"The air peculiar to us": Reflections on our second day in Morocco

One of the reasons that I wanted to go on a trip with JDC Entwine was to have the opportunity to interract with a Jewish community outside of the US or Israel and to explore the concept of global Jewish peoplehood. Our second day in Morocco gave me that opportunity.

We spent the day visiting different organizations that JDC helps to support in Casablanca which included an all Jewish primary school, a Jewish and Muslim high school, a free health clinic, and two residences for the elderly. It was incredible to see how JDC helps to support the Moroccan Jewish community throughout the life course.

Throughout our visits, one word kept coming to mind: "language." More specifically, I kept thinking about the role that language played in uniting or dividing our group with the members of the Jewish community who we visited. I do not speak French or Arabic, the main languages in Morocco and many of the people we visited with do not speak English- this created a natural barrier between us. It is much more difficult to really learn about someones life without being able to engage in a meaningful conversation with them and I found it frustrating!

Despite my frustration, there were incredible moments of connection during our visits. We found that a number of the elderly residents, particularly those who were originally from northern Morocco, spoke Spanish. A few members of our group are fluent in Spanish, and while I have not really made use of my Spanish since high school, I can understand a lot when I hear it. Suddenly, a large language barrier was diminished. I also witnessed language being defined as much more than native dialect as I watched our group connect with the Muslim and Jewish high school students over soccer, Justin Timberlake, selfies, and plans for the future.

Amidst all of the connections that I witnessed, what was most striking to me was the impact of having a common Jewish language. In the primary school, the students were too young to have started learning English, which meant that most of us interacted with them through gestures and games. When we went into classrooms to observe, however, they pulled out their siddurim and I felt an immediate connection. Sure, they were using a different version than I do at home, but the liturgy was the same. As they began singing prayers for us, I found myself joining in on common tunes. In the last class we visited, we sang "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" together, a reminder of our shared love for Israel. In the old age home, we also found ourselves singing Hebrew songs with the residents, many of whom could not interact verbally with others in any language.

As we went through the day, I couldn't help but think about an article I read in graduate school by Leon Wieseltier entitled "Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Judaism" (2011). Wieseltier's main claim in the article is that American Judaism is in trouble because American Jews are largely illiterate in Jewish languages. This illiteracy means that American Jews can neither fully learn about their people’s history nor can they create authentically Jewish works. Now, I don't think that this is the time or place to engage in a full conversation about this article, but it definitely came to mind as I thought about the commonalities that unite Jews across the world and the role that Hebrew knowledge does and could play. In the article, Wieseltier writes that: “Our language is our incommensurable inflection of our humanity, our unique way of presenting, not least to ourselves, what is our unique way through the world. Our language is our element, our beginning, our air, the air peculiar to us” (Wieseltier, 17). On our second day in Morocco, I think that we learned that language can be defined in many different ways and that Jews all over the world do share many things in common. Our visits are also challenging me to think about the ways that we can strengthen our common language and thus our connections to one another.

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May 28, 2014 at 2:48 AM




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