May 4, 2013
The history of Jewish migration and settlement in Morocco goes back to Roman times after the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD. *
In the Middle Ages, the Jewish population in Morocco exploded as the result of the their expulsion from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497).
By the middle of the 20th Century, 248,000 Jews were citizens of Morocco. Beginning in 1948 when the State of Israel was born, almost all of Jewish population of Morocco departed. Now, only a few thousand remain. Moroccan Jews are one of the largest ethnic groups in Israel.
During my three week trip to Morocco, I visited just three of the many Jewish sites.
Inside the enormous medina in Fes, my tour group stopped at the 17th Century Ibn Danan Synagogue. The synagogue, as many of the Jewish sites in Morocco, is located in the mellah – a walled Jewish quarter of a city.
When I visit a synagogue with a group, I usually take the opportunity to point out the salient features: the Holy Ark, the Torah Scroll, the Eternal Light, the Mezuzah and the separate sections for men and women. The members of my group were astonished when I told them that on any given Sabbath, the same prayers are recited and the same Torah (Hebrew Bible) passage is chanted in every synagogue everywhere in the world.
On the Atlantic coast, in the city of Essaouira, I chanced upon the synagogue named for its leading spiritual leader, Rabbi Haim Pinto (1748-1845). In keeping with local custom, the interior is painted in the ubiquitous blue and white. Here I was impressed with the women’s section. It is not so much a section as it is a lounge, with large comfortable sofas, divans and serving tables.
As I drove north from Meknes, the town of Ouezzane is on my route to northern city of Tetouan. In Ouezzane, I made a detour and followed a narrow country road to Asjen.
Why would I go way out of my way to find Asjen, a farming town of 13,000?
To visit the tomb of a respected Rabbi.
Here’s the story:
Amram ben Diwan (d. 1782, Ouezzane, Morocco) was a venerated 18th-century Rabbi whose tomb has become the site of an annual pilgrimage.
Born in Jerusalem, he soon moved to Hebron in 1743 and was sent to Morocco in order to collect donations for the Holy Land from the Jewish Community there. He took residence in Ouezzane where he taught the Talmud and had many disciples.
After ten years spent in Morocco, Rabbi Amram returned to Hebron. According to legend, the Rabbi entered the Cave of the Patriarchs disguised as a Muslim because it was forbidden for Jews at the time. Someone recognized him and reported him to the Ottoman Pasha who ordered his arrest. He was compelled to flee and returned to Morocco, where he was welcomed by the Jewish community of Fes.
Rabbi Amram is credited with many healing miracles. He had at least one son, Rabbi Hayyim ben Diwan. While touring Morocco with his son, he fell ill and died in Ouezzane in 1782.
His burial place in Ouezzane (Asjen) became a pilgrimage site and is regularly visited, to this day, particularly by people who invoke him to heal their illness. **
With my non-existent Arabic, my farcical French and my smattering of Spanish, it’s a miracle I was able to get directions and find the tomb and the adjacent cemetery in Asjen.
Well, miracles do happen, especially if you have just a bit of patience and persistence. A good map also helps.
NB: Why do men and women sit separately in an Orthodox Synagogue?
The answer most frequently given is so that men will not be “distracted.” They can devote all their attention and energy to prayer. Since I am a man, I can attest to the efficacy of this rule.
Women are also separate so that they will have flexibility to care for their young children or to leave the synagogue to attend to household duties.
I like this answer: From a balcony or from behind a partition or curtain, the single women can observe (and freely discuss?) the available single men without fear of embarrassment.