Always the Spice of Life
Morocco’s Jewish presence remains strong through its culture and food In Marrakech and cities along its Atlantic coast
Jews have looked to Morocco as a safe haven as far back as the Second Temple. And while Casablanca is the hub of Moroccan Jewish life today, there are still working shuls in Marrakech as well as historic Jewish sites, such as the city’s 15th century Mellah (Jewish quarter), that continue to intrigue visitors to this North African nation.
"We have a lot of requests from the French Jewish community to do heritage trips to Marrakech," notes Pierre Herve, co-owner of The Sanssouci Collection, Marrakech-based boutique hotels. "Because so many French Jews can trace some of their roots back to Casablanca and Marrakech, people still want to come to see landmarks from stories told to them by their grandparents and other relatives."
With Rabbi Jacky Kadoch — president of the Jewish Community of Marrakech — and Herve leading the way, I toured Marrakech’s storied Mellah, a haven for the Jewish community as well as a site of occasional conflicts and anti-Semitism. During its peak times, the Mellah was a flourishing area with bakers, tailors, jewelers, sugar traders, artisans and craftspeople.
The Mellah has numerous storefronts, including a few that were once synagogues. They are all viewable by navigating narrow alleyways. Kadoch recommends visiting the Beth-El, Rabbi Pinhas and Bitton synagogues. Beyond the Mellah, the Lazama Synagogue is the most picturesque of the working shuls in Marrakech, and a popular spot for weddings and b’nai mitzvah among foreign visitors. Follow the unprepossessing walkway and you will find yourself in a striking blue and white courtyard with well-tended gardens. The original synagogue on this site was built in 1492 by the Megorashim, or Jews that fled Spain after the Inquisition. Another former shul, this one in the medina (old city), is now a Berber pharmacy with seemingly endless shelves of natural remedies, beauty products and cooking spices.
Marrakech’s contributions to the culinary world can be found in the old city’s main square, where simple but enticing grilled foods are sold in trendy "date night" restaurants like La Salama, located in the medina by Jemaa El Fna square, and exquisite Moroccan nouveau restaurants at King Mohammed VI’s Royal Mansour hotel, including La Grande Table Marocaine, whose menus were created by Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno.
The souks in Marrakech’s medina proffer everything you would imagine. Dizzying mazes of stalls sell leather goods, ceramics, tagine pots, jewelry and clothing. There are also antique stalls with a surprising number of menorahs, seder plates and Kiddush cups next to mid-century souvenir kitsch and posters.
Travelers overwhelmed by crowds and the bargaining process will enjoy colorful kasbah boutiques like Twizra (361, Bab Agnaou, Medina), best known for its exquisite Berber and tribal sterling silver jewelry, or Bouchaib Complexe d’Artisanat (7, Derb Baissi, Rue de la Kasbah, Kasbah, Marrakesh, complexeartisanal.com), which features three floors of products organized by department.
Casablanca, Morocco’s entry point and largest city, is somewhat industrial on the surface, and some of the art deco buildings near the city center recall Miami in the 1950s.
The Jewish Museum in Casablanca, the first in a Muslim country, offers a small, formative collection providing fascinating insights into how Jews in Morocco have survived and at times thrived. From there, you can explore the city’s "new Mellah," which is home to a lively cultural center and the Beth-El Synagogue, noted for its beautiful stained-glass windows.
While many tourists head inland to Fez or Marrakech, towns lining the Atlantic coast are treasures worth exploring in greater depth. El Jadida and Essaouira long have been popular retreats for European visitors, thanks to their blend of the familiar (French-influenced cafes, resorts and hotels) and the exotic (local souks and architecture). While Jewish culture is more evident in Casablanca and Marrakech, walks through these small communities produce all kinds of unexpected discoveries that reflect the Jewish imprint on Moroccan culture.
El Jadida, noted for its colorful narrow streets and historic walled area, was sort of a "Haifa" for Morocco in earlier times, with Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisting harmoniously. The well-preserved synagogue, one of the city’s most prominent landmarks, is testament to this.
Best described as a big little city, Essaouira merges the charms of Marrakech with a breezy beach town feel. A hip local spot sure to provide some inspiration is Riad Al-Baraka. Situated in a former Jewish school, the space is divided into several nicely decorated dining rooms and a bar set around a large courtyard shaded by a huge fig tree. While the fare is classic Moroccan, the kitchen also throws in some Middle Eastern and Jewish influences.