Who Can Forget The Taste of Jam?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Le Retournement de L’Histoire, by Andre El Baz

A paperback copy of a French-language book etched in my memory was entitled “Le Gout des Confitures” (“The Taste of Jam”). It was authored by Bob Ore, a Moroccan-born, Jewish businessman I knew long ago in his art-dealing capacity in Montreal. Forced by the Arab hostility toward Jews aroused in 1948 when Israel was declared a state — an anger that became dangerous when Morocco ceased to be a French protectorate in 1956 —   he sought a new version of his life in other countries. After first attempting to settle in both France and Israel, Ore immigrated to French-speaking Montreal. Like many immigrants, his book explains, he never felt completely at home anywhere other than the land of his birth. In France, he was not French enough; in Israel, he was not a sabra; in Quebec, he was not Quebecois, but at least, au moins, he was not un anglais (although he spoke both English and French fluently).

His yearning for the sunny skies, the flowers, the multiple cultures and languages of Morocco, and especially the friendships scattered around the world, express the loss of what was once near and dear felt by first-generation immigrants everywhere.

In the years before Ore found his way to Canada, with lots of business acumen to sustain him, 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco. They had lived in that North African country for centuries, even thousands of years, many emigrating there long before the Romans conquered Israel and destroyed the Temple in the early common era. Native to Morocco when those first Jewish immigrants arrived were the Berbers, and the Jews got along with that indigenous population very well. In fact, a considerable number of Berbers even converted to Judaism. Morocco grew prosperous.

In the 15th and 16th centuries C.E., the Spanish Inquisition brought a different group of Jewish immigrants to the island, this time conversos fleeing for their lives. Seemingly converted to Christianity, most of them lived secret lives as Jews. Even so, the long arm of the Inquisition tried to reach into Morocco to punish the secret Jews they detected, but with little success. The Moroccan population did not cooperate. Why disturb the country’s prosperity, aided in large measure by the Jews? And the Jewish community continued to build and celebrate a substantial Jewish life.

Today, a large drawing by a contemporary artist is prominently displayed in the small, four-room Jewish museum in Casablanca. It depicts many of the  Inquisition’s “penitents.” They are being forced to repent for the crime of remaining Jewish, and so they wear tall, pointed hats to mark their humiliation and reduced status. Some penitents are depicted with ropes around their necks. Since they have renounced Judaism, they will suffer an easier death: they will be strangled before being burnt at the stake.

The museum itself portrays a different message. Attractively built in recent years, the museum is sponsored by King Hassan II. Like his father, King Mohammed VI, before him, who tried to protect Moroccan Jews from the French Vichy regime during World War II, Hassan promotes harmony and toleration in his kingdom. At the entrance, a large plaque bearing the king’s signature and commemorating the opening of the museum, proclaims that all peoples and religions may live in harmony and peace together in Morocco. There is a picture of the head of the Jewish community shaking hands with a government official.

Billed as the only Jewish museum in the Arab world, it has multiple cases filled with magnificent antique Berber jewelry. Photographs of Jews living happily in Morocco decorate the walls throughout the four rooms. A large bima (platform) from a Casablanca synagogue that formerly existed stands in the middle of the largest room. I climbed the steps to the bima and looked over the dark-wood railing, a rabbi addressing the congregation that wasn’t there. The ark holds three large Torahs clothed in soft, velvet mantles, which rather surprised me. I had expected cylindrical Sephardic Torahs.  Some of the most interesting contents of the museum can be viewed on multiple sites on the Internet. Many of the artifacts depicting Jewish life, however, are from the 1950s.

But where are the Jews now? The Moroccan climate is great; the food is fantastic; the people are welcoming; the newly restored but small synagogue is there. It provides a considerable contrast to Casablanca’s magnificent Hassan II Mosque (completed in 1993), the largest in Africa and fifth largest in the world, and elaborately built at such great cost (reputed to be $800 million),with hand-carvings decorating every inch and a retractable roof (there is no air-conditioning), its construction (completed in 1993) nearly bankrupted Morocco, and the citizenry had to be taxed to pay for it. It has a capacity of 25,000 inside and another 80,000 outside for large holidays like Ramadan. As I was guided through, I was awed by its immensity – the minaret stands at 60 stories high, it faces the Atlantic Ocean — and could only imagine what it must look like when devout Muslims fill it for prayer.

But the synagogue is empty. When necessary – a funeral, a yarzheit, another ritual event – the remaining Jews of Casablanca gather a minyan (the requisite 10 people to hold a service). The diminishing Jewish community celebrates the high holidays as best they can. And this year for Passover, there was a colorful poster showing that a Seder (a ritual feast celebrating the biblical liberation from slavery in Egypt) would take place at a stunning hotel in picturesque Marrakesh. The food would be kosher, and the 8-day stay would only cost $1590 Euros ($1900 US) per person (considered very reasonable).

Still, most of the Jews who come to Morocco are tourists, and Morocco is actively trying to promote its Jewish tourist trade. The children of Moroccan parents and grandparents come to visit the graves, but they don’t live there, in what is essentially an Arab culture. Dress is not legislated, although most Arab women I saw wore traditional dress, including the hijab (head scarf). Their tunics were colorful, and few black abayas (cloaks) or face veils were seen.

The bottom line? An estimated 2,500 Jews now live in Morocco, the majority in Casablanca. Most of them are elderly and some infirm. Unless the community is reinforced, it will soon disappear by attrition. What will remain is the memory – the taste, the gout, for what was left behind, the love for what has been, but is not now, and can never be again: the je ne sais quoi of a long-lost taste of jam.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved.