Several years ago, deep in the heart of Fez, a touring couple set out to see the sights of the ancient city. While wandering through and taking in the beauty of the city, they came across an interesting looking building.
As they stood outside and admired it, an elderly man came out of the building, inviting them inside to take a closer look. As soon as they stepped inside, the man, whose command of English was poor, handed them several papers, written in Arabic and French, all of which were about Chabad and the Seven Noahide Laws. Through hand gestures and the limited communication they had, they understood from the man that the building they were in, called the Water Clock Tower, had once been the home of a Jewish rabbi. It had once been called the The House of the Magician. Upon returning to America and further research, they discovered that the home they had stood in had once belonged to the Rambam. Morocco, a country of great beauty and rich history, has long been the home of many Jewish communities. Throughout the generations, through good times and bad, there has always been a standing Jewish community somewhere in the country. Though some of the communities are long gone, the facts—like the Rambam’s house—remain. And where there is a Jewish community, there is bound to be a cuisine to nurture the soul and the spirit as well.
The Jewish community of Meknes was once a thriving one. In its glory days, it had everything a flourishing community would need; the homes of almost every rabbi and leader had a shul and a mikvah in the compound, and kosher food was in abundance. That is not to say that the people of that community had the luxuries that one would find in an American supermarket, but they were never hungry either. “We lived on a very simple diet,” a woman who once lived in the Meknes community recalled. “We ate a lot of vegetables and meat products. We hardly ate dairy, and there were almost no processed options. I didn’t know what margarine was until we moved to France!”
Meknes, home of the very first Chabad shliach, Rabbi Michal Lipsker, who moved to there in the 1950s, had a very strict level of kashrus. The community had a kosher bakery, and a mill that made special batches of flour for Pesach, as well as a shochet who worked to keep the Jewish community fed year round.
The aforementioned expat recalled, “I remember one year on Erev Pesach, I went with my father to the shochet to pick out a lamb. My father wanted one specific one, but the shochet refused to give it to him, claiming that there were better to choose from. He always looked out to make sure that we received the best he had to offer. As it turned out, the one he pushed my father away from purchasing had a mum (blemish) in his head, which rendered it non-kosher. How he knew, I don’t know! Hashem put it in his head!”
Leaving Morocco at the age of nineteen was difficult for her and her family; Morocco had always been their home and starting over in France was strange. She spoke kindly of the community in Morocco, and of the safety the Jews had in Meknes. These days, as a chef who caters to many venues throughout Southern California, she has more than a handful of choices when it comes to what she serves, yet she still speaks of her early childhood in Morocco with a glimmer of nostalgia, as if the simpler days are preferred.
Rochel, a young woman who was born in Casablanca, recalled how everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, had a sense of Jewish pride. “Even the most non-observant Jews in our communities lit Shabbat candles and used the mikvah. And kosher food was easily accessible where we lived, so that wasn’t a problem either. There was no reason for anyone not to keep kosher, because it was at our fingertips.”
Casablanca, which is home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the world, still feels like home to Rochel after all of these years. “There was something very warm and tight knit about our community; it’s not something that can easily be reproduced.” Families often gathered in each other’s home for Shabbos meals, sharing and delighting in each other’s delicious cuisine. “We definitely did not have the amount of options that you’d find in the US or Canada today, but we were very lucky. There was a bakery that sold fresh baked goods every day, we had access to kosher meat all year round; it was easy to keep kosher there. Our grandparents used to send us specialty items from Canada, and we’d share them with all of our friends. It was like a different world. We didn’t want for anything.”
Today, Casablanca is bursting with Jewish life, with over 4,000 Jews in the city alone. For forty years, the community was led by Rabbi Leibel and Mrs. Reizel Raskin, who came to Casablanca in the 1960s at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although Rabbi Raskin passed away in 2004, Mrs. Raskin has remained in Morocco to continue guiding the community she has shepherded for generations. Rabbi Levi Banon, who has been on shlichus in Casablanca for seven years, shared his take thoughts on the thriving Jewish life in Morocco. “We are based in Casablanca, but we are involved in other cities as well. Everything is tied together here. We have a selection of restaurants in the town square, both meat and dairy, as well as kosher products that are sold in local grocery stores. We have many of the items that you’d find in kosher stores around the world, but we’re definitely not up to par with New York’s options….yet.”
Specialty items such as fine cheese or cookies, are often imported from the United States or France, while the other, easy to make items, such as milk and butter, are made locally. A commercial kitchen in Rabbi Banon’s Chabad House is used to prepare for special occasions and holidays; the Chabad House accommodates several hundred people for every Yom Tov. Local chefs and volunteers are hired to help prepare the large scale meals.
Through an expulsion, and sometime dangerous living conditions, the Jewish community is still thriving in Morocco. “Tourists are shocked when they see how much of a Jewish presence there is here,” a community member from Casablanca explained. “They expect to see us riding on donkeys and shying away from celebrating who we are, and yet, when they arrive, they’re greeted with a host of kosher restaurants and eateries.” Rabbi Banon is currently at work on preparing a complete directory for Jewish life in Morocco, which he hopes will make it easier for tourists to maneuver their way around the vast country.
“My recommendation for any tourist,” Rabbi Banon concluded, “is to come prepared to see beautiful sites. Morocco is a wonderful country, with incredible things to see.” As the tourists who came across the Rambam’s home in Fez would say, you never know what’s around the corner.