“Watch your step!” I shouted over my shoulder to the 20 people behind me, as we made our way through a tight alleyway to the disengaged synagogue in the Jewish neighborhood of Fez, Morocco. The path had dislodged cobblestones, muddy and crooked, and the locals looked at us from their shops or from above, out their windows. I assisted one of our Pittsburgh travelers over the unsteady trail, mindful of the native eyes watching us. The stares were curious, not malicious. We never felt unwanted or in danger.
The synagogue was refurbished and modest, but there was no community to attend; it was now a tourist attraction for traveling Jews or the adventurous tourist off the beaten path. Sadly, most of the synagogues and old Jewish neighborhoods were off the beaten path and hard to find. The Moroccan Jewish Museum (the only Jewish museum in the Arabic world) was in a quiet middle class neighborhood, away from tourist spots and hotels. The shuk in Marrakesh had signage in Arabic and phonetic Hebrew, but these Jewish shops were in the center of the shopping area. You had to know about it to find it.
Morocco is home to 33 million people, yet less than 3,000 are Jewish. Before the founding of Israel in 1948, Morocco had 300,000 Jews. The predominant religion is Islam, yet Muslim children can attend private high school with Jewish children. Forced conversion is illegal, but it’s not encouraged to choose your own religion. Moroccans are polite; they will hold conversations with you, but religion is personal. It doesn’t need to be discussed. Judaism is tolerated, and both religions exist in peace.
“Watch your step!” I said once again, a few days later, this time in the tight tunnel-like alley of the medina, the labyrinthine streets that hold 10,000 stalls filled with food, copper, clothes, jewelry and such. We arrived before lunchtime, when the streets are quiet and almost empty; the only other active tourists were the hundreds of stray feral cats. Again I held the arm of the same Pittsburgh traveler, guiding them around the grate with questionable grey, murky liquid seeping up.
The Moroccan Jews we met were warm, kind and so excited to see us. They welcomed us into their modest home, offered us tea, dinner and so many sweets! They told us, with tears in their eyes, of how their children have left for university, opportunity, (democracy), and they have no desire to return. They love Morocco, but they can’t return.
The diminished community and lack of economic opportunity has kept at least two generations of Moroccan Jews away from Morocco. We saw young people; we heard third graders singing in Hebrew. Yet when they get older, they choose to make aliyah, or they go to university in Europe, Canada or the United States, and they don’t return.
“Watch your step!” I shouted, as a few of our Pittsburgh travelers were on stage with a belly dancer, shaking and thrusting her hips, making our group laugh and clap. We were in a restaurant eating traditional Moroccan food, listening to the four musicians play a fast upbeat song. We were surrounded by intricate blue mosaic tile, in a three-story atrium, with the most beautiful ceiling I’ve ever seen. Every meal was at least four courses. It was never less than two hours long. At this establishment, we were served wine, otherwise, alcohol was not typical with our meal.
“Watch your step,” my mantra on the precarious streets and alleys in the big cities of Morocco, is also my phrase to all American Jews. Right here in Pittsburgh, some of us can see the road, and we know where the potholes are. We are able to drive around and save ourselves. But on a larger scale, isn’t it our right as Jews to help those who can’t see the potholes? Don’t we have an obligation to look over our shoulder and warn the ones behind us of what lies ahead? Don’t we have a responsibility to lend a hand and help others over the potholes that life presents, be it death of a loved one, or the dissolve of a community?
I don’t know how to rebuild the Moroccan Jewish population. I know community is built one person at a time. And opportunity is built one idea at a time. I know there is a rich Jewish Moroccan history, but it was related to us by a local Moroccan man, Muslim by faith, not a Jew. Perhaps this is how they return — by sharing their history with people, leading tours, and talking about the importance of faith and family, home and remembrance.
Watch your step, Pittsburgh. Watch your step. PJC
Delilah Picart is an actress, advocate and playwright. She is currently participating in the communitywide Shavuot-shpiel of the Book of Ruth, and she is the stage director for the JCC Summer Performing Arts Camp.