Posed Jews

The Slat al-Azama or Lazama synagogue in Marrakesh was founded in 1492, which suggests that its founders were the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in that year. Today, the synagogue stands on Talmud Torah Street in the Mellah, the Jewish quarter, but it was not originally built there. How can this be? No, they did not move the synagogue there, but the Jewish quarter here. In 1557, the then-enthroned Saadi dynasty began the construction of “Renaissance” Marrakesh by building a beautiful mosque in the middle of the bazaar and surrounding it with a comprehensive urban development, the wealthy Mouassin district. And for the Jews living there up to then, they created the Mellah here, around the Lazama, right next to the royal palace: partly for a more effective protection, and partly so that the sultan would always have the inexhaustible wallet at hand.

The Jews resettled here were mainly Berber Jews, the oldest Jewish inhabitants of Morocco, about whom I have written before. Today, a photo exhibition organized in the synagogue’s former yeshiva testifies to their traditional culture, and especially to their schools active in the villages of the Atlas. These often employed Ashkenazi Hasidic rabbis as teachers who settled in Morocco from the 19th century, and they were financially supported by French Jews from the early 20th century.

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The synagogue, which is the only functioning synagogue in Marrakesh after the aliyah of the 1950s and 1960s, is no longer a reminder of those times. In the 1930s and 1990s, it was renovated with the support of American and Israeli Jews,in the uncharacteristic modern style usual there.

In these months, this Jewish mix is enriched by a new, exotic shade. In two rooms of the yeshiva, a photo exhibition was opened from the pictures of Dorit Lombroso from Israel, which presents a very interesting Jewish group from India, the Bnei Menashe, the sons of Menasseh.

Menasseh’s sons, writes the exhibit’s introduction, live in North-East India, in the swampland between Mizoram and Manipur. They speak various versions of the local Tibeto-Burman languages. Before the 19th century, they were animists and feared bounty hunters. They were converted to Christianity by British missionaries, and from the parallels between their own mythology and the Bible, they came to the conclusion that they were actually Jews, and that their mythical ancestor, Manmási, was none other than Menasseh, the son of patriarch Joseph.

That’s it for the introduction. However, Israeli anthropologists * also add that the main evidence forthe parallels was that in 1951, one of the leaders of the then already Christian Mizo-Kuki-Chin tribes had a dream revealing him that his people came from Israel. With his followers, he founded a syncretic Presbyterian revival movement that recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but adopted several precepts of Jewish law and also incorporated many elements of pre-Christian local folklore into its cult.

The awakening to Jewish roots, writes Shalva Weil, probably would not have happened without the British Christian missionaries, who, wherever they appeared in the 19th century, tried to show out the traces of the “ten lost Jewish tribes” displaced by the Assyrians in the local population. Their most spectacular achievement is the Mormon Church, which, according to the self-produced second season of the Bible, The Book of Mormon, is descended from the ten tribes that fled to South America. It is quite ironic that the Mizo-Kuki-Chin tribes found their own Jewish identity through the guidance of lunatic Christian missionaries.

The movement would probably have remained a local Protestant cult, had Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, the founder of the Amishav organization working to resettle the lost Jewish tribes to Israel, not noticed them in 1983. Rabbi Avichail learned about the sensational discovery from a Mizo insurance agent, and he immediately traveled to the scene. During his local research, he found that the local legends in fact contain some elements that can be paralleled with the Bible. Based on these, he willingly recognized the ethnic group as Jews and introduced orthodox Jewish teachings among them. He even obtained money – from fundamentalist Christian organizations working to promote the Second Coming – to settle them in Israel, but the Israeli government did not recognize Menasseh’s sons as eligible for aliyah.

In the meantime, as it usually happens, another Jewish organization, Shavei Israel, was also created to repatriate the lost tribes under the leadership of Michael Freund, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and the two men deadly fell out with each other. This was also facilitated by the fact that Menasseh’s sons also quarreled with each other regarding the leading clans – if nothing else, this is a strong evidence for their Jewishness. By 2005, Shavei Israel had Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, declare the Jewish descent of this ethnic group and its eligibility for aliyah. From then on, about 3000 of the movement’s members moved to Israel, where they were sent to Gaza and the occupied territories in the West Bank as Jewish settlers, to increase the Jewish population, for bullet catchers and, lacking other professional qualifications, for soldiers. This was probably the main motivation for right-wing Jewish politics to recognize the Mizo-Kuki-Chin as Jews.

There were also many opponents of the recognition. DNA tests carried out in the meantime and Israeli academics both testified against the group’s Jewish origins. The local Presbyterian church and Hindu organizations, the other Mizo-Kuki-Chin tribes who deny that Menasseh’s sons are different from them, and the Indian government, which looks suspiciously at another outward-looking people in the border region already plagued by numerous separatist movements, have raised their voices against the local proselytizing activities of the Israeli rabbies.

Dorit Lombroso’s photos definitely cast their vote in favor of the group’s Jewishness. The photographer captures the bearers of exotic Jewish blood renewal in the style of the orientalizing-idealizing soft porno portraits known from her site. In the bosom of unspoiled nature, the young swampland Jews perform the ceremonies of Judaism or their own traditional works that can be paralleled with biblical Jews, in their most beautiful clothes – which are often so new that they are probably costumes borrowed for the occasion – and in front of beautiful settings, rich fabrics, piles of holy books and carefully installed objects of the tradition. Serious-looking boys and girls with eyes cast into the future, dancing in fields of flowers and under blossoming trees, practicing traditional male and female roles. A growing generation of Jewish settlers. It’s like seeing propaganda photos of the settlement to Palestine from the 1920s and 1930s. And that is probably the case.

Guardian angels 1. Mosques of Afanour

In Morocco, the law is that no infidel can enter Islamic holy places, mosques, working madrasahs, tombs of saints. Even the most beautiful historical mosques can only be seen in the excellent albums by Xavier Salmon, who, as a curator of the Louvre, was obviously allowed to take photos inside them with special permission. I myself know only two exceptions. Ironically, both are in Afanour, one of Morocco’s most Jewish towns.

In my summary about the Berber Jews I mentioned that the northern end and business center of the “gold for salt” trade between medieval Morocco and the kingdoms of Benin and Ghana was the city of Sijilmasa at the southeastern foothills of the Atlas, at the confluence of the Todra and Draa rivers. Trade was mainly concentrated in the hands of Berber Jewish investors and caravan owners. In the mid-1500s, Sijilmasa ceased to exist for unknown reasons – according to Leo Africanus, due to a civil war –, and its inhabitants moved to about three hundred small settlements founded around the former city. Until the great aliyah of the 1950s and 60s, these were the most Jewish villages in Morocco. Among them stood out in particular Todra, the spiritual center of Berber Jewry – with which I also begin the above summary, and which I will write about in detail in a next post –, and, opposite it on the otherside of the Todra river, Afanour, one of the important workshops of Berber Jewish silversmiths.

Since the Jews moved out, the old Afanour, built of clay, is largely a ghost town. The beaten clay walls last a maximum of one or two decades without continuous maintenance, and that deadline has long since expired. The streets can still be discerned, but it is no longer possible to determine with absolute certainty whether an empty place was a square, an inner courtyard, or the site of a building that had already completely crumbled away. The roofs of the once rich, four- to five-story kasbahs have cracked, and often one or more of their walls collapsed, revealing the anatomy of a centuries-old living space.

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Through such a broken wall, you can enter a building that once served the Muslim community rather than the Jewish one. The floor plan of the small village mosque follows the tradition of the large Arab mosques, such as the Great Mosque of Damascus or the Mosque of Córdoba. Arches rise on the top of a forest of columns standing at the intersections of a regular chessboard, and they support the horizontal roof made of palm beams.

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The central column square holds a prominent skylight dome. On the basis of this small mosque, we can form some idea of the large royal mosques in Fez, Marrakesh and Meknes, which we cannot enter.

Two niches open on the east wall. One is the mihrab, the prayer booth facing Mecca, and the other is a Moroccan characteristic: a booth into which the wooden mimbar, the pulpit can be pushed in.

The mosque is still relatively intact. Its columns are unbroken, and although the mud washed in from the outside seeps in through the windows and the cracks of the dome, even this latter appears to be structurally intact. Only the reed covering spread over the palm beans has been torn. It appears as if the mosque was abandoned later and maintained longer than the residential buildings.

This is certainly the case with another mosque, which stands a little further south, on the edge of the palm grove surrounding the village from the side of the Todra river. This building is clearly marked by its dome, which rises above the surrounding clay walls. By following this as a compass and meandering through the labyrinth of clay streets, we will arrive to a columned façade, on the top of which the inscription MOSQUÉE IKELANE has been composed from pieces of palm wood. At the top of the façade, there is also a terrace with a palm tree railing, from which the guardian angel of the mosque, the Berber Aaddi Aqbli looks down on us and invites us with great joy to the mosque and madrasah complex, which must have seen no infidel in its heyday.

In fact, the former mosque of the Ikelane neighborhood performed many functions at the time. In addition to a mosque, it also had a primary and a higher school of theology. This latter also had a dormitory and a bathhouse, for which the water drawn from the local well was heated in a separate room in a cauldron dug into the ground.

The first verse of the Qurʿan was written on the blackboard of the former elementary school classrom for didactic purposes: Bismillāhi r-rahmāni r-rahīmi, in the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate

That you can still see all this today is the merit of Aaddi. He was born and grew up here in the neighborhood, went to this school, and although he spent most of his life away from here, as a miner, he returned after his retirement. He was pained by the state of the mosque, which was in use for a while after the village was depopulated, and only abandoned for good in the 1990s. As the only resident of the old Afanour, he moved into the teacher’s room and restored the mosque complex with his own hands. One of the greatest experts in traditional Berber clay architecture, the Catalan Roger Mimo, was of great help in this, who also brought him together with other specialists and restorers, and whose designs and documents are on display on the wall of the mosque’s forecourt.

The structure of the mosque is the same as of the other, neglected small mosque: arches on top of a forest of columns, with a palm beams and reed covering. And in the middle is the dome, the upper circular window of which is covered by a green glazed ceramic bowl. Aaddi tells us that this is not the original, centuries-old bowl, which was stolen by a Berber worker, so he had to replace it with a similar but new one.

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After the tour, Aaddi asks us to write in the guest book and documents our visit with a group photo taken with his mobile phone. As he says, with this documentation he can justify the maintenance of the mosque and claim some state support to it.

In addition to the fact that the structure of the mosque bears witness to the general structure of the large Moroccan mosques, the conditions of its survival are also characteristically Moroccan. I have met such guardian angels in several places, who have devoted their lives to the preservation of an abandoned community building, a mosque, a synagogue, a kasbah. I will write more about them soon.