Abigail Malis

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

Posted: May 28, 2014

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.



First Day In Morocco

Posted: May 26, 2014

It is hard to believe that our first day in Morocco is already over! For many of us, I think that today was spent attempting to register that we were actually in Morocco and battling jet lag. I would argue that some of us were more successful than others.

Our flight was an early indication of the things and people we would encounter when we arrived in Morocco: young families and college students returning home for visits, other Jews coming to explore the history of the Jewish community, school groups travelling to the country to study french, Muslims who prayed in the airport before we left, and so many others.

Once we retrieved all of our lugguage, we hit the ground running in Casablanca. We made our way to a Jewish club for lunch and a breifing. On the way, we learned some history from our tour guide, Rafi. We have an incredible resource in Rafi, who is a Moroccan Jew who left Morocco as a child, only to return later in life to dedicate his time to researching and educating others on the history of the Jewish community in the country. He told us about the two Jewish communities in Morocco, the "settled" Jews and the "thrown out" Jews. The settled Jews are those who are descendents of the Jews who came to Morocco after the destruction of the second Temple and the Berber converts to Judaism. They largely lived in the southern parts of the country. The thrown out Jews are those who arrived as a result of expulsion from Spain, and they lived in the north of the country. These two Jewish communities lived seperately for many years, though it appears that the destinction is less clear in the modern Jewish community.

Rafi told us that at its peak, the Jewish community in Morocco was nearly 300,000, though now the community numbers around 4,000 individuals. The largest portion of the community lives in Casablanca, and I was surprised to learn that despite the small size, Casablanca is home to a large number of synagogues, Jewish butchers, kosher restaurants, Jewish schools, and Jewish clubs. According to Rafi, though the community is small, it is fairly traditional in its observance.

We had the opportunity to meet with the US Consul General to get a greater understanding of the relationship between the US and Morocco. We were also briefed on the history of JDC in the area, and JDC's work in Morocco. These briefings gave us a great context for the rest of the trip, and will be especially helpful in the site visits that we will attend tomorrow!

We finished the "content" portion of our day with a visit to the Jewish Museum, which is the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. Inside, we got to see an amazing collection of Judaica that were collected from old synagogues, genizot, and members of the Jewish community from across the country. This museum highlighted the rich history of the Jewish community in Morocco, which we will get to learn even more about as the trip progresses. I was really interested to learn that the king of Morocco has been very intentional in mandating that all Moroccan students learn about the history of the Jewish community in the country and about the Holocaust.

We ended our day with some much needed rest time and a delicious dinner. It is exciting to see our group start to gel together! We are 17 young adults from across the country with very different careers, backgrounds, and levels of engagement in the Jewish community, yet we have come together with a shared interest in exploring this unique place and Jewish community. I am so excited to see what the week holds for us!



Abigail Malis uploaded new photos into Morocco 2014
May 28, 2014 2:49:16 AM
May 27, 2014 3:45:46 AM
May 26, 2014 11:51:28 PM


Abigail Malis
Joined: May 22, 2014






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