Monday, July 20, 2009

Thank goodness for one's religious kinsmen...

Charming little story by Robert Grossman in the Huffington Post of how as a young US serviceman stationed in Morocco in the 1950s he and his mate Matt bonded with the local Jews :

"While serving there in the 1950's, Matt and I would venture beyond the base's confines on days off, hoping to find Bergman and Bogart in some undisclosed hideaway. Instead, we discovered the Jewish community of Port Lyautey. They lived in a separate part of the Arab medina called the mellah. A number of these Sephardic Jews found work on our naval base, which I learned upon meeting one of them, Moishe, who was then the barber at the officers' quarters. I introduced him to Matt, who at that point was developing a keen interest in things Jewish. Moishe quietly told me that, given the end of the French protectorate and the coming to power of the Arab monarchy, most, though not all, the Jews there and elsewhere in Morocco, some 200,000, would secretly depart, mostly for Israel.

"On one adventure Moishe had taken us to his synagogue in the mellah. When we entered, we observed the bearded rabbi reciting prayers from an elevated bima and some 15 male worshipers moving about, each at his own pace and in his own direction, intoning a portion of scripture while rocking back and forth and up and down. We stood at a side wall -- there were no chairs on the dirt floor -- and Matt whispered to me that what he was seeing was not unlike portions of the Catholic service back home. Those in the synagogue were dressed in black just like the priests, and just like the priests there were only men.

"We reminisced about other threads of our past as we had a dinner of hummus, couscous and Moroccan chicken at an Arab restaurant that night in Kenitra. The next morning we left and headed south, exploring familiar haunts in Fez, Quarzazate and Marrakech. Unlike when we were first there some 50 years before, many travelers have now been to these places so a current description of our visit to them adds little.

"Besides, it was our drive back from Marrakech to catch our flight at the airport near Casablanca that evokes the strongest memory of our trip. We were on the desolate highway about halfway there when the car's motor began to sputter and then, as we pulled over to the side of the road, it died. After trying to restart it several times without success, we got out and raised the hood. We jiggled the spark plugs but the motor still didn't start. We looked at each other in frustration and stared at the emptiness around us. There wasn't a camel or donkey in sight.

"All at once two men of olive complexion appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. We stepped back in apprehension. They moved directly to the car and, while one of them watched us, the other carefully inspected under the hood. I worried that they were about to steal some part of the engine. They started talking to each other. They could have been speaking the Moroccan dialect of Arabic but Matt, a linguist, assured me it was no form of Arabic he'd ever heard. There were Berbers from the Atlas Mountains who spoke their own dialect but Matt said it wasn't that either. He told me their words did sound familiar to him but he couldn't make them out.

"In a flash I sensed what I was hearing. The same guttural tone and nuance is repeated time and again when I occasionally go to religious services. The language is rarely spoken in my home, so I couldn't interpret what they were saying. But I knew the sound. I knew the intonation. I said to them in my halting French, "Je suis Juif," hoping they would understand me, but all they seemed to see were my blue eyes and white face.

"It suddenly dawned on me what I should do. Slowly but firmly I began to recite a prayer that almost every Jew has been taught, regardless of how little trained in Hebrew or whether from Russia, Yemen or South Dakota. It is the prayer that reflects the Jewish gift of monotheism conceived thousands of years ago: "Shema, Yisraeil: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad -- Hear, O Israel: the Lord, our God, the Lord is One."

"Their Sephardic eyes lit up. They quickly moved in my direction, threw their arms around both Matt and me -- and immediately fixed the car."

Matt smiled as my religious kinsmen warmly gestured to us as they receded into the barren wilderness to an unseen settlement somewhere in the distance. He turned to me and said, "Thank God some of your brethren are still here." We two Americans then drove on, Matt having now added another notch to his awareness of things Jewish."

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Anonymous said...

Is Moishe a common name among Moroccan Jews?

bataween said...

Grossman has 'Askenazified' Moshe, which would be as common among Moroccan Jews as any other Biblical name

jewish said...

It is great for sure!