The Jews of Morocco, by Ralph G. Bennett

Researching your ancestors is always challenging : tracing routes through foreign lands, finding birth certificates, deciding between different spellings of a name. No matter what the results, however, the search itself can be fascinating. I find this particularly true for those of us with roots in the culturally-rich Jewish communities of Morocco.

Including the worshipping of Muslim saints by Jews and Jewish saints by Muslims, there is an ancient history of Jews and Arabs living an integrated life in Morocco. Despite this, the Jewish community was eventually restricted to ghettos. Ghetto living was no less deplorable here than elsewhere. However, because of the concentration and relative safety of these communities, traditions were able to thrive here well into the twentieth century. At the end of this article, you will find a list of books I have compiled. You will find tips for researching your own family tree, in addition to a general sense of the communities from which your family may have come. First, let me briefly relate a history of the area so that you can see how strongly Jewish, yet characteristic of the Arab world, your search will be.

Legend brings Jews to North Africa long before the Romans. Indeed, history finds Hebrew inscriptions on tombstones near modern-day Fez in Morocco, or Mauritania as it was then called, at the time of the Romans. It seems it was the indigenous Berber population that first converted to Judaism. Until the fifth century, these Jewish Berbers enjoyed equal rights with Muslims Berbers.

In the late seventh century, however, Muslim Arabs swept through Northwest Africa briinging Islam with them. In Morocco they stumbled across the phenomena of Jewish Berber tribes. The legendary leader of one such tribe, Queen Cahina, managed to hold the invaders off against great odds for several years, but eventually the Muslims won. By the eight century, Jews had become a minority, living in small mountain and desert communities.

The most glorious period of Moroccan Jewry began right at the end of the eigth century under Idris II. In 788, Idris the First had seized control of Morocco from the jurisdiction of Muslim Baghdad. His successor, Idris II, opened his new capital of Fez to Jewish settlers. Fez soon became known as a great cultural and intellectual center. Not only was Fez home to many of the greatest early Hebrew scholars, including Dunash ibn Labarat (c. 920 - c. 990), Judah ben David Hayyuj (c. 940 - c. 1010), and R. Yitzhaq Alfasi (1013-1103) who was the first post-Talmudic codifier of Jewish law, byt Maimonides (1135-1204) himself was drawn from Spain to live and work for several years amongst the other great thinkers of his time.

A new period of persecution of Jews began in the twelfth century. Under the rule of Almohad (1146-1267) Jews were required to wear identification. In 1438, the first Jewish ghetto or mellah, as they are called in Morocco, was created in Fez. By the early nineteenth century, this oppressed population would be confined to mellahs in all major cities by the ruler Mulay Sulayman (1792-1822).

A greater number of Jews in Morocco

Although many of the persecuted fled for other lands, an even greater number continued to arrive in Morocco looking for relief from intolerable situations elsewhere. In the seventh century, Morocco had seen an influx of maltreated Jews from Spain. In the fifteenth century, their numbers swelled due to the immigrants from both Spain and Portugal. These "exiles" or m'gorashim, as they were called, settled primarily on the Northern coast. At first toshavim, or "residents", would not allow any mingling with these Sephardic outcasts. The toshavim remained Arab-speaking while the m'gorashim remained primarily speakers of Castilian Spanish.

The Sephardim gained prestige, however, in the 1600's when parts of the Atlantic coast of Morocco were taken over by the Portuguese. The European roots of the "exiles" made them suddenly invaluable as diplomats between Arab rulers and Christian kings. As these Jews became the new cultural elite, the m'gorashim began to be accepted by the toshavim in Northern cities such as Tetuan and Tangier. A new language developed which was a combination of Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic.

History at this point takes on a cyclical qality with Jews alternately gaining in importance, especially as diplomats, and then suffering under Muslim attacks. For example, under Sultan Mulay Muhammed (1757-1790), the only envoys to Western countries were Jewish statesmen. His son Mulay al-Yazid, however, massacred hundreds of Jews, including dozens of leaders, in revenge for a refused loan. European intervention in the nineteenth century served to protect Jews whose services were needed. Meanwhile, the Jewish community in general became the scapegoat for the Muslims whenever they disagreed with European actions. Not only did many Jews die in pogroms, but also in major epidemics, worsened by the fact of their confinement in urban mellahs.

This situation continued into the twentieth century with Jewish advancement occasionally darked by explosions of Muslim wrath. Once France had established itself as a protectorate in 1912, however, these explosions were both less frequent and less violent and could be said to have been outweighed by Jewish advancement. Many Jews living in coastal cities benefitted from a French-style education. A middle class of professionals and officials emerged. There was, of course, a flip side to this Westernization. Among many segments of the population, there was a gradual abondonment of Jewish traditions.

While a middle class was developing in the coastal communities, inland life was proceeding much as it had in the middle ages. There was really no medium status between the very rich and the poor. People still spoke the ancient languages of Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Berber. Their education was minimal, taking place as it did almost exclusively in the old-fashioned kuttab, a system of schooling similar to the Eastern European heder, in which children learned only Hebrew, the Bible, and the prayer book. The majority of the inhabitants worked in the service industry or as craftsmen or retailers. They were treated with contempt by the surrounding Arab and Berber populations. The grim reality was that they had to stick close to their mellahs for protection.

The bare bones existence of the Jews of Morocco may look bleak, but something must have kept their communities flourishing; it appears they were sustained by a profound sense of distinctive Jewish culture. Reports from European travellers in the nineteenth century confirmed this richness on a superficial level. The beauty of the Moroccan Jewesses, proudly decked in lavish-colored cloth and jewels, was particularly noted. Indeed, the reputation of Jewish craftsmen for their gold and silver making, as well as leather work and cloth embroidery, went far beyond the confines of the mellah. Decorative clothing, however, is only a small indication of the opulent traditions that filled daily life. There were rituals to mark every passage from birth to death, from the annual celebrations to the daily visits to the rabbi.

Ancient traditions were numerous

Ironically, many of these traditions were shared and sometimes even originated with the Arab and Berber populations. As we know, different groups worshipped many of the same saints. They also had a mutual fear of the evil eye, or jinn, as it was called. The jinn was a constant threat. Death, especially the unnaturally high number of deaths due to poor living conditions in the mellah, was often attributed to the evil eye. The ward off such bad luck, a khamsa was worn as a defense against the jinn. The khamsa (wich means five), a flat silver or brass decorated hand, created by the Jewish craftsmen, was worn by jews and Muslims alike.

As a last example of the ancient traditions that strengthened the persecuted communities of Morocco, there was the qasida. The qasida is an oral poem, often quite long, with a complicated rhyme structure. Once again, this tradition was of Arab origin, although from pre-Islamic times. The qasida was used for the passage of information, primiraly by women. Of course, these women adapted the poems for their own use. For this reason, the tradition stayed alive as in integral part of daily life. In the twentieth century, poets spread information to their listeners about relevant topics such as the rise of Hitler to power and the establishment of a Jewish state, called Israel, as a safe haven from discrimination.

Thus far, we have a picture of Moroccan Jewish life into the twentieth century, yet, the situation had changed dramatically by the 1950s. One reason was the mass migrations away from the smallest mellahs and toward the cities had started in the twenties. By the forties, many of the smallest mellahs, those in the Atlas mountains and the pre-Sahara desert region, had simply disappeared.

Favor of the largest cities

Life could not be sustained in communities drained of all its youth. Even the mid-sized urban centers, after their initial attraction, were abandoned in favor of the largest of cities. Between 1940 and 1950, for example, the Jewish population of Casablanca swelled by 15,000 to make it home to 34 percent of all Morocco's Jews.

Unfortunately, the voluminous relocation of people to the big cities meant that conditions of overcrowding became even worse within the confines of the ghetto. Lack of hygiene and sunlight resulted in higher mortality rates than in the surrounding Muslim community. For an idea of the disproportion of overpopulation in the Jewish area, the statistics of inhabitants per 1,000 square meters in Marrakesh, South Morocco's largest city in 1949, are as follows : 35 in the European section, 450 in the Muslim, and 1,300 in the Jewish. That is an average 1.3 people per square meter in the ghetto. With such a dense concentration of people, it is no wonder that in 1952, 50% of all Jewish children in Casablanca died before reaching adolescence.

Along with overcrowding, conditions of poor hygiene, lack of sunlight, and general poverty threatened the largest part of the population, and there was increased apathy towards community traditions and activities. Formerly, those individuals with riches did not flaunt them. In the 1940's, however, all this changed, and the wealthy became the community leaders while the impoverished made up 80 to 90 percent of the population. In the city of Taroudannt, the number of homeless being supported by the community was as high as 40%. While most of the people struggled to survive, the afluent were responsible for keeping the community afloat. This is very evident in voting statistics : out of the 75,000 inhabitants of Casablanca in the fifties, only 145 were voters.

Such statistics are particularly shocking when you consider that, in 1952, the largest group of Jews living in Northwest Africa were in Morocco. Nevertheless, the migrations had begun. The youths of the big cities continued to search for a better life. Having moved first from the smallest of mountain and desert communities, next to the regional centers, and finally to the biggest of cities, they departed for the advancement possibilities of Israel (starting in 1949), France, and the world in general. In many cases, they left the traditions of their parents behind them.

As you can see, the reading alone of Jewish Moroccan history can be fascinating, but the question is how you and your ancestors fit into this picture. In your search you may be confronted with French, Arab, Spanish, or Hebrew-speaking ancestors. The mellah from which your ancestors came may no longer exist, especially if it was in the south of Morocco. The good news is that most of these segregated communities did not disappear until this century. That said, let's find out what sources are available, the first being, of course, national archives, libraries, and public records.

Bibliohtèque Générale et Archives du Maroc
Avenue Moulay Ali Cherif
Rabat, Morocco

Bibliothèque Générale et Archives de Tétouan
3 avenue Mohammed V, B.P. 41
Tétouan, Morocco

Bibliothèque municipale
Avenue Général d'Amande
Casablanca, Morocco

Al Qarawiyin University Library
Fez, Morocco

Biblioteca Publica Española
Consulado General de España
26 Avenida de España
Tangier, Morocco

According to How to Find Your Family Roots by Timothy Beard : Birth certificates can be obtained from the Municipal Services (Bureau de l'Etat) by European residents or former residents, born after 1912. If Moroccan Muslims and Moroccan Jews are in possession of a Livret de Famille they may obtain birth certificates from the civil authorities having jurisdiction over their place of birth. If they are not in possession of a Livret de Famille they must obtain one before requesting a birth certificate.

Because so much of the fun in genealogical research is imagining what the lives of your ancestors were like, including what they wore, their customs, their jobs, I have included some general historical sources as well :

- Ausubel, Nathan, Pictoral History of Jewish People, New York, Crown Publishers, 1975. (Contains brief description of Jewish life in many countries of the world including Morocco).

- Beard, Timothy, How to Find Your Family Roots, New York, McGraw Hill, 1977. (Contains genealogical source material for virtually every country in the world, although not geared primarily toward Jewish interests).

- Bernet, Michael, Between East & West : A History of the Jews in North Africa, Philadelphia, JPS, 1968.

- Charing, Douglas, The Jewish World, Morristown, New Jersey, Silver Burdett Company, 1985.

- Encyclopedia Judaica, Jerusalem, Macmillan Co., 1971.

- Patai, Raphael, The Vanished Worlds of Jewry, New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980. (Contains detailed description of Jewish life in many countries of the world including Morocco).

- Schechtman, Joseph B., On Wings of Eagless, 1961.

- Stillman, Norman, The Jews of Arab Lands, New York, JPS, 1979.

I conclude by wishing you luck in your research. Tracing your family tree is much like putting a puzzle together. The challenge of genealogy is that the puzzle pieces don't come all nicely boxed together but instead have to be hunted down once piece at a time. There is pleasure in both finding a solitary piece and watching how it fits into a greater picture. I hope the above information will help you find the missing pieces in the rich puzzle of your family's Moroccan Jewish past.

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- Copyright © 1997 Moïse Rahmani <> -