Moroccan Jewish Handicrafts and Visual Arts

Moroccan Jews played a major role, if not the only role, in the production of gold, silver, copper, coral, animal skin and textile handicrafts, until the 20th century. Muslims considered many of these occupations dirty and of low status, so Jews took on these jobs. Handicraft production jobs also enabled Jews to participate in the purchasing of raw materials and selling of finished products. During the era of the Sub-Saharan caravan trade, Moroccan Jews living in the desert towns south of the Anti-Atlas mountains received the gold produced in Ghana and produced handicrafts that were exported both across the Sahara and to Europe via the ports of Agadir and Essaouira. Jews from southern Morocco also would travel by mule or donkey to sell their products to Muslims and Jews in mountain villages and northern cities.

from Berber Jewellery

The patterns of jewelry and other metalwork were influenced by the art of the various peoples, ethnic groups and religions that moved into Morocco. Both Jews and Muslims were prohibited from producing human images, so much of the handicrafts focused on geometric designs. Many of these designs derived from those in other Arab lands, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. The two most common images were the dove and the hand. The Hand of Fatima became a good luck symbol for both Muslims and Jews. Jewish metal workers produced amulets and charms for both Muslims and Jews, based on the Kabbalah and other mystical religious sources.

As textile workers, Jews specialized in metal thread derived from silver and gold. Their work on heavily embroidered caftans for women and jellabas for men and women was widely appreciated.

When the Sub-Saharan caravan trade was replaced by ocean-based trade, Jews living on the edge of the Sahara could no longer earn an adequate income from handicrafts. Before migrating to the towns and cities, they trained Muslims to carry on their handicraft work. In the towns and cities, they maintained the same occupations.

European artists visiting Morocco in the 19th and 20th centuries pictured Moroccan Jews frequently in their work. Moroccan Muslims were hesitant to interact with the Europeans, while some Jews acted as intermediaries between the Europeans and the Sultan. Artists such as Eugene Delacroix, Charles-Emile Vernet-Lecomte and Alfred Dehodencq created important paintings of Moroccan Jews and their culture in the 19th century. These paintings tended to view Moroccan Jews as exotic objects of attention, rather than people with their own customs.

In the 20th century, French photographers created an enormous number of postcards of Moroccan subjects, of which a large number dealt with Jews. These postcards viewed Moroccan Jews from a colonial perspective. Some Moroccan Jews studied art with European artists and photographers, enabling them to express themselves in a number of mediums, especially photography.

Lalla Sol ha’tsaddiqa (Solica) z.l.
by Prosper Trojman

In the 21st century, a number of Moroccan Jews who emigrated to Israel, Europe and the Americas or are descended from Moroccan Jews have used different forms of art to honor their heritage.