Reconnecting with Morocco

     I sit aboard a silver, cylindrical time machine which, through the marvel of modern technology, transports me back sixty seven years in eleven and a half short soaring hours.

     In 1948, with the birth of the Jewish state, my father’s parents and 263,000 other hopeful Jews, gathered their belongings and left their homes in Morocco for a better life in Israel. As the government forbade aliyah at the time, my grandfather bid his parents Eliahu Ashash and Ester Ruini farewell, and escaped Fez undercover and alone. My grandmother and her family traveled under a fake medical visa from Fez to Ushta, in northern Morocco, and then to Algiers, where they camped in a park for a month awaiting their boat to Marseilles.

     Both grandparents, sporting fake German names despite their olive skin, were packed like sardines for eight seasick days aboard The Panyork to Haifa, where their excitement at arriving in Israel and receiving fresh bread was quickly dampened by the harsh living conditions.

     After meeting my grandfather through a family friend, raising three sons and working as a bus driver for the army and as a bank teller, my grandmother is now retired and lives in Haifa.  My grandfather, a carpenter, passed away from pancreatic cancer several years ago.

     I have never self-identified as Moroccan.

     Maybe growing up as Jewish, Israeli, American has forged a sufficient multiple personality disorder, or possibly associating with an Arabic country feels antithetical, but that half of my history has always seemed too distant to breach my individuality. After all, Morocco was a yet unseen country, whose citizens speak two foreign languages, which is insulated from my history by a two generation gap.

     Of course I cherish, and try desperately to replicate, my grandmother’s countless delicious holiday and Friday night meals, but the words Moroccan food have always been indivisible to me.

     And I remember laughing along contagiously at the incomprehensible Moroccan Arabic jokes while my family played cards at my grandparent’s kitchen table, and how my father teasingly called my little brother “Morrocai” during his childhood tantrums, but those experiences were always adjunct and tangential.

     As such, although I love both the anticipation and adventure of travel, the notion of visiting far-off treacherous Morocco was always too unfeasible and outrageous to top my destination bucket list. Upon receiving an advertisement for the Joint Distribution Committee’s “JDC Entwine - Inside Jewish Morocco” trip for young professionals, however, the honor of being the first family member to return to the kingdom of Morocco quickly dissolved any hesitations or apprehensions.

     Paint and buildings, names and borders, governments and rulers, change: land does not.

     After flying nearly 6,000 miles over land and sea, the views during the descent into Mohammed V International Airport, Morocco were shockingly indiscriminate. Maybe my organizational preparations eclipsed my emotional forethought, or perhaps the eight exhausting airborne hours elicited unfounded expectations of avian migratory instinct, but I was stunned by the pause of familiarity, meaning and ownership towards my first glimpses of the dirt and water.

     Aground, I logically accepted, but remained surprised, that the generic 80’s European style airport and freeways appeared remarkably nondescript. So after lunch at Casablanca’s Jewish Museum (the only one of its kind in an Arab nation) my tide of curiosity drowned my jet lag and fatigue as I glued my wide eyed face to the bus window to soak in and internalize that dirt and water on the road to Fez.

     For our first dinner in Morocco, we feasted on delicious lamb, salads and fresh bread in a wonderfully ornate palace, while belly dancers and fire breathers performed on stage and the wine slowly stoked my immersion. Stuffed and satiated, the performers yanked a fellow female traveler and me from our seats, and to the back of the restaurant, where I was dressed in a long gold and white robe and a fez hat, and she was adorned in umpteen layers of cloth, jewelry and head pieces.  In a grand celebration of the trip’s commencement, we were paraded through the crowd and on stage, danced to the music of the mandolins and drums and may have accidentally gotten married. 

     I remember my elation at receiving the coveted acceptance email, and my grandmother’s joy when she learned that my Entwine trip would be the first of its kind to visit my grandfather’s and her birthplace, Fez. I read over the itinerary several times before spotting an excursion to the Fez Jewish cemetery nestled within the hectic schedule, and understanding that consequentially I would have the amazing opportunity to visit my family’s gravesites.

     Fueled by vivid excitement, I spent many hours preparing for our second day’s excursion to Mellah, the Jewish quarter in Fez where my family used to live. I emailed my great grandparent’s names to our trip organizers, hoping that coordination would increase the odds of finding my family’s history and gravesites. I ordered yahrzeit candles from Amazon, nabbed a box of matches and packed my favorite kippah. I recorded pages of recollected family stories over Skype as my uncle navigated my grandmother through Google Satellite images in search of recognizable intersections or street names. Unfortunately, childhood memories are not often formed in birds-eye-view.  For those wishing to garner infinite grandchild mench points, help your grandparent recall their childhood memories: she started dreaming about her childhood in Morocco. 

     After stepping through the bright blue guarded and locked cemetery door, the friendly elderly groundskeeper ushered me away from the group’s tour and into a small white van for a ride to his worn and cluttered workshop 500 feet away.  He dislodged two thick black binders and we flipped through the reams of typed dates, ages, coordinates and names in search of Ashash and Ruini.

     I leaned closely over the tidy alphabetized books, awestruck while both my camera and cellphone flashed away impulsively and incessantly at the rows of family member’s names.  We walked to the nearby sector, listed to contain my great grandmother’s grave, where we found the words Ester Ruini hidden in the middle of a headstone’s inscription paragraph. I lit a candle, placed it on her grave and joined his soft mumbled Yahrzeit prayer.

     Although my great grandfather’s gravesite was harder to find among the worn but legible inscriptions in his dense sector of the cemetery, and I had to return to bless his gravesite after the amiable groundskeeper successfully continued his search, the amazing experience of finding my roots and history was so fatefully and remarkably easy. As the Fez cemetery was on our itinerary, in view and walking distance from my hotel room, and was so well-kept and organized, I felt deeply blessed for the once in a lifetime opportunity, and thankful to the JDC and the leaders of the Moroccan Jewish community.

     The rest of the trip was a tagine and tea-intoxicated, hyper-immersive, educational and awe inspiring look into the landmarks, politics, organization and aid of the Jewish communities and Moroccan culture in Fez, Meknes, Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakech.  We witnessed the strong brotherly ties between Arab and Jewish high school students, we were dressed in robes and ferried by horse-drawn carriages to a Shabbat dinner in a former palace, and we drank tea at the historic home of the US Consul General, who sports a tongue stud and an ankle tattoo.

     Back home in San Diego, and able to see the forest through the trees, I can now understand that the moral of this story lies beyond the appreciation (and shameless advertising) for the astounding JDC Entwine program, the enlightenment of travel or a nod to Morocco tourism, but that truly meaningful and illuminating travel opportunities to rekindle even disjointed appreciation and understanding of family history, are paramount, feasible and incredibly rewarding.

JDC Entwine is a one-of-a-kind movement for young Jewish leaders, influencers, and advocates who seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues. We do this by offering service experiences in Jewish communities around the world, educational events and programs, and leadership development opportunities.

 

Written By

May 22, 2015 at 11:03 AM

 

 

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