- THE MELLAHS OF SOUTHERN MOROCCO
The Jews of Morocco were mainly an urban population, but a significant proportion of the Jews lived in small towns and rural mellahs at a considerable distance from the urban centers. It is very difficult to arrive at firm estimates of population size (general and Jewish) before the present century. According to De Foucauld's report, based on his travels in 1883-1884, there were about 3,000 Jewish families in the cities of Fez, Meknes, Sefrou. Marrakesh, Demnate, Taroudant and Debdou. For some reason he does not enumerate families in Tetouan, nor on the Atlantic coast, so the Jewish population of Tangier and Essaouira are notably absent from his list. His detailed list for other, smaller, communities reaches a total of over 4,200 families. The inclusion of estimates for the three cities mentioned above (see note ) would place the 'rural' Jewish population at about one-half of the total. Twenty years later, the personnel of the Alliance Israelite Universelle estimated that there were 21 cities and towns in Morocco whose Jewish population totaled 65,175 inhabitants, and 192 rural localities in which 22,505 Jews resided. According to these figures, the rural Jewish population comprised about one-fourth of the total at that time.
A major feature of the demography of the Jews in Morocco is not its distribution at a given point in time, but its mobile nature. Mobility was evident at De Foucauld's time, resulting from drought, epidemics and the shifting of economic activity from one town or region to another. These shifts, of course, were often related to political changes. Schroeter has documented the growth of Essaouira, with a large Jewish population in the nineteenth century, and has shown the economic ties binding the Jews of southwestern Morocco to the commercial activities of that town. In the present century, Casablanca became the major lodestone for Jewish urban-bound migration, as for internal Moroccan immigration in general. Adam has suggested that, with regard to the small Jewish communities, Casablanca first attracted Jews from the neighboring Chawia plain, and only later from the areas of the South. The Jewish communities of the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas, of course, have always been tied to and migrated toward Marrakesh, while the mellahs of the Middle Atlas and the Tafilalt have been linked to Fez, Meknes and Sefrou. With all the urban-bound movement of the last century, there still remained many small Jewish Communities in southern Morocco up to the time of Independence, and even through the early 1960s.
The present paper is an attempt to draw an initial portrait of these communities, highlighting aspects of their internal structure while placing them in a broader regional context. The data presented were collected as a part of an ethnography salvage project, which is still underway at the time of writing (Oct 1983), carried out among former residents of these communities currently living in Israel. The study highlights these small mellahs on the assumption that relatively few documents are available concerning them, and oral history research on these communities can complement conventional historiography focusing on the main urban centers. In addition to the fact that a significant proportion of the Jewish population lived in small mellahs, there are several other reasons why these small and 'remote' communities command our attention.
In the first instance, the Jews in these regions, with their specialized skills in trading and crafts, were an active element in the local economy. Gellner, in his Ibn-Khaldunian analysis of North African society, has stressed how the tribes were dependent on products and commerce of the city. The Jews were important mediators in the urban to rural movement, carrying urban-based goods and artisanal skills to the countryside. An understanding of the Jewish population is an important ingredient in viewing the traditional regional economy.
Secondly, the Jews originating from the Atlas mountains, and particularly those from the Berber-speaking areas, having been the objects of historical myths and ideologies not of their own making. This has been the case in North Africa and also, with a somewhat different emphasis, continued to be the case after their migration to Israel. With regard to North Africa, one finds the recurring theme of the Judaized Berbers: the historical thesis that many of the tribes of North Africa had accepted a form of Judaism in the pre-Islamic period and that, consequently, many of today's North African Jews are the descendants of Berbers. As Hirschberg has shown, the historical evidence relevant to this thesis is thin and this should alert us to possible ideological overtones that may be involved. The thesis of the Judaizing Berbers clearly emphasizes the antiquity of Jews in the region (which is historically documented), and perhaps (this is speculation), in the colonial situation, hinted at the association of the Jews with the French, who tried to woo the loyalty of ‘‘the Berbers’’ in an attempt to separate them from the urban Arab Muslims.
In the Israeli context, the Jews coming from the High Atlas, who migrated to the country in the mid-fifties (and early sixties) and were often settled in newly established cooperative villages, became a symbol of the extreme variety and 'exoticness' of the mass immigration of that period. This image stressed the challenges facing the country, and its ideals, and in some instances celebrated its successes. In both North Africa and Israel the Jews of southern Morocco were portrayed in terms of their place in a broader world view, or ideology, alerting the social historian that a more sober assessment of various aspects of their culture and situation is called for. Oral history research can contribute to such an assessment and the present paper presents, in a preliminary fashion, some of the findings of an ethnography salvage project organized toward that end.Previous Work
Among the major sources describing the mellahs of Morocco is the work of De Foucauld . De Foucauld employed a Jew from the Akka, Mordechai Abv Serour, to guide him in his travels, while De Foucauld himself was disguised as a rabbi from Europe. He often mentions the presence of a Jewish population in the early part of his Reconnaissance au Maroc, but references become less frequent toward the middle and the end of the work. In an appendix, however, he enumerates about two hundred locales, outside of the major towns, in which Jewish families were found. In the appendix he gives an overview of the Jews of Morocco, distinguishing between the Jews of blad el makhzen and those living under the protection of tribal leaders in blad es siba.
Another visitor to the region, in 1912, was the Jewish scholar Nahum Slouschz, Heading East, and then Southeast from Marrakesh, he passed through Zawiyat Sidi Rahhal, Demnate, Tasemsit, Enzel, Tagmut, Telouet, Tikirt and reached Tiilit in the Dades. In his reports he stressed signs of an ancient Jewish past in the region, but, along with his romanticism, he shows greater interest in internal Jewish topics than did De Foucauld. A number of communities described by these first two travelers, were later visited by Y. D. Semach, delegate of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Morocco. His reports are scattered in numerous Alliance publications and elsewhere.
Recently, Laskier has written about the Jewish communities in Morocco's Bled from the point of view of Alliance activities. Before World War II only two schools had been set up in the Bled: one in Demnate, at the foot of the High Atlas, in 1932. In 1928 an Alliance school was established in Midelt, in the high plateau of the Middle Atlas. This was one of the first towns of the Atlas to be penetrated by the French, and served as an administrative center for the South, to which it was linked militarily and economically. His analysis documents the consistent attempt of the Alliance to modernize these communities, paying less attention to the existing (and changing) social structure and cultural forms. After World War II, Alliance schools were established throughout the South, and other Jewish institutions began to be active in the region as well.[
The work of Flamand, as Inspector of Primary Education of the Department of Education of French Morocco, represents an attempt in systematic coverage of the Jewish communities of the South.] Flamand provided a list of all the small communities attached to the official Jewish community of Marrakesh, the number reaching over 150. In addition, his list mentions 36 mellahs reconnus morts. He provides a partial analysis of the demographic flow from the small communities toward Marrakesh and Casablanca, and his study of Demnate, together with M. Monsonego, gives a more detailed picture of a mellah in a town. His work relates to those communities linked to Marrakesh, but does not deal with the communities of the Tafilalt whose official Jewish ties were to the community in Meknes. While the work of Flamand was being written, the process began whereby most of the Jews of the small mellahs migrated from southern Morocco, many of them eventually migrating to Israel.
The study reported here is an attempt to reconstruct aspects of the social and cultural life of these communities with the aid of the memories of their former residents. The present paper purports to give an initial formulation with regard to several topics, as an example of work in progress. The interviewing of informants focuses on customs, institutions and events within their own memory and does not attempt to reconstruct earlier periods. Thus, informants from communities, which were recently founded under the impetus of the French colonial penetration, are equal in interest to the older communities with several generations, or in some cases, several centuries of history. At the same time, detailed attention to the recent past (the period described by most informants relates from after World War I until the communities left the region), sometimes raises questions of greater historical depth. We thus begin by citing our findings with regard to the languages spoken by the Jews, and address the question of Berber speech within the Jewish communities.
The Languages of the Jews
A very basic question concerning the Jews of southern Morocco, to which adequate detailed attention has not been paid, is: What languages did they speak? The material from the Moroccan census of 1936 suggests in a rather straightforward manner that out of 161,942 Jews in the country 41,798 spoke Arabic; 24,462 spoke Berber; and 95,662 were bilingual. This list leaves many questions unanswered. Some of the bilinguals may include people who spoke French and Arabic or Spanish (or Judaeo-Spanish) and Arabic. Among those who were bilingual in Berber and Arabic, was their first language Berber and second language Arabic, or vice versa? The question of Berber speech in the social life of the Jews requires more detailed investigation.
We quote De Foucauld's account from the 1880s. 'The Jews of Morocco speak Arabic. In the regions where tamazight is in use they know it as well. In certain locations they are more familiar with tamazight than with Arabic, but nowhere is the latter language unknown to them." this report presents Jewish knowledge of Berber as secondary in importance-with some exceptions. De Foucauld's use accords with the material gathered in our interviews reflecting a situation about half a century later.
Many of the people interviewed came from Jewish communities which were found, during the pre-World War II period (and even up to the time of Moroccan Independence) in purely Berber-speaking areas. Examples are the Jews from Ait Bougmaz and Ait Bouli, south and east of Demnate from Imini and Ouarzazate at the beginning of Wad Dra and from Kal'at Mgouna in the Dades valley. Almost all of these Jews reported that the language they spoke at home was normally Arabic. Even allowing for some exaggeration, so as not to appear provincial to the investigator, this appears to be a correct assessment of the situation. At the same time many of these Jews (in some locales-all of them) learned the Berber languages of the region Several times it was explained that the Jews learned the Berber language for instrumental purposes: those who had extensive economic contacts with Berbers learned shilha (the Judaeo-Arabic term applied to all Berber languages), while those who had minimum contact did not necessarily learn it. In other instances Berbers was clearly part of the local scene-even within the home. Jewish children began to learn it at a young age, hearing it all around them, even though what they mostly spoke at home was Arabic. When asked is there any place where the Jews' first language was shilha, most everyone answered in the affirmative, but usually said: 'not in our community,' and suggest a more 'remote' region.
One region that was mentioned on a number of occasions was that of Wad Tifnout, running south from Jebel Toubkal to the Sous valley, including the communities of Megzemmat, Assarag, Amzarko and Ouoamzert. Upon finding informants from the Tifnout area, they confirmed that the mother tongue of the Jews in that region was shilha, even though many of the men learned to speak Arabic. Arabic was first learned in the context of the sla: the school in the local synagogues where males began to learn the Hebrew alphabet, gain competence in reading from the prayer book and the Bible, and were taught to translate the Biblical text into standard Judaeo-Arabic (shereh) In this setting, Arabic was spoken only by the Jews being associated with the synagogue, liturgy and knowledge of Jewish texts. In one sense then, Arabic had the connotation, locally, of being a ‘Jewish language.’
This association was confirmed by responses and spontaneous remarks on the part of informants from other Berber speaking areas. A woman from a village in the Telouet region said that when she grew up she understood the speech of her Berber age-mates, but they refrained from any attempt to pick up her language, Arabic, because of its association with the Jews. Another man, from Dades, said that the Berbers, to the extent that they learned Arabic, learned it from the Jews. Still another informant, from Ait Benhaddu, described groups of merchants who traveled for four days to reach Marrakesh. These groups were usually composed of about 20 merchants, of whom 6-7 were Jews. The Muslim Berbers were partially dependent upon the Jews, in Marrakesh, to carry out trade in Arabic. Both on an instrumental basis (for the sake of trade), and on a prestige basis (the language of Jewish learning and of urban civility), there were powerful motivations to orient the Jews toward Arabic speech rather than Berber speech. As an informant from Tifnout stated: ‘Anyone who knew a little Torah could speak Arabic.’
A generation or two ago it was probably more common for Berber to be the first language of the Jews in areas other than Tifnout, and Berber speech was probably more widespread. A relatively young man from Imini recalls that the rabbi in the community would explain the laws of each holiday in the synagogue, first in Arabic and then in shilha, ‘for the old people.’
It may also be pointed out that Berber linguistic forms are evident in names of the Jews, both the names of living persons and the names of saints. One informant from Tiilit, who claimed that the Jews' first language was Arabic, was named Hayim Ben David U Yosef and a prominent family in Telouet was known as Ait Robin. The saints of the major pilgrimage sites at Agouim and Tinzert (in the Sous) were known as Rabbi David U Moshe and Rabbi David N Baruch respectively. This is clear evidence of Berber speech, but it is also true that linguistic forms can be preserved in names long after a given language has ceased being spoken by a community (cf. O'Brien, MacDonald).
It is not unlikely that the Arabization of the speech of the Jews, a process which always went on, received special impetus in the last several generations. Just as many of the Jews in the cities oriented themselves to French, indicating, among other things, a self-association with what they perceived as the more prestigious civilization, so the Jews of the South may have quickened their urban orientation by a stronger turn toward Arabic-as they did not have any direct contact with French speakers. While it may not be possible to decide, with precision, what percentage of Jews spoke Berber and what percentage spoke Arabic, as a first language, in earlier generations, it is possible to appreciate the dynamics characterizing the sociolinguistic situation.
Demographic Distribution of the Jewish Communities
Both De Foucauld and later observers emphasized the geographic distribution of Jewish communities along major routes of trade in the South, corresponding to the great river basins, particularly the Wad Oum er-Rabia, the Wad Sous, and the Wad Dra. The same general distribution was maintained through the 1950s Flamand stresses the existence of 'chains of mellahs'as part of the network of trade. Throughout these regions small mellahs (often numbering only several dozen families) were separated by small distances, rarely more than a day's walk (or a ride on mule back). This corresponds to a situation of non-motorized travel in which places of trade could not be separated greatly from place of residence. It may be contrasted with the situation developing in the North, in the present century, where many Jews living in Sefrou, Fez and Meknes owned (or rented) shops in smaller market towns in the region (e.g., El Hajeb, Almis or Skoura). These merchants would spend most of the week in the market town and return to their families in their home towns for the Sabbath.
A similar situation may be found in the south itself, if one looks at the main route leading from Marrakesh through Tahanaut and Asni to the Wad Sous and compares it to the distribution of mellahs along other routes, where motorized travel was introduced more recently and less regularly. Along the major routes the Jews were grouped in larger communities placed at longer intervals because travel between communities, or between Jewish communities and market towns, was relatively easy. Along the interior routes (e.g., Agouim-Sour-Tifnout-Sous, or Ouarzazate-Ait Benhaddu-Telouet), the Jewish population remained scattered in smaller communities throughout the mountainous regions, as this was the pattern that insured a reasonable proximity of place of residence to the place of work or source of income.
Flamand also comments on the fact that in several areas the Jewish community was scattered in small hamlets close to one another, but also distinct from one another (he mentions the Dades in particular, but it was true elsewhere). Each of these hamlets would have its own synagogue (sometimes more than one), defining it as a separate entity. At the same time they would recognize themselves as Jews of a given region and identify themselves to outsiders in that manner, rather than as originating from the specific hamlet. This pattern obtained it Telouet, Ait Bouli, Ait Bougmez, Tifnout, Skoura, Ouarzazate and Zagora, to mention some of the examples.
To understand this distribution of residence, from an economic point of view, adequate attention must be given to the Jews' importance as artisans in addition to their role in trade (many Jews engaged in both). In the remote tribal areas it was often the case that the Jews were the only specialists (towards the South-sometimes along with Blacks, haratin). They were metal-workers, tinsmiths, jewelers, tailors, cobblers, saddlemakers and carpenters. These skills were essential to the tribal populations, who attempted to attract Jews into their area. Well-to-do tribesmen, and, perhaps, in some cases, the Berber councils, would build houses which could be used for a member of the family, but which also might be given to Jews who agreed to make their home there. This put the Jews in close proximity to a steady source of income and made available, to the Muslim peasants, important services and a link to the larger markets. Living in these areas, in pre-Protectorate times, meant that the Jews were under the protection of individual Muslims, or the 'strong man' of a region. In determining a place of residence, then, the individual Jewish family had to make a trade-off between the attraction of a steady clientele, the estimation of the degree of physical security, and the value of being in contact with an active and prestigious Jewish community. The distribution of Jews in distinct small hamlets within the same region probably reflects a compromise among these factors.
The Internal Structure of the Jewish Communities
In the smallest of the rural mellahs the Jews still maintained and supported the basic institutions of Jewish communal life. Focusing on these institutions in both an analytic device and a method of inquiry which make it possible to learn about (1) the structure of the communities, (2) their internal divisions, and (3) links between and among communities. Each of these 'institutions,' viewed from a sociological point of view, had a concrete physical manifestation, such as a synagogue or a cemetery, and questions concerning these concrete settings lead to detailed data which illuminate communal life.
In the very small communities there usually was one synagogue. The synagogue, as the houses, was constructed from mud-bricks or packed mud. Most informants described synagogues that were standing when they were born, but in several instances the building of a synagogue was portrayed. In one case (Zagora), it was told how the Jews hired Muslim workers to carry out the building work under their supervision. In another instance the construction work itself was carried out by the Jewish males. The woman had part in the construction as well, as continually brought water to the site for making the mud bricks. The synagogue clearly evoked the involvement all segments of the community.
Normally, in the smallest communities, the synagogue was unnamed, simply being call the sla. One informant suggested that it would be invidious to give it a name: that ‘the synagogue belonged to God.’ Once there exists more than a single synagogue in a community, the potential exists for competition over religious merit and prestige. This is particularly the case if one (or several) of the synagogues is associated with a particular family (see below).
In the data collected, there is a correlation between the reported size of a community (in families) and the number of synagogues cited. Communities with 30-40 families (or smaller) usually had one synagogue, but larger ones had two. Towns with populations of over 1,000 people had 6-7 synagogues (Demnate, Taroudant, Erfoud). Just as some informants reported the building of synagogues during their lifetime, there were several reports of synagogues which were in relative disuse because of a declining population.
A synagogue built by a family would sometimes be known by the name of a family or by the name of a saintly individual in the family who had passed away in an earlier generation. The organization of synagogue activities was basically the same, whatever the circumstances of its construction, except that there was an understanding that the ‘owners’ of a family synagogue would provide funds for the synagogue's upkeep, or for the payment of a teacher the contributions of the regular attendants did not suffice to cover these costs. The building and maintenance of a family synagogue were thus both an indication and a legitimation of a well-to-do family's place in the community.
The synagogue, in addition to being a place of prayer, was equally important as a school in which (male) children received instruction. These studies did not take place in a separate room, but usually in the single large room which constituted the sanctuary. A synagogue teacher, most commonly called the hazzan. received payment for his work, and frequently carried out other tasks such as leading the prayers, slaughtering and performing marriages. However, even when some of these tasks were carried out on a volunteer basis (such as leading the prayers and slaughtering), there was, in every instance, a teacher paid by the community to insure the education of the children.
In the mountains, to the east and the west of Agouim and Imini, there were a number of very small communities some of them having less than ten families. These communities were in the process of dissolution. (The aforementioned towns, located on a main road, were in part constituted by people leaving the smaller hamlets). Sometimes people from these small communities would walk several kilometers on the Sabbath to participate in worship if a prayer quorum (minyan) of ten men over the age of 13 could not be formed in their village. This was a common practice on the festivals. Also, residents of these small communities might send their children to live in the larger communities so that they could regularly attend the synagogue school.
There were a variety of ways in which the payment of a synagogue teacher might be arranged. In some cases, the members of a community would pay him directly once a month. Families with more children given to the teachers' charge would pay more, and families with less children would pay less. Even families with no children, however, would make some payment, as contributing to this central communal activity was meritorious, as was the support of a man who devoted his life to the study and teaching of Torah. (One may also speculate that a family with no children who paid the hazzan entertained the hope that their pious action would help bring about the birth of a child.) In larger communities, there might be several synagogue teachers, each in a synagogue, or all the teaching might be concentrated in a single synagogue.
Another common pattern of supporting the teacher was the raising of funds from the community ‘for the synagogue.’ The major cost would be the payment of the hazzan, but funds would be used for a variety of other purposes such as providing oil to light the synagogue lamps, contributing to the indigent of the community or providing alms to wandering Jewish beggars who traveled from one community to another. Here a responsible and respected member of the community would collect funds (see below) and make the monthly payments to the teacher.
Often, the synagogue teacher originated from another town, and agreed to teach in the community in question after negotiating a contract (shart) with the community notables. Many of these teachers were relatively young, in their late teens, and were unmarried. The agreement would also include the condition that the teacher be provided with lodging and be fed at the community's expense. Again, there were variations in arrangements. The teacher might be mainly the guest of one well-to-do family, or, more commonly in the smaller villages, would rotate among the families, taking meals at different homes. Sometimes, the teacher would be married, but accept this ‘job’ away from home, returning to his home community every several weeks. In other instances, a young unmarried teacher found a spouse in the community in which he had come to work and reside.
The major mechanism for the raising of synagogue funds was the selling of mitzvot (ritual honors), in the course of the synagogue ritual. Among the mitzvot sold were the privileges of reciting the blessings which precede and conclude the reading of the defined Torah portion or the opening of the cabinet (heikhal) which housed the Torah scroll. In the Tafilalt region it was common to sell the privilege of reading aloud certain portions of the prayer service, which most (but not all) adult males knew how to do. The mitzvot were sold in a public auction in the synagogue.
The norm throughout the region was to sell the mitzvot for a period of half a year. During the festival of Sukkot, in the autumn, a purchaser would acquire a privilege for the next six months, until the holiday of Passover in the Spring. At Passover mitzvot would be sold for six months again, until Sukkot. The mitzvot for the rituals during the holidays themselves would be sold during the holidays, and drew larger sums of money. During the holidays all members of the community were present in the synagogue even those who might be away traveling during other parts of the year. The full participation and festive atmosphere contributed to the liveliness of the auction and induced people to pledge large sums in the competition to earn religious merit and communal recognition.
Bids for the privilege of a given mitzvah (sing.) might be made collectively by a small group of people (frequently but not necessarily, brothers). They then would rotate among themselves the privilege of participating in the prayer/Torah-reading service. In this way, poorer individuals would insure that they had some avenue of religious/communal participation, and would not have to compete with the wealthier members of the community (nor bear the burden of that competition). In some of the very smallest communities it was claimed that there was no auctioning of mitzvot, that people ‘went up’ to the reading of the Torah by rotation, or that the hazzan selected the individuals to be given a privilege. These cases seem to reflect the importance of preserving communal solidarity, which might be threatened by excessive, or unbalanced, competition. In these communities (and elsewhere), however, once a person was called to participate in a mitzvah, he would volunteer a contribution to the synagogue fund.
A person who had purchased a certain mitzvah (for example, the privilege of being the third person called to bless the reading of the Torah) might take the privilege himself or assign it to a member of his family, a guest, or the celebrant of a life-cycle ceremony. Examples of the latter are the father of a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah (religious majority), or of a male infant who was circumcised that week. The recipient of such an honor might pledge a contribution to the synagogue (in addition to the amount of the original ‘purchase’). thereby augmenting the sum of money that a single mitzvah brings into the synagogue fund. Such volunteered contributions were announced in a standard formula which blesses the donor, and which was read upon the completion of the performance of the mitzvah. The synagogue was thus the focus of intricate economic exchange, tying its members together via cooperation and competition. and through both altruism and interest.
Regional Aspects of Communal Organization
Training of synagogue school teachers was a matter that established links among communities in a region. While all communities in the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas recognized Marrakesh as the main rabbinic center, there were also small centers in the countryside where individuals (usually young males) would receive training to serve as hazzanim (p1.) and slaughterers. Examples of such centers, which often reflected the effort of a single learned and energetic individual, were Ighli Noro in the Sous valley. Tidili in the mountains to the west of Agouim, and Kal'at Mgouna in the Dades valley.
The communities cited featured a school known as a yeshiva. The term did not denote an academy of advanced Talmudic study, as it did in Eastern Europe, but a place where young men would come to study the practical skills associated with synagogue/communal life. In addition to learning to lead the prayers, and to read from the Torah scroll, the student would be trained in the laws of slaughtering and determining whether a slaughtered animal is permitted or forbidden. The termination of a course of study, particularly with regard to slaughtering, was festive occasion both for the community of the yeshiva and the other communities in the region. The hazzanim/slaughterers from the entire region would be invited to this ‘graduation ceremony.’ The novices would be tested in the laws of slaughtering and then asked to demonstrate their competence in practice in front of a board of experienced and learned slaughterers. The test provided the occasion for an elaborate feast, and while not everybody passed, the festivities marked the creation of a new cadre of hazzanim, who might seek their livelihood in the communities of the South.
During the course of their studies, students would be supported by the local community receiving board and lodging in various homes. It brought a great deal of prestige to communities to support a rabbi who ran a yeshiva, and to provide for a future generation of hazzanim. In addition to the centers mentioned above, there was a yeshiva in Kal'at Seraghna, on the road from Marrakesh to Beni Melal. This was established in recent times and was funded, to a large extent, by the Jewish community in Casablanca. The communities of the Southeast were officially tied to the rabbinic centers in Meknes, but in the Tafilalt the Abuhatzira family of Erfoud (formerly of Rissani) had an active yeshiva which trained youngsters from all over the region. The rabbis of this family constituted an independent, and even competing, rabbinic authority to the schools and institutions of the North, and their influence was often felt beyond the Tafilalt area.
It appears that there was a process of centralization during the last two generations (i.e., during the period of the Protectorate), in which the regional centers declined in importance in relation to the established rabbinic authorities of Marrakesh. Reports reflecting the more recent years suggest that local hazzanim received certification there, rather than in the festive form mentioned above (in reference to the hinterland centers). The most telling indication of this centralization concerns the power to grant a divorce. Executing a marriage is a straightforward procedure according to rabbinic and does not require great learning. The granting of a divorce is much more complex, and authority to do so is usually limited to a few specialists. The older informants, discussing earlier periods, cite various instances of local rabbis who granted divorces (in Ighil Noro, in Iounil, Telouet, in Ait Bougmez, for examples). In several instances it was clear that the rabbis mentioned were the last to have this authority in the small communities. The French presence, and development of transport, among their other effects, also permitted a greater hegemony of the rabbis in the urban centers over the Jews of the hinterland
Another indication of the earlier (relative) decentralization of religious authority concerns the writing of a Torah scroll by scribes. The presence of a Torah scroll is essentially what imparts sanctity to a building or room and transforms it into a synagogue. The text of the Torah is written by hand, according to strict rules, on a scroll of skin or parchment. In earlier times, the distance from the urban centers, and the limits on mobility sometimes imposed by tribal leaders,[ encouraged that scribal skills be developed locally. There may also be an economic factor which stimulated the poorer communities to produce their own scrolls, rather than purchase them from professional scribes in Marrakesh. The local scribes were often leather-workers, so that they had the knowledge of preparing the animal skin upon which the Torah text was written. The presence of these rural scribes was a clear sign of a form of religious autarchy, and contrasts with the more recent pattern of growing dependence upon Marrakesh.
Saints and Pilgrimages
A basic requirement of every Jewish community is a cemetery. In almost all instances there was a cemetery in walking distance of the small communities of southern Morocco, although in some newer communities, a long distance had to be traversed to reach an older burial site near an ancient (and sometimes abandoned) mellah. Where several mellahs were clustered together, a single cemetery might serve two, or sometimes three, communities. With very few exceptions, each cemetery featured at least one grave recognized at that of a ‘saint’ (a rav or izaddiq).
The background story to the saint varied. Sometimes it involved a known individual who died within the memory of informants. In other cases there was a story concerning a rabbi from the Land of Israel who had come there to collect funds, and had met his death in the region. Similar stories were linked to a number of sites at which rabbis from the Abuhatzira family were buried (in Telouet, near Gouramma and Talsint), having come from Tafilalt to gather contributions for the yeshiv there. Another pattern was that the grave was considered to be that of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, reputed author of the Zohar in Jewish mystical tradition. In the mountain region near Imini, there was a notion that the cemetery was the burial place of sainted ‘priests’ ( kohanim, descendants of Moses’ brother, Aaron), and was known as li-kuhiniyya or ait li-kuhin. Sometimes the burial spot of a sainted individual was not in the cemetery proper, but in a special spot, for example a cave, at some distance from it.
The sainted grave was the focus of an annual pilgrimage, and of many visits on a less regularized basis. The visit to the tomb of a saint, which often had a structure built over it to distinguish it from other graves, took place on his hillula, the anniversary of his death. Descriptions of the local pilgrimages stressed how they involved the whole community. ‘Men, women and children’ went, it was frequently said. It was also commonly stated that everyone participated equally, ‘rich and poor alike.’ The pilgrimage involved visiting the grave, lighting candles, and slaughtering animals (cattle and sheep), after which the meal would be served. The meal might take place in the cemetery, or just outside it. Sometimes, after the visit to the cemetery, the meal would be organized in the village proper. Descriptions of the eating patterns also stressed equality; everyone was given the same size or kind of portion. In some instances each family would be served from a common fund to which all had contributed, making it a communal meal par excellence. Even allowing for an idealization of the equality which characterized these gatherings, it is unmistakable that they were Durkeheimian high points in the celebration of communal life.
It is interesting to raise the question of why this form of communal effervescence and collective celebration was necessary. Superficially, it seems sociologically redundant, echoing the celebrations associated with the canonical Jewish festivals in the synagogue. The association with Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, whose hillula is the prototype of other hillulot, (p1.) and with the mystical tradition, is suggestive. The local burial society (hevra qadisha) was commonly known as the society dedicated to Rabbi Simeon. The twin communal foci, of the synagogue and cemetery, may parallel the twin cultural roots of North African Judaism, the standard rabbinical-halakhic (legal) tradition and the potentially subversive legacy of mysticism. These obviously had reached a mutual accommodation, and were not viewed as antagonistic by the average Jew. We simply note the findings, which require further investigation, that the hillulot were events of major communal importance, despite the fact that they were not deeply anchored in classic religious texts.
In addition to the local saints, there were also saints of regional importance. Here, devotées would come from a distance of one to several days away, and remain at the shrine for several days at least. These pilgrimages were more ‘individual’ in character, in that they did not necessarily involve all the members of a given family or community. However, several men from a community, traveling a distance of several days, would plan their trip together. In the past, it may have been more common for men than for women to visit the pilgrimage sites which were far from home. It seems that in the last generation, with motorized transport and safe travel conditions, it became more common for families (including the women) to make the pilgrimage together. Some of the regional saints had their own hillula date. Others were visited on the date of the Great Hillula (33 days after Passover) which honored Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai. Within any given community, some people might make a long-range pilgrimage on this date, while others would visit a local shrine.
The significance of these saints is multi-layered. We have already suggested their association, at a cultural level, with the mystical tradition, and their importance in expressing communal solidarity. Undoubtedly they fulfilled the function of saints everywhere, as the focus of prayers for fertility, health and other domestic concerns. In addition, they apparently had regional social functions. There are a number of cases in which a saint's tomb developed as a regional pilgrimage site only within the past generation or two. Several of these pilgrimage centers grew precisely in areas where Jews were no longer to be found, or where the Jewish population was diminishing, due to economic pressure or hostile political conditions. Jews were thus no longer present in these regions, or their presence decreased in importance, but they visited with increased regularity. The tombs may have represented a claim that the Jews retained with regard to the territory. They could still travel there in pursuit of trade. In one instance (at least). A Jewish man still kept deeds to land there, in the form of ‘mortgages’ he held after lending money to Muslims from the region. In another case, a Jewish merchant stored grain in the saint's territory, after purchasing it from Muslim peasants. Attaching a saint to these sites appears to have been a way of ‘saying the unsayable.’ or at least saying that which was not prudent to say in a more direct manner: that the Jew lay a claim to exercise rights in the territory on an equal basis with that of the Muslims.
This hypothesis, too, requires further investigation, but there is no question that the saints' tombs were key symbols in Moroccan Jewish culture. They simultaneously were ‘very Jewish’ (being buried in Jewish cemeteries, having reputations for erudition and holiness, and protecting the Jews by their wonders), and ‘very Muslim,’ Clearly paralleling the elaborate culture of maraboutism characterizing Moroccan Islam. They were meaningful both within the Jewish community and as a conceptual bridge which allowed Jews and Muslims to communicate. Even while disagreeing, Jews and Muslims could enter social exchange because of a shared set of notions and symbols defining the mundane and supernatural worlds.
We have attempted to portray an initial portrait of some aspects of the social and cultural life of the mellahs of southern Morocco. Each of the topics discussed might be explored in greater depth, both through the investigation of written materials and through the sustained application of the methods of oral history. It has been our purpose to emphasize the importance of the latter approach, not as a replacement of conventional historiography, but as an important complement to it. By focusing on concrete locales, known individuals, and specific terms, oral questioning can elicit detailed and reliable answers. Investigation in this manner will hopefully portray an increasingly fuller picture of that complex social reality.