Talk to Moroccan Jews about their country of origin and they will glowingly tell you about the countless rabbis, scholars, entrepreneurs, political leaders, and writers it has produced. Ask further and they will also tell you about the beautiful wedding traditions, and the friendly relations the community has had with the king and with fellow Moroccans of other religions.
That pride of being a Moroccan Jew will be on display on Sunday, May 15, and Monday, May 16, at the Center for Jewish History, in Manhattan, at a symposium titled “2000 Years of Jewish Life in Morocco: An Epic Journey,” sponsored by the American Sephardi Federation.
More than 15 scholars from universities in France, Canada, Israel, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York will participate. Jewish leaders and rabbis from Morocco and representatives of the Moroccan government will also attend.
The symposium caps a year of planning and searching around the world for scholars who could best present the topics during the two-day event, said Englewood resident and Moroccan-born Raquel Benatar, a ASF board member.
Among the topics listed on the program are the Moroccan diaspora in Israel and the Americas; the contributions of Moroccan rabbis to Jewish thought; Moroccan Jewish literary creativity; and the Jews in the arts and music. The last session will be a roundtable discussion about the efforts to preserve Jewish sites in Morocco.
The symposium is the last event of a season dedicated to Moroccan Jews, said Benatar.
“We devote each year to a country with a large Sephardic community,” she added. “It has been an intense year, full of interesting programs.”
Last year the ASF paid tribute to Spain.
According to Stan Urman, the organization’s executive director, Morocco was picked for the 2010-2011 season because many Spanish Jews went to Morocco after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, so “we felt that in terms of historical progression it would be useful to follow Spain with Morocco.”
The country to be featured next year is still under discussion, he added.
The symposium bears the same title of a book by Haim Zafrani, the foremost authority on Moroccan Jewry, who died in 2004. The book’s English translation was published by the ASF and KTAV Publishing House of Jersey City in 2005.
“Haim Zafrani is somewhat of an inspiration for this program,” Urman said, and a session will be devoted to his work.
Other activities during the season have included the re-enactment in February of a ceremony known in the cities of northern Morocco as Noche de Berberisca (Berberisca Night), in which the bride, a few days before the wedding, wears an elaborate wedding dress made of colorful fabrics, decorated with gold, and a crown adorned with jewels. The ceremony is enhanced with songs and food. It is known in the French-speaking cities of central Morocco as SoirÃ©e du Henne. The dresses are handed down from mother to daughter.
In March, the ASF, during its Sephardic Film Festival, now in its 15th edition, honored Ronit Alkabetz, an actress and filmmaker of Moroccan origin now living in Israel, for her lifetime achievements.
The season kicked off in October with an exhibit, “Looking Back: Jewish Life in Morocco.” Still on display, it includes documents and photographs.
According to an ASF press release, the activities are held under “the high patronage of His Majesty Mohammed VI, King of Morocco,” with the partial financial support of the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation.
Alice Hamburg, born in Tangier and a resident of Teaneck, said she follows the activities of the ASF “with great interest” and attended the Berberisca night in February. Her family held a Berberisca for one of her sisters when Hamburg lived in Tangier, a city in northern Morocco.
There is no substantial Moroccan Jewish community in New Jersey. Fort Lee is home to Cong. Bet Yosef, formerly known as the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee, whose approximately 120 members hail mostly from Morocco, according to Nicole Mechaly, the daughter of the synagogue’s rabbi, Simon Abergel.
“Even though the synagogue has grown and now includes Israelis, Iraqis, Persians, and some Ashkenazi Jews, it has retained the Moroccan nusach [style of praying] and the Moroccan traditions of the founders,” said Eric Abergel, the rabbi’s grandson.
There are between 12 and 15 Moroccan Jewish families in Fort Lee, he added.
Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah hosted a daily Sephardic minyan for about 28 years, which included Moroccans, Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Yemenites. A month ago it inaugurated a new branch for them, the Jacob Benaroya Sephardic Center.
The largest concentrations and Jews of Moroccan origin are in Madrid; Paris; Los Angeles; Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y.; Montreal; Caracas; and Buenos Aires. Some Moroccan Jews settled in the heart of the Amazon jungle, in northern Brazil, during the rubber boom in the 19th century.
About a million Jews of Moroccan descent live in Israel, while fewer than 5,000 Jews live in Morocco today, down from some 270,000 in 1948. For more information, visit www.americansephardifederation.org/morocco-symposium.html or call (212) 294-8350.