Visiting an artist studio in Fes, Morocco this spring, I could not help but be immediately struck by the details that we all take for granted when examining a completed work of art. The colour, the shapes, the precision, the willingness of the artists to work for hours on end to create something that feels complete – all those small pieces come together to create a finished work.
I was in Morocco as part of a trip organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Entwine movement. Prior to the trip, I knew very little about Moroccan Jewry, aside from the Hebrew teacher with Moroccan roots I had back in elementary school. I didn’t know that Morocco has had a Jewish community since the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
The majority of my family is of Ashkenazi descent, so when my uncle of Israeli-Iraqi heritage would bring new traditions to our Passover seder table, I always felt excited and curious about this strand of Jewish history that I knew very little about. I find it fascinating that after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the Jews spread throughout all four corners of the globe, with the majority of them maintaining their Jewish faith and continuing the traditions and customs they brought with them. One of those pockets of Jews lived in the Atlas mountains of Morocco.
In Fes, our group of 20 Jewish adults were reminded over and over again of the rich history of Moroccan Jewry. “It was the Berbers, then the Jews and then the Muslims who settled this land,” we often heard. (The flag of Morocco featured a six-pointed star, a Star of David, until it was changed to a five-pointed star in 1915.) It was easy to imagine that every native Moroccan on the street carried a strand of Judaism within them, as it is common to hear of practicing Muslims with Jewish last names – people whose ancestors converted many generations ago. All of these individuals – Berber, Jewish, Muslim or a mixture of the three – are like mosaic tiles that have been laid down, creating a detailed picture of Morocco over the centuries.
But it is still unclear, at least to me, what the full mosaic will, or should, look like. We learned that today, there are approximately 3,000 Jews living in Morocco, the majority of whom are elderly and living in Casablanca. Prior to 1948, 250,000 Jews called Morocco home and, for the most part, lived fairly free and permissive lives.
I could not help but wonder: when all the young Moroccan Jews go off to university, the majority of them to schools in France or Canada, from which they rarely return, what will it mean for the continuity of Jewish Morocco? Is physical coexistence required for empathy and understanding between religions that are often at odds in other parts of the world? Is a shared history enough to foster acceptance?
Back at the artist’s studio, we learned that when making a mosaic, an artist does not get to see their work taking form while it is in progress. This is because all the tiles are laid upside down. Thus, the pattern created can only be seen upon completion. The artist places the small tiles in patterns according to his memory, without even an image to refer to, and is only able to pass judgement on the work when it’s finished.
This process felt like a metaphor for something, but it took me a full week to figure out what it was. Judaism’s mosaic tiles are still being placed all over the world and the big picture is constantly evolving. Still, the brief snapshot I saw in Morocco was exquisite.
Naomi Matlow is a Toronto writer.