We were slaves, strangers in a strange land

Looking for remnants of a world that was

By: Rabbi Dr Fox

My visit to Morocco, my first to the African continent, was to look for graves. My wife’s father had been born there and had regaled her and me with his memories of life there before and after the war. Ultimately, he had made his way to France, to America, to Israel, and yet has retained clear images of the world which he left behind.

Of interest to us was his decision, decades earlier, not to go back. He has never encouraged his children to go either, but not out of resentments or bitter experiences. Rather, he has said, time and again, that the life he once knew there – of proud Jews living in the Mellah, of revered rabbis interacting with the populace, of communal ovens where the food was kept hot, and of the mystique of an ancient land which had been home to the Jews of Sfarad for centuries – was over.

The hundreds of thousands of Jews who had once lived there have long since passed on, passed away, relocated to Israel, to France, to North America. He has always felt that Jewish life in Morocco has long ago come to end, relative to the world which he remembers. So we went to look for graves, remnants of his ancestors and his boyhood town.

Our Berber guide, a bright and articulate man with warmth and humour, greeted us with an expression which we were to hear repeatedly, whether in the “casbahs”, or in the hotels, or on the streets: “This is your second country. We love the Jewish people and want you to consider this as your welcoming home!” And off we went, visiting towns and rural regions, venturing into old cemeteries now being cleaned up and cared for, and solitary roadside graves, under the watchful supervision of locals who safeguard them at the order of the king, who is respected and appreciated as a friend to the Jews.

Many of the grave sites have placards, explaining the history of the person buried within. There are more than 600 graves of “tzaddikim”, men (and women) who are still revered by Moslem and Jew alike as having led lives of holiness and honesty. Some of these shrines draw throngs of visitors, both Moslem and Jewish, who pray there and who seek brachah – Divine blessings – for their having come to pay graveside homage to one of HaShem’s beloved and departed servants.

We saw the tomb of a rabbi who, hundreds of years ago, had come from Israel to collect alms for its inhabitants, only to be murdered and robbed by local brigands. There are legends of how they suffered Divine retribution, and now people across the countryside consider it a holy shrine, where miracles might still happen. We visited the tomb of a young Jewish woman, beautiful and brilliant, who had rebuffed the advances of a nobleman who sought her as a wife on the condition that she convert. She refused and was executed. Her gravesite is now a place for people seeking help from the G-d of the Jews.

There was the tomb of a sainted learned rabbi, a Dayan known for his integrity and fairness. Standing at the graveside was an older man in a suit with no head covering, intense, eyes closed, meditative. He was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a Moslem scholar, who explained that each time he struggles with a difficult legal ruling, he comes to that site in order to find internal balance, so that he rule fairly without bias, inspired by the legends of that great rabbinical judge and his insistence on justice.

In some towns, there are fewer than fifty Jews left. In some there are less, or none. The synagogues are under government-ordered police guard, kept immaculately and their beauty maintained. The Maimonides house of worship in Fez, where the Rambam lived as a youngster as he fled Spain, is replete with paintings of him, copies of many of his writings and books, yet is now a non-Kosher Chinese restaurant.

There are traces of the world that once was, there is charm and elegance, and the imprint left by our people is still haunting the marketplaces, the elderly people in caftans who nod to me with reminiscent respect as they identify me as a white bearded rabbi, and the greetings of Shalom and “welcome to your second country” resound. My sense is that there is a sincerity about these gestures. I felt no hostility or tension among the populace. It even felt more or less safe.

Our guide knew the history, the role that Jews had played throughout the generations, and the gestures still taking place to encourage our people to return are not based solely on the dream of boosting the economy. But he mused to me: “When the Jews left Morocco, it seems like the Biblical exodus from Egypt. You never returned to settle in Egypt. Your exile had ended and you went to your homeland. Morocco is not Egypt. We want you back. It is not like all of you went to your homeland after leaving here. Many of you are still in exile, in France, England, America, and other countries. You have chosen different countries to call home as you wait for your exile to end. So, if Israel is your first country, why not make Morocco your second country?”

As I sit down soon to my Passover Seder, as I recall the slavery, the exile, the departure from Egypt, I will not think too much about making Morocco my second country. But I will think about the places which so many of us consider “home”, and I will wonder out loud with my family about making “my first country” the place where I will live, rather than the place where I will be buried.

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