Barbara Sofer of The Jerusalem Post accompanies a group of American youngsters to Morocco, where the city Mellahs (Jewish quarters) are full of ghosts:
"In 1516, when the Jews of Venice had to move into the old foundry district - ghetto in Venetian - their brethren in Fez, Morocco, had already been living in the cramped old salt market for more than 250 years. Just as the name "ghetto" stuck for Jewish quarters in Europe, so mellah, from the word for salt, became the generic name for Jewish quarters in Moroccan cities.
"Mellah sounds better than ghetto, but shared many of the features: crowding, distinctive hats, restrictions on building, and heavy taxes. There were times when Moroccan Jews had to go barefoot outside the mellah or were obliged to wear uncomfortable footwear. Trouble alternated with periods of relatively tranquil relationships in which the People of the Book enjoyed a protected status in Islam and were allowed to practice Judaism as long as they paid the steep tax, known as jizia.
"I've come on a maiden trip to Morocco with 41 American teenagers, 18-year-old graduates of city high schools, participants in the Young Judaea Year Course. As part of this new Gap Year program in Israel, they are visiting five Diaspora countries that were significant in the history of Zionism.
"Frankly, I'm expecting them to be more rambunctious. But five months of studying and volunteering in tough neighborhoods in Israel have matured them. The trips to England, France and the death camps of Poland have sobered them. They're sensitive to the paradoxes in the history and present.
"On one hand, there's a campaign to name the late Moroccan King Muhammad V as a righteous gentile. On the other, there are clear signs of persecution. The locals say life is wonderful for the Jews in this Muslim country, but wherever these American Jewish youngsters go, security is heavy (stepped up even more because of the killing of Hizbullah leader Imad Mughniyeh and threats against Israelis and Americans).
"Observant Jews they meet are reluctant to wear kippot. Over the past half year, the frame of reference of these American kids has changed. They compare Jewish life in Morocco to Israel, not to Seattle or Highland Park. "The community members managed to live here for generations, to survive and some even to prosper," says Shayna Moliver, from Connecticut, when visiting the Fez cemetery, where famous Jews are buried among common folk. "Fortunately, when things got tough, they had Israel to go to."