ground up. He kept scrupulous notes in a journal. 

“I immediately felt connected to a past that is very rich,” he said. “When I was in yeshiva, I studied the Talmud tractate Sukkah and [in Morocco], in this place that is so far from everything, I got to encounter what I’d learned firsthand. It was amazing.”

During his time on the mountain, Tsvi met Bila’id, a local Arab from whom he leases a field. For 10 years, Bila’id has been Tsvi’s full-time employee for the year-round cultivation of the etrogs.  

Bila’id is a Shleuh, part of the Berber subgroup that dwells on the mountain and has been growing etrogs for Jews for centuries. In 1995, the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, considered a Torah giant of the last generation, sent a delegation of rabbis and experts to the Anti-Atlas canyon to verify the kashrut levels of the etrogs. The findings, which included a total absence of grafted trees, led Rabbi Eliashiv to conclude that the lineage of the Moroccan etrog had remained unbroken for close to 2,000 years, making it unique in the world. 

“Capturing the passions of many men throughout the ages, it is small wonder that the Talmud likens the etrog to the human heart.”

During our honeymoon, in April, 2016,  we spent a great deal of time with Bila’id and his sons. Our voyage to the mountain took us by car through Assads, the main village in the area, and then up serpentine mountain roads to Tamgersift. From there, we were forced to park and ascend the mountain by foot. The path was treacherous, only a foot wide at parts, with a steep precipice to the left. We trekked for an hour before reaching Tsvi’s field, but thankfully it was mostly in the shade — no small mercy since temperatures can reach as high as 127 degrees. 

My backpack grew heavier with every step but I refrained from complaining. The people I was with are tasked with carrying a few thousand etrogs down the same way to be inspected and sorted by Tsvi into categories ranging from 6 to 1 — with 1 being the most exquisite  etrogs — before being shipped to New York, Los Angeles and Israel. In the hut, Bila’id served me Moroccan tea with generous helpings of sugar. 

At the top of the mountain, there is a plateau with five hamlets. Once upon a time, two of the hamlets were exclusively Jewish while two others were Muslim. The fifth, Tignidin, is where Bila’id grew up, and it once had a mixed Jewish and Muslim population. Some of the Jews converted to Islam, but most left for larger cities like Casablanca in the 1930s and ’40s. 

The Jews of Tignidin owned the land in the Dumdir wadi and when they left, they gave the fields to the Arabs, Bila’id said. In return for looking after them year-round, the Jews promised the Arabs a permanent livelihood by coming back every year before Sukkot to purchase etrogs.   

Photo by Deborah Danan.

Bila’id has been growing etrogs for the past 30 years. “When I see a beautiful etrog, it makes me happy,” he said. Asked what he thought of the Jews and their strange commandments, he said, “The etrog is a symbol of goodness. This is how you serve God. You believe that if you have a beautiful etrog, your whole year will be beautiful. We try to stop the etrog from getting diseases, or becoming damaged by a thorn or a flying creature.”

Such notions, while sweet, are largely fanciful and have no real source, Tsvi said, adding that during the times of the Temple, the lulav, palm branch and etrog were used to pray for that year’s rainfall, which in turn represents livelihood. On a personal level, he continued harvesting and selling etrogs, despite its many pitfalls, as his way of  serving his Maker.

“In [a] regular job, [you] have a salary and that’s it,” Tsvi said. “But when it comes to growing [the etrogs], I am reminded constantly that everything is from Him. I can invest hundreds of thousands of shekels and have it all disappear in a flash when a drought causes the fruit to drop from the trees prematurely. I am completely at God’s mercy.”

Letters to the Editor: Islam, Mensch List, Trump and Immigration

A Meaning Lost in Translation

In his Jan. 12 column “A Hunger for Memory,” David Suissa quotes Aomar Boum’s book “Memories of Absence” as translating the word dhimmi as “people of the book.”

The term dhimmi always has been translated inaccurately as meaning “people of the book” or “protected people,” who are exempt from Islamic law. However, the term is not native to Arabic and its usage is descriptive rather than factual translation. It is borrowed from Hebrew, related to the biblical Hebrew word d’mama, which means silent or still (as in the kol d’mama daka, the “still, small voice” that the prophet Elijah hears in 1 Kings 19:12 and as in numerous Psalms such as in Psalm 62:2 (al dhomi lach, “don’t hold Yourself silent”).

The Quran does not mention dhimmi and it is stated only in the Hadith in various agreements between the Prophet and Jewish tribes in Medina. It has always struck me as a derogatory and humiliating term referring to Jews in the Muslim world as a “silent second-class,” who were expected to stand when a Muslim walked by, not allowed to ride horses or own a piece of land. In most Arab countries, Jews were allowed to live only in limited closed quarters called hara. In contrast, Hebrew has the term ger, referring to non-Jews who live among the Jews and accept and observe the seven Noahide laws. The term, as used in the Torah and discussed lavishly by Maimonides, never implies discrimination or humiliation against the ger but rather full acceptance and total respect.

Ed Elhaderi, Los Angeles


Journal’s Hits and Misses

My compliments on Larry Greenfield’s reflections on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (“King’s Dream,” Jan. 12”). He promotes King’s vision of racial friendship, and points out the growing voices of black separatism and leftist violence. The Journal is to be commended for thoughtful diversity of views. “Antifa” is not our friend.

Norman Epstein, San Francisco

Just wanted to tell you I like your new format and human interest stories. Very good — sharing how people are helping people. But I miss some of your columns that offer intellectual and challenging thought — like Dennis Prager.

Karen Rae, Sherman Oaks

The 11 vignettes in the “Mensch List” cover story (Jan. 5) were heartwarming. But one omission troubled me. Our species is devastating the biosphere, including countless wild species. Reportedly 98 percent of U.S. charitable contributions are to organizations whose concern is our species whereas only 2 percent are to organizations whose principal concern is the environment or wild species. The Journal’s list follows in the same spirit. The efforts of all 11 honorees are human-focused. Was there no one in the “overwhelming influx of inspiring nominees” who works to protect nature and who is deserving of recognition?

Ben Zuckerman, Los Angeles

Susannah Heschel’s essay was a “blast from the past,” bringing to the fore the incredible insights, acumen and razor-sharp mind that characterized her father’s work (“What Would My Father Say?” Jan 12). Most importantly, Heschel emphasized her father’s unrelenting search for the truth and the homeostasis that was universally acknowledged between his fiery words and his concomitant nonviolent actions of resistance.

Contrast that with the dissembling screed that Ben Shapiro penned about the reported scatological remarks made by President Donald Trump in his self-deified role of a (“who shall live and who shall die”) present-day Nero. To offset this treasure trove of conservative tried but not true journalistic legerdemain, Shapiro sprinkles in a few seemingly apolitical political crumbs about Trump being a charismatic boor with a volatile yellow streak running down the center of his back.

Defending that which is best about Judaism (defining a religious person as maladjusted; attuned to the agony of others and never satisfied but always questioning) is the gist of Heschel’s gift to the Journal reader, while Shapiro’s gift is the benighted defense of that which is indefensible.

Marc Rogers, North Hollywood

President Trump has been in office for a year, so let’s look at the facts. Third-quarter economy grew 3.2 percent. Unemployment at a 17-year low. Stock market sizzling. Stopped foreign college graduates from coming here and taking our jobs. Illegal immigrants are leaving. Foreign countries are opening plants here. American companies are coming back. Retail sales for December were up over the previous year. All this despite two major hurricanes and major wildfires in California. If you bashers are going to bitch in good times, what are you going to do in bad times?

Joseph B.D. Saraceno, Gardena

Ben Shapiro hit the nail on the head. When the entire Michael Wolff affair is said and done, it won’t be Donald Trump who emerges worse off. It will be the fake news mainstream media who subscribe to Wolff’s journalistic style, namely, if you like what you read, take it as truth. That’s the essence of confirmation bias that the mainstream media are foisting on the public.

The mainstream, liberal, left media blew their integrity in the desire for a cheap hit by defending Wolff, the author of “Fire and Fury.” They relied heavily on the falsehoods of Wolff’s book while ignoring some of the major achievements of Trump, such as tax relief for the middle class, defeating ISIS, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announcing the moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills


Trump’s Comment About Certain Nations

I am the daughter of an immigrant. As we are confronted with the most recent profane and derogatory comments by President Donald Trump concerning groups who have sought and wish to seek refuge in the United States, we must remember Jews who were turned away from entry into this country only to be returned to a country where they were murdered.

Some Jewish groups have ignored previous vulgar and bigoted comments made by Trump. How can they remain silent now? Every Jewish organization that claims to promote freedom and tolerance should denounce his words.

Cynthia Hasday, Los Angeles


and FROM FACEBOOK:

‘Sacred Protectors,’ Jan. 12:

I have spent time in Morocco and this is mostly true. Of course, like anywhere on Earth, there will be some Moroccans who will not behave so gallantly. One of the most beautiful, oldest Jewish cemeteries is in Marrakesh. … Rabbis request being buried there. It is like little else you’ve ever seen; simply breathtaking and moving. The old Jewish quarter is pretty amazing too.

La Pickwell

Respect is due to these Moroccan, Muslim protectors of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. A good story of humanity gone unnoticed.

Herman Meltzer

We need to hear more stories like this. I’m sure that they are out there.

Ginny Baldwin

Thank you, Aomar Boum. Shalom. Aleikum-as-Salaam. Peace be upon you.

Eb Hoene

‘A Hunger for Memory,’ Jan. 12:

Beautiful and touching story.

Ruth Solomon Wolitzer

Nice to hear a positive story about living in a Muslim land.

Beth Anderson

SACRED PROTECTORS: Crossing Boundaries of Time and Faith, These Muslims Safeguard Morocco’s Holy Jewish Sites

Muslim caretaker opening the gate of Jewish cemetery of Tahanaout, High Atlas Mountains, where the shrines of Rabbi Yacoub Abu Darham and Sliman Aviav are located. Photo by Aomar Boum

It’s a hot summer day when I arrive at Khmis Arazan, a small rural town in southern Morocco, about 170 miles south of Marrakesh. It’s Thursday, market day, and a group of local children spots me. Before I say a word, they know where I’m headed. There’s only one reason why outsiders find their way to this remote community: to visit the synagogue.

It has been four decades since the last of the Jews left Khmis Arazan, whose 8,000-some residents are nearly all Muslims. But it’s clear from the well-trodden path that more than a few tourists have made their way down these unpaved streets to the now crumbling Jewish neighborhood.

Arriving at the synagogue — an adobe structure dating from the late 19th century and recently renovated — I am greeted by Hmad Harim, a Muslim man in his late 60s who has spent much of his life working as caretaker for this relic of Morocco’s rich Jewish past.

More than 130 Jews lived in the town as recently as the 1930s, and Harim has vivid memories of the Jewish neighbors in his childhood, even recalling many of their family names.

“Every Friday, I used to hear the sounds of their prayers — it was as normal as our Friday prayers for us [Muslims],” he told me. “I will never forget those times.”

Harim isn’t unique. In my travels throughout my native Morocco, I have met people like him again and again — Muslims who have taken it upon themselves to protect and maintain the places that were holy to their country’s all-but-vanished Jewish community.

“I think of this as a moment of consolation in the wave of hatred that reigns in today’s world.” — Simone Bitton

I am a Muslim-born historical anthropologist specializing in studying the Jews of North Africa. Years ago, I noticed that whenever I would visit a Jewish cemetery in Morocco, I would notice a sign near the entrance listing the phone number of the caretaker. If the cemetery lacked a wall or fence, sometimes the number was posted on a rock by the roadside. Every time I called one of the numbers, the person who answered was a Muslim, often someone who had inherited the task from a parent or even a grandparent.

The work of these dedicated guardians has become all the more remarkable in an era in which U.S. Jews have seen their cemeteries desecrated in suburban St. Louis and Philadelphia, and vandals have repeatedly defaced synagogues with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti in the U.S. and Europe.

While Morocco also has experienced its own occasional vandalism incidents at Jewish sites over the years, such desecration is relatively rare, in large part thanks to the Muslims who have taken on the protection of Jewish sites as a sacred responsibility.

In the coastal city of El Jadida, I met Abbas, who has served as guardian of the cemetery since the 1950s. In Ighil N’Ogho, a village south of Marrakesh, a woman named Zoubeida holds the keys to the recently restored synagogue. In Essaouira, Malika Idarouz and her son guard two Jewish cemeteries and the Synagogue of Haim Pinto, named for the prominent Moroccan rabbi of the 18th and 19th centuries.

When I met Malika in the summer of 2017, she assured me that “no matter what goes on in the world,” Muslims will always be there to care for Morocco’s Jewish cemeteries, places she called “a reminder of the history of Jewish-Muslim relations.”

The Moroccan Jewish community is one of the oldest in the Arab world. Before the early 1950s, some 240,000 Jews lived in Morocco, but in the three decades that followed, nearly the entire Jewish population emigrated, with most going to Israel, but also to Canada, France and South America. Now, fewer than 3,000 Jews remain.

Zoubeida, caretaker of the Synagogue of Ighil N’Ogho. Photo by Aaron El Kiam

Historically, Morocco’s Jews lived under the protection of the country’s sultans and kings. Outside the sultans’ rule, tribal lords ensured their security and protection. Linguistically and culturally, Jews mostly shared customs with Morocco’s Muslims. And they worked in a variety of occupations, including as artisans, peddlers and merchants.

Although Jews once paid a special tax in exchange for physical protection, since Morocco gained independence in 1956, Jews have been considered citizens with full rights.

What remains of Morocco’s Jewish community is mostly centered in a few cities: Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakesh and Fes. While Casablanca has Jewish schools, a few synagogues that hold services and, of course, a Chabad emissary, the Jewish population is aging, and most younger Jews tend to immigrate to Europe.

Despite the dwindling Jewish population, Moroccans are determined to preserve the community’s sacred places. That effort was led in part by the Foundation of the Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage, established in 1995 to safeguard both the community’s “material” heritage — its synagogues, cemeteries and shrines — and its more intangible elements, such as literary works, food and music. Its work has resulted in the restoration of more than five synagogues as well as maintaining a Jewish museum in Casablanca.

But preserving Morocco’s Jewish relics isn’t a uniquely Jewish effort. In 2011, Morocco took the unusual step of changing its national constitution to acknowledge that the country has been “nourished and enriched” by “Hebraic influences.”

“In Morocco, you do not need to teach people that they should respect the dignity of the dead,  Jewish or Muslim.” — Brahim

And in 2010, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI launched an initiative to preserve Jewish cemeteries. Through that program, overseen by Serge Berdugo, the head of the national council of Jewish communities, the country preserved more than 167 cemeteries and some 12,600 individual graves. The project included erecting protective fences, clearing grounds, washing and restoring gravestones, and installing new gates and doors. (The effort is documented in a 2015 book, “Rehabilitation of the Jewish Cemeteries of Morocco: The Houses of Life,” published by the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco.)

While Jewish community leaders oversee the efforts and the sites, it is the Muslim caretakers — often working for no salary — whose work has made it a reality. Many of these people see the cemeteries as living archives, memorials to an important part of their country’s history, an element that an ever-smaller portion of Moroccans remember.

“In Morocco, you do not need to teach people that they should respect the dignity of the dead — Jewish or Muslim,” said Brahim, the owner of the Jewish museum in Akka when I interviewed him several years ago. “It’s part of our culture.”

The pilgrimage trend isn’t likely to slow down, thanks to efforts by the government.

Simone Bitton, a Moroccan-born filmmaker who now lives in France, has spent more than a year working on a documentary with the working title “Ziyara” (Arabic for “pilgrimage”) about the Muslims who guard Jewish cemeteries. She said she became fascinated by these men and women, who often live in cemetery compounds and spend their days watching over Jewish graves, some centuries old.

“It is a very moving experience for me as a Jew,” she said. “These are ordinary, illiterate people who made an effort to learn Hebrew script — and they are familiar with Jewish tradition.”

For example, she said, caretakers often ask her whether she is a Kohen, because they know Jewish law forbids Jews with that designation from being in close proximity to graves. And cemetery guards often ask her to wash her hands before leaving the cemetery, in accordance with Jewish tradition. Many guards have learned such customs as well as Jewish prayers or phrases either from their childhoods or from stories passed on by parents or grandparents, Bitton said.

Moved as she is, Bitton also acknowledged that many of the guards have financial incentives for their work. They rely on tips from visitors and other cemetery-related income to support themselves and their families.

Still, she said, she finds the guards’ devotion inspiring. “I am not naïve,” Bitton said, “but I do think of this as a moment of consolation in the wave of hatred that reigns in today’s world.”

While that may be, there are other incentives for the preservation efforts, not only for the caretakers but for the country. In recent years, many Jews with ancestry in Morocco have traveled to the country to seek out their roots, visiting their ancestral hometowns and searching for the graves of grandparents or great-grandparents. Jews travel to the country for hilulot, visits to shrines marking the tombs of prominent rabbis and other holy figures.

The pilgrimage trend isn’t likely to slow down, thanks to efforts by the government. In February 2013, at the dedication of a newly restored synagogue in Fes, the king called for the restoration of other major Jewish places of worship. That led to the restoration of Casablanca’s Ettedgui Synagogue, completed in 2016. Another landmark, the Simon Attias Synagogue in the city of Essaouira — dating back to 1882 — is currently under renovation. And André Azoulay, a prominent Jewish leader who is an adviser to the king, has plans to open a museum and research center at the Simon Attias Synagogue in 2018 focused on Judaism and Islam.

Azoulay also has been involved in efforts to organize music festivals in towns near the shrines of historical Jewish figures, events partly aimed at attracting Jewish tourists to the country.

Jardih Rhimou in front of images of Meknes holy Jewish saints of the Toledano Family.

Those who might not be able to make the trip to Morocco have another way to seek out the final resting places of their ancestors: in cyberspace. That effort is led by Georges Sebat, who was born in Morocco and lived in Montreal before settling back in Casablanca in 1993. Sebat has documented several Moroccan cities’ Jewish cemeteries on websites such as cimetierejuifcasablanca.com and communautejuiveagadir.com, where users can find photographs of their ancestors’ tombs.

Sebat explained that the project stemmed in part from his interest in a massive 1960 earthquake that that killed as many as 15,000 people in his hometown of Agadir. Passionate about computers and technology, he developed a website in memory of the city’s entire Jewish community. That included making photos of the tombs available on a website. “For the family members outside of Morocco who wished to ‘visit’ the graves of loved ones, it was, of course, much appreciated,” Sebat said.

Sebat received significant assistance from a man named Si Ali, the Muslim caretaker of the Agadir Jewish cemetery, who was himself a survivor of the earthquake.

“He had a complete devotion to this place,” Sebat said. “It was his work, and he was the encyclopedia and the memory of the cemetery until his death.”

Now it is Ali’s son, Mohamed, who does that work, caring for the graves of a community he never knew with dedication and kindness. Like so many other caretakers I have met in my travels, he is carrying on a legacy of respect and coexistence that crosses barriers of religion, nationality, memory and time.

As Bitton, the filmmaker, put it, “I want to know what is left of the Jew in the imagination of these Moroccan Muslims.”

I asked Harim — the Muslim caretaker in the town where the kids led me to the synagogue — what would possibly motivate a Muslim to devote his life to this kind of work. He didn’t hesitate to offer an answer. “The synagogue and the cemetery are a trust,” he said. “Our religious consciousness and moral obligation demand that we keep them safe. We did it when they were among us, and we knew that their owners would come one day to reclaim these places. I’m glad I did it.”


Aomar Boum is associate professor and vice chair of undergraduate studies in the anthropology of department at UCLA.

A Hunger for Memory

Meme Suissa, bottom left, with her parents and siblings at a pilgrimage in Morocco, circa 1934.

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.

A Second, Quieter Festival Explores the Sephardic Journey

It’s hard to describe the pull of nostalgia. I left Casablanca, Morocco, when I was 8, and grew up in Canada and the United States. I’m a proud U.S. citizen and I love my country. When I travel overseas, I skip over Morocco and usually go right to the Jewish homeland of Israel, which I also love.

So, how do I explain my nostalgia for Morocco, an Arab-Muslim country? How can I be attached to a country that feels so foreign, so distant?

It’s true that with the passage of time there’s a tendency to romanticize our past. The very idea of romanticizing feels Moroccan to me. The mystical deserts where Jewish holy men are buried; the souks of Marrakesh; the drama of Tangiers; the French flavors of Casablanca; the Arabic music I still love; the Arab expressions my mother still uses — all of those things dance in my mind as I try to make sense of my attachment to the country of my ancestors.

But there’s something else — the “Moroccan Judaism” I grew up with. This is a Judaism that elevates celebration, aesthetics, holiness, neighborliness and tolerance. I didn’t grow up with the trauma of the Holocaust. I grew up dreaming in the deserts and beaches around Casablanca. What I most recall about our Jewish neighborhood was cozying up with family and neighbors during Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

It was an intimate and happy Judaism — one you could touch, feel and smell. We were Jews in a non-Jewish land, and we had to hug our Jewish rituals and each other to feel alive and whole.

Are my memories idealized? Probably. But here’s the thing: They feel real to me. The pull of my Moroccan past feels genuine.

This pull of nostalgia is one of the areas explored in the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, which runs Nov. 5–12. While the buzz in the city will be around the larger and more established Israel Film Festival — which we feature in this week’s cover story — it’s worth paying attention to this other festival, especially if you enjoy the story of wandering Jews.

In a way, it makes sense that both festivals are happening simultaneously, because there’s one place where they clearly intersect: Israel. The Jewish state has played a major, even transformational, role in the recent history of Sephardic Jewry. In fact, the film premiering at the Sephardic festival, “Back to Casablanca,” could well have been featured at the Israel Film Festival.

The film tells the story of Ze’ev Revach, an Israeli actor and director born and raised in Morocco. As described on the festival’s website, “He sets out on a journey back to Casablanca, in search of a Moroccan actor to star alongside him in his next film, which he dreams that he’ll be able to distribute around the Arab world. He connects with his mother tongue, discovers the commonalities between the two cultures, but his mission is not a simple one.”

Another film, “Journey from Tunisia,” deals with “the upheaval of centuries of roots for Jews and their Arab neighbors in North Africa, and the forming of new roots in Israel, soon after its rebirth as a nation.”

And then there’s “Why Do They Hate Us?” — a must-see from French-Jewish filmmaker Alexandre Amiel, who hails from Morocco. Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks, Amiel was shaken by his 11-year-old son, who asked, “Why do they hate us Jews?” His response was to produce a series on racism and anti-Semitism in France. It aired on French television and will be presented at the festival.

While the film festival is sure to attract Sephardic Jews, it’s also an opportunity for Ashkenazi Jews to learn more about their Sephardic brethren. This learning can’t happen as easily in religious institutions like synagogues, because most of us are attached to our religious customs, our style of prayer, our denominations and so on. Having said that, I know several Ashkenazi synagogues that now offer Sephardic services to their members. A great example is at Valley Beth Shalom, which you can read about in this week’s Journal, where Sephardic musician Asher Levy leads Middle Eastern-style services based on his Syrian roots.

A cultural event like a film festival is an ideal way to learn about different Jewish stories. Culture doesn’t ask us to change our ways, it just invites us to open our eyes and ears and hearts and experience a moment.

Although I’m deeply attached to my Sephardic roots, I have spent a good part of my adult life exploring Ashkenazi traditions, religiously and culturally, for the simple reason that I’m fascinated by the story of my people.

As with the story at Valley Beth Shalom, I’m noticing a similar interest among many of my Ashkenazi friends. Last Friday night, for example, after we sang the Ashkenazi version of “Shalom Aleichem,” one Ashkenazi guest asked, “What’s the Sephardic melody for that song?”

Singing that melody pulled me back to my childhood in Morocco. It’s ironic that an Ashkenazi Jew made me sing it, but that’s emblematic of our generation. We’re pulled by the nostalgia of our own past, but we’re fascinated by the past of other Jews we meet. After centuries of living apart, we’re discovering new Jewish stories, new Jewish melodies, new Jewish traditions, right here in Los Angeles. That’s something I could never taste in my Casablanca neighborhood, as much as I miss it.

How My Muslim Journey Led Me to Study Jews

I never envisaged that my life journey would take me to study the Jews of my southern Moroccan oases and North Africa. Growing up as a practicing Muslim in a Moroccan village, I never could have imagined that I would, one day, do research with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Vichy and Nazi policies in North Africa, or that I would become affiliated with the UCLA Center of Jewish Studies, one of the oldest centers in the United States, and become a member of the Association for Jewish Studies.

How did this happen to a Muslim Moroccan boy?

One starting point is that I experienced discrimination in my youth. In southern Morocco, where I grew up, race is a factor in determining social and economic status. The Haratine, who have a darker skin color and are seen as socially inferior, farmed lands owned by the local Maraboutic families known as Shurfa (historically light-skinned). For decades, my father served these families as a day laborer. I grew up affected by this.

When I began my research on Jews, on a few occasions I was called a Falashi (Black Jew from Ethiopia), signaling that I was not only breaking rules by studying Jews but also highlighting my lower social status as a dark-skinned Muslim.

But the more I learned about Jews and the more opposition I received, the more I wanted to continue. Maybe subconsciously, I identified with the foibles of a minority. But there was something else: I also was moved by the deep attachment that Moroccan Jews have for their Moroccan heritage and the positive feelings toward Mohammed V as a righteous king for protecting Jews during World War II. This helped me persevere and overcome personal and professional obstacles.

Still, I have to say I got lucky. My parents, illiterate and with no comfortable income, raised a family of four sons and four daughters on subsistence farming and herding. Having a child who would end up earning a doctorate in socio-cultural anthropology in the United States was never part of their agenda. But I was always thirsty for knowledge, and my educational ambition got the attention of some prominent people in Morocco. Their support gave me my first break and my perseverance did the rest.

In my first year in graduate school at the University of Arizona, I struggled to come to terms with the option of specializing on the Jews of Morocco. I knew that going back home with a degree with a limited audience would be a big risk, especially in the context of a negative political environment over the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

What kept me going was becoming immersed in the amazing story of the Jews of Morocco. Moroccan Jews worldwide represent one of the largest Jewish communities of the Arab world. Despite the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, most of them remain deeply connected to their Moroccan homeland. While fewer than 4,000 Jews currently live in Morocco, Jewish shrines and cemeteries are protected and maintained by the local Arab population and the government.

In my studies, I wanted to tell a Muslim story about living with Jews as neighbors. My book, “Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco,” was an attempt to describe Jewish life in the southeastern Moroccan region based on Muslim generational memories. I tried to make the point that, in Morocco at least, you cannot study Jews without factoring in Muslim participation in Jewish life and Jewish-Muslim relations. 

The Moroccan Jewish tradition of Mimouna — in which Jews create a magical neighborhood feast on the last night of Passover — is a good example of the relationship of mutual respect and co-existence that existed, and continues to exist, between Muslims and Jews.

As a historical anthropologist, I was exposed over the years to strong cultural connections between Moroccan Jews and Muslims. Attending Shabbat dinners, I recognized Moroccan cuisine that I enjoyed at home. Visiting synagogues in Marrakech, France or Los Angeles, I heard sounds that reminded me of recitation of the Quran in the mosque. Researching a shrine such as Baba Sale in Netivot, Israel, I remembered the days when my village would travel to Muslim shrines.

I have come to recognize that in their language, food, music and rituals, many Moroccan Jews have preserved their Moroccan identity, no matter where they live. As I continue my research, it is this deep cultural connection, above all, that will nourish my journey. 


AOMAR BOUM is associate professor and vice chair of undergraduate studies in the anthropology department at UCLA.

Moroccan-inspired tzimmes with saffron, white wine and chicken

Moroccan-inspired tzimmes with saffron, white wine and chicken. Photos by Chaya Rappoport

I didn’t grow up with tzimmes, so the idea of stewed, mushy vegetables with dried fruit has never much appealed to me. I say “idea” because I am pretty sure I have never actually tasted tzimmes. The dish always seemed too sweet to be appealing, even if sweet foods are traditionally enjoyed for the New Year.

But recently, while thinking of new ways to reinvent a few classic Rosh Hashanah dishes, I began thinking about tzimmes. And perhaps with a couple of very liberal (and namely savory) changes, who’s to say it couldn’t become something newer, grander and much more enticing for a palate like mine?

My experimentation has produced a colorful, show-stopping and nontraditional chicken dish.

Wonderfully savory chicken now complements the sweet tzimmes of yore, which I have updated by swapping fresh, juicy plums and apricots for their dry, pruney counterparts, adding sweetly swirled candy cane beets (you can also use red or golden beets); switching out regular carrots for vivid, tricolored ones; and tossing in a handful of golden raisins to be plumped up with aromatic pan juices. Alongside the requisite onion, aromatic rosemary and heady cloves of garlic, the striking fruit-and-vegetable mixture roasts in a cinnamon, ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice blend) and spiked date honey sauce.

Once the fruits and vegetables have softened a bit, they are topped by the chicken and doused in a saffron-infused white wine mixture, which saturates the entire dish as its components roast together in happy, fragrant harmony.

Now we have a delicious dish with tender fruits and vegetables, bronzed chicken and a saffron-and-white-wine-flavored gravy that puddles at the bottom of the pan and would be splendid spooned over fluffy couscous. Serve this holiday-worthy chicken with even more wine and with shreds of fresh green parsley, then watch as even the most vehement tzimmes haters come slowly, then speedily around.

Ingredients:
For the fruits and vegetables:
2 bunches small colored candy cane beets, tops removed, scrubbed and sliced
1 bunch colorful young carrots, scrubbed and thicker ones sliced in half
4 apricots, halved, some quartered
4 big purple plums, halved and some sliced
1/2 cup golden raisins
10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large onion, peeled and sliced into thick rings
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
chopped parsley, for serving

Some of the fruits and vegetables that go in a newfangled tzimmes dish.

 

For the chicken, sauce and saffron white wine marinade:
4 chicken bottoms, cleaned
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 cup water
3/4 cups good white wine
3 tablespoons date honey (silan)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 pinches cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ras el hanout

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. Rub the chicken bottoms with the sea salt and the 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary.

2. Toast the saffron threads in a small pan over low-medium heat for about 3-5 minutes until they are slightly toasty and fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat, add the 1/4 cup of water and let it sit and turn yellow as the saffron infuses its flavor into the water.

3. Combine the cooled saffron water, of which you should have 1/4 cup, with the white wine. Mix and set aside until needed.

4. Make the marinade: Whisk the date honey, oil, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne and ras el hanout in a large bowl.

5. Add the chicken pieces, carrots, onion, cardamom pods, garlic, apricots, plums, carrots, beets, golden raisins and rosemary to the large bowl and toss to combine.

6. Remove the chicken and set aside in a clean, baking paper-lined pan until needed. Spread the fruits and vegetables on a baking paper-lined rimmed baking sheet.

7. Pour half of the saffron/white wine mixture on the chicken and half on the vegetables. Cover the vegetables tightly with foil. Roast 15 minutes, then remove from oven. Remove and discard the cardamom.

8.  Remove foil, lower the heat to 400 F. and top the vegetables with the chicken and the rest of the saffron/white wine mix.

9. Continue to roast until the beets and carrots are tender, the chicken is golden brown and the whole mixture smells divine, around 40 minutes to 1 hour. (If the fruits and vegetables get too dark, you can remove the sheet tray from the oven, place the chicken in another pan and return that pan to the oven until the chicken is nice and golden, leaving out the vegetables.)

10. When the chicken and vegetables are done, transfer chicken mixture to serving platter. Pour pan juices over. Top with shredded parsley before serving.

Chaya Rappoport is the blogger, baker and picture taker behind retrolillies.wordpress.com. Currently a pastry sous chef at a Brooklyn bakery, she’s been blogging since 2012 and her work has been featured on The Feed Feed, Delish.com, Food and Wine and Conde Nast Traveler.


The Nosher food blog offers a dazzling array of new and classic Jewish recipes and food news, from Europe to Yemen, from challah to shakshuka and beyond. Check it out at www.TheNosher.com.

Hundreds attend 1st Jewish film festival in Casablanca

Nearly 500 people attended the first Jewish film festival of Casablanca, which was organized in the Moroccan city by a Sephardic Jewish woman from Atlanta.

The three-day event, which ended Wednesday at the offices of Casablanca’s SOC club, featured three films about the “consequences of the emigration of the Jews from the fabric of Moroccan society,” the organizer, Vanessa Paloma, told JTA on Thursday. Each screening drew about 150 viewers, she said.

One of the two fictional features screened was “Aida,” which was also Morocco’s submission to the Academy Awards for best foreign language film, about a Paris-based Jewish music teacher’s battle with cancer.

The other was “Midnight Orchestra,” a 2015 production about the son of a Jewish musician who left Morocco amid racial tensions spurred by the Yom Kippur war.

Reactions to the festival were overwhelmingly positive, said Paloma, a singer of Judeo-Spanish music and a researcher on identity and the arts in Moroccan Judaism. She has lived in Casablanca since 2009 with her Moroccan-Jewish husband, Maurice Elbaz, who helped her produce the festival on a shoestring budget that sufficed because the filmmakers waived their fees.

But the event also provoked negative reactions in Morocco, which despite being one of the Muslim world’s few countries where Jewish heritage is celebrated openly, nonetheless has a vociferous anti-Israel lobby that at times resorts to anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Jaouad Benaissi, an author and former member of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces party, complained on Facebook about the festival’s theme, writing that “man-made artworks have nothing to do with religion,” and therefore the Jewish theme was inappropriate – a message similar to that of Abdelilah Jouhari, a journalist who accused Paloma of “trying to make business with religion,” as reported by the news site Le 360.

“My response was that Jewish is not necessarily religious but also cultural, and that in the tradition of Jewish film festivals which exist around the world, we want to start this dialogue around Moroccan history, culture and traditions of Jews as presented on the silver screen,” Paloma told JTA.

In 2013, 200 Islamists demonstrated in Tangier against the screening of a documentary about Moroccan Jews because it mentions Israel.

How the world’s longest-running Chabad house survives in Morocco

Raizel Raskin’s office feels like a cluttered museum of Moroccan Jewish heritage. A photo from an old Jewish summer camp lays on the table. Another, of a rabbi meeting Moroccan dignitaries, hangs on the wall. Outside the door is a bookshelf filled with Hasidic tracts translated into Arabic.

But the rest of Chabad’s multistory complex here looks almost abandoned. Once a school bustling with hundreds of Jewish children, the facility today is largely an empty shell, with dust collecting on unused sports equipment and desks sitting disorganized in unused classrooms. Even the portrait of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement’s late leader whose bearded face typically occupies a place of honored prominence in Chabad homes, is peeling off the wall of the foyer.

Crossing the building’s courtyard, Raskin notices a dead bird.

“Every emissary has their own problems,” said Raskin, who moved to Morocco from France with her husband, Yehuda, in 1960. Pointing at the bird, she added, “This is also part of the Morocco experience.”

At 65 years old, the Chabad in Casablanca is the Hasidic movement’s oldest outpost in the world, and one of only two in the Arab world (the other is in Tunis). Chabad’s first emissaries arrived there in 1950, the beta test for what would grow into a global movement of thousands of Chabad rabbis and their wives scattered across six continents.

Volumes of an Arabic translation of a hasidic text at the Chabad outpost in Casablanca. (Ben Sales)Volumes of an Arabic translation of a Hasidic text at the Chabad outpost in Casablanca. Photo by Ben Sales

In its early years, Morocco’s Jewish population numbered 250,000 and Chabad served 5,000 students in schools across the country. But following the establishment of Israel in 1948 and Morocco’s independence from France in 1956, the vast majority emigrated.

Today, Chabad runs classes, weekend programs and a summer camp for the 2,500 Jews who remain. The week before Rosh Hashanah, raw chickens sat on crates ready to be cooked.

Chabad has survived here by keeping a low profile and maintaining good relations with the government. Like other Jewish institutions in Morocco, Chabad’s activities take place mostly behind closed doors. Its main building in Casablanca is unmarked, and a second facility is accessible through a winding alley removed from the street, with little outward identification.

Local rabbis also avoid talking about the Jewish state. Rabbi Levi Banon, who was born in Morocco and returned to run the operation in 2009, says Casablancans are mostly indifferent — or even friendly — toward Jews, though tension does flare during Israel’s frequent military operations. Raskin said that during Israel’s earlier wars, Moroccans would throw stones at Jews.

“Moroccan people are good people,” Banon said. “To them, the most important is the human touch and the human instinct. That’s more important than politics.”

Photos of King Hassan II and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson adorn the wall of the Chabad facility in Casablanca. (Ben Sales)Photos of King Hassan II and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson adorn the wall of the Chabad facility in Casablanca. Photo by Ben Sales

The first Chabad rabbi in Morocco, Michael Lipsker, was dispatched by Schneerson at the behest of his predecessor, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who wanted Chabad to help ensure the country’s long rabbinic tradition wouldn’t be lost.

“The tradition is very strong here — everyone has his own customs, his family’s customs,” said Raskin, whose husband served as the Morocco emissary for more than four decades until his death in 2004. “The previous rebbe said that the Jews of Morocco have a lot to do.”

Chabad has persisted through the years by staying in the good graces of Morocco’s rulers. A photo of King Mohammed VI hangs next to Schneerson’s portrait near the building’s entrance, and Banon says Schneerson kept a correspondence with Mohammed’s father, Hassan II.

Hassan’s United Nations ambassador even visited Schneerson in Brooklyn in 1988.

“You have done much good for the Jews there,” Schneerson told him, before giving him two dollar bills for charity — one for himself, one for the king — a tradition Schneerson maintained with many of his visitors for years.

“There were a few problems, but not from the government,” said Rabbi Shalom Edelman, who has served as a Chabad emissary in Morocco since 1958. “The government was always good to Jews.”

In recent years, Morocco has experienced what the Chabad emissaries describe as a newfound openness to the world. The standard of living has risen and, though Morocco and Israel don’t have formal diplomatic relations, Chabad rabbis can still freely travel between the two countries, an impossibility in the 1960s.

But none of that is likely to result in a resurgence of Jewish life in the country. While Raskin and Edelman are happy so many emigres have moved to Israel, they feel like caretakers for the vestiges of what was once an illustrious community.

“I know they went to Israel, to a safe place I can’t worry about, to a good place for fearing God,” Edelman said. “But for us, it’s harder. We need to fill a space. We educated them and they left, so what we accomplished left.”

Worth a trek: Searching Moroccan mountains for etrogs

We had to cross the gorge, and the only way was to walk single file on a narrow concrete gutter, maybe a foot wide, that bridged the two cliffs. Below us was a long, perilous drop onto the rocky depths.

I was traveling deep into the rural communities of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and so I’d expected to get a little dusty. But no one readied me for this afternoon trek in the desert sun. I was wearing a button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes, and I was carrying my iPad, computer, camera and passport. But I wasn’t entirely unprepared: I had 1.5 liters (about 6 cups) of water slung across my shoulder.

It was hot and sandy, and the sun shone down on us from a clear sky. Sweat was drenching my back. My translator, the only person in the group whom I could talk to, was several steps ahead of me. I was in the sandy middle of nowhere, feeling exhausted and, since I was standing on the precipice of a cliff in an unfamiliar place, a little scared. I started walking and didn’t look down.

But I was a man with a mission. In between audible whispers of “holy shit,” I had this thought: There had better be some etrogs at the end of this trail.

When I told people I was going to Morocco one week before Rosh Hashanah to write about the country’s insular, centuries-old etrog industry, they told me I was either crazy (it was hard to infiltrate), too late (etrog season was ending) or both. But Berbers who spend their summers growing fruit in a Muslim country for a Jewish holiday felt like too good a story to miss, so I eagerly booked my flight.

Today, almost no Jews live in Morocco, though a few dozen Jewish merchants still support the industry, sending etrogs — known as citrons in English — to Jews around the world to use on Sukkot. Because 5775 was a “shmita,” or sabbatical year, when Jewish law prohibits agricultural activity in Israel, demand for Moroccan etrogs has been especially high there this season, even though the countries don’t have formal relations. I was determined to find out just how Moroccan etrogs are grown and brought to the Israeli market.

Organizing the trip, however, ended up being far more complicated than making a couple of calls. My one contact in the Moroccan etrog business said the merchants feared journalists and wouldn’t talk to me. An Israeli professor looked at me like a concerned parent after I asked for help visiting Berber citrus farmers in the Atlas Mountains. He wrote me an email hours later saying he was “somewhat worried” about me. It was too short notice, he felt, to plan the trip properly.

Running out of leads, I used British phone-directory websites to track down a London rabbi who literally wrote the book on Moroccan etrogs. But he told me he’d just returned from Morocco, was worn out from the flight and couldn’t talk.

“Go to a town called Assads,” he advised me. “When you get there, ask for Jawad. Tell Jawad to take you to the place he took Yashar. Shanah tovah.”

Then he hung up on me. My flight was in two days.

Assads, it turned out, was a small mountain village hours away from the nearest city and barely accessible by car. To get there I’d need someone to take me. And to speak to etrog growers, I’d need to connect with someone from the town who could introduce me and guide me to the etrogs. This was not exactly an agricultural tourism hot spot.

By the time I reached the Tel Aviv airport for my flight, I’d managed to make some tentative plans. A Moroccan citrus expert, Mohamed El-Otmani, arranged someone to drive me to Assads, along with a fixer who would show me the area.

The next morning, I was shaking hands with a burly man named Mohammed who would be my driver. Mohammed, I discovered, did not speak English. Neither did the fixer. I didn’t risk asking whether either of them spoke Hebrew.

“Don’t you speak Arabic?” El-Otmani asked me. I do not. So he found me an off-duty English teacher to translate, and the four of us — driver, translator, fixer and me — set off.

Our beat-up Mercedes drove from paved road to gravel path as the cosmopolitan beach city of Agadir, where I was staying, gave way to smaller, drearier towns. French disappeared from shop signs, replaced by Arabic. Unlike Agadir, where many people wore jeans, almost all the women walked with their heads covered, while the men wore beards and caftans. Then the towns faded away, until we had to stop on the dusty road to let a herd of goats pass by.

An hour into the journey, my translator asked if I was “good at walking.” It seemed like a bizarre question, and honestly, the answer was no. Born with mild cerebral palsy, I’ve always limped on my right side and had trouble balancing.

But I wasn’t going to back down. Yeah, sure I was good at walking, I said. How bad could it be?

Four hours later, after my driver had asked several children on a deserted highway for directions, we finally reached Assads and the end of the road. And Jawad, the rabbi’s contact, was nowhere to be found. There were many people named Jawad in Assads, locals said. And anyway, none of them were around.

My only hope was to follow our fixer, on foot, and pray I found an etrog tree. The four of us set off.

At first, the path was flat and narrow, with a cliffside on my left. Then it got narrower and rougher. Then a concrete gutter appeared to our right, with us balancing in between  — me trying to compensate for my unwieldy bag.

I jumped in the gutter and soon there was nothing on either side. All four of us were crossing the gorge.

During the hour that followed, we climbed over boulders, along steep drops and through rocky valleys where there was no path at all. When I slipped and caught myself, watching rocks trickle down the mountainside and disappear, I kept walking. It was my only option.

Here I was in the remote reaches of Morocco, carrying valuable equipment, with four men I didn’t know who were speaking a language I didn’t understand. My safety — let alone my story — was riding on their trust.

But then, as we got to flatter terrain, my fixer stopped and grinned at me. He raised his fists in triumph and motioned at me to take a photo. Down the path, as we passed by a river, he pulled a cluster of grapes off a vine; we all shared the snack. I allowed myself to exhale. I looked back at the sandy brown mountainscape we’d just traversed, freckled with palm trees and set against a bright blue sky. Maybe this would all work out, I thought.

A couple hundred feet later, a man stood in front of us wearing a caftan and snow hat with what looked like a bush to our left. The fixer shook his hand. My translator pointed at the bush.

There it was, hanging just inches above the ground: a bright green etrog.

I soon saw others camouflaged among wide green leaves and weeds. The bush was, in fact, part of a grove. It looked less like the orchard I expected and more like a bramble — as if the fruit just happened to naturally grow there. I followed the branches down a rocky, uneven slope, dodging errant etrog vines and trying, once again, not to lose my balance.

The man in the caftan was Mohammed Douch, whose family had been growing etrogs here for at least three generations. He wasn’t much for description — when I asked him, three times, what his favorite part of the work was, he just said it was his tradition. But he was dedicated. He’s 67 and a retired restaurant worker, his face worn by deep wrinkles, but he treks out here for a couple of months every year to grow etrogs, he said, because the town “is a part of our body.”

Behind him, across a narrow path, was a two-story structure made of bricks and dirt with a canopy of branches for a roof. Usually, Douch explained, he lives in the city. But each summer he comes here to reside in nature.

He repeated most of what he said to compensate for the language gulf that separated us, even with a translator. It’s an experience I had throughout my trip to Morocco. Usually the failure to communicate made me feel helpless, like I was missing a large part of a country I wanted to learn about.

But in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, amid a group of people I could barely talk to, I felt a sense of belonging. Moving to a hut with a roof of branches to tend to etrogs and connect to tradition? That’s something I could understand.

Muslims and Jews gather to combat anti-Semitism

This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

When Abderrahim Chaibi was seven years old, his teacher in a Muslim school in Morocco told him that Jews were bad people who murdered the Prophet Mohammed. Now decades later, Chaibi is in Jerusalem for the fifth Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism, sponsored by the Israeli government.

“Our fathers and our teachers told us that Israel is a monster that murders Palestinians,” Chaibi, a professor of educational psychology told The Media Line. “But now I see that there is true multi-culturalism here, and that people from different religions and different cultures can co-exist. This is something we need to learn in Morocco.”

Morocco, he said, protected its Jews during World War II, and before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there were more than 260,000 Jews in the country. Today there are about 2500, he said, and many of the young people have immigrated to Israel.

“My mission is the change this image of Jews,” he said. “We don’t know anything about Jews or their heritage. That is the first step towards changing people’s attitudes.”

His compatriot, Mounir Kejji, a Berber activist, said there have long been ties between the Berbers, a minority group in Morocco and the Jews.

“Anti-semitism in Morocco is sponsored politically by some religious political parties and some organizations that believe in pan-Arabism,” he said. “At the same time, Morocco is the only Muslim country where you can find a Jewish museum.”

Several imams, or Muslim prayer leaders, also spoke at the conference. Imam Yahya Pallavicini is the preacher of the Al-Wahid mosque in Milan, and an advisor to the Minister of Education in Italy. He said anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe.

“We had hoped as European citizens and as Muslim leaders that diseases such as anti-Semitism would decrease,” he told The Media Line. “But unfortunately the misleading interpretations and mentality and narrative of the anti-Semitic approach is increasing and influencing the young generation in Europe.”

He said that many Muslim leaders are concerned about the growing appeal of Islamic State, especially among young, poor Muslims.

“They are trying to influence and recruit the youth with an idea of an adventure, saying it’s like playing war games in the Middle East,” he said. “We have to make them understand that there is adventure in murder or in violence.”

In France, conference organizers say, more than 1000 youth have returned from fighting with Islamic State in Syria. Many of them are armed, and could carry out attacks against Jews or other targets. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, followed by the attack at the Jewish supermarket in Paris, left 17 people dead.

European delegates said they saw an increase in anti-Semitism after last summer’s fighting between the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza and Israeli soldiers that left more than 2200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead. Many Europeans have more sympathy for the Palestinians, who they see as the underdog, and some cross the line from political support for Palestinians to anti-Semitism.

It is important for Jews worldwide to enlist allies in the fight against anti-Semitism, delegates here say, and for Jews to help in the fight against bigotry and racism.

 

“We’re not going to defeat anti-Semitism alone—we’re the victim but we need allies to help,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told The Media Line. “What’s happening to the Yazidis (in Iraq), to the Christians in the Middle East, to endangered Muslims, has to be part of our collective consciousness. This is a whole new war of which anti-Semitism is just a piece.”

A taste of Morocco without leaving town

I remember six years ago being in Tarifa — on the southernmost coast of Spain, a 30-minute ferry ride to Tangier, Morocco — and being tempted to cross continents. The port was so close to Africa, I could nearly taste it. The cloth was brighter, the spices more aromatic, the sea greener. 

“I’m taking the ferry,” I told my parents, who were comfortably ensconced at home in Los Angeles, during a conversation over a throw-away mobile phone. 

“Like hell you are!” they responded. 

I still flirted with the possibility, but as a 20-year-old female trekking solo into that foreign port, without any real plan or sense of direction — not to mention a tired, old backpack filled to the brim with odds and ends — Morocco seemed too mystic, too far-fetched, too risky. I never went.

But I fulfilled that urge years later, with no backpack, no throw-away cellphone, no ferry crossing. With just a glass of Cabernet in hand, I sat at the Levantine Cultural Center on Pico Boulevard, transported to that faraway land with the help of an array of art and an impressive sound system. It was all part of an April 11 celebration of Mimouna, a Moroccan commemoration of the end of Passover.

Custom has it that Mimouna was an opportunity for Jews and Muslims to convene and break bread. Because Moroccan Jews at this time of year maintained Passover kitchens, their Muslim neighbors would offer them post-holiday ingredients from their own kitchens (flour, milk and honey) and, in turn, together they would celebrate with platefuls of mufleta, a flaky North African crepe. 

Jordan Elgrably, co-founder of Levantine Cultural Center, described Mimouna as a “chance for the non-Jewish Moroccans to hang out with their Jewish neighbors.” 

When I arrived at the event, I was immediately enveloped in a collage of colorful fabrics, scents of powdered sugar, baked dough and hot tea, and the sounds of traditional Moroccan tunes wafting from the stereo. 

“So, you are Moroccan tonight,” a busy Elgrably said before rushing away to the back. 

People continued to arrive — about 75 total. As seats were being arranged, visitors wearing traditional scarves, linens and ankle-length dresses in astonishing colors kept drifting through the Levantine’s front doors. Once no more seats were available, they sat cross-legged on the floor in typical Bedouin fashion.

“Happy Mimouna!” Elgrably said, welcoming the crowd. 

A patchwork of heritages, Elgrably is Moroccan, first and foremost, and a fusion of religious affiliations, including Jewish and Muslim. His father, of mixed ethnicity, was born in a town that Elgrably roughly calculated as “one day’s mule ride from Marrakesh,” and his mother came from Casablanca.

Inspired by his blended heritage, Elgrably told the Journal he wants to expand the potential of the Levantine Cultural Center in the coming year as a cultural co-op. In fact, a name change is underway and the center, which opened in 2001, soon will be rebranded as The Merkaz, which in Arabic and Hebrew means “The Center.” The idea, he said, is so “more people will relate to the concept that this is a hub.” 

“I’m the bridge from Old World to New World,” Elgrably, sporting a mop of curly hair, striped white-and-gold Moroccan garb and slick, black leather dress shoes, told the crowd. 

Soon after, the festivities commenced as performers Rose Rojas and her Guedra group took the stage. Guedra is a tribal dance traditional to the “blue people” of the Tuareg Berbers, a North African matriarchal tribe in which men, not women, wear veils. Their nickname comes from the indigo dyes used to color their linen, which in the Saharan heat, bleeds onto their skin. Adorned in rich indigo robes, the women sat on their knees, chanting, as Rojas went through the movements, twirling her hands and swaying her braided black locks.

Next was Youssef Iferd on a sinter (three-stringed lute), who played an improvised set with local band Bedouin X. Iferd’s voice wavered like an imam’s call to prayer as he sang the ancient hymns of Essaouira, the walled city from which he comes.

This was my first Mimouna and my first real taste of Morocco. And although, over the years, Mimouna has been adopted by other cultures and traditions have been revised, Elgrably made it a point to revert to its origins. For me, it rekindled something else — that feeling of sitting in a Spanish port, exhilarating and wondrous, not knowing what to expect. 

Morocco lifts ban on ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ after edits

Morocco lifted its ban on the movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings” after Fox Studios and director Ridley Scott deleted what was considered offensive dialogue.

“They went ahead and made the desired change, removing two audio passages that alluded to the personification of the Divine,” a statement issued Tuesday night by the Moroccan Cinematography Center, according to The Associated Press.

The dialogue in question implied that one of the characters was God. In Islam, it is forbidden to give God a corporeal form.

The movie was banned Dec. 27 as it was about to be screened in theaters across the country.

Several Arab countries banned the screening of the movie, including Egypt, which called it a “Zionist film,” and the United Arab Emirates, which said the movie was historically inaccurate

Arab countries ban release of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

Several Arab countries banned the release of the film “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

Egypt on Friday barred what its culture minister called a “Zionist film.”

“It gives a Zionist view of history and contains historical inaccuracies, and that’s why we have decided to ban it,” Gaber Asfour told the French news agency AFP.

A day earlier, Morocco banned the Ridley Scott movie as it was about to be screened in theaters throughout the country, The New York Times reported. Morocco banned the film because of scenes that showed God in a corporeal form.

The United Arab Emirates over the weekend also reportedly decided to bar the release of the film, claiming inaccuracies in the account of the biblical story.

“This movie is under our review and we found that there are many mistakes not only about Islam but other religions, too,” Juma Obeid Al Leem, the director of Media Content Tracking at the National Media Council in the UAE, told Gulf News. “So we will not release it in the UAE.”

 

Sfenj: Tough to pronounce, easy to eat

This recipe is my little Chanukah gift to all my Ashkenazi friends, who never got to wake up on Sunday mornings in Casablanca to the smell of the world’s greatest doughnuts — my mother’s sfenj. You won’t find these hot, doughy marvels at Krispy Kreme or any of those trendy new doughnut joints. For one thing, how would they market a doughnut pronounced “shfinz”? 

Sfenj are a ubiquitous fried pastry in North Africa. The name is based on the Arabic word for “sponge,” not because they soak up oil, but because a perfect sfenj — my mother’s — is light and springy.  

The doughnuts really make their star appearance in Jewish homes around Chanukah, when foods fried in oil take center stage. They are the perfect complement to Ashkenazi latkes — a culinary model of Jewish unity.

Thanks to some help from my cousin Sydney Suissa, who did grow up with me in Morocco, the recipe below includes a few “tricks” gathered by my mother over 50 years of making the same item. If you follow the instructions, your sfenj will be so delicious, you can tell your kids it’s their Chanukah gift.

SFENJ (Moroccan Chanukah doughnuts)

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups water (105 to 110 F)
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Powdered sugar for sprinkling 
  • Honey for dipping

 

Mix together flour, yeast, salt and granulated sugar. Add oil and egg, mixing lightly. Add the water slowly, using your hands to work it into the mixture.

Knead the dough gently; shape it into a ball. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

Wet hands slightly, then roll dough into small balls. Flatten, then create a hole using your finger, and stretch the dough gently. 

In a deep pot, heat oil to 350 F. Drop sfenj carefully into hot oil. When lightly browned and crusty, turn and finish frying.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm with honey for dipping. 

Makes about 20 sfenj.

Jewish burial site restored off African coast

A Jewish burial plot in the island state of Cape Verde was rededicated with help from the king of Morocco.

About 100 people attended the rededication ceremony Thursday.

“The support of King Mohammed VI to this project is representative of Morocco’s attachment to the preservation of its patrimony — Arab, Jewish or Berber,” Andre Azoulay, the king’s Jewish advisor, said in a statement read during the ceremony by Abdellah Boutadghart, a Moroccan diplomat.

Several hundred Moroccan Jews settled in Cape Verde off the Senegalese coast in the 19th century, when it was still a Portuguese colony. The community has since disappeared, but the Moroccan government has been a “major benefactor” of heritage preservation efforts, according to Carol Castiel of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project.

“Just imagine, a Muslim king contributing to a Jewish project in a Christian country. I think it says it all,” Castiel said.

Situated in the heart of the Cape Verde’s largest cemetery, the Jewish burial plot is set apart by a low-hanging chain that encircles its ten restored headstones, the oldest dating back to 1864. The rededication ceremony was concluded with a prayer by Eliezer Di Martino, the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Lisbon.

“It was a very moving and surreal event,” one of the project’s Jewish supporters, the Casablanca-born American businessman Marc Avissar, told JTA.

The project has so far cost about $125,000 but may end up costing three times that amount as efforts continue to restore additional Jewish heritage sites in other parts of Cape Verde, a republic made up of 10 islands.

Moroccan PM celebrates restoration of 17th century synagogue

About 200 people reportedly celebrated the completion of the restoration of a synagogue in the city of Fes in Morocco.

The ceremony on Feb. 13 marked the conclusion of a two-year project undertaken by Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, the website of the magazine Jeune Afrique reported.

Among those attending the rededication ceremony of the Slat Alfassiyine synagogue in Fes were many Moroccan Jews but also the president of the Bundestag, the German parliament, Norbert Lammert. Germany contributed much of the funding for restoring the building, which dates back to the 17th century.

Representing the king was Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, who said the event was a celebration of “the richness and diversity of the spiritual elements” that make up Morocco. He reportedly pledged to restore all of the kingdom’s synagogues.

Situated in the center of the city in the El Mellah quarter, the synagogue was “the epicenter of Jewish life” in the city, according to Jeune Afrique. The small synagogue now boasts cream-colored walls with traditional Moroccan decoration.

Spurred on by a succession of pogroms, including in Oujada and Jerada, some 250,000 Moroccan Jews left the North African country between 1948 and 1967. Many settled in Israel, although Zionism was outlawed in Morocco in 1959 and defined a “serious crime.”

Morocco ended that official animosity in the late 1980s and has maintained ties with Israel since then. Today, only some 3,000 Jews live in Morocco, according to the European Jewish Congress.

Is there life after Bashar Assad?

“It might take two weeks or it might take a year, but either way President Bashar Assad is on his way out,” Moshe Maoz, Israel’s pre-eminent expert on Syria told The Media Line. “It’s certainly closer than it was a few months ago.”

His comments came as Qatar, the small oil-rich Gulf state, called for international support of the Syrian rebels at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco.

“This meeting has exceptional significance. It is taking place at a time when the Syrian people are about to complete their victory and achieve their legitimate aspirations,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said. “The opposition forces are expanding their control and the authority of the regime is eroding,”

The rebel fighters have been buoyed by growing international recognition — including from the United States. At the same meeting, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al- Feisal said his country was donating $100 million in humanitarian aid to the Assad’s opponents.

After 20 months of a civil war that has left more than 42,000 people dead; and with at least half a million Syrians having fled the country, the world is beginning to envision a Syria without Assad. For some countries, especially Israel, that is a mixed blessing.

“Many Israelis, especially in the intelligence, believe that Bashar Assad is pragmatic and corrupt, but we can work with him,” Maoz said. “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

Israeli officials are also concerned that if Assad is overthrown, his large stocks of chemical weapons could end up in the hands of Hizbullah, Iran’s Shiite proxy based in Lebanon. Israel and Hizbullah fought a war in 2006 that ended in a draw. Since then, Hizbullah has rearmed and threatens new attacks on Israel.

Assad has also kept the Israeli-Syrian border quiet since 1973, despite the lack of a peace treaty between the two countries.

One scenario for Syria is that the country could divide into areas controlled by Syria’s different ethnic groups.

“You could have the Alawites around the area of Latakiya; the Kurds, who are more or less autonomous anyway; the Druze and the Sunnis, each taking one area,” Maoz says. “But most of the Sunnis — who represent more than 60 percent of the country — want Syria to stay united.”

It is also not clear whether the rebel groups are prepared to govern Syria. The Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella for opposition groups that was formed last month in Qatar, hopes to be able to form a government. The former imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, Moaz al-Khatib, was elected president of the coalition. But not all rebel groups are part of the Coalition and analysts fear internal power struggles.

There are also fears that some of the rebel groups are affiliated with Al-Qa’ida. The Obama Administration recently designated the Islamist Jabhat Al-Nusra a terrorist organization, a decision the leader of the National Coalition has asked Washington to re-think.

Middle East analysts also say that events in other countries in the region offer a cautionary warning to those looking at post-Assad Syria.

“When (Iraqi dictator) Saddam Hussein fell (in 2003), Iraq fell apart,” Nadim Shehadi, an expert on Syria at Chatham House in London told The Media Line. “Some are concerned that the fall of Assad could mean the same thing for Syria.”

But Shehadi says the Arab world is a very different place today than it was then.

“The whole region then was against the American invasion of Iraq and nobody wanted Iraq to succeed,” he said. “All of those countries contributed to the mess in Iraq.”

Syria, he says, could be a different situation. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are cautiously seen as moving toward democracy. The Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, want stability in the region. And Israel, preoccupied by Iran’s continued attempts to develop a nuclear bomb, wants a stable regime in Syria.

“The lesson from Iraq doesn’t apply,” Shehadi says. “The longer you keep Assad in power, the more of a mess it will be after he falls.”

Rabbi Uziel’s overture to Muslim leaders

During our Sephardic Film Festival this past week, we screened a film telling the intriguing and inspirational life story of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. Rabbi Uziel’s motto was “Loving Truth and Peace.” We also screened a film about Muslims saving Jews during the Holocaust, and another film reflecting co-existence and friendship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. In the very spirit of these films, a delegation of 19 Muslim leaders from France visited Israel this week, for the specific purpose of improving relations between Jews and Muslims in France. During their visit to Yad Vashem, delegation leader Imam Hassen Chalgoumi said this trip reinforced the importance of combatting Islamic fundamentalism and Holocaust denial. “Life is more important than holy books,” Chalgoumi said in a speech outside Yad Vashem.

All of this, while the Hamas terrorist organization and other Islamic extremists launch deadly rockets on civilian populations in Israel, and the IDF enters a potentially protracted military operation in yet another attempt to destroy the terrorist cells in Gaza.

In the spirit of the films we screened this week, and with the visit of the French Imams to Israel – I offer you my translation of of a letter co-authored by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uziel and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Herzog. It was written in 1948, during the Hebrew month of Kislev – the same month we started today.

Here is the text of their letter:

21 Kislev, 5708

“A Call to the Leaders of Islam for Peace and Brotherhood.”

To the Heads of The Islamic Religion in the Land of Israel and throughout the Arab lands near and far, Shalom U’Vracha:

Brothers, at this hour, as the Jewish people have returned to its land and state, per the word of God and the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, and in accordance with the decision of the United Nations, we approach you in peace and brotherhood, in the name of God’s Torah and the Holy Scriptures, and we say to you:

Please remember the peaceful and friendly relations that existed between us when we lived together in Arab lands and under Islamic Rulers during the Golden Age, when together we developed brilliant intellectual insights of wisdom and science for all of humanity’s benefit. Please remember the sacred words of the prophet Malachi, who said: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we break faith with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Malachi 2:10).

We were brothers, and we shall once again be brothers, working together in cordial and neighborly relations in this Holy Land, so that we will build it and make it flourish, for the benefit of all of its inhabitants, without discrimination against anyone. We shall do so in faithful and calm collaboration, so that we may all merit God’s blessing on His land, from which there shall radiate the light of peace to the entire world.

Signed,

Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel
Yitschak Isaac Ha-Levi Herzog

64 years later, as we begin this year’s Month of Kislev with Israelis under siege from the rockets of Muslim extremists, it is very sad that the Muslim leaders in 1948 never responded to the beautiful overture to peace from the Chief Rabbis. Just imagine what Israel, the Middle East, the Arab World, and the entire world would have looked like this past 64 years had they answered in kind to the above letter.

In the meanwhile, all we can do is defend ourselves, all the while praying and continuing to hope that some day – for the sake of Israeli children, Arab children, and all children – that Muslim leaders might wake up and respond to this letter, or to the many other peaceful overtures of Israeli governments and leaders.

If that would happen, then relations between Jews and Muslims would no longer be characterized as “cool topics” for feature and documentary films, and Imams would not need to visit Yad Vashem to shock themselves into cordial relations with Jews. Rabbi Uziel and Rabbi Herzog’s grand vision would not feel so prophetic, but would be – as they said – the way we lived once upon a time.

Until then, we pray for peace and God’s protection.

Jewish man hammered to death in Morocco

Police are investigating whether the murder of a Jewish man in Morocco was nationalistic or criminally motivated.

The victim, identified as Benjamin, was struck in the head repeatedly by a hammer on Monday in the northern city of Fez, according to reports citing Moroccan media. The attacker fled the scene and has not been captured, according to reports.

Benjamin was a rent collector from Jewish-owned properties, according to Ynet. Police reportedly have ordered an autopsy

The murder comes a day after the forced evacuation of an Israeli diplomat from the country.

David Saranga, Israel’s senior liaison to the European Parliament, was evacuated under guard when tens of thousands of protesters participating in a mass pro-Palestinian rally organized by Islamists opposed to Morocco’s monarchy converged on the parliament building in Rabat. There was concern that Saranga could be targeted for attack.

Morocco evacuates Israeli diplomat

Pro-Palestinian protests forced the evacuation of an Israeli diplomat from Morocco.

David Saranga, Israel’s senior liaison to the European Parliament, traveled from Brussels to Rabat over the weekend for an international conference of lawmakers. But the event was overshadowed by a mass pro-Palestinian rally organized by Islamists opposed to Morocco’s monarchy, which has fostered low-key ties established with the Jewish state in 1994.

As tens of thousands of protesters converged on the parliament building in Rabat, Saranga was evacuated under guard Sunday out of concern he could be targeted for attack.

“There was a never-ending stream of people, with Palestinian flags in one hand and, in the other, Israeli flags with swastikas instead of Stars of David,” Saranga told Israel’s Army Radio in a telephone interview Monday.

Islamist leader Hassan Bennajeh said Sunday’s march came ahead of the annual Land Day demonstrations by Israeli Arabs against Jerusalem’s policies.

“Everybody knows that the Moroccan regime supports normalization with Israel and has helped thousands of Moroccan Jews to migrate to and populate Israel,” Bennajeh said, according to Reuters.

Belgian Jewish teen beaten by Moroccan classmates

The beating of a 13-year-old Jewish girl in Brussels has Belgium’s Jewish umbrella group contemplating civil action.

Oceane Sluijzer, 13, was beaten by five Moroccan female classmates after a confrontation at a sports center last week, the European Jewish Press reported.

The attackers also shouted, “Shut up, you dirty Jew, and return to your country” at Sluijzer, who has filed a formal complaint with the Brussels police.

Belgium has about 40,000 Jews.

In response, the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations of Belgium, the umbrella organization for Belgian Jewry, issued a statement expressing its hope that the investigation would proceed quickly while also hinting that it might file a civil action.

The committee expressed its “exasperation” over repeated anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks and asked Belgium’s education minister “to introduce appropriate educational programs in schools to prevent unjustified tensions between communities.”

Holocaust truth is told on Muslim soil

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was spewing hatred and denying the Holocaust from the floor of the United Nations, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were trading charges as to who is responsible for the nonexistent peace process, I was attending a small but significant event taking place at Al Akhawayn University, an elite English-language college in the picturesque ski resort town of Ifrane, Morocco. It was the first Holocaust Conference — nondenial Holocaust Conference — on Arab soil.

A word about the Moroccan initiative: The conference is the product of the University’s Moadon Mimouna (as their logo says in Hebrew). The Mimouna Club is a student organization dedicated to the study and experience of Moroccan Jewish culture and history … and the study of Hebrew. It was founded and headed by a young student, Elmehdi Boudra, who has a special interest in Morocco’s Jewish heritage and in intercultural dialogue. This was the third “Moroccan Jewish Days,” exploring Jewish life in Morocco sponsored by Boudra and his colleagues, and the first to tackle the difficult subject of the Holocaust. The club’s name, Mimouna, was chosen deliberately. When more than a quarter of a million Jews lived in Morocco, it was the custom of Muslims to bake bread and pastries and bring them to their Jewish neighbors as darkness fell at the end of the eighth day of Passover, the first moment when chametz was permissible. This evening is known in Morocco as Mimouna.

Boudra partnered with Peter Geffen, the dynamic founder and executive director of Kivunim, a gap-year program that brings American high-school graduates to Israel for a year of study and international travel. They study Hebrew and Arabic, Jewish history and Arab culture, and they visit Central and Eastern Europe, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey, India and Morocco. A veteran of the civil-rights movement and the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family – Geffen’s Atlanta-based grandfather gave the hechsher to Coca-Cola almost a century ago — Geffen, the son of a rabbi and father of two rabbinical students, broke with his family tradition. Among his other accomplishments, he founded the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan. Geffen had previously negotiated the inner labyrinth of Moroccan society and politics, organizing the United Nations tribute to Morocco on International Holocaust Commemoration Day on Jan. 27, 2010. He brought his organizational skill and significant contacts in the Moroccan community to the conference planning committee. He invited me to participate.

Jews in Morocco, under the colonial rule of Vichy France, fared far better than the Jews in Vichy France, who faced a collaborationist regime that hunted its Jews. Throughout last week’s conference, stories were shared by the now-aging sons of prominent Jewish leaders, who related conversations between their fathers and the wartime King Mohammed V, who expressed concern for all his subjects, without excluding Jews, a stance so rare during the Holocaust that as I listened to these stories, images of Denmark came to mind. Danish leaders had famously said: “We have no Jewish problem in our country.” Their heroism was to treat Jews as fellow citizens under attack from a hostile occupying force — nothing more and nothing less. Thus, rescue was natural, not the stuff of righteousness but of ordinary decency.

The Jewish leaders of Morocco today, the sons of World War II communal leaders, related stories of regional governors who gave Jewish leaders matches and told them to burn the list of the names, addresses and assets of local Jews. Without lists, it was more difficult to deport the Jews and confiscate their assets.

Like Robert Satloff, who wrote “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands” on Moslems who saved Jews, Geffen believes the best counterweight to Holocaust denial in the Arab world is to celebrate those in Arab lands who helped Jews and thus provide a positive role model to contemporary Muslims. Let them deny the decency of their people.  He described King Mohammed V as a Righteous Among the Nations. Yet because of the specificity of Yad Vashem’s criteria — a non-Jew who saved without monetary reward or its expectation, or at risk to his own life — the king is unlikely to be so designated by Yad Vashem, as it would be difficult to document that his life was at risk.

Unbeknownst to many, including me, King Mohammed VI, the young and reformist-minded king of Morocco, has issued a proclamation on the Holocaust, a specific and deliberate refutation of Holocaust denial. He said: “Amnesia has no effect on my understanding of the Holocaust or that of my people.”

He proclaimed in 2009: “We must together endeavor to reassert reason and the values which underpin the legitimacy of a space of coexistence where the words of dignity, justice and freedom will express themselves in the same way and will coexist with the same requirements, regardless of our origins, cultures or spirituality. This is our interpretation in Morocco, of the duty of remembrance dictated by the Shoah.”

Notice the word “Shoah”; notice also the word “amnesia.”

After an opening ceremony and greetings, the first presentations began in the presence of faculty and, more important, students.  Simon Levy, director of the Museum of Moroccan Jewry in Casablanca, spoke on the situation of Jews in Vichy France and in Morocco. Simon Levy, director of the Museum of Moroccan Jewry in Casablanca, spoke on the situation of Jews in Vichy France and in Morocco. 

Although this was an academic conference, my own presentation was anything but academic. Whereas presenters at scholarly conferences normally are expected to bring new research to the fore, my assignment here was perhaps more difficult. In the allotted 45 minutes, I was to present an overview of the Holocaust to students who had no background in the Holocaust, none in the study of European history, and none in films and books newspapers and television, which have given the average American and European student considerable knowledge even before they enter the classroom. I was also to speak of the uniqueness of the Holocaust to an audience more aware of Holocaust denial than of history, and who have a natural reluctance to confront the Holocaust because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so dominant in the news, particularly on the days we met. Let others judge my success, suffice it to say that I had complete academic freedom — no one asked to see a copy of my remarks in advance, no one pressured me on what I could and could not say. I spoke exactly as I would speak elsewhere of Zionism and Israel as a haven and a refuge, and I tried to present an overview of the Holocaust that was respectful of a scholarly faculty while informative to the students in the audience.

After my presentation, Elisabeth Citron, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz, spoke. We are the last generation to live in the presence of survivors, and while the engagement with those who were at Auschwitz is quite familiar to American, Israeli and European audiences, this was the first time most in the room heard from someone who was there.  Citron was a 12-year-old girl when she was deported to Auschwitz, where she survived the selektion; her mother was not so fortunate. An elegant and eloquent Swedish woman, who only began to speak of the Holocaust when Holocaust deniers gained attention in her adopted homeland, her testimony was riveting. She described hiding in a latrine, suspended by her arms in human waste, to avoid detection as the Nazis searched for young inmates. One could feel the air being sucked out of the room. Her testimony was treated with the respect it merited. The conclusion of her remarks left the room in stunned silence.

After the break, two of the most prominent Jews in Morocco spoke, Ambassador Serge Berdugo, an ambassador-at-large for the King of Morocco and president of the Moroccan Jewish Communities, and Andre Azoulay, the king’s senior adviser. More important, for the purposes of this conference, Berdugo spoke as the son of his father, who was the wartime president of the Jewish community of Mekness and involved with secret meetings with King Mohammed V. Azoulay plays the same role in the king’s court that Larry Summers played in President Barack Obama’s White House, but with greater success, as Morocco has an enviable growth rate of 4.5 percent. Both Berdugo and Azoulay are deeply involved in interfaith relations, both committed Moroccans and committed Jews who see multiculturalism and mutual respect as essential to Morocco’s well-being and indispensible to Jewish survival in Morocco. Morocco is oriented to the West. The elite speak French. They have major economic ties to Europe, and businesses are open on Friday so that they can trade with their European counterparts.

The question-and-answer session was polite but intense. I was asked about the extent of Jewish power during World War II and to address the charge that Jews had collaborated with the Nazis in their own destruction — frank and important questions essential for this audience to confront. To the former, I responded that Jews have never been as powerful as our enemies have imagined us to be and with a few exceptions — the Holocaust being the most important — never as powerless as we imagined ourselves to be. I went through the choiceless choices that Jewish leaders confronted during the Holocaust and the difference between collaboration and coercion.

The students also confronted the Jewish political leaders on a basic question: Why did Moroccan Jews leave? Once a community of 280,000 strong, 99 percent of the Jews have left Morocco for Diasporas in France and Canada and, of course, in Israel. Every immigration movement is defined by a push-pull phenomenon, by the perceived necessity to leave one’s native land and an attraction, political, economic, ideological or religious, to go elsewhere — and if the push is strong enough, to go anywhere. The political leaders were “diplomatic” in their answers, not untruthful but overtly cautious. The truth is that Moroccan Jews left with the establishment of the State of Israel and after political turmoil in the Arab world following Israel’s wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and during Intifada I and II. But some remained, along with strong communal institutions — schools and synagogues, kosher butchers and bakeries, Jewish clubs and multiple kosher restaurants. Their presence, even as a small remnant of a community, is noticeable even today. More important, Moroccan Jews living elsewhere return home for visits, and Moroccan Jews are free to visit Israel and Israelis to visit Morocco. The situation is radically different than in some other Arab countries, where a Jewish presence is unwelcome and where the land is Judenrein — without Jews.

A clear illustration of the respect shown to the Jews and to the conference was that a kosher meal was served and Jewish leaders from throughout Morocco came to the festive dinner. And that evening, the university auditorium offered a concert by a Moroccan Jewish performer. Students danced and celebrated Jewish culture and Moroccan culture. Most women were dressed in secular and rather attractive garb, but Muslim head coverings and scarves were also noticeable among the attendees.

The Conference resumed in Casablanca with a visit to the Museum of Moroccan Jewry and a series of presentations on the issue of multiculturalism as a progressive, Europe-oriented Muslim nation grapples with how to deal with its Jews and Christians in a world where polarization seemingly overshadows cooperation and mutual respect. The Muslim curator of the museum, Zhor Rhihel, whose salary is paid by the Ministry of Culture, spoke on how to preserve Jewish culture and the Jewish presence as part of Moroccan national history. Forsan Hussein, CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA, was invited to make a presentation. A handsome and articulate thirty-something Israeli Arab, he described himself, as a “Moslem CEO of a Christian Institution in a Jewish state married to a women whose father was the first ArabIsraeli to serve as an Israeli Ambassador – it doesn’t get better than that.” A graduate of Brandeis, where, when he began his undergraduate studies during Intifada II, he was the full extent of the Palestinian community, Hussein also has advanced degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the embodiment of the multicultural possibilities and sensibilities, a veritable case study in bridging divides.

We also learned of the efforts of the High Atlas Foundation to address poverty by empowering the Mountain people in rural Morocco and of their reverence for their unique rural Jewish heritage. That evening we listened to a concert by Vanessa Paloma,  who came from Los Angeles to Morocco as a Fulbright Scholar to study its Jewish Musical heritage, married a Moroccan Jewish man and stayed, now becoming not only a talented student of the past, but an integral part of the Moroccan Jewish Musical future.

There was something eerily familiar about Morocco. Like Poland and other countries that once had thriving Jewish communities, Morocco must deal with the paradox of “the presence of absence and the absence of presence.” Jews were an integral part of Morocco’s past. Each city has a mellah — a walled ghetto — adjacent to the King’s Palace, where the Jewish community was centered and where Jews sold salt and sugar as part of the richness of the country. Jewish homes are still there. One notices the indentations of mezuzot in many buildings in the Jewish quarter, the place where they once marked the doorpost of a Jewish home. Jews have lived in Morocco since the destruction of the First Temple; many trace their roots to the megurashim, those who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and found a haven in Morocco. Yet, unlike Poland, there is not the same sadness, not the same guilt. Jews migrated, but they were saved, not murdered.

The conference was counter-testimony to our world of hatred and polarization. The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is the shadow that does not allow the un-ambivalent embrace of this Jewish history, this essential part of Moroccan history. Asked how the Holocaust should be taught to Moroccan students, Rhihel, the curator of the Moroccan Jewish Museum, immediately replied: “It cannot be taught in our schools until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.” The Moroccan students who were in dialogue with alumni of Kivunim who attended the conference were far more flexible.

Still, I had a sense of purpose being there to help kindle a ray of light, however fragile, away from the venom that, even as we studied together, marked Jewish-Muslim relations at the United Nations.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

Moroccan constitutional referendum recognizes Jewish community

A national referendum in Morocco approved a new constitution that incorporates democratic reforms and recognizes the nationalities that make up the population, including the Jewish community.

The constitution calls Morocco “A sovereign Moslem State, committed to the ideals of openness, moderation, tolerance and dialogue to foster mutual understanding among all civilizations; A Nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents: Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish and Mediterranean components.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations praised King Mohammed VI of Morocco on the results of the July 1 referendum approving the new constitution.

In a letter to Serge Berdugo, president of the Moroccan Jewish community, Presidents Conference Chairman Richard Stone and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference has enjoyed a close working relationship with the king, as it did with the late King Hassan II, and noted that the group visited Morocco in 2004 and the leadership continues to exchange visits regularly.

“In a tumultuous region,” the letter said, “Morocco remains an island of stability.”

Jewish couple among the dead in Marrakesh cafe explosion

A Jewish couple were among more than a dozen people killed in an explosion Thursday in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Massoud Weizman, 32, and his wife Michal, 30, lived in Shanghai, China, but were visiting Massoud’s parents in Casablanca for Passover. They apparently dropped by the cafe overlooking Marrakesh’s Jamaa el-Fnaa square just before the bomb exploded. The spot is popular with tourists; 10 of those killed were foreigners. Authorities are treating the incident as a terrorist attack.

Michal, who is an Israeli citizen, was pregnant.

Morrocco’s King Mohammed VI has ordered an investigation into the bombing. The country’s last major terrorist attack was in 2003. The king reportedly has arranged for a charter flight to fly family members from Morocco to Israel, where the young couple will be laid to rest on Monday.

The Weizmans were actively involved in Shanghai’s ex-pat Jewish community, Rabbi Sholom Greenberg, head of Chabad of Shanghai, told lubavitch.com. Michal was on the parents’ committee at the Jewish preschool attended by the couple’s three-year-old son David Yosef, and Massoud was a regular at the center’s Torah study classes.

“We lost very precious people. The entire community is in shock. Messod and Michal were very special and beautiful people with the kindest of hearts and purest of souls. They were a sincere young couple with an open home,” Greenberg told reporters.

David Yosef was with his grandparents when his parents were killed.

Witnesses told Reuters they saw a man carrying a bag entering the cafe right before the explosion. Other witnesses told reporters the man was a suicide bomber. The explosion ripped through the first and second floors of the building, and body parts were found scattered throughout the wreckage.

Jewish couple among the dead in Marrakesh cafe explosion

A Jewish couple were among more than a dozen people killed in an explosion Thursday in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Massoud Weizman, 32, and his wife Michal, 30, lived in Shanghai, China, but were visiting Massoud’s parents in Casablanca for Passover. They apparently dropped by the cafe overlooking Marrakesh’s Jamaa el-Fnaa square just before the bomb exploded. The spot is popular with tourists; 10 of those killed were foreigners. Authorities are treating the incident as a terrorist attack.

Michal, who is an Israeli citizen, was pregnant.

Morrocco’s King Mohammed VI has ordered an investigation into the bombing. The country’s last major terrorist attack was in 2003. The king reportedly has arranged for a charter flight to fly family members from Morocco to Israel, where the young couple will be laid to rest on Monday.

The Weizmans were actively involved in Shanghai’s ex-pat Jewish community, Rabbi Sholom Greenberg, head of Chabad of Shanghai, told lubavitch.com. Michal was on the parents’ committee at the Jewish preschool attended by the couple’s three-year-old son David Yosef, and Massoud was a regular at the center’s Torah study classes.

“We lost very precious people. The entire community is in shock. Messod and Michal were very special and beautiful people with the kindest of hearts and purest of souls. They were a sincere young couple with an open home,” Greenberg told reporters.

David Yosef was with his grandparents when his parents were killed.

Witnesses told Reuters they saw a man carrying a bag entering the cafe right before the explosion. Other witnesses told reporters the man was a suicide bomber. The explosion ripped through the first and second floors of the building, and body parts were found scattered throughout the wreckage.

Lebhar’s Dream

If you wanted to start a worldwide revival of Moroccan Jewish customs, where would you base your operations? Probably where there’s already a high concentration of Moroccan Jews, like, say, Israel, Montreal or France. But right in the heart of trendy Westwood?

Maybe there’s a disconnect there, but don’t say that to Rabbi Mordechai Lebhar. He’s very happy in Westwood.

For one thing, he’s happy wherever his books are. On a recent Sunday afternoon in his cozy Westwood apartment, he showed me some of these books, arranged in high piles on his dining room table. He picked up each one like a watchmaker with a fragile watch. The books contain teachings of the great Moroccan sages going back several centuries.

They are rare books seen by few people, fragile and precious.

But there’s one book in those piles that is not so rare. This is a book the rabbi himself wrote three years ago, “Magen Avot” (“Shield of our Fathers”). The book distilled many of the Moroccan customs discussed by the sages, and it has caused a mini-stir in Moroccan circles around the world because it challenges Moroccan Jews everywhere to reclaim their long-forgotten traditions.

Lebhar’s got this mad love affair with tradition. At one point, he choked up as he spoke of a certain Moroccan custom which I also recall from childhood: Before the final evening prayers of Shabbat, and in front of the congregation, the best voices of the shul would sing these beautiful Tehilim melodies. Why did they do that?

Our Moroccan ancestors, the rabbi explained, were Torah romantics. They were so in love with Shabbat that they didn’t want it to end. So they sang these soulful melodies at the twilight of the holy day, as a way of soaking up and deepening the Shabbat experience, longing against all odds that it would never end.

The rabbi thinks that if Moroccan Jews would become more aware of the reasons behind their traditions, they would be more likely to honor them.

And those reasons are not always romantic. For example, at Shabbat meals, Moroccans have a tradition of saying certain brachas over food, between the Kiddush and the blessing on the bread. Why? Not because our salads are so amazing that we can’t stand to wait another minute, but because Torah-observant Jews have an obligation to recite 100 brachas a day. Since Shabbat prayers have fewer brachas than weekday prayers, our ancestors used the Shabbat meal to help them fulfill that obligation.

Lebhar’s got hundreds of those customs. He can go on for hours on even silly customs, like, say, why Moroccan Jews kiss each other in shul. A few years ago, the great Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who hails from Iraq and often makes rulings that differ from Moroccan customs, ruled that kissing was not allowed in synagogue. He interpreted a talmudic teaching differently than the Moroccan sages, who allowed this traditional greeting between men, based on their own talmudic interpretation.

The point that Lebhar keeps making is that all those Moroccan traditions, silly or not, have good reasons behind them, many of them talmudic reasons driven by a deep respect for Jewish law.

“A lot of Moroccans treat these customs like grandmothers’ folktales,” he told me. “They don’t take them seriously. But you can’t just throw 500 years out the window.”

Since he published his book, he says he’s been getting calls from Moroccan Jews around the world who are gaining a new appreciation for their own customs. That’s why he’s planning to write three more volumes.

Still, for someone so obsessed with reviving his ancestors’ customs, Lebhar has some explaining to do.

Like, for starters, why did he leave his Moroccan community in Montreal when he was in his early 20s to study for more than 10 years in some of the world’s most hard-core Lithuanian yeshivas? And then become fluent in Yiddish?

And why did he become a key player in a whole other Torah revival, one run by Ashkenazi Jews out of Westwood Kehilla, where Lebhar heads a busy outreach kollel?

He doesn’t get defensive when I confront him with these contradictions. He wanted to learn in the best yeshivas, he says, and immerse himself in Talmud. As far as his role with Westwood Kehilla and their program LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel), he loves that they’re creating another “Torah hood” on the Westside.

The person who brought him out here a few years ago, Rabbi Asher Brander, who runs Westwood Kehilla and LINK, has built a portable center of Torah outreach where, Lebhar says, “there’s always serious learning going on.”

That’s the word, I think, that might explain Lebhar’s seeming contradictions: Serious. He takes his Torah seriously, and so do the rabbis and students at Westwood Kehilla and LINK. Lebhar’s a funny guy, but get him going on a piece of Talmud, and he’s in another world.

Seriousness might also explain the bond he feels with his Moroccan ancestors those holy men of Fez, Meknes, Marakkesh and Casablanca who took their traditions very seriously, and whose words live on in the books on Lebhar’s dining room table.

When I asked him what compels him to continue working on this dream of a Sephardi Moroccan revival while immersed in an Ashkenazi community he told me that when he lived in Jerusalem, and studied at the Litvish Yeshiva, he would visit this holy man every week.

The man was the former chief rabbi of Morocco, Rabbi Chalom Essas. After a few years, Lebhar was so impressed with the chief rabbi’s knowledge of Moroccan tradition that he suggested to Rabbi Essas that he should write a book on the subject.

In true Jewish fashion, the chief rabbi, probably having no clue that Lebhar would soon be living in trendy Westwood, replied: “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you do it?”

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Paris with a Jewish accent

I’m sitting in a Paris courtroom, and I might as well be in an art museum. There are huge windows, high ceilings, old chandeliers, and a very nervous group ofpeople awaiting a decision.

We’re in the Cour d’appel, the French Appellate Court, on the day the court is to render its decision in the case of Philippe Karsenty against the government-funded Channel 2 television station. For the past six years, Karsenty has devoted his life to proving that the station’s report claiming that the IDF was responsible for the death of young Mohammed Al Durrah at the beginning of the second intifada was part of a staged hoax. The station was so taken aback by Karsenty’s public attacks that it sued him for defamation, and won. That was two years ago.

Karsenty appealed the decision and has made a serious comeback, introducing additional evidence and garnering more public support. Six years of his long fight against one of France’s most distinguished reporters, Charles Enderlin, came down to this moment.

Once the panel of judges took their seats, it took less than 60 seconds for the head judge to announce the decision: The case against Karsenty had no merit. Evidently, he had introduced more than enough doubt regarding the credibility of the report. Little David had prevailed against the Goliath of French media. In the controlled chaos that ensued, opposing lawyers wore a look of shock, while everybody else just sort of looked at each other, as if to say: “What just happened?” There was enough legalese in the judge’s verdict that many people on Karsenty’s side, myself included, were asking questions more than actually celebrating — wondering whether there were any legal strings attached.

But there weren’t. It was a clean victory. Outside, on the courthouse steps, cameramen and reporters were clinging to Karsenty’s every word, including his demand that the station make a public apology in reparation to the worldwide Jewish community, which had been slandered by the original report.

That night, after celebrating the victory in a kosher restaurant in a Jewish neighborhood of Paris, I reflected on the difference between perception and reality. It’s true that there’s plenty of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment in France, and in fact, the opposition that Karsenty faced during his long trial showed some of that sentiment.

But it’s also true that justice prevailed for a little Jew against an icon of French media and culture. Considering all we hear about the precarious situation for Jews living in France, that kind of result shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Beyond the high drama of this Jewish victory for truth and justice, however, there is another, quieter drama unfolding for the Jewish community of Paris. This is the silent drama of neighborhoods, the kind I often write about in Los Angeles.

During my week there, I visited two of these neighborhoods, each one going in a very different direction.

The first was the oldest Jewish neighborhood in Paris, known as Le Marais, home to the renowned Jewish Museum, a yeshiva, kosher markets, Judaica stores and anything else you’d expect to find on Fairfax or Pico.

But with one big difference: this neighborhood is disappearing.

The manager of the Mi-Va-Ni kosher grill, Benny Maman, lamented the decline. Five years ago, he told me, there were about 20 small kosher restaurants in the area; today there are only three. Same thing with synagogues, kosher butchers, Jewish bookstores, etc. There is only a handful left, mostly on one street, Rue des Rosiers.

Where Jewish merchants once stood are now trendy boutiques with names like Koo Kai and Custo Barcelona. A storefront with the faded name of a Jewish bakery is now a gay bar. Of the remaining Jewish shops, several have “for lease” signs on them.

Where did the Jewish life go? Did Jews scramble out because of the anti-Semitism we hear so much about? Actually, according to Maman, it’s mainly about the parking. When they turned Rue des Rosiers into a pedestrian walkway, it made a bad parking situation even worse. As a result, significantly fewer Jews have patronized the area, and businesses and residents have wandered off to other neighborhoods.

Like, for example, the neighborhood where I spent Shabbat, the 17th “arrondissement.” This is becoming the Pico-Robertson of Paris. There’s practically a Shilo’s Restaurant or Delice Bistro on every corner. I spent Shabbat with my all-time favorite chazzan, Ouriel Elbilia (you must hear his Shabbat CD), who runs a synagogue called Beth Rambam in an ornate old building. The community here is on the upswing, but are residents afraid of anti-Semitism? I asked a few people, and they all told me the same thing: The fear is mostly in the racially charged suburbs. But they still watch their backs around here, and several of them complained about the difficulty of making a living in modern-day France.

So those were my Jewish encounters in Paris. I met a Jew in an old neighborhood who lamented the passing of the good old days and complained about parking. I heard a Sephardic chazzan singing beautiful melodies in a thriving Jewish neighborhood, where Jews aren’t afraid to be Jews, but where they still find plenty to kvetch about.

And I hung out with an outspoken and articulate Jew who annoys the establishment with his relentless pursuit of truth and justice, and who wouldn’t mind, by the way, turning his story into a Hollywood motion picture.

Really, if it hadn’t been for the gorgeous architecture, I might have felt right at home.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.



MUSIC VIDEO: French rapper Francky Perez and Broadway: ‘Hatikvah’

The transformation of Israeli food — from falafel to fennel

The 60th anniversary of the State of Israel is a good time to reflect on how this young country has progressed during its mere six decades of existence. Its economic growth, its leading role in technological advances and its presence in world affairs are all impressive, but most notable to me is the transformation of Israeli food from mundane and unknown to cutting edge and creative. Modern-day Israeli cuisine reflects ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity.

I have always thought of Israel as a microcosm of the world, blending three major world religions and countless nationalities, each with their own palates and flavors. What has resulted is an amalgamation of the best of all culinary worlds. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, only tourists, diplomats or foreign journalists ate in restaurants. Grabbing hummus and falafel at a fast food stand or dropping into a cafe for coffee and cake was the Israeli idea of “dining out.” Food was scarce and wasting time on such a bourgeois matter seemed contrary to the pioneering spirit of the country. In fact, the restaurants were so bad in those days that Henry Kissinger, engaging in his Middle East “shuttle diplomacy,” once moaned, “Why can’t a country with 2 1/2 million Jewish mothers have better food?”

Recently, Henry Kissinger told me that that lament is a thing of the past.

Whenever I go to Israel, I am constantly transporting myself, like a child playing make believe, back to my ancestry. The first time this happened was during a wonderful week spent in the sand dunes of the Sinai many years ago, where Bedouins continue to live much as the nomadic Israelites did when they were wandering the desert. I couldn’t help imagining myself as part of that ancient culture, sharing the stew — perhaps with lamb and chickpeas — that Sarah prepared for Abraham or the pottage of lentils that Jacob gave to his brother Esau.

As I returned to Jerusalem after that week, layers of civilization and thousands of years unwound before me like a newsreel at each fork in the road.

Through culinary haunts one can uncover the enormously exciting story of how these pioneers transformed a harsh, arid land to one bursting with new produce and culture. Some of the dishes that we find in Israel today are as old as the land; others are quite modern; and still others mix the old and the new.

Since I left Israel, I have been back every year or so, and the transformation from the 1970s to now is enormous. Israelis, like Americans, are taking food more seriously. It is no longer shameful in Israel to enjoy the luxury of eating well. Since Israel is at the crossroads of so many cultures, both the ones that surround it as well as the ones that have immigrated to it, cooking there today reflects the fresh globalism that we are encountering everywhere. Just look at the fruits and vegetables coming out of Israel: various kinds of kiwis and avocadoes, persimmons, pomelos, pomegranates. Some of these fruits and vegetables are biblical. Some are brand new, brought to the country with immigrants or agronomists who have gone all over the world.

But what is Israeli cuisine? A cuisine is usually defined as cooking which derives from a particular culture. Since the Jewish population has essentially been dispersed throughout the world, Jewish food, and by extension that of Israel, while centered in the Jewish dietary laws, subsumes the cuisines of countries throughout most of the globe. Unlike in France and Italy, for example, where cooking has been grounded in the same soil for thousands of years, in Israel the “new food” is a hybrid, inspired by every corner of the world, but with an increasing emphasis on native ingredients.

The original ingredients used by cooks in the land of Israel included the seven biblical foods mentioned in Deuteronomy: barley , wheat, figs, dates, pomegranates, olives and grapes. Mizrachi or “Oriental” Jews — those who left Palestine for Babylonia at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, or those who stayed in the Middle Eastâ?? have always maintained a cuisine more rooted in the original biblical ingredients. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews who migrated to Spain and Portugal adapted the new local foods to their dietary laws. These people became known as “Sephardic” Jews following the Inquisition, and their cuisine took on the tone of their new homelands like Greece, Morocco, and Turkey. So, too, “Ashkenazic” cooking developed, as other Jews made their journeys to Central and Eastern Europe. Today, all these foods are being embraced by many of the Jews returning from afar to the “land of milk and honey.” Christian and Muslim cultures of the region have also contributed their own customs to Israeli cooking, so that today Israel’s emerging cuisine is global in scope.

The food of modern Israel began, really, with the first aliyah, the immigration that came in the late 19th century mainly composed of Eastern European Jews. It also included 5,000 Jews from Yemen, who made up 6 percent of the new Jewish population. Unlike the Eastern European immigrants of this period, the Yemenites were motivated by the biblical commandment to return to Jerusalem. The men often found work in kitchens and as waiters, and were most likely the first Jews to make falafel in the country. The women, mostly illiterate, hired out as domestics, which provided a meager subsistence.

Although they were not educated or sophisticated by European standards, they set an example of meticulousness in all aspects of housework, including the religious obligations taught by word of mouth: dietary laws, separation of challah, salting and koshering meat, the ritual immersion of utensils, blessings for meals and candlelighting. They would rise before dawn to fetch water and to prepare the gisher (Yemenite coffee), grind flour, bake and have breakfast ready when the men returned at sunrise from the prayer service in the synagogue.

Little by little, Yemenites and other Middle Eastern Jews started influencing the eating habits of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, and different tastes and traditions began to coexist. For some, like those from Eastern Europe, the idea of raw vegetables fresh from the soil seemed unhealthy. But their sense of curiosity prevailed: Yemenite soup with spicy sauces and the buttery layered bread called malouach may very well have been one of the exotic meals eaten by a group of well-heeled British Jews, organized by the Jewish industrialist Herbert Bentwich, who came to visit Palestine in 1897.

VIDEO: Moroccan Jewish sacred singing

Leon Azancot, a wonderful 80 year old Tangerine Jew (he should live to 120), sang some piyyutim in Hebrew and explained them in Spanish at his insurance office over the Socco Grande (entrance to the souk) in Tangier, Morocco.

Video by Vanessa Paloma.

Vanessa wrote about her visit for The Journal.