Signs of Jewish culture are everywhere in Morocco. Adjacent to the ancient walled medinas of Moroccan cities stands the Jewish quarter – Mellah. The name, meaning salt in Arabic, is likely derived from the location of the first Mellah, built among brackish swamp near Fes. Historically, these walled-and-gated communities were built with the dual purpose of protecting Jewish Moroccans from riots, as well as restricting their expansion to other parts of the city. Over the centuries, as Jewish populations expanded, the Mellah was bursting at the seams. Only with the French occupation were Jews finally permitted to live outside the walls of the crowded Jewish quarters.
Today, the Mellah remain poor, but also serve as tourist sites. Its uglier past ignored or unknown by the current Muslim inhabitants who boast of the coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, and insist on showing tourists the Jewish synagogue – for a fee, of course. Yet, though a few synagogues in the old Jewish quarters still operate, to find contemporary Jewish Moroccan life one most look in the Ville Nouvelle – the modern European-style areas of the city.
I found the Jews of Fes at exactly such a location, a beautiful synagogue tucked away in the new city. It was the holiday of Purim, celebrated by reading the Book of Esther, drinking, exchanging gifts, and, of course, a large feast. Finding the small Jewish community not only allowed me to celebrate the holiday, but also provided a window into a part of Morocco that is fast disappearing.
Once a large community, today only about sixty Jews remain in Fes, and most are in their sixties and seventies. Nonetheless, a feeling of a tight-knit, vibrant community permeated the beautiful courtyard of the cultural center, and the decorated interior of the synagogue. Entering the center, I felt as if I stepped into a different Morocco. Though the designs on the wall, the heat of the day, and the food – delicious pastilla, harira and salads – were all clearly Moroccan, the atmosphere was distinct from the predominantly Muslim culture outside.
The old men sat joking and shouting in a unique accent of Moroccan darija, mixed with French and Hebrew. Wines and whiskies lined the tables, and all were munching on sweets and candies prepared for the holiday. I spoke with one old man about how the holiday was practiced back when the Mellah was still full of Moroccan Jews. He took a bite of a sweet baked good, and in between chews, began reminiscing.
‘Gambling,’ he said, ‘is discouraged by Jewish law, except for on Purim. During the holiday, shoppers would go to the bakeries to purchase sweet cookies and cakes, but they wouldn’t pay. The shopper would place a five or ten dirham coin, and the baker would wager the equivalent in baked goods. Then, they would play cards. The winner would take it all. Some folks would take home five kilos of cookies without paying a single dirham!’
Today, the tradition is gone, though the old men still play the same card games. The community is aging and seems to be quickly disappearing. Those still living in Morocco are quite content, and are not interested in leaving. For me, this was an incredible opportunity to catch a glimpse of a culture that was an integral to the fabric of Moroccan life and history, and to see my practice and traditions in a new and unique light.