Third Grade Teachers Guide on Moroccan Jews

The People

Jewish Girls at a French-Jewish School in the city of Tangier, Morocco, 1919
From Beth Hatfutsot Photo Archive, Tel Aviv.  Courtesy of Ahuva Avital, Santiago

What do we call the Jews from central and Eastern Europe? 

Ashkenazi Jews

Who are the Moroccan Jews?  

Most Moroccan Jews are called Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews.

Mizrahi Jews came to Morocco starting over 2,000 years ago. They came with the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs at different times.

Many of those who came before the Arabs were called Amazigh (pronounced Amazeer) Jews, because they spoke the language of the Amazigh people, with whom they lived.

The Arabs brought their new religion, Islam, with them to make Morocco a Muslim country.

Sephardi Jews are descendants of Jews who lived in Spain until 1492.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus went to America. Why did he go?

To find a short way of getting to India, which had products Europeans wanted. 

But also, to help Christian Spain celebrate its victory over the Muslim rulers in Spain and the expulsion of Muslims and Sephardi Jews.

Where did Sephardic Jews go when they left Spain?

Most went to lands controlled by Turkey.

Some moved to Morocco, which was not controlled by Turkey.

Their Lives 

The Mellah of Marrakesh, one of Morocco’s Large Cities

Where did Moroccan Jews live until the 20th century?

Until the French and Spanish took control of the country in 1912, most Moroccan Jews lived in houses within mellahs, walled-off neighborhoods with great doors that closed at night. Muslims lived in other walled-off neighborhoods called medinas.

How did the Jews live in the 20th century?

When the French and Spanish took control of Morocco a hundred years ago and built modern cities, most Jews moved to them from their walled-off neighborhoods. They were the first Moroccans to learn French and Spanish and live and work with Europeans in Morocco. Many Jewish girls and boys attended French-speaking schools.

What happened to Jews during the Holocaust?

Because the German Nazis took control of France in 1940 and wanted to kill or make life difficult for Jews, some Jews in the areas of Morocco controlled by France were told they could no longer attend French schools or live in French neighborhoods. These policies lasted three years, until the American army landed in Morocco and defeated the French army.

After Israel was founded in 1948, did many Moroccan Jews move to Israel?

Not immediately, but most Moroccan Jews left for Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. Morocco gained its independence from France and Spain in 1956. Later, others left for France, Canada, Latin America and the US. The population fell from about 265,000 in 1950 to less than 2,500 in 2020.

Their Culture

Amulet Used by Moroccan Jews to Protect against the Demon Lilith
by fouad benkirane, TIFINAGH, Les Mureaux, France

What languages do Moroccan Jews speak? 

They speak many languages. These include French, Spanish and Jewish versions of Arabic, Tamazight and Spanish. In synagogues, Moroccan Jews use Hebrew.

What are some special customs?

Many Moroccan Jews are very superstitious. Just like Moroccan Muslims, they believe in good and bad spirits. When a boy is born, they try to protect him from what they imagine to be the demon Lilith, the first wife of Adam in the Jewish Bible, by waving a dagger around his crib. They also wear amulets to protect themselves from the spirits that they believe can make people sick.

Jews Celebrating at a Saint’s Tomb in Morocco
By Abdelmajid Bziouat, L’Economiste

Jews have special festivals to pray at the tombs of rabbis who died long ago. They call these rabbis “saints.” They believe that praying at their tombs will help them overcome problems. They light candles at the saints’ tombs.

Their Prayer

Celebrating Mimouna in Morocco
by Association Mimouna

How do Moroccan Jews pray?

They pray according to the Sephardic tradition, which is similar to Orthodox. Men and women are in separate areas. The entire service is in Hebrew.

What special things do Moroccan Jews do for the Jewish holidays?

  1. For Chanukah, they eat doughnuts and use olive oil in their menorahs.
  2. They have established special Purim holidays to remember when the Jewish community was saved, such as when the Americans arrived during World War II to begin fighting the Nazis.
  3. The most unique Moroccan Jewish holiday is called Mimouna. At the end of Passover, Muslims visit their Jewish friends. Jews go from house to house visiting Jewish friends and family, where they eat lots of sweets and bread.

Their Culture

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

What type of food is special to Moroccan Jews?

Moroccan Jewish cooking is kosher, so they don’t eat milk and meat together or eat any shellfish. It is almost the same as Muslim cooking, including couscous, cooked salads, stews and fantastic pastries.

Painting of Moroccan Jewish Women in 1832
Eugène Delacroix,”Saada, the Wife of Abraham Ben-Chimol, and Préciada, One of Their Daughters,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/336046

How do Moroccan Jews dress?

Moroccan Jews like to wear traditional clothes. Both men and women will wear jellabas, while women will wear caftans.

Hand of Fatima

What special artwork is associated with Moroccan Jews?

Brass art and jewelry. One shared symbol is the hamsa, or the hand of Fatima. This is just as much a Jewish symbol as the star of David or the menorah. 

What are Moroccan Jewish weddings like?

Jewish marriage ceremonies feature Moroccan music, especially Andalusian music, which was developed by Jews and Muslims in Spain over 500 years ago. At marriages, Jewish women wear traditional Moroccan robes and have their hands and feet covered with tatoos made of henna.