Are there any Jews left in Morocco?

There are graves of tzaddikim in almost every city, village, mountain, valley and beachside town on the map, many of which I was blessed to be able to go to thereafter and pray at.

The Lazaama Synagogue (Synagogue of the Deportees, 1492), Marrakech. (photo credit: NILI SALEM B’SIMCHA)
The Lazaama Synagogue (Synagogue of the Deportees, 1492), Marrakech.
(photo credit: NILI SALEM B’SIMCHA)
On a whim I wandered westward for a week’s trip to Morocco to explore this passionate culture I’ve learned so much about since living in Israel, that produces delicious matbuha (red bread dip), mesmerizing Sephardic music (like the famous funky tune for “Dror Yikra”), and the stereotypes about the “Moroccan mother” notorious for covering Shabbat tables worldwide with rainbows of rich salatim (appetizers) that would stuff a sumo wrestler full upon completion of only the first course.
Alone in Arab Marrakech, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d done. I was feeling lonely and insecure in a stark marble hotel, with not much to eat but the orange I’d carried in tow and some nuts for the next day. I have traveled alone before, but I wondered whether this time I had made a mistake. I did some sightseeing, but the emptiness I felt was powerful, and so far, no sight of anything Jewish. So I plunked onto the hard bed and davened (prayed), pleading.
“Please God, I have no clue what I did by coming here, but please make it meaningful. Reveal to me the purpose of this trip. Allow me to be of service to someone, to do something holy. I am feeling so despondent.”
The next day I met the Ohayon family, humble hidden tzaddikim who took me (and a room full of other random Israeli travelers) in for Shabbat. I asked them about the Jewish community. Did it still exist? In which cities? How many people? I got my answers. A recent census reveals there are approximately 60 Jews living in Tangier, about 120 in Marrakech with a hopeful minyan on Shabbat, and about 120 families in Casablanca, the “booming” center of Judaism, in what is called the “armpit” of Morocco.
He could tell I was quite interested so he said, “Tomorrow I will show you the synagogue and the cemetery. There are tzaddikim there.” Maybe I could let go of despondency a bit... at least, I thought to myself. I will see some Jewish history, pray by the grave of a tzaddik – that’s meaningful, right? Educational? Little did I know my prayers were about to be answered in a much more “magnifique” way than I could have imagined.
When I had asked the head of the household, Monsieur Ohayon, what he did, he reported that he worked in a small hardware shop in the market. What he didn’t tell me (just yet) is how he and some of his cronies were restoring all of the old synagogues in the Mellah (the Jewish quarter), and renovating all of the 20,000 broken-down graves in the 20-hectare cemetery (from the year 1500).
After my 20th question or so, he exploded with the wonderful passion I had been expecting of Moroccan folk.
“Do you even know who is buried here? Do you know what tzaddikim are here? Six hundred and fifty of them. Huge – Gdolei hador [leaders of the generations], dayanim (the holy judges of the times), people who, according to tradition, spoke with Elijah the prophet and with Rabbi Yosef Karo. And for these spiritual giants and doers of kindness, do you know what this place looked like just a bit ago? It was in shambles, it had become like the local dump, filled with trash, with grass up to the waist, and filled with horrific snakes – big ones (he motioned the circumference with his hands). Pahad haim [the kind of fear that makes you scared for your life]. How can it be? How can we not give our ancestors kavod [respect]? Tzaddikim – covered in trash?” So he and a part of the small, aging community have dedicated every free second and penny to the project (every free second besides those hours where they busy themselves graciously hosting tourists and passersby with generous Shabbat meals and accommodation).
I looked at him slightly puzzled about how these humble people are pulling off this gigantic selfless feat and therefore asked, “Do you guys need help doing this? This seems like a big project.”
Then it all came out.
“Yes, please! It is so important to us and to the hundreds of tourists that come through every year to pray by the graves of tzaddikim and visit their ancestors. Every day I have 12 workers in here, I have had teams of teenage volunteers, but it is so much work paving the floors, restoring each broken-down grave, the lettering. Yet we have to do it... because if not us, who?” So he took me for a look, and there I saw the family names of so many friends and family... Abesera, Amar, Azug, Abitbol, Amzallag, Azoulay, Ben-Atar, Bitton, Buzaglo, Dahan, Elfassi, Elkayam, Gabbai, Hazan, Hacohen, Halevy, Kadouri, Ohayon, Oanounou, Oziel, Pinto, Sabah, Timsit. My jaw dropped as I recognized just how much of an impact the Moroccan Jewish story has had on modern day Jewish culture.
Monsieur Ohayon and his friends have even gone so far as to have the king of Morocco rename the relevant streets in the marketplace with the meanings they held when Jewish life was abounding, names like “Derb [street of] Talmud Torah.” They have even repaved the cobblestones around the former “Jew-town.”
What a mission. What an honor and pleasure to meet tzaddikim in our time – local families dedicated to the community, recording, respecting, preserving and remodeling thousands of broken-down graves of the greatest of Moroccan Jewish history. I was abashed thinking, ‘...and I spend my free minutes on Facebook?’ However, gratitude and inspiration quickly took the place of judgment... I had found the meaning I was praying for, both in the physical project and in those tzaddikim whose lives revolve around accomplishing it. More than 650 tzaddikim of yore, thousands of Jewish bodies, with special honor now being paid to those who were formerly buried less nicely in the “poor section” of the cemetery.
I was surrounded by righteousness in this foreign land and I was delighted. But it was time to get practical.
“What does it take,” I asked him, “to restore one person’s grave?” His answer was, “About $36 a plot.” Thirty-six just happens to be the gematria (numerical value) of “lamed vav” which according to hassidism is the number of hidden tzaddikim in every generation that sustain and protect the spiritual well-being of worldwide Jewry.
After this spiritually revealing visit to the cemetery, the family told me about the unbelievable Jewish history all over Morocco, about how there are graves of tzaddikim in almost every city, village, mountain, valley and beachside town on the map, many of which I was blessed to be able to go to thereafter and pray at.
I was happy about this turn of events from a slightly shallow travel escapade, to a meaningful and mind-blowing experience. So I would like to offer us all a blessing in light of what I prayed for there; may all of our (personal and communal) broken places (both physical and spiritual) be restored.
May we have the privilege of revealing the hidden righteousness of all of the incredible Jews around us, both those at rest, and those still hard at work.
For more info or to help sponsor restoration graves: .
The writer, a teacher and therapist, made aliya from Los Angeles in 2008.