The Human Spirit: His father's house

It is as if nothing has changed, except that the Jews are gone.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
In 1516, when the Jews of Venice had to move into the old foundry district - ghetto in Venetian - their brethren in Fez, Morocco, had already been living in the cramped old salt market for more than 250 years. Just as the name "ghetto" stuck for Jewish quarters in Europe, so mellah, from the word for salt, became the generic name for Jewish quarters in Moroccan cities. Mellah sounds better than ghetto, but shared many of the features: crowding, distinctive hats, restrictions on building, and heavy taxes. There were times when Moroccan Jews had to go barefoot outside the mellah or were obliged to wear uncomfortable footwear. Trouble alternated with periods of relatively tranquil relationships in which the People of the Book enjoyed a protected status in Islam and were allowed to practice Judaism as long as they paid the steep tax, known as jizia. I've come on a maiden trip to Morocco with 41 American teenagers, 18-year-old graduates of city high schools, participants in the Young Judaea Year Course. As part of this new Gap Year program in Israel, they are visiting five Diaspora countries that were significant in the history of Zionism. Frankly, I'm expecting them to be more rambunctious. But five months of studying and volunteering in tough neighborhoods in Israel have matured them. The trips to England, France and the death camps of Poland have sobered them. They're sensitive to the paradoxes in the history and present. On one hand, there's a campaign to name the late Moroccan King Muhammad V as a righteous gentile. On the other, there are clear signs of persecution. The locals say life is wonderful for the Jews in this Muslim country, but wherever these American Jewish youngsters go, security is heavy (stepped up even more because of the killing of Hizbullah leader Imad Mughniyeh and threats against Israelis and Americans). Observant Jews they meet are reluctant to wear kippot. Over the past half year, the frame of reference of these American kids has changed. They compare Jewish life in Morocco to Israel, not to Seattle or Highland Park. "The community members managed to live here for generations, to survive and some even to prosper," says Shayna Moliver, from Connecticut, when visiting the Fez cemetery, where famous Jews are buried among common folk. "Fortunately, when things got tough, they had Israel to go to." AMONG THOSE shepherding the youngsters is Moshik Toledano. A sabra, Moshik can trace his family history back 500 years, since his ancestors left Toledo, Spain, to escape the Inquisition and remain Jewish. His branch of this illustrious family moved first to Salonika, then to Fez, and finally in the 17th century, when Sultan Moulay Ismail built a new imperial capital, to Meknes. The trade city of Meknes drew Jews, and became a yeshiva town. In the 1940s a match was made between Moshik's paternal grandmother Zohara Calfon, then 17, with his grandfather Eliahu Toledano, then 28. The spoiled youngest daughter of a more affluent if less distinguished family, Zohara insisted that her parents send donkey-loads of treats after she moved in with the Toledanos. Moshik's father Ya'acov, the oldest of six children, became an activist in the underground Zionist movement, and pressed his parents to make aliya. After a week-long celebration of Ya'acov's bar mitzva in 1955, the family indeed moved to Israel. At a youth movement gathering Ya'acov met his China-born Ashkenazi future wife. He went on to become the mayor of Migdal Ha'emek. Moshik inherited his father's dark-eyed Moroccan looks and his rebellious streak. Only under duress did he agree to his parents' demands that he have a bar mitzva. Moshik hasn't been called up to the Torah since. EARLY FRIDAY morning we arrive in Meknes. In front of a no-longer-functioning Jewish school we meet a slim Moroccan man named Faoud Dekkaki and follow him through the labyrinth of alleys into the heart of the mellah. A matron, her hair modestly covered with a scarf, carries unbaked bread to the old communal oven along the winding alleys of the cinnamon, rosewater and cumin-scented market, sidestepping donkeys carrying heavy loads. It is as if nothing has changed, except that the Jews are gone. Faoud Dekkaki is a manufacturer of decorative fireplace bellows. He welcomes us across the threshold of his home, and voila we are inside Moshik's grandparents' home. The large living room is the now-closed-in patio where relatives and friends feted the bar mitzva of Ya'acov Toledano for six nights before the family left Morocco. Moshik tells the students his story. Then he phones his dad in Israel to find his father's room. Up some stairs, the reddish floor and wall tiles are still in place. Moshik's usual unflappable manner changes; he purses his lips, his face lines with emotion. This is where his father's Zionist dreams were born, deep inside the mellah of Meknes. On the phone, Ya'acov Toledano is thrilled at having his sabra son in the house that sheltered Toledanos for 200 years. We see the rest of the house, where the Toledanos kept their livestock, the well right in the kitchen from which water is still drawn. Faoud's wife and sister serve sweet mint tea and homemade bread. Moshik and Fouad exchange gifts. Fouad gets a Koran encased in a mother-of-pearl box from Jerusalem. Moshik receives a giant fireplace bellows. THE TEENS know Moshik and are spellbound by the Toledano story. Later, family stories pour out of them. A blue-eyed girl named Alexandra explains how she came to be born in Chile, the grandchild of someone escaping Hitler in Italy who found refuge and an Argentina-born wife in the Jewish community there. Now she lives in Hawaii. Several live in Puerto Rico, their families refugees first from Europe and then Cuba, leaving that safe haven after Castro came to power. A girl from Florida says her father first lived in Iran. Afterward, Moshik brushes off my question about the visit impacting him. "It was very emotional, but nothing changed for me," he says. "I was in a good place before visiting my father's home and I'm in a good place now." Our group arrives in Casablanca, the last active Jewish community in Morocco, for Shabbat. At services in the Neveh Shalom synagogue, each of the young men in our group is offered a chance to be called up to the Torah. Moshik, too. Someone has told the men his story. From the women's section above, I wonder what he will do. He rises and chants the blessings: You have chosen us from all the people of the earth and granted us the Torah. The gabbai who has heard his pedigree showers him with good wishes. I whisper to the Moroccan woman sitting next to me in the upstairs balcony that Moshik is a genuine Toledano from Meknes. Her eyes open wide. "I, too, am a Toledano from Meknes." She knew Eliahu and Zohara. Her name is also Zohara. After services she hurries to meet her cousin from Jerusalem. FORTY COMELY Moroccan Jewish 12th graders join the 41 Young Judaeans for lunch. In a jumble of French, Spanish, Hebrew and English the teenagers manage to make themselves understood. There's a lot of non-verbal communication, and soon it's hard to tell who is who. The perky conversation is mainly about the future - what they want to study, where they want to live, when they're spending time in Israel. I'm feeling good, thinking how much better it is to plan where you are going when you know from whence you have come.