The culture of Moroccan Jews, like the culture of any people, is an expression of their identity. There is no pure Moroccan Jewish identity, but a multitude of identities linked to history, the environment, the political structure, social relations, the economic power structure, and religious belief and practice. Many groups, both within and outside Morocco, have tried to interpret and change Moroccan Jewish culture to serve their own political agendas. It is important for visitors to appreciate how Moroccan Jews express their own identity through their culture.
The first Jews came to Morocco with Phoenician traders almost 2,500 years ago, bringing with them the culture of the Hebrew people after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, many Jews in desert areas of Morocco maintained some of the culture of the original Jewish inhabitants. Many of them became Karaites, Jews who rejected what Rabbinical Judaism calls the “oral law,” the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in the Talmud (from the first to fifth centuries CE).
Other Jews inhabited Roman outposts in Morocco, expressing a culture linked to Talmudic Judaism, in a Roman environment and political structure. Many of these Jews moved into Amazigh (Berber) communities, adapting their customs and ways of living to those of their Amazigh neighbors.
In the early eighth century, Arabs took control of much of Morocco and converted many Amazigh to Islam. A new wave of Jewish migration to Morocco followed the Arab conquest, taking advantage of the protection afforded by Islam to “peoples of the book,” (Jews and Christians). This dhimmi status enabled Jews to live safely in their own communities, as long as they observed restrictions and practices that reflected their role as second class subjects of the sultan. A few powerful Jews built close relationships with the sultans. The inability of the sultan, whether Arab or Amazigh, to control all parts of Morocco led many Amazigh communities to establish one-on-one protection relationships between Amazigh leaders and Jewish merchants.
In the 14th-16th centuries, Jews from Spain and Portugal took refuge in Morocco, bringing with them a Sephardic culture, including language and religious practices, that was very different from the culture of Arab and Amazigh Moroccan Jews. It took several centuries for the peoples to integrate their religious practices and amalgamate their cultures. Some cultural differences remained into the 20th century.
The close relationships between Jews and Muslims were expressed in the two peoples’ art, including architecture, decorative materials, music, textiles, clothes and jewelry. Cultural blending also was demonstrated in changes in languages, cuisine, religious practices and gender roles.
Moroccan Jews shared common interest with Moroccan Muslims in mystical forms of religions. While Jews pursued the kabbalah, Muslims pursued Sufism. Both Jews and Muslims believed in the importance of prayer at the tombs of religious leaders, many of whom were experts in mystical traditions. In some cases, Jews and Muslims make pilgrimages to each others’ shrines.
Until the 20th century, Moroccan Jewish culture brewed in the mellahs (Jewish quarters), which closed their doors at night. While Jews interacted with Muslims during the day, the two groups were isolated from each other at night.
Many Moroccan Jewish leaders welcomed and facilitated intervention by European powers because of their potential to provide greater freedom than was available under the sultan. Starting in the mid-19th century, Jews in urban areas showed their interest in French culture by sending their children to the secular French schools established by the Alliance Israelite Universelle. During the period of protectorate, many Jews living in the French and Spanish Protectorates of Morocco moved from the mellahs to the European cities, where they integrated parts of European culture into their own.
As Morocco became independent, the status of Jews in Moroccan society was uncertain. Muslim Moroccans felt strongly that Jews were an integral part of their society and culture. Most of them felt a great loss when almost the entire Jewish population emigrated from the 1950’s-1970s. Those Jews who emigrated integrated their Moroccan Jewish culture into that of their new countries, producing new art, music, cuisine and religious traditions. Moroccan Jews, wherever they live today, have great pride in the culture they brought with them from Morocco.