In 2013 when I was in graduate school, I was walking to one of my classes in the business school when I saw a big sign calling to boycott an Israeli–themed lunch scheduled for that week.
I looked at the sign and saw that it alleged the Israeli lunch menu was “expropriating Arab cuisine as their own.” I was intrigued. It had all of my favorites – hummus, grape leaves, tahini, falafel, pita, stewed meat, spicy fish and more. I did not understand the narrative of Israelis expropriating Arab cuisine. I grew up with a Moroccan mother and Yemenite father. I was raised on this food.
At the time, I couldn’t reconcile it: How can I be expropriating someone’s culture if it is the only culture I have ever known? More recently, my trip to Morocco shed light on my heritage as an expelled Arab Jew – descendent of a Yemenite first–generation father and an immigrant Moroccan mother.
My mother was born on a ship from Casablanca to Israel in February 1956. As a newborn, she was given the name of Judith “Yerushalima” Malka for Jerusalem. She’s never visited Casablanca. She is now 64 years old. All she has left of the country she never knew is the upbringing she had, with little context of its origins or meaning.
Trip to Morocco
In late October 2019, my wife, Jennie, and I traveled to Morocco.
Granted, the initial inclination was for her to go shopping in the hustle and bustle of the souks (markets) in Marrakesh and Fes, but it turned out to be so much more than that. In the time leading up to the trip, I took an interest in my Moroccan heritage. My grandfather, who I’m named after, Shimon Malka, and my grandmother, Haviva Malka, immigrated to Israel as a family of 6. Sixty-four years later, this is a magnificent extended family of 167 beautiful souls that redefine the essence of family unity.
Yet, out of my entire family, I have only had a handful of uncles and aunts that went there approximately 14 years ago in an organized group. I was determined to explore my family’s history for us all to share and take pride in the generations to come. The parceling of information was not easy – the Jewish genealogy professional I spent two hours with told me what I already knew: North Africa is not Western or Eastern Europe, where there was diligent record–keeping and education to sustain it. I needed to comprise a story based on tidbits I was able to extract from photos, and elderly uncles and aunts – taking them through time 64 years back.
Anyone who knows Israelis, especially those with an extensive military service, knows the baggage we carry when it comes to majority–Muslim countries. Besides past wars, 13 majority–Muslim countries do not recognize Israeli passports, nor hold diplomatic relations with Israel (this number was significantly higher until recent months).
Assumed I was Moroccan
Upon landing in Morocco, a feeling of concern mingled with excitement took hold of me. As I walked through immigration, officers automatically assumed I was Moroccan. They started speaking to me in Arabic. Downplaying my already basic comprehension, I was greeted to my ancestral country with a “marhaba ya achoi, sabach al nor,” “Hello my brother, good evening.” They were very excited that I was Israeli. I guess my Arabic was better than I thought.
The days in Morocco were long and over the course of eight days we covered approximately 1,300 miles in a rental car. Thank God for a last-minute upgrade to a 4–wheel drive. Driving in the streets of cities and especially in the medinas (old cities) was not short of excitement and close calls, with masses of people crossing in front of you, street vendors pulling their merchandise mere inches back for you to come through, and taxis that have mastered close call driving. They pass you in the tightest alleys in the most creative ways.
But there was something in the air, something in the people, that felt familiar. Not only did I feel that they all looked like my family, but the spices in the street, the loud and vibrant discourse between friends and the uncontrollable hand gestures, were nothing short of my childhood upbringing. Seeing people walk around in a traditional galabia, or drinking mint tea nonstop from a birad, making meat kafta on the street – these were all the smells and noises I grew up on. This was home.
But true meaning arrived on the fifth day. This is when we went to two remote villages that were a focal point of Jewish population almost 65 years ago, Demnatand Bzou. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, European Jews can sometimes trace their lineage generations back; Arab countries don’t have that. In North Africa, the Jews not only left in a haste, they also often didn’t have the prerequisite information or documentation to track their ancestry. They had the stories they were brought up on and those same stories were the tales that my aunts and uncles shared with me. That’s how I found Demnat and Bzou.
In search of lost knowledge
Demnat had a prominent Jewish community that numbered in the thousands over 70 years ago, but today, this little toured village had no recollection of it. Upon arrival, I started going store by store asking “Ibchi Englazi? ayn Cimetière Israelite de Demnat ” “Do you speak English, where is the Jewish cemetery?” and by way of numerous trials and error, I found a young man, 26, named Mohammed. He runs the family tile business next to the Melah, the Jewish quarter.
Through way of persuasion and money, he came with us in the car. I had an abstract understanding of where it may be, based on my previous research, and with his help we were able to navigate the streets. We pulled up to a compound, surrounded by a brownstone wall and locked gate. Certain that the cemetery was beyond the wall, we jumped it. It seemed we reached a no man’s land, full of waste and what appeared to be a de facto dumping ground. Within the rubble, we found numerous stones. Only when we approached closer, did we recognize them as delipidated graves, with little resemblance to any cemetery we know today.
In this neglected and unvisited area, through the nameless and shattered tombstones, I could make out a grave that read Itzhak Harush. It rang a bell. I remembered my aunt’s story that my grandfather Shimon was an only child to his father, who married a widow whose husband’s last name was Harush, and remembered that one of his three stepsiblings was called Itzhak, who died in Morocco. I was certain that this was his tomb, my grandfather’s stepbrother.
Jumping through cactuses
Before we were able to say Kadish or clean the grave, both Mohammed and I were getting a bit uncomfortable as kids and teens started gathering around the wall. Women soon followed and there was a quiet remark from a child in Arabic, asking if the Jews are coming back. This made us wrap things up in haste and jump through a painful wall of cactuses to the car.
Still trying to grasp what we just saw, we stopped to drop Mohammed in his shop and give him a token of our appreciation. He profusely refused to accept anything, and I insisted, despite a bit of unease, to sit with him for a cup of tea to learn more about him, his upbringing and Demnat . It was a remarkable time that I could spend the entire length of this article on.
From there, still in an ongoing mix of remarkable pride, adrenaline and disbelief, we continued 2.5 hours to Bzou. If we thought Demnat was a challenge, Bzou was off the grid. We got our car stuck in the hills, then although we were able to free it, we walked for almost an hour until we were able to identify something that looked like a picture we saw in the distance. Then, we backtracked to the car only to embark on an hour-long search for the entrance through tight alleys that can barely fit a car. Eventually, we were at a cemetery.
The former home of hundreds of Jews, we saw a couple dozen cement graves, where only three had tombstones on them. The rest were used to pave sidewalks and entry ways. The entire place was not a dumping ground, but rather, used as a chicken coop and growing beehives. We didn’t identify any familial relations there but were able to calmly say Kadish over the graves.
In the days that followed, we were able to decompress and share our experience with family and friends, as we continued enjoying the sensational city of Marrakesh and the breathtaking view of the Atlas Mountains.
On our final day in Morocco, we drove from Marrakesh to Casablanca to visit the old Jewish cemetery. We were able to coordinate with the Muslim family that lives on the grounds and maintains the cemetery, which was light years better than the previous ones we saw. Upon arrival to the cemetery, with my basic Arabic and Jennie’s Spanish, which is the closest we got to French, I was looking for the grave of my great grandfather, Abraham Ohayon, my grandmother Haviva’s father. We found three graves, all named Abraham Ohayon, who died in 1934, 1935 and 1940. By way of another aunt, we understood that my grandmother used to tell them that my great grandfather used to help with the children, and her first child was born in 1935 and second, in 1938. Through that, we not only understood that we found the grave of Abraham Ohayon who died in 1940, but also knew the name of his father – my great–great grandfather, David. It is customary in Moroccan tradition to call the grandchild over the grandfather’s name (case in point, Shimon), my grandmother had a brother called David and the gravesite read “Abraham son of David Ohayon.” We couldn’t hold back our excitement. We cleaned all three graves, lit candles and said Kadish.
Being the first family member to discover the graves and visit them since my family’s departure from Morocco in 1956 was nothing short of a privilege. It got me thinking about what it means to belong. Sephardic Jews together with Ethiopian and Mizrahi Jews are all too often treated as second class citizens in Israel. In Morocco, my family was pushed out for being Jewish. Belonging can come with significant baggage.
In the end, I saw how my culture is a blend of cultures – Israeli, Moroccan, American and more. I did not visit Morocco to expropriate anybody’s culture. I visited to live out my own.
Shimon G. Levy is chief operating officer of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.