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 Berber tribes, some of whom, it is believed, adopted Judaism and later fought against the Arab conquest.
Under Islam, Jews were now forced to live as subordinate, second class “dhimmis“. The situation of Jews and Christians in Morocco worsened in 1146, when the Almohades dynasty came to power and dropped the jizha (tax demanded of dhimmis), but demanded that Jews convert to Islam or be killed. Those who converted were required to identify themselves by wearing a specific yellow head garment, and lived as branded unbelievers who were subjected to severe anti-Jewish oppression and violence. By the 13th century, when the berber Marinid dynasty gained power and eased religious restrictions, Jews were once again allowed to live openly.
As Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492, thousands more fled to the the Moroccan Jewish “mellahs”, or urban Jewish districts and quarters designated by the Sultan. Jewish refugees of the Spanish Inquisition were unwelcome by local Muslims and many were subjected to violence, famine, and a struggle for survival. The Sephardic refugees were known as megorashim (those expelled) to differentiate them from Morocco’s Mizrahi toshavim (residents).
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.
Excerpt taken from Jimena. Read more about Moroccan Jews here.
Moroccan Jewish Music
Jewish musicians had a major influence on Moroccan music. From Chaabi to Gnawa, Moroccan Jews have been participants and innovators in the history of Moroccan music.
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, 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.
Read more about Jewish influence in Gnawa rituals here.
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."