From Baltimore to Morocco

Posted on January 18th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM volunteer and board member Lola Hahn.

Morocco is often described as a country of allure, mystery and beauty and we had the good fortune to spend 13 adventurous days, traveling 1,500 miles visiting cities & villages, experiencing the frenetic atmosphere in the souks (marketplaces), admiring different landscapes, taking in spectacular views of gorges & mountains, lush oases, valleys and of course, the dunes of the Sahara.

All of this was even more pleasurable as our late November weather was as mild as Baltimore in May/June. The roses were in bloom in the Riads (traditional house or palace with an interior garden; currently used as a guesthouse) and the flowers still exuded their intoxicating scent!

A very important element of Morocco’s beauty is its unique architecture.

Elaborate geometric patterns, ornamental Islamic calligraphy and colorful ceramic-tile mosaics.

Open courtyards with lavish gardens can be found at the center of most buildings and several of our hotels were fashioned in this manner.  They were created as places of privacy and relaxation.

Moroccan food offers flavorful combinations and aromatic spices which make even the most basic dishes insanely amazing. The best traditional Moroccan food is served at home, and 20 of us experienced it first hand as guests of a family in their beautiful home in Fez (the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities).

Native products included in our meal and especially important in Moroccan cooking were lemons, olives, figs, dates and almonds. We saw these products growing in different places on our trip along with other home-grown fruits and vegetables that included oranges, melons, tomatoes, and potatoes.

A major highlight for our escorted group of 20, was being transported in four-wheel drive Jeeps through the desert to an overnight camp in the Sahara. After a one hour ride by camel, we arrived in time to observe a full sunset as days in Morocco do not fade gradually.

I was mesmerized by the velvet blue night which followed the sunset seamlessly. Once the moon had risen, our private camp was surrounded by numerous brightly shining stars.

Various Moroccan cities consist of Jewish Heritage sites where we found a synagogue, a cemetery, and the Mellah (preserved Jewish quarter in an old walled area) and other sacred places. These sites are either UNESCO Heritage sites and/or protected by the King and the Moroccan government. Although there is a small population of Jews currently living in Morocco (approximately 2,000), the history of the Jews go back to pre-Christian times, when they took part in trade expeditions across the coast of Morocco. Since the Arab-Islamic colonization of Morocco from the 7th Century, Jews & Muslims had coexisted peacefully in Morocco. Jews were favored by Moroccan Arabs for their business acumen.

Towards the end of our trip, we stayed in Essouira, an Atlantic seaport (formerly known as Mogador) in western Morocco.

My husband & I visited a renovated synagogue and two Jewish cemeteries. Although there is no longer a Jewish community there, the synagogue is used when there are Jewish groups visiting Essouira. A large area of the Mellah is currently under renovation and preservation with the goal to ensure the site remain fully intact as an integral part of Morocco’s living cultural heritage. At the end of the 15th century, the Sultan had invited 10 prominent Jewish families from the key commercial centers of Morocco to settle in Mogador. These families were largely descendants of those expelled from Andalusia (Spain) and had gained a strong reputation for their skills as merchants. By the start of the 19th century, the majority of the population of Essouira was Jewish and there was as many as 40 synagogues-some private while others were community centers of worship.  Mogador was unique in that Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side up until the mid-1950s.

Visiting Morocco is truly an adventure not to be missed. The history and geography has created enormous variety in the country.  There is so much to experience from the friendly people, flavorful food, beautiful landscapes, colorful architecture and a strong cultural heritage.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A Volunteer Abroad

Posted on June 10th, 2015 by

My husband Bob just checked off one of the items on his bucket list – a trip to Morocco, a country in the northwest corner of Africa.  Lucky me went with him.  We had a fantastic time in Morocco seeing the various terrains from the fertile coastal plains, to the snow-capped mountains to the dunes of the Sahara.  And the people we met were just as varied from college educated professionals to those with no formal education; western dressed to totally covered by jallaba and scarf; living in spacious multi-floor homes to a tent in the desert.  And almost everywhere we went, we heard about the Jews who used to live there.

Wendy and Bob in Rabat, looking over at Sale.

Wendy and Bob in Rabat, looking over at Sale.

In every corner of Morocco, we heard about the Jews that moved there with the Muslims after expulsion from Spain in1492.  But, we also learned that the majority of Jews left the country between the 1950s and 1970s.   The various local guides we had all commented that the Jews wanted to move to Israel and that the Jews have always been welcome in Morocco.  But, the ultimate truth is that the non–African Arab states were putting considerable pressure on the African countries to ostracize their Jews. In spite of the pressure, we were told that there has always been a Jewish advisor to the king, even today; and, it is very common for those that have moved away to return with their children for visits and to check on their property that is rented to others.  We saw remnants of their lives sold in shops – yads, menorahs, mezuzahs, carved doors, traditional wedding rings, tefillin, jewelry, books, sections of Torah…. I found the sale of these objects and the fact that the Jews felt a need to leave an area that had been their home for hundreds of years very disturbing.

Wendy introduces herself to her ride.

Wendy introduces herself to her ride.

As we walked through the old Jewish quarters in the medinas (the walled cities) called mellahs we noticed streets with Jewish names.  We noticed telltale scars of long gone mezuzahs on doorposts and the occasional plaque marking the location of a closed synagogue.  Most of the remaining Moroccan Jews, just like the Baltimorean Jews, have moved out of the old cities into the newer sections of town.  In the old mellah in Marrakesh, we did find an active synagogue that was established in 1492 according to the plaque on the wall.  Unlike Baltimore’s B’nai Israel, there isn’t a renewal of younger congregants to replace those that are mostly elderly and are dying off.

Lazama Synagogue Mellah Marrakech

Lazama Synagogue Mellah Marrakech

Contrary to what I heard before our trip, my husband and I felt comfortable traveling openly as Jews.  It was obvious by the new Judaica (mezuzahs, hanukiahs, kiddish cups) for sale in shops and the way we were treated by the local retail salesmen and others with whom we engaged in conversation, that Jewish tourists are welcome.

Wendy DavisA blog post by volunteer Wendy Davis, JMM Docent. To read more posts by and about JMM volunteers click HERE.




Posted in jewish museum of maryland