Sunday, June 15, 2008

Visiting the mellah of Marrakesh

The well-maintained and still used Marrakesh synagogue (Photo: Mya Guarnieri)

Visiting the Mellah of Marrakesh, Mya Guarnieri is saddened that so little remains of Jewish life, but heartened that something still does remain. Read her sensitively-written account in The Jerusalem Post:

"Omar clearly knows his way through the tight, winding passages, and he weaves us through them without a moment's hesitation, his Adidas pants swooshing rhythmically with his steps. I do my best to keep up, and in concentrating on following him, I become disoriented. Did we go right, right, left, left? Or was it the other way around? He gestures at heavy wooden doors, and slows a bit. "There is a Jewish family here," he says.

"Really? There are still Jews in Marrakech?" I ask.

"Not so many," he says. "A few."

We stop in front of an open doorway.

"Beit Haknesset," Omar says, pronouncing beit the Arab way - bait.

We enter the hallway. The upper half of the walls is painted light blue. The lower portion of the walls is a mosaic of white, sky blue and deep blue tiles - Stars of David, interlocked, and repeated again and again. At the end of the hall, before we enter a light-filled, open-air courtyard, a sign reads in Hebrew: Beit Haknesset Elazama Rehov Talmud Torah established in the year of 1492.

Though both my guidebook and Omar tell me the synagogue is still in use, looking around the courtyard, it's hard to imagine. Laundry - socks, underwear, sheets, towels - hangs everywhere, including the electric blue railing of the second story. An empty pink plastic washtub leans against a white bench, pitched on its side. The fountain in the center of the courtyard is dry and ringed with dead potted plants.

"Are there people living here?" I ask Omar.

"Yes," he answers.


"Poor people, old people."

"Jews?" I ask.


He seems uncomfortable with my questions and he walks me to the impressive bronze doors of the synagogue, which are secured with a padlock. In Arabic, he calls to a woman who is washing the floor. She comes and flips through a chunky set of keys, finds the right one, and slides the heavy padlock off. She pulls one of the massive doors open. She and Omar wait as I step inside alone.

The interior does seem to be fairly well-maintained and, indeed, it looks as though it's in use. The white walls are clean and the red oriental carpets on the floor aren't worn. A marble ark with a deep brown velvet curtain houses the Torah. The rows of wooden-armed chairs are tidy and neatly arranged, and some of the cushioned seats are occupied by bags containing tallitot. A box of tissues sits on the simple white bima. Prayer books are scattered here and there on surfaces throughout the synagogue. I look up at the women's balcony on the second floor, contained by a plain brown railing. Simple glass chandeliers interspersed with octagonal bronze lanterns - their windowed sides adorned with colorful designs - hang from the ceiling.

I stand there for a moment, engulfed by silence. I think of the thriving Jewish community that was once in Morocco and I'm saddened by how little remains. But I'm also heartened by the fact that small it might be, still, it remains.

I exit and see that a third person has joined Omar and the woman who keeps the key to the synagogue - an old man, his white hair covered by a kippa, his blue eyes squinted tight.

"Shalom," he greets me.

"Shalom," I reply.

From his movements, I quickly realize that he is blind.

We began to talk. My Hebrew is not very good, but it's our only way to communicate. He is patient during my halting, awkward sentences, and I am eager to hear his responses.

He tells me that he is Jewish and that he lives on the premises. He has lived his whole life in Morocco. Things are OK for him in Morocco, and people help to take care of him. And he tells me that, yes, there are some other Jews left in Marrakech.

I tell him I am from America and live in Tel Aviv - to which he enthusiastically remarks nice - and that I am a writer, working on a book. I tell him I am trying to learn Hebrew, but it's not so easy.

Our conversation stalls. Not just because of my limited vocabulary. We have generations and oceans and wildly different life experiences between us. But there we stand, outside the doors of a synagogue, conversing in a shared language, Judaism our common bond.

Read article in full

Hunting for kosher chicken in Marrakesh


Jeremy Jacobs said...

What fantastic blog you have here. Perhaps the BBC will do a piece on you!

Anonymous said...

The group Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has released a document charging Arab countries with systematic persecution of Jews amid the creation of the State of Israel. They hope to seek redress if Israeli-Arab peace talks resume.

bataween said...

I'm afraid this is old news, anonymous: you can see the text of the draft law, which predates Israel, in the sidebar

Moshé said...

I am amazed to see that somebody from the Jpost is talking about Slaat Laazama in a blog. I am from Marrakech and I used to pray in this beautiful synagogue which is in fact still in use. Indeed, it has a morning service everyday of the week and during holidays and shabat.
I am glad to see that our Jewish Heritage is spread over the net and your blog.
Here is a group to join which describes the history of the shul on my facebook group.(the description is in french)