Evidence of Morocco’s 3,000-year-old Jewish heritage can also be found in the 2014-reopened Slat al Fassayine Synagogue in Fes. The newly restored 17th-century synagogue, the oldest in Fes played a significant role in the life of the city’s once 30,000-strong, Jewish community. It is estimated that 1,000 – 3,000 Jews continue to live in Morocco today.
Chefchaouen – Morocco’s “Blue City”
Among our favorite stopovers in Morocco, this artsy, blue-washed mountain village of 45,000 is uniquely beautiful, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Rif Mountains. Chefchaouen medina is certainly one of the loveliest in all of Morocco, small and uncrowded, easy to explore. Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 and dominated the merchant route between Tétouan and Fez. The city prospered during the 15th and 17th when the Moriscos (i.e. Muslims converted to Christianity) and Jews arrived, after being expelled from Spain. Chefchaouen was later painted blue by Jewish refugees in the 1930’s fleeing Nazi oppression. In Judaism, blue represents the sky and heavens – the blue colors reminding all to live a life of spiritual awareness. It is also believed that blue acts as an effective mosquito repellent! Interestingly, the adjacent countryside is known for being an abundant source of cannabis, with hashish widely sold in Chefchaouen (!) Wool garments and woven blankets are the shopping opportunities here.
Please note this insightful article in the November 4th – 10th, 2017 Economist issue, illuminating Morocco’s Jewish legacy as it relates to the seaside town of Essaouira.
Essaouira, a little idyll of Jewish-Muslim coexistence
Once a year the little seaside town of Essaouira, in Morocco, reclaims its lost Jewish community. Sephardic trills echo from whitewashed synagogues. The medieval souks fill with Jewish skullcaps. Rabbis and cantors wish Muslims “Shabbat Shalom” and regale them with Hebrew incantations. “It’s our culture,” says a merchant from Marrakech, who traveled 200km (124 miles) to hear them this year.
The revival is the initiative of Andre Azoulay, a 76-year-old Jew from Essaouira (one of just three) and a former counselor to Morocco’s kings. Each autumn he stages a colorful festival of Andulasian music aimed at bringing hundreds of Jews and Muslims together for a weekend of concerts and dialogue. Locals pack the small stadium to watch Hebrew cantors and Koran-reciters sing arm-in-arm. Israelis and Palestinians flock there, too. “Essaouira is what the Middle East once was and might yet be again,” says Mr. Azoulay.
When Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, many fled to Morocco. The Jewish population in the kingdom rose to over 250,000 by 1948 when the state of Israel was born. In the ensuing decades, as Arab-Jewish tensions increased, many left. Fewer than 2,500 remain – still more than anywhere else in the Arab world.
No Arab country has gone to the lengths of Morocco to revive its Jewish heritage. The Kingdom has restored 110 synagogues, such as Slat Lkahal, which opened in Essaouira during the festival. A center for Judeo-Islamic studies is set to open in the old kasbah this year. The kingdom also boasts the Arab world’s only Jewish museum. “We used to have a six-pointed star on our flag and coins, like Israel,” says Zhor Rehihil, the curator (who is Muslim). “It was changed under French rule to five.”
Morocco and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations, but over 0,000 Israelis visit the kingdom each year. A new charter flight from Tel Aviv to Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, began operating this summer. It stops in Malta for half an hour to maintain the pretense that there are still no direct flights between the countries. Morocco also issues hundreds of passports each year to Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent, of whom there are almost half a million – “the better to travel in the Arab world,” says a recent recipient. It takes a month, no security questions asked.