Being in Ethiopia, after dreaming of visiting the country for years, was wonderful. Being there in the company of 20 loquacious Londoners of various Jewish persuasions was even better: a journey of constant dialogue and learning. With Rabbi Sybil Sheridan…
The First Day. Addis Ababa.
We made it to the hotel just to dump our bags and then headed out straight away to meet with the 'Secret Jews' of Kechene. Of course, they're not so secret now. Their synagogue in a slum on the outskirts of Addis has a wall emblazoned with a menorah and other Jewish symbols. This is their story. In a period of intense persecution in Gondar some centuries before, a third of the community decided to leave for the centre of the country. They acted outwardly as Christians meeting in caves for Jewish worship. For 400 years they have only married each other, and kept their identity a secret till about 10 years ago when a group of young men defied their elders and 'came out' as Jews. They now have a synagogue in Addis.
When we arrived we were invited to take off our shoes and wash our hands before entering the synagogue. The room was small, the ark in the middle of the synagogue with seats ranged round the walls, because, they said, their ancestors had forgotten which direction to pray. This way each person prayed towards the ark, which being in the centre portrayed God as being in the centre of the world. By the ark a wooden post rose up to the ceiling. This portrayed the oneness of God. After an explanation, their chazzan started singing a song in praise of God that he had composed himself. His gentle voice and wonderful rhythmic African music in call and response to the men there had us all entranced.
They call themselves the North Shewa Zionist Association, but they are not recognised by Israel as Jews – unlike those who attend the Adenite synagogue – our second port of call. There was a profitable trade between Aden and Ethiopia that involved a number of Jews who settled for a time in the capital. One of these, Shalom Shelemay seems to have been particularly influential, bought land and built his offices and donated one room at the top of a staircase for the synagogue. This is a synagogue as we know it, small, but beautifully kept in true Yemenite style. Nowadays it is only used on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur and when members of the Israeli embassy entertain VIPs. There are still some Adenite Jews living in the city, but not enough to maintain regular services.
In the afternoon, hardly anyone took the option of resting and we visited the Ethnographic Museum set in the palace built by Haile Selassie and now part of the University. We saw some of the state rooms and the Emperor and Empress's bedrooms and bathroom and then followed the trail from birth to death as practiced by the hundreds of different tribes and cultures found in Ethiopia, a great introduction showing not only the country's diversity but its uniqueness. In the same vein we were reminded of the contributions the Italians made to Ethiopian culture in their few years of fascist occupation. Every town has a piazza, every menu offers pasta, coffee comes as espresso or macchiato and every Ethiopian ends a meeting with "Ciao". We ended our day in an Italian restaurant eating pizza.
Ciao for now.
By Sybil Sheridan
Twenty-six tired yet exhilarated travellers sat down together for supper in a Riad in Marrakech – it was the last night of a wonderful trip and they all wanted to spend that evening together, despite the opportunity to sample the night life in this north African town. How well our group, mainly strangers, had grown to like one another and enjoy the times we spent discussing the day’s activities.
The trip focussed on the Jewish Morocco that still remains – the majority of the community having left in 1948 and 1967. Our guide, Rafi El Maleh, was an important part of this well-organised trip. We learned so much about the history, politics and current situation of both the Jewish and Arab population. There seemed to be nothing he did not know. We laughed at the number of palaces owned by the king (whom Rafi had met more than once in the course of his work on Jewish heritage) and we were moved by so many of his stories about individuals he knew and helped. We admired the research, hard work and passion he had devoted to collecting and conserving Jewish artefacts and whole synagogues, throughout the country of his birth.
There was never a dull moment and we drank in every bit of information that he gave us, it might have been about the extraordinary cemetery we visited in the Fes Mellah (pictured above), or one of the many synagogues that we visited. There were once 11 in the Mellah of Meknes and we met one of the last Jews who still prays in this Imperial City. We visited the royal stables and granary, once home to 15,000 Arabian horses, built by Moulay Ismail, who lived in magnificence but subjected his city to terror. We walked, climbed, and sometimes struggled with, the cobbled narrow streets and the traffic, especially in Marrakech where Rafi literally stopped the traffic for us to cross the roads. In Volubilis the hardier individuals climbed in the sun up a steep road to see the remarkably well-preserved Roman city whilst the others enjoyed mint tea in the small café below.
The first two evenings we ate in the attractive Jewish Maimonide club in Fes and enjoyed couscous with meat, vegetables, chicken and an array of the popular and delicious cooked salads in small dishes set out in front of us. The food in general was lavish and good; when not eating kosher food, we were always able to eat fish and vegetarian food so everyone’s needs were met.
One special experience was meeting four young Moroccan Muslims, founders of the Mimouna Association, set up to tell their contemporaries about the Jewish heritage of their country that few knew anything about. We ate together at a restaurant on the coast in Rabat and had the opportunity of conversing with them individually. They spoke about their initiatives; organising Hebrew lessons and days of Jewish culture; running the first Holocaust Conference in the Arab world and paying a group visit to Israel. We were impressed by their enthusiasm and eloquence. It seemed as if they are set to be among their country’s elite. It will be a great boost to interfaith relations if they achieve this.
We visited so many places, each one a treat – the lavish mausoleum built to honour King Mohammed V in Rabat; its Kasbah where we had Moroccan tea and almond cookies; Casablanca’s Jewish Museum with its rich display of Moroccan Jewish artefacts, and its Jewish quarter with kosher bakers, the street of seven shuls and the beautiful Beth el Synagogue.
And Purim: celebrated differently but enjoyably. Not as noisy in synagogue as I am used to, but the same notes and words read out to remind us of the near-destruction of the Jewish people – appropriate in an Arab country, albeit one currently well-disposed to its small Jewish population. The group joined the local community in unending dinner and entertainment. We threw ourselves into the atmosphere of the occasion – fascinated by the bread with hard boiled eggs, representing Haman’s eyes, baked inside (pictured above).
And then the final days in Marrakech where we stayed in the Ksar Anika Riad in the aptly named Rue des Juifs, an oasis of quiet and beauty with a pool in the courtyard and hanging plants. We walked to see the Bahai Palace and in the medina visited a herbalist with his potions, spices and cures for everything. Then to prepare for Shabbat and a wonderful long table set out as if for a wedding with delicious food cooked by Madame Ohayon, wife of Isaac Ohayon who had restored, and was cantor for, the Mellah synagogue some of us visited the next morning. After a Moroccan cholent lunch we visited the Majorelle Gardens, once owned by Yves St Laurent and then gifted to the town for the benefit of those who love quiet, gardens and water – truly lovely.
And there was much else in this wonderful trip, well-planned, delightful company, all our needs considered. I cannot wait to book another tour with Jewish Renaissance.
By Eveleen Habib
Visit the JR website to see the Magical Jewish Morocco 2016 tour itinerary.