History of Moroccan Jews
The roots of Morocco’s Jewish communities date back to 587 BCE, when Jewish refugees, fleeing the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple, crossed over to North Africa and settled in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas region. There, they lived among the local Amazigh tribes, some of whom, it is believed, adopted Judaism and later fought against the Arab conquest.
Those who fled to Morocco after the Spanish Edict of Expulsion in 1492, known as the Megorashim, suffered numerous challenges on their way to Fez and the surrounding regions. They even had a hostile welcome from Jews already in Morocco, called Toshavim, or native Jews. The influx of Megorashim within Morocco led to the development of a new language called Haketia, a mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish.
Under Arab rule the climate was for long periods (but not without exception) characterized by a general spirit of tolerance, first formulated in the seventh century, when Jews became known as dhimmi, or “protected persons.” They were free to practice their religion, but they were also required to pay a special poll tax, and they were barred from certain occupations.
Prior to World War II, the Jewish population of Morocco reached 225,000. Morocco’s King Mohammed V met with representatives from Nazi Germany and Vichy France during the Holocaust to discuss the issue of Jews in Morocco. The Moroccan King famously stated at the meeting that in his country, there are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslim citizens, they are all Moroccans. The Jews of Morocco were not sent away to concentration camps, and were not subject to the full brunt of Nazi evil. Although Jews were not deported during the war, they did suffer humiliation under the Vichy government. Following the U.S. landing in 1943, a few pogroms did occur. In June 1948, bloody riots in Oujda and Djerada killed 44 Jews and wounded scores more. That same year, an unofficial economic boycott was instigated against Moroccan Jews. In 1956, Morocco declared its independence, and Jewish immigration to Israel was suspended. In 1963, emigration resumed, allowing more than 100,000 Moroccan Jews to reach Israel.
Jews living in Morocco today represent a small fraction of the ancient community. In 1956, they numbered more than a quarter of a million and started their emigration mainly to Israel and Europe, but also to Canada and Latin American. Long after their departure, Moroccan Jews have kept a very strong emotional link with the country and often come back to the country, to visit and for pilgrimage. Today, the community is around 3000 people, The largest community is in Casablanca and there are smaller Jewish communities in Rabat, Marrakesh, Agadir, Meknes, Fez, Tangiers, and Tetouan.
Read more about Moroccan Jews here.
Moroccan Jewish Music
Jewish musicians had a major influence on Moroccan music. Moroccan Jewish music consists of Andalusian, Melhoun, and Chaabi music among other styles. Songs are sung in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, or French. Some of the major musicians include Haim Botbol, Samy El Maghibi, Albert Suissa, Cheikh Mwijo, Raymonde El Bdaouia, Felix Elmaghribi and Zahra Al Fassia. These musicians were revered by both Jews and Muslims.
Moroccan Jewish music is also known for Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic liturgical music, including psalms, baqashot (supplications), and piyyutim (poems sung at Jewish life cycle events, holidays and at pilgrimages to the tombs of Jewish saints).
Gnawa: In addition to being the name of this trance-inducing musical style, the term "gnawa" also refers to the people originally from kingdoms spanning Mali to Ghana who were enslaved by the Moorish rulers and brought to present-day Morocco. The Jewish community formed a bond with them and an appreciation for gnawa music and its healing powers. Gnawa music pre-dates Islam and originally centered around animistic, spiritual, and mystical concepts sung in sub-Saharan languages such as Bambara, Fulani, and Sudani. Upon embracing Islam, gnawa songs began to incorporate Arabic language and themes around the Muslim prophets. "Sebitiyin," meaning The Saturdays in Moroccan Arabic, is the collection of songs that grew out of the gatherings hosted by the Jewish community for the revered gnawa maalems whom they deeply respected. Themes of these songs still include the original elements of spirits and the natural world, and later came to incorporate shared saints from their Abrahamic traditions.
Credit to Visiting Jewish Morocco. Read more about Jewish influence in Gnawa rituals here.
For Jewish Moroccan music videos and recordings check out Jewish Maghrib Jukebox and the Jewish Moroccan archive.
Ballads, Wedding Songs and Piyyutim of the Sephardic Jews of Tetuan and Tangier, Morocco
Moroccan Jewish Dance
Sephardic Moroccan Dance: Sephardic Jews carried their traditional dance and music through their exile into the Middle East after the 15th century. In the book The Miriam Tradition, Cia Sautter describes a beautiful Jewish wedding dance ritual that goes back to practices in medieval Spain called “Viva Ordueña”. This is a pantomimed dance with movements that follow the acts described in the lyrics such as planting, harvesting, and preparing bread. It was used as a right of passage and represented women, water, and fertility. The dance was also accompanied by palmades (clapping), castanets, and drumming.
Sautter describes multiple wedding dance ceremonies and rituals by both Sephardic and Toshavim (indigenous) Moroccan Jews. Even though Jewish women were sometimes allowed to dance around men, they had their own private ceremonies especially around honoring and celebrating the bride. One example was the post mikvah party called “cafe de bano” where women could do set choreographed rituals for the bride but then also break out in improvised dancing and chanting. These parties involved a social release through dance, helping to ease tensions for women living within a tight patriarchal structure.
Kay Harvey Campbell, a musician and scholar, remarks on the social function of the wedding dance event, the women’s dress, and their movement:
"Beyond the male gaze, these dances can be unbelievably rowdy … Without men present—and men are absolutely not allowed—women can do anything they want. It’s freedom from any social pressure to be polite or conform. And the dresses! They’re huge, unbelievably gorgeous and theatrical and colorful."