The Jewish Community of Fes: 818 C.E.
By Yedidya Schwartz
Author’s Note: All names have been changed and many personalities elided in order to protect the confidentiality of the good people that feature in this piece.
The graves stretch out like snow over the hillside under the beating sun. The smell of the whitewash is everywhere, a fresh, clean, industrial smell that mixes with that of the sweat dripping down my forehead as I trudge heavily between the rows, my bag weighing me down in the midday heat. I cannot break the surface here. There is a body under each of these whitewashed semi-cylinders. On some of the graves the face is even preserved—I stare at one small grainy photograph peering sullenly at me from the plaster. She seems unhappy about something. Thousands and thousands of names, thousands of faces, all of them assimilated into the hillside by the old men with the white paintbrushes who move timelessly between the plaster hedgerows, painting and painting. The men walk slowly, as if they have nowhere pressing to be in the next thousand years.
The Jewish cemetery of Fes is a primary tourist destination for visiting Jews. The tourists end up seeing many more of the dead than of those left alive. And for good reason—the cemetery contains the graves of great sages and pious ascetics who have lived in this city in the last thousand years. It is said that paying respects to them brings blessing on the visitor.
I have put off this visit until the end of my stay. I have only come to Fes for two short months, much of which is spent learning Arabic at the local American Language Center. That time which is my own, rather than property of the Yale Arabic department, I have tried to spend seeing the Fasi Jewish community as it is now. But perhaps the present and the past are not so far from one another as I thought. The native Jews in Fes today visit the cemetery far more often than I have. They call it Beit Hahayyim – the House of the Living.
When it comes down to it, the House of the Living is much easier to find in the Fasi geography than are the Jews with flesh still on their bones. It took me five days from the time I arrived in Fes until I was able to locate one.
Everyone could give me directions to the dead—an Arab lady on the train from Casablanca waxed eloquent about the mella?, the old Jewish quarter (an excellent destination for cheap jewelry). And the faux guides that populate the city’s medina, or old city, are itching to show you the old Ibn Danan synagogue, a national landmark that functioned from the seventeenth century through the first half of the twentieth. Today it is a museum around which a small, taciturn old caretaker will point you for a few dirhams. It serves as a concert venue during multicultural music festivals. Ask anyone in the city for a synagogue, and that is where you will be sent.
But I initially looked for another one. I had been in contact with an American Jewish student who had spent the previous summer with the Fasi Jewish community, and he was able to oblige me with an emailed “print-screen” snapshot of a Google map featuring a grainy arrow pointing approximately to a certain neighborhood. He had written that the address of the Jewish Community Center listed on the internet was (deliberately) misleading (in fact, the whole concept of street addresses was a bit foreign to Fasis, who came up with street names more to placate the tourists). Rather, I should look “around here” for a “small, unmarked entrance.” It was said to be open on Thursday afternoons.
And so it was that I led a somewhat skeptical group of my friends around a five-block radius for almost an hour, not knowing for what I was looking until, just when I had given up all hope, I noticed a small café storefront like a thousand others in Fes’s French Ville Nouvelle—except that this one sported a big sign that read Kasher (Kosher) in big Hebrew letters. I was stunned. I stared for a few seconds, and walked inside.
I found a tired looking old man cleaning glasses behind a counter. I walked up to him and said in the best Arabic I could muster, wejd huna Amar? (Is Amar here?). The man sized me up, and with sudden energy walked out from behind the counter and said “Amar! Oui, oui,” He put his arm around my shoulder, and looked at me conspiratorially: “Le Juif?”
I nodded my assent. He pointed significantly to an empty doorway down an adjacent side-street. “There” he said “is Amar.” We walked towards the doorway, which looked like exactly like half a million other doorways in this mazelike city, and entered through it, and the world changed.
There was a big sign in Hebrew that said “Merkaz Rambam” (Maimonides center). There were kitschy replicas of Chagall stain-glass windows. There were calendars tacked on the walls with pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There was a large table set for lunch for about twenty, and next to it, a jovial, middle-aged man tending a grill.
This was Amar. He spoke a with fluent, easy Hebrew that spoke of a large portion of his life spent in Israel, and he happily invited us for Shabbat dinner, for the price of only 150dh (about 17 dollars). We could call him to make a reservation at any time. He also pointed us in the direction of Fes’s only functioning synagogue: a right out the door, and then a left – it’s a small, unmarked entrance.
I went to the synagogue (which my friends had taken to calling “Synagogue Nine-and-Three-Quarters) around the time that Amar had said it would be open. True to his word, it was the one doorway on the street with absolutely no distinctive features about it, but that didn’t make me feel any more confident going inside. Halfway up the entrance stairs, I paused. There was no sign of anything Jewish. What if I had taken a wrong turn? What if this was someone’s private house? What if this was a gang lair?
A mezuzah. There was a small Jewish ritual scroll on the closed door at the top of the stairs. And as I opened the door, the world was again transformed.
The entire floor of the walkup was a large, ornate, Sephardi synagogue—a functioning, honest to God, bona fide synagogue with three services every day. Every day! You have to understand the state that I was in. I had despaired of anything that resembled normal observant Jewish life. I hadn’t found anything kosher to eat except bread for three days. And here there was daily minyan going on under my very nose, and under the noses of what must have been the entire local non-Jewish population. All of the tourist-grabbing scam-artist cranks scrounging like jackals around the grave of the Jewish community in the Mellah and there is still Shacharit, Mincha, and Arvit every day in the city of Fes, and they have no idea!
I was vaguely tempted to burst into corny song about how the people of Israel yet lives, but I controlled myself long enough to notice that I was not the only one in the room. A squat, elderly man was sitting absentmindedly in a seat near the door, as if he had been waiting there for services his whole life. He perked up when he saw me. “Tourist?” he asked, in French. “Iyeh” (yes) I responded in mispronounced Moroccan, then corrected myself in Hebrew: “Student, bemerkaz haamerika’i” (a student at the American Center).
“Lo m’daber ivrit” – I don’t speak Hebrew – he replied in Hebrew, with a cheerful dismissiveness. I attempted to engage him in Arabic for a minute, but it quickly became clear that my formal Fus?a was not going to make the cut. The Jews of Morocco don’t speak formal, written Arabic or Fus a, since most are of the age to have been educated under the French regime. I, for my part, cannot speak Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic spoken on the street, and not taught at Yale. This made our vocabularies for the most part mutually exclusive. Yet somehow, between my Darija phrasebook and completely nonexistent French, I somehow managed to make clear to the gentleman my desire to know his name, and he happily obliged. He was called Haim, and I recognized his name as a Hebrew one, fairly common of the Sephardic tradition.
Another old man of roughly the same shape ambled in. “Hu yodea ivrit” – he knows Hebrew – said Haim. The other man introduced himself with a smile as “Daoud/David,”—the first of the two names was clearly his Arabic appellation that he went by in general, and the second the equivalent Hebrew title that he used in the community. I would know him eventually, like everyone else did in that synagogue, only as David.
As one Fasi octogenarian filed into the room after another, the hum and chatter of the assorted congregants grew more boisterous. It wasn’t long before a fight had broken out between one gnome-like old man with a white baseball cap and a large round one in a brown jacket. Everyone in the room quickly took sides, and the whole scene descended quickly into chaos of shouts and gesticulations. I grinned from ear to ear. No shul, goes the adage, is so small that it can’t have infighting. Two Jews, three opinions. I turned to David, who was shaking his head sadly. “Haval” he said – it’s a shame.
“What’s a shame?” I asked.
“It’s a mess, here, in Fes,” he said. I thought I detected a note of hopelessness in his voice.
“Are you kidding? This is exactly like my synagogue at home!” He laughed at that, and shrugged his shoulders.
“One of them thinks that we should have services half an hour earlier tomorrow, because some tourists are leaving town early.”
White cap was gesticulating dramatically and thundering like Antony calling to avenge Caesar. David smiled weakly and shrugged again.
“A real mess.”
In the six weeks that I spent in Fes, I never missed a prayer service. You learn things going to one place every day that you could never understand going to twenty places once. You see people’s good days and bad days, what’s normal and what’s exceptional, how time wears on the crowd. You learn how hot it needs to be to justify turning on the air-conditioning. Most importantly, you learn who the regulars are and to distinguish them from the parade of humanity just passing through.
In this vein I learned two very central things from my Minyan attendance: First of all, unlike many closeted communities I had witnessed in other cities of low Jewish population, this minyan was made of authentic Fasis, born and bred, whose parents and grandparents had been Fasis before them for hundreds of years. They were the heirs of an old community. The newcomers came over to flee the Spanish inquisitions, the old-timers hundreds of years previous, practically since the time of the city’s inception. The great Rabbi Isaac al-Fasi composed his commentary on the Talmud here in the eleventh century, before moving on to Andalus. Maimonides came through the other direction; fleeing Almohad persecution in Spain, he spent a time in Fes before moving on to Cairo. You can still see his old house in the medina near the al-Qarawiyyin mosque – one of the oldest universities in the world, where he is said to have studied and perhaps even taught. As an old community, they have their unique customs. The services, while structurally similar to the ones with which I was raised were still largely unfamiliar to me, not even identical to the contents of the prayer books from nearby Casablanca. The Torah scrolls they used were singularly ornate, with intricately carved wooden staves and embroidered garments that seemed an exotic cross between what I have come to know as normal Ashkenazic and Sephardic Torah vestments. The synagogue architecture featured intricately woven lattices and patterns of plaster and tile meant to evoke the civilization that produced the Alhambra. Countless lights covered the ceiling, set in glass fixtures dedicated in somber golden Hebrew inscriptions to the memories of loved ones. Praying in that synagogue is praying in a storm of ancient, swirling lights and colors.
The second thing I learned is that the storm will soon be spent. There are fewer than sixty Jews currently residing in Fes, and everyone, save me and perhaps two or three others, is well advanced in years. A community of thousands at the beginning of the century, the formation of the state of Israel and the turmoil of independence had taken a harsh toll. The political turmoil of 1948 made life difficult for the Jews in Morocco, and the sudden opening of the borders after independence gave those with means a chance to set out for a new life brimming with messianic hope. The Jews from the villages in the southern desert, where life was hard, had less to lose in uprooting themselves. The Jews of the urban centers—Casablanca, Fes, Marrakesh—often had resources and fortunes at home that kept them grounded.
But the political openness of Morocco—to this day one of the most progressive and democratic Arab countries—allowed those who remained to seek even better lives elsewhere. Every Jew I met in Fes had children or grandchildren who had gone to France, Israel, or Canada to study in university, and had simply not returned. The remaining Jews of Fes keep in touch with their émigré brethren by letter or the occasional visit, but one by one they are turning into those merry, twinkling memorial lights on the ceiling. Today, there are thirty regular congregants and fifty lights. Ten years ago, presumably, those numbers were reversed. One day soon there will be only lights, and no one left to turn them on.
For now, they make do. As David says, “We have all the necessary institutions” – something I used to say about the Yale Jewish community to convince people to come – sure, we’re short on human beings, but institutions! Boy have we got them! And they really do. The synagogue has only a handful of regular attendees, but they divide evenly into the guys who shmooze in the back, the guy (White Baseball Cap) who yells at them, and the ones who look on amusedly from the sidelines. It only took me a few days to realize that all of the shouting really was good-natured. Amazingly, the congregants all seem to really love each other. At one point in the middle of morning services, David points to Haim and shouts at him that his shirt buttons are misaligned. Haim grouchily unbuttons and rebuttons his shirt in front of everyone in the middle of the service, while the congregants looking on either laugh or shake their head at the sorry state of the world.
David takes me in. Every Shabbat he invites me to his apartment for a light meal after services. He lives in a small, somewhat shabby apartment close to the synagogue. Whenever he enters he turns a key several times in the front door.
“Here, you have to lock.”
The apartment is decorated with pictures of rabbis both Sephardic and Ashkenazi, as well as pictures of his son, a rabbi and the founder of a yeshiva in Jerusalem, named after a Moroccan sage who, David proudly informs me, was his wife’s grandfather. He eagerly shows me pictures of his son with Rabbi Shach – a major Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical figure in Israel, and a small prayer book sent as a gift from Rav Stelman, a similar personage. David used to be an international merchant who would travel the world and do business in six different languages. These days he’s retired, and lives half the year in Morocco and half in Paris, where the rest of his children are. He has three sons and three daughters, and he appears to be proud of and on good terms with all of them. “Baruch hashem ein lanu ba’ayot im hadat” – Thank God we don’t have any religious problems. I ask him what he means.
“You know, all of my kids have stayed religious.”
Who knows if I’ll ever be able to say that? At this point, few Orthodox families can.
The lovably bellicose man in the white cap is named Joseph. He is regarded as the most stalwart attendant of the Ibn Sa’adon synagogue, to the extent that he is entrusted with the keys. I was present the one day in sixty years that he left town on a trip without telling anyone, leaving us all to mill confusedly outside the building at six thirty in the morning. During the fracas that evening he was heard to loudly mutter “One day in sixty years! Even if they paid me… !” They clearly don’t. The members of the synagogue are largely of modest means, a sorry fact betrayed by everything from the state of their shoes to their reluctance to turn on the air-conditioner to their embarrassed demurring when asked whether they’ll go to Israel for their relative’s funeral. Their pleasures are simple, though, perfectly content to while away a Saturday afternoon rolling their eyes while Joseph reads to them loudly from a particularly harsh book of religious invective.
“That’s his book,” says David as the stream of fire and brimstone washes over us. “He reads from it every week. – Hey, Joseph, enough with the stoning and drowning and burning already!”
Fes has its fair share of fanatics—to stay in a community that is quietly crumbling beneath you is a sign of either (1) insufficient means of flight or (2) perfervid dedication. But dedication does not necessarily entail hard-core religion. Max’s restaurant is a place for Jews of all stripes to come together. Many are less religious and more affluent, though the divide between religious and secular is not hard and fast. More accurate would be “more pious” and “less pious.” Even those who do not observe the Sabbath will often come to the Orthodox synagogue and pray on Saturday—the president of the community himself is one of the less frequent attenders of services—and of those who do, some read psalms morning and night while others watch football. But lack of religious devotion does not make the latter an iota less invested in the cohesiveness of the community generally. They all come together at Max’s to talk of the good old days when all their families owned the jewelry shops in the Mellah. Now they too have only descendants abroad. One woman I met is of the few still in the jewelry business, but her sons are all in Israel. I ask her whether she is at all resentful that none of her children stayed behind in Morocco.
“No,” she shakes her head determinedly. “It would have been easier for them to stay. They would have had resources, connections and businesses here. But it’s not ours. Israel is our land. It was very noble of them to go there, where life is harder.” The Moroccan community in Israel is far less comfortable economically than many of their Ashkenazic kin, and it though it is easy for us to imagine that the move from a depressed Arab country to Israel, with it’s stronger economy, would be an economic gain, the decision is actually quite complicated for those well situated in their places of origin.
That was one of the few Jewish women I seriously interacted with in Fes. As a frequenter of the synagogue, which operates on the traditional/patriarchal model (the women’s section is separated by an opaque barrier), I would seldom meet them in a prayer context. Social gender segregation is also a fact of life. I heard that a few years previous, some American Jewish girls had come for the summer and been hosted by some ladies of the community; no similar hospitality was offered me. Perhaps more significantly, there appear to simply be more remaining men in the community then women. I once glanced over a community registry, in which the women were listed separately. There were only six or seven names, each with a capital “V” before their name, denoting widowhood.
These Jews speak French to each other, lapsing into “vulgar” Arabic only when speaking to the Arab waiters and cleaning staff, in a benevolent, vaguely patronizing voice. The Arabs take it with a smile. They know somehow that they’re appreciated, if not necessarily respected as equals, by everyone who comes here. The relationship between Jews and Arabs in Fes is simple: they are not the same. Relations can be friendly (the cornerstone of the language study center, built at the turn of the century, lists both Arab and Jewish dates!) or hostile (one Jewish host of mine had been orphaned by his father’s disgruntled Arab employer—“never trust the goyim!” he would say). But Jews are always related to as Jews, and as such they have special status as a protected minority. Since World War II the Moroccan government has taken pride in the protection that it affords its Jews. I was in Fes during the summer of the notorious Turkish flotilla incident, and during that week I found a bevy of armed guards posted outside the Jewish Center. But in general no protection is needed. The King has made known to all his potential displeasure should anyone cause Morocco’s Jews to feel in any way unwelcome. As one Fasi friend tells me: “God bless the King! He’s good to us, and the people fear him.”
This special relationship also enables intercourse (if not normal diplomatic relations) with Israel. Every Friday night Amar’s restaurant plays host to groups of Israeli tourists, from families of five to organized buses of fifty, here to explore the historical heritage of a Jewish Fes that was. Just as Ashkenazi tour groups of teenagers go to Poland to explore their roots, these second and third-generation descendants of the émigrés of the mid-century, come back to connect to their ancestral heritage, if only for a week. The natives tend to avoid Amar’s restaurant when tourists are there. I suppose that if someone came to pay their respects not realizing that I had not quite died yet, I would play dead too to avoid the awkwardness. Nevertheless, Jewish and Israeli tourism has become an industry in Morocco. The groups are always of approximately the same social sector and temperament—the women apologize that their daughters are too old for me while the men demand angrily whether I voted for that hater of the Jews, Obama—and they always come with tour guides, which seem to be their own separate species: scrappy little entrepreneurs, 5’5, 100 pounds, with small white mustaches and a knack for telling tall tales and running dry goods under customs control. One interacts with the crowd with the air of a veteran showman:
“What village was your family from?”
“Oh sure, I know it. What family?”
“Oh wow, sure, I knew them, none of them left here of course, but they had a reputation back in Suma. Strong like oxen. Once, about thirty years back, I met the old man, carrying two fifty kilogram sacks of grain on his back like it was nothing!”
(Shouts of disbelief from around the table.)
“It’s the truth! True as I’m standing here. You fellows think you know strong? In the villages. I heard a story about one of the Jews in Jita. Do you know how that village was built? All of the houses halfway up the mountain and the fields and well are all down below. Well, anyhow, this one man’s mule can’t make it up the mountain. It’s raining, the mountain’s too steep, the load’s too big, I don’t know, but anyhow, this fellow just up and picks up the mule, load and all, onto his back, and carries them both up the hill.”
(More shouts of disbelief.)
The tour guide will also be an expert on the Jewish history of Fes:
“I’d say sixty percent of the families here used to be Jewish, converted at some point. I once met a man on the street here. I said: ‘You, you must have some Jewish roots.’ He said: ‘how did you know?’ I said: ‘it’s written all over your face!’ He took me home and showed me a Torah scroll that belonged to his great-grandfather. And that’s the truth!”
Then he will switch to topic of conversation to the cheapest way of smuggling expensive furniture back to Israel…
The restaurant (or community center – it’s all one animal) also plays the role of a base for the community generally. I visited once during a communal get-together, at which an expatriate filmmaker screened her latest documentary, featuring a tour group from Israel like those I’ve just mentioned. The film was especially moving, as the journey of the tourists into the Mellah provided a window for the community members amongst which I was seated to look back in time as well. As we watched, Haim would point to doorways and alleyways in the movie and eagerly say: “I grew up there!” or “I went to synagogue there as a kid!” as if they were in another world and he didn’t still live only a mile away from them. The movie showed the tourists pushing into the Mellah and being welcomed generously by the Arab residents, who allowed them into their houses to give them food and show them around, saying, “We miss the Jews! Come back!” The movie was full of the symbolism of generational continuity, and those here seem to have accepted the fact that such continuity will primarily exist in other countries. They rest secure in the knowledge, gleaned from these movies and the tour groups they depict, of the close ties of these diaspora Moroccans with their homeland.
Haim (or Jacques, as he is called on the street) is Joseph’s brother, and used to be a photographic journalist. He has taken thousands of pictures of Fes for the international media. Now he visits friends and cools his heels in cafés, following the World Cup with almost religious devotion. He will even wander into coffee shops to watch the game on Shabbat afternoons, flouting Joseph’s strongly-worded protests about the spirit of the day – “Oh, get over it! I’m not violating anything!” What he does with his time when the World Cup is not being played I do not know, but the little Darija that I picked up from our friendly and frequent almost-conversations was all World-Cup-related. For example, “La-bad” seems to mean “not yet,” as in “la bad yadalu lamreekeen” – the Americans haven’t played yet.
Toward the end of my stay in Fes I found Haim in a dark mood. He communicated to me that his brother in Israel was sick. He had had a stroke and was now in a coma. I offered my hopes for a speedy recovery, but the next day he had died. Haim informed me of this in the evening as I noticed that Joseph was not at services. Ever the religiously scrupulous one, he had stayed at home as an onen, one bereaved who has not yet buried his dead. According to Jewish law, an onen is exempt from all positive commandments, including prayer, until the deceased is properly laid to rest. Haim, in slightly less punctilious spirit, had come anyway, to see that the synagogue attained a minyan for prayer. In general I had been surprised to find that even the less observant members of the community were just as accepted by the religious establishment (in the form of the synagogue and kosher slaughterer and restaurant), and as committed to supporting it financially, or with their feet in Haim’s case.
That day I gave in and visited the cemetery. I had checked in with the caretaker of the cemetery and proprietor of the Jewish museum there, that both would be open. As I wended my way through the white world in which I found myself, I reflected on all the beauty and richness of personality I had met, and how all of it added up to no more than sixty more plaster markers in this thousand-year ocean. You could swim and swim and never get to the bottom. How much color could there be under these graves?
The museum gave me some idea. Jewish ritual objects, advertisements for Jewish goods and services, expired passports, photographs, and an enormous amount of just plain junk littered the small, dark space. A couple of switches on the wall lit up a set of old Christmas lights and tacky electric floor-fountains, and the room instantly lighted up and gurgled. I walked around in a kind of daze, trying to take in the endless sensory flow of piles of artifacts. It looked like someone’s attic, complicated by the fact that there were presumably few real attics left. This, then, was the end of the line for all the clutter of a city-century’s worth of attics—a graveyard for the Mellah no less than the cemetery outside. And like the cemetery, it served also a function for the living, presenting the best possible preservation of memories from the lost world.
Countless photographs. I saw photographs of throngs, rabbinic assemblies, crowds at Jewish coffee shops, wedding pictures, passport photos. Young people – children and college students and young couples with babies in their arms. For every person I had met, every character I had uncovered, there were thousands more in the past and present that I could only picture.
As I walked back out into the white, the graveyard manager pulled up in his truck and offered me a ride. He was bringing a meal to Joseph and Haim (who, in mourning, were at home). I accompanied him to the small apartment that all three shared. There was barely a stick of furniture on the ornately tiled floor, and he and I stood so that Haim and Joseph, clad in their loose, threadbare nightgowns, could remain in the small sofa. On the wall were pictures of the brothers in their youth, handsome, dashing even, with stylish mustaches and suits. Someone took out a few old crackers and a bottle of plum brandy and passed them around, and I reflected on how these men did not just pray together, but lived together and ate together and slept together, spent nearly all their time together. I was under the impression that the synagogue creates a community, and that is no doubt true, but if anything this proved (along with the communal dinner/documentary) that the community went much deeper then the synagogue. This community was a family, in nearly every sense of the word.
Salo Baron, the twentieth-century American historian of Jewish history was made famous for his call on Jews to reject an unnecessarily lachrymose view of Jewish history – one where the Jews have experienced nothing but hardships and persecutions and anti-Semitism until the twin messiahs of emancipation and Zionism came to rescue them from their misery. As I return to the synagogue from the mourners’ apartment, I wonder if we don’t have everything to learn from this community. Here is a community that has lived. Not just eked out an existence amidst the breaking waves of human suffering, but really lived, as a rich and close community, in glory and splendor for a thousand years. Now as the sun sets, the color fades from the synagogue’s stain-glass windows. Someone flicks on a switch, and the lights on the ceiling come to life, casting a warm glow over the variegated plaster and tile-work, and for a moment we live in the Alhambra, the whitewash swept from the brilliant luster of a bygone day.