Jan 28 2009

Sacred and profane in the Jewish quarter of Fes

by at 10:00 pm

(Jackie says I haven’t been blogging enough and that I spend too much time on posts when I do actually blog. So after this one I’ll be uploading lots more photos to Flickr and doing short, quick posts about them. Promise!)

The Jewish cemetery in Fes is just off the main road of the mellah, the old Jewish quarter. It is overlooked by crowded, multistory homes, once Jewish, now Muslim. Walking in the cemetery, you pass through rows of graves, some centuries old and others from the past few years. It is the resting place of important rabbis and small children. All graves are marked with lines of Hebrew, and below, many include French as well. The cemetery grew organically in a way; different sections from different periods forming a patchwork. The graves describe lives lived, and the shells of burnt out yahrtzeit candles commemorate these lives.

Jewish cemetery in FesJewish cemetery in Fes

Jewish cemetery in FesJewish cemetery in Fes
(click on the images for larger versions)

At one end of the cemetery stands a synagogue, which no longer functions. Instead, a complicated and unknown process converted the synagogue into what is officially a museum of the Jewish presence in Fes and Morocco. And officially, entry is free, but in a typically Moroccan way, we were charged 10 MD each to enter, and similarly, the museum wasn’t what you might expect.

Sanctuary in the Synagogue in Fes

The synagogue is more like the work of an amateur archaeologist: it is stuffed full of the obvious sacremental items—tallises, prayer books, etc.—but much more striking are objects of a different sort. On the main floor there are caches of discarded Barbie dolls, books of all sorts in English, French, and Hebrew, half-deflated basketballs and soccer balls, old calendars from Lubbavitch of Brooklyn, goofy old secular posters, on and on. And in the basement, which we entered in search of the mikvah (nowhere to be found): dingy pots and pans, ancient discarded household items.

Books and calendars
Balls of all sorts
Old calculators, posters, and signs

How the synagogue on the edge of the cemetery came to be the final resting place of the everyday items of the Jews of Fes remains a mystery: there was no one we could really ask to give us the full story. The Jews of Morocco didn’t leave in a hurry or en masse, like the Jews of Iraq or Yemen. Indeed, there is still a significant Jewish population in Casablanca, a working synagogue in the new part of Fes, and an aging population in Marrakech. Since the creation of the State of Israel, the Jews of Morocco have been a community slowly dwindling, with affluent members having left for France and North America, poorer members for Israel. They left behind centuries of family history in Morocco, most strikingly on display in the cemetery. But the feeling that the books and Barbies gave off was that of a slow departure, with those who left leaving many people behind. Perhaps these possessions were left for these people left behind—if only temporarily. But not enough members of the community remained to make use of these possessions, or perhaps the quantity was just overwhelming. Some way or another, they ended up stockpiled in the synagogue.


In Judaism there is a concept of the kodesh or sacred, and the chol or profane, and the utmost of importance is assigned to hamavdil, the separation of the two. Profane should not be taken literally—another translation might be simply non-sacred, or everyday. Indeed, the six days of the week are chol, while the Sabbath is kodesh. The end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week is marked by Havdalah, which has the same root as hamavdil. By some combination of chance and design, the synagogue in Fes was filled with both kodesh and chol, in equal measures.

A week ago, I happened to be at the Jewish museum in Paris, where a small, very classy display case holds Moroccan Jewish jewelry and other handiwork, no doubt brought by Moroccan Jews to France. All of it kodesh. What was missing was the chol. But what was missing in Morocco was any real sense of hamavdil. None of the sacremental items were being mistreated or anything, but the mismash of items was jarring. Our quest for the mikvah a failure, we didn’t linger for long.

1949 Basketball Team

[POSTSCRIPT 1: After a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry I see the astounding claim that there are a million Jews of Moroccan descent living in Israel, 15% of the population! No source on this claim, however. And the lede of the entry contradicts information later in the entry. Maybe I should fix that.

POSTSCRIPT 2: I’d appreciate corrections from the knowledgeable among you on the history or Jewish ideas I may have botched. What does chol literally mean?]

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Sacred and profane in the Jewish quarter of Fes”

  1. Lizon 29 Jan 2009 at 4:39 am

    That is so cool! A stash of the random day-to-day detritus of a lost community is much cooler than a lot of boring old tallises. Nice find!

  2. Sethon 29 Jan 2009 at 5:28 pm

    An update from Jackie. In the first set of pictures, the lower-right hand corner one is of a grave with enscriptions that I believe are in Hebrew and Ladino–see if you can make out anything in the Roman characters.

  3. SwissWatching » Animals of Moroccoon 03 Feb 2009 at 9:25 pm

    […] continues my blogging about our trip to Morocco. First entry: the departed Jews of Fes, second entry: doors of […]

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