We found ourselves in Morocco for the High Holidays specifically in the coastal town of Essaouira on the eve of Rosh Hashana. The High Holidays include the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). In between is a period of deep reflection and repentance, whereby a Jew admits to sins, asks for forgiveness, and resolves not to repeat these sins. It was important to us that we observed the High Holidays during our shabbatical.
In primarily Muslim Morocco we went on a search for a synagogue where we could attend Rosh Hashanah service. In our researched of Essaourira we found 3 synagogues and hoped that at least one was active. Shortly after we arrived we navigated through the maze of the Essaouira Medina to find the synagogues. We walked through alleys and dodged cats and people on bikes to find it, see the search here:
When we arrived, we met the shomer who is a Muslim Moroccan, as well as 2 other visitors who were not from Essaouira. One of the visitors was a Moroccan Jew and his friend though non-Jewish was learning to read Hebrew. The three men did not speak English but the Jewish Moroccan spoke broken Hebrew which allowed Jesse to communicate with him. Through a mixture of Hebrew, English, Arabic, and French translations between Jesse, the Shomer, and the Morrocan Jew, we reached the conclusion that there was an 8 AM service on Rosh Hashanah. We were also about 50% sure that something was lost in translation.
On Rosh Hashanah morning, we went back to the synagogue for service at 8am only to find it locked. As we expected there was a misunderstanding. We had actually gone back one additional time to reaffirm 8AM Thursday morning and the Shomer had reassured us via hand singles so we decided to stay and wait for a bit.
It turned out he probably understood that we wanted him to show up to let us in the synagogue at 8 AM. He came running to the synagogue around 8:30am and let us in. Not to be deterred we read from the prayer books and departed to Marrakesh later that day.
While in Marrakesh we learned that there is no longer a Jewish community in Essaouira. Ironically the mayor of Essaouira is Jewish and is the son of Andre Azoulay who is the King of Morocco’s sole Jewish advisor.
It took us about 4 hours to get to Marrakesh that afternoon and after arriving we went to the old Jewish Quarter in the City to try to find the synagogue there for evening Rosh Hashanah service. When we showed up at the Slat Al Azama Synagogue, it was past 6 PM and there was a military individual sitting at the entrance who guards the synagogue, and with very broken English he told us it was closed for the evening and we could stop by tomorrow. Fortunately we got a bit lost departing and ended up returning to the synagogue. On our second time back to the synagogue we met a woman named Kitty, a British historian who lived in the Synagogue. She told us that the schul was self led by members. There had been a service in the morning. An evening service was unlikely as the prior evening 10 men did not show up to have a service, which is the minimum required. She did invite us to join her for Rosh Hashanah dinner which we happily accepted. From Kitty we learned about the Essaouira community as well as a lot more about Jewish history in Morocco. She also spoke to the guards and granted us entrance to the synagogue.
The Synagogue was founded in 1492 when Jews fled to Morocco from Spain. It has been a functioning Synagogue since that time and through most of its history was a Yeshiva (Jewish School) as well. The Synagogue was a gem. Like everything in the Medinas of Morocco there are no windows to the outside, however there is an opening in the middle to allow for ventilation into the building. For the Marrakesh Synagogue, they used the middle of the building as a courtyard that had a fountain at its center and large lush trees at each corner of the courtyard: pomegranate, orange, lemon, and lime.
There is a woman who works in the kitchen and lives in the synagogue, she took Quan’s hand and shook one of the tress and a bunch of birds flew out while Quan let out a high pitch scream because she was startled not because she was trying to sound like a bird.
As this was an orthodox schul, we didn’t take pictures inside the schul in observance of the High Holidays but found these online:
The sanctuary was much bigger than the one in Essaouira, but small by standards of the United States (it seats less than 100). It was beautiful with soaring ceilings, men sit downstairs and women upstairs.
Kitty is an Orthodox Sephardic Jew as well as a historian that has lived in Morocco the past 9 years. She has an 8-year-old daughter who lives with her at least part of the time, however, her daughter was not there that night. She oversees the administrative matters for the schul and lives in an apartment on the second floor of the synagogue.
Jesse’s family are Ashkenzie Jews so this was our first time attending a Rosh Hashanah dinner with Sephardic traditions. The most unique is the Rosh Hashanah Seder, which is 9 bites of several types of food from Dates to Leeks to Apples. Each food is a play on a Hebrew word that sounds similar to the a blessing / prayer that is said before eating. Here is the full list of prayers and food:
Before eating dates (tamar): May it be your will, God, that enmity will end. (Tamar resembles the word for end, yitamu.)
Before eating pomegranate: May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.
Before eating apple: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a good and sweet year.
Before eating string beans (rubia): May it be Your will, God, that our merits increase. (Rubia resembles the word for increase, yirbu.) Instead of string beans, Jews from Libya mix sugar and sesame seeds to symbolize plenty, because the grains are so tiny and numerous that they can’t be counted.
Before eating pumpkin or gourd (k’ra): May it be Your will, God, to tear away all evil decrees against us, as our merits are proclaimed before you. (K’ra resembles the words for “tear” and “proclaimed.”)
Before eating spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be Your will, God, that all the enemies who might beat us will retreat, and we will beat a path to freedom (Selek resembles the word for retreat, yistalku).
Before eating leeks, chives, or scallions (karti): May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off. (Karti resembles yikartu, the word for “cut off.”) Jews from Persia tear the scallions and throw them behind their backs and over their shoulders. Sometimes they then say the actual names of the enemies they want to destroy.
The seder originally called for a fish or sheep’s head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails; leaders, not stragglers. The sheep’s head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac’s life; we recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Baghdadi Jews discontinued using the fish because its Hebrew name, dag, sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, d’agah.
We talked to Kitty for about 2 hours regarding Jewish life in Morocco, our travels and both of our families’ Jewish history. We learned that her 8-year daughter Rachel speaks 5 different languages (2 types of Arabic, Hebrew, English and French), what an absolute accomplishment and gift she’s given her child! We also learned that there are about 2,500 visitors to the synagogue each month and there was a service for Rosh Hashanah earlier that morning. The synagogue even has the mandatory 10 men required for a weekly Shabbat service (called a Minyan) each Saturday but mainly because tourists who visit Marrakesh come for the services.
It was a fascinating experience for us. We were sitting around the dinner table talking under the candlelight (Kitty being orthodox does not turn on the lights during holidays and Shabbat). Inside we felt as if we were back with a Jewish community while the craziness of the Marrakesh Medina was just outside those walls. We almost forgot where we were, it felt more like a Shabbat dinner back in the United States than our typical crazy shabbatical day!
Observing the High Holidays in locations around the world gave us the opportunity to meet some wonderful new friends along the way. In Morocco it was Kitty and the men in Essaouira who we communicated with across languages.
We were in San Francisco for Yom Kippur and attend service at the Kitchen which calls itself a religious start-up building a connected, spiritually alive Jewish generation and a new resonant approach to religious life in San Francisco. We were very moved by the service and the community at the Kitchen. As a convert, Quan also really appreciated the High Holidays booklet they created as well as their prayer book which gave such rich context and depth to the customs and traditions.
We befriended Sharon and Craig who were kind enough to give us a ride home after Friday night service. They told us the wonderful story of how the Kitchen started in the kitchens of Jews in the Mission district of San Fransico.
We originally call our time off SHABBATICAL as we often observed Shabbat in nature as that is where we feel closest to God. It has also turned out to be an amazing education of Jewish communities of past and present around the world.