By NATHAN EVANS
Victoria Anidjar de Abergel, 67, stands next to her intricately displayed dinner table of dates, fruits, nuts and wine glasses, speaking face-to-face with a woman who holds a well-worn Sony digital voice recorder between them. De Abergel explains that the display is for a uniquely Moroccan Jewish tradition called Mimouna, which marks the end of Passover with families throwing open their doors to friends and relatives well into the night, receiving them to eat, drink, pray and sing. Decades ago, she says, her Muslim neighbors would help gather food and even stop by her house during Mimouna celebrations. But this year, De Abergel prepared everything by herself, hosted only a few Jewish guests and no Muslims.
“It’s not the same as it used to be,” De Abergel tells Vanessa Paloma, the woman with the recorder. “There used to be so many of us.”
The North African Arab kingdom of Morocco was once home to more Jews than any other country in the Muslim world, but its Jewish population has been declining for the past 75 years. To preserve pieces of Moroccan Jewish history while a presence still exists, Paloma, a singer and scholar of Judeo-Spanish music, is collecting an expansive sound archive of Morocco’s Jews in the form of oral history and music, a collection she plans to make available as the first ever in Morocco.
Since 2007 when she was a Fulbright scholar in Morocco, Paloma, 41, has been traversing the country, interviewing mostly elderly Jews about their traditions, beliefs and experiences living in a largely Muslim nation. She also collects existing recordings of Moroccan Jewish music, photographs and handwritten books.
“I want there to be a treasure trove of information that future Moroccan generations can access, can listen to, can see and can understand a part of their history that isn’t available to them,” Paloma says.
According to Rabbi David Toledano, head of the Jewish community in Morocco’s capital of Rabat, Jews numbered 300,000 at a peak in the 1940s, making up roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. Today he says there are only around 3,000 Jews left in Morocco, most living in Casablanca and many in their sixties and older. The first wave of Moroccan Jews left around the time of the creation of Israel in 1948 and more departed at the end of the French protectorate eight years later. Most were gone by 1973, settling mainly in Israel, Europe, the U.S. and Canada.
Toledano says that Jews were typically concentrated in cities’ respective Jewish quarters, separate from Muslim and European neighborhoods. But even this residential segregation didn’t hinder Jews and Muslims from interacting daily with each other. “Jews were everywhere, so people would meet them out in the streets, at work, in schools,” Toledano says. “It was a matter of opportunity that they lived well together.”
That nearness was certainly felt by Toledano, who attended a French school in Rabat alongside Muslim students during the 1960s. It was there that he met his best friend, Ali. “He was like my brother. We were always together. We worked together, played basketball together. If we were in my house during the day, we were in his house during the evening,” he remembers. “We’re still friends.”
Toledano says that they never once spoke negatively about the other’s religion, but rather respected and even took part in each other’s traditions. During the week of Passover, he says, he would deliver kosher food to Ali’s family and his parents cooked Jewish meals for them every month. But the cultural exchanges didn’t stop with religion.
“The first time I heard American music was in Ali’s house. He had a copy of ‘Porgy and Bess’ by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and that was when my love affair with jazz began,” Toledano says.
For Jean Gabriel Tobaly, 80, and his wife, Monique Tobaly, 70, life as Jews in Morocco was not always peaceful. In the weeks following the Six Day War in 1967, when Moroccan Jews began leaving in large numbers for the second time, the two remember feeling afraid and in danger after soldiers were sent to patrol the Jewish quarter in Rabat. Mr. Tobaly, who headed a law firm at the time, says he was forbidden to plead in court and forced to send Muslim attorneys to take his place, so he and his wife fled to France for four months before returning to Morocco. “It was unbearable for us as Jews,” Mrs. Tobaly says. “We thought of leaving for good.”
But they stayed in spite of the anti-Semitism. Mrs. Tobaly says she endured in 1973, when the final wave of Jews left Morocco due to tensions reverberating from the Yom Kippur War. She was teaching an English class of all Muslims students when, suddenly, they stopped showing up.
“They didn’t want to be in the classroom with me, their teacher, and I couldn’t understand why. I knew that they liked me,” Mrs. Tobaly recalls. “I went to the headmistress, told her what was happening and she looked at me and said, ‘You are not going to suffer from racism in my school.’ So she wrote letters to the students’ parents telling them that if they don’t go to Mrs. Tobaly’s classes, they are not coming to school anymore. I had no problems after that.”
Zhor Rehihil, curator of the Museum for Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca, says that for many Muslims in Morocco today, Judaism is largely unknown simply because they don’t come into contact with Jews like their parents and grandparents did. Rehihil says that she didn’t discover Judaism herself until she was 18, when her parents told her stories about Jews they knew from their childhood.
“They talked about their Jewish friends who went to the same school, lived in the same quarter and worked together,” Rehihil says. “But my generation, we don’t know Jews. We didn’t live together, we didn’t go to the same schools.”
In spite of this disconnect, Morocco has recently been taking a fresh look at its Jewish past. In 2011, the Moroccan constitution was amended to add recognition of all linguistic components of Moroccan culture, including Hebrew. That reform and the restoration in February of a 17th century synagogue in Fes, and the subsequent call by Morocco’s monarch, King Mohammed VI, to restore all synagogues, are initiatives that Rehihil says guarantee a longtime presence of Moroccan Jewish culture.
Some are less optimistic about the future of Judaism in Morocco. Though he says difficult to predict if and when the Jewish community will die off, Toledano foresees its numbers decreasing once older Jews pass away, because he says Jewish youth are increasingly attending college and living abroad.
One student following this trend is David Tordjman, who plans to study medicine at a French university next year. Tordjman says he has no desire to return to Morocco, where he has attended Jewish school for 15 years and where his family history reaches back centuries. “I don’t want to stay because there are so few Jews left,” he says.
That desire among young Jews to leave worries Paloma, which is why she is determined to capture the stories of the elderly while they are still alive and in Morocco. “There is a small time period when we have this older Jewish generation that is still here, that is very connected to the history of the country,” she says. “They have lived through it, they have lived through independence. If we don’t capture their memories, then it’s a loss for everybody. It’s a loss for future generations. It’s history that’s lost.”