Uncovering Essaouira’s Jewish Past

Natalie Bernstien, Fulbright Student Researcher, 2018–2019

While lesser known than other tourist destinations in Morocco, Essaouira is nonetheless a widely visited city for Moroccans and tourists alike. Situated on the Southeast coast of Morocco along the Atlantic Ocean, Essaouira’s charm is immediately evident: a quaint beach town with fresh oysters at the port and live Gnawa music on nearly every street. Essaouira resembles other Moroccan towns with its central old medina, walled off from the newer parts of the city; however, many will confirm that Essaouira’s atmosphere is not one that is easily replicable, or even describable. One central feature of the city that many visitors, myself included, fail to notice is the traces of Essaouira’s Jewish past, despite their ubiquity. Although I had the chance to visit Essaouira for the first time in 2016, it was not until my Fulbright year two years later that I had the opportunity to see Essaouira through the lens of its Jewish history.

The Jewish quarter of Essaouira, known as the Mellah, is located in the northern part of Essaouira’s lively medina. The Mellah, however, feels calmer and quieter. When I visited towards the beginning of my Fulbright grant, I was unsure if I had entered the Jewish quarter until I noticed old carvings of the Star of David above the doors of several homes. I hoped that these few days in Essaouira would provide an introduction to the Jewish history that I had overlooked two years prior. As a Jewish researcher studying how Jewish history is spoken about and remembered by non-Jewish Moroccans, I was interested in the contemporary manifestations of this Jewish history in a town whose Jewish population had all but departed.

Upon entering the Jewish quarter, my first stop was the Chaim Pinto Synagogue, preserved as a historic site. I located the sign outside and fortuitously met an older woman who I would come to know as Malika. Malika kindly offered to give me a tour of the synagogue, showing me the various rooms and telling me about Rabbi Chaim Pinto. She said that she was the caretaker for the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery, a job also held by her father and grandfather, and, as our conversation continued, she even recalled the days that the Jews of Essaouira left the city to go to Israel. She remembered seeing the buses driving away and claimed that the Jews did not want to leave, and vividly described the sounds of Jews and Muslims crying as they said their goodbyes. While most of the Jews of Essaouira no longer live there, Malika and her family’s dedication to preserving these Jewish sites illustrates the closeness of the communities in the recent past. As I would observe throughout my Fulbright grant, a similar dedication to the past is prevalent throughout the country.

As I headed to the main square of the medina, I stopped by several shops along the way. One shop in particular was full of art, old books, and other small trinkets. When I told the shopkeeper about my research on Moroccan Jewish history, he eagerly searched through his books and found two Moroccan Jewish cookbooks, one of which, La Cuisine Juive Marocaine, I ultimately bought. I later showed the cookbook to a non-Jewish Moroccan friend who, perplexed, asked, “Why is this cookbook called La Cuisine Juive Marocaine when the recipes are all Moroccan recipes?” Given that I was trying to understand the Jewish community’s relationship to other Moroccan communities, I began to wonder about the degree to which these recipes were distinct from the non-Jewish versions of the same meal (and the extent of their distinction). That question remains unanswered.

Once I reached the main square, I began searching for the antique shop of a Jewish man named Joseph, who was known as the last Jewish person living in Essaouira originally from there. I had been told the general location of the store, and when I entered what I thought to be the right place, an antique furniture store, I met an older man named Said who turned out to be a friend of Joseph’s. Although Joseph was not in the store at that moment, Said excitedly showed me around the shop, speaking an accent of Darija that I had only heard while speaking with Moroccan Jews. I remember asking him about the way he spoke, as I was trying to learn the differences between Moroccan Jewish dialects of Darija and its non-Jewish counterparts. Said laughed and told me he spoke this way because of the amount of time he spent with the Jewish community growing up in Essaouira. Thus the traces of the Jewish community could be heard through spoken language today.

Following this trip to Essaouira, I traveled to Sevilla, Spain for a weekend trip. I remember noticing a man who closely resembled André Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew and advisor to King Mohammed VI. I didn’t think it was possible but I subsequently spoke with a Moroccan woman nearby on the plane who asked about my time in Morocco. After telling her about my Fulbright research, she excitedly asked if I had seen André Azoulay at the front of the plane. I was shocked, and was still in shock minutes later when, fortunately, I happened to meet Mr. Azoulay and spoke with him briefly about my research. He immediately asked if I had the chance to visit Essaouira, his hometown, or if I had attended the Gnawa festival there. I assured him that I would be attending the festival the following summer and thanked him for his efforts to preserve the Jewish cultural sites in Essaouira and Morocco in general.

Although I lived in Morocco prior to my Fulbright grant, my Fulbright experience enabled me to revisit towns and villages across Morocco from a Jewish perspective, internally and externally. I define being Jewish as a continual wrestling with the question of what it means to be a Jew and a commitment to engaging with this question from a moral and political standpoint. As a researcher concerned with the histories of Jewish people, the question remains. How do the defining aspects of Judaism and the understanding of identifying as a Jew change across time and space? Fulbright allowed me to begin to answer this question in a Moroccan context, and I look forward to expanding on this question this fall as I begin a doctoral program in Jewish History at UCLA.

The Fulbright Commission in Morocco