By Keziah Berelson
By Keziah Berelson
Fez – The Jewish Year starts in Tishrei (September/October) and is based around family, community and of course; food. Yet I decided to up sticks and leave my family, my community, and my ashkenazi food to live and study in Fes [Fez] for 10 months at the start of this holy month – Oy, what was I thinking?! I found myself welcomed wholeheartedly by the wonderful jewish community of Fes, one that is also based on family, community and food, although as I was to find out soon – the food was a lot better (don’t tell Grandma!). See, I had arrived in Fes just three days before the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) began. This festival, which is generally considered as one of the most important in the Jewish calendar, lasts for two days and is centred around communal prayers at the synagogue and delicious family meals at home. During this period of time Jews have to uphold religious laws that do not apply to everyday life, for example – the driving of cars is prohibited, the active use of electricity and extends even to the ability to mark paper with pen. I had found myself in a bit of a pickle. 21. Jewish. Unprepared for the September blaze of Fes. Not knowing a jewish soul in the city …
My first port of call was Dr. Armaund Guigui, the head of the Fassi jewish community, although the only channel of contact I had to him was through his surgery. So, I patiently waited along with the groaning bodies around me, and rushed into his office with awful French and classical Arabic trying to claim that I wasn’t ill, just needed a jewish family to stay with who lived close to the synagogue and who kept a kosher household. Over the next few hours I was passed between various notables in the community as to what to do with this entirely unprepared girl who didn’t really have a hope in communicating with them due to my total and utter lack of French or Darijja [Moroccan colloquial language]. This ping pong effect continued throughout the holy month of Tishrei, with me bouncing from one table piled high with sheeps heads and honey-roasted vegetables to another with endless glass decanters filled with home-made almond-scented mashrmal- low fluff. Needless to say; I was a very happy girl.
This is nothing to speak of the wondrous delights I discovered at the last working synagogue in Fes. Before the French occupation of Fes, it was known as ’The Jewish city’ amongst other accolades, due to its populous Mellah. It also has a long history of important figures from not only in Moroccan or Arabic jewish histories, but those who have had important impacts on Jewish thought the world over. Most notably is Maimonedes (Musa ben Ma’amun) who lived in Fes for around ten years after the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain. You are able to visit his old house in the Fes Medina as it is right next to the famous Cafe Clock.
Therefore the Mellah (traditional Jewish Quarter) of Fes is littered with beautiful Medieval-age synagogues such as the Ibn Danan. But where do the modern Jewish community of Fes daven (pray)? Well, you certainly wouldn’t find the jewish community centre or synagogue if you were just strolling though Fes’s Ville Nouvelle, but sure enough, above a bustling cafe that is a carbon copy of the other five that line the street, lies a small synagogue which is reached via a tiny spiralling marble staircase. This opens out into the main prayer area, which is of course split by gender, with the women behind a sheer curtain behind the podium from which the reader leads the service, and the men in front. The synagogue is covered in zellij and mosaic and gold, with beautifully detailed inscriptions covering the walls which are lit by the dapple of multi-coloured glass panels cut into the ceiling above.
Above and beyond all of this splendour there are two things of true wonder to note about the synagogue. Firstly: The ceilings are rippling with lampshades of all shapes and sizes, from chandeliers to just a bare bulb – each of these has been bought by a community member to remember a loved one who has passed away and creates an ambience of generations passed watching over us as we pray. Secondly; despite the community being tiny and not-exactly youthful, there is a minyan (quorum of ten men) at almost every morning service, in a community of around fifty practising jews, that makes that turn out figure higher than some of the most populous synagogues in North London!
Coming from a traditional East-London Ashkenazi background, I was in a constant state of mild confusion and amusement during prayer services and religious festivals, I have never had a full education into the distinct differences in Ashkenazia and Sephardic practice, but this year certainly gave me the thirst for it. After the festival of Passover, where there are specific dietary requirements and customs throughout the eight-day period, the biggest change came after the festival had in fact, finished. At home, we end Passover with a swift Havdalah service followed by a hurried clean-up of the house and a mad rush to squish as much cutlery and crockery back into the Passover cupboard without loosing much of it on the way, perhaps followed by a takeout of pizza.
In Fes however, the festival is ended on a far more interesting note. The Moroccan jewish festival of ’Mimouna’ is specific to Moroccan jews, and I was very excited for it. A Madam at the syngagoue invited us to her home and laid out a spread that looked like something out of a disney princess film. We began by sitting and eating nuts, savoury pastries and a selection of cold meats whilst nattering in French and Darijja to her and her children who had come over to visit her from France during the festival. Next to us sat a bowl of milk with a sphere of traditionally churned butter bobbing in it, next to that sat a similar bowl filled with flour with an identical sphere in it. The sheaves of wheat which decorated the table were green with the spring and brought home the idea that Passover is not only a celebration of the freedom due to every individual on this Earth, but also the start of spring and the freedom that we have been granted to prepare for a new year with shoots of grass and delicious sprouts of green vegetables.
After the discussions on what Mimouna means to these Moroccan jews we were lead through to her dining room where we found her table had been covered in a shining white cloth atopped by dozens of pastries and sweets and candied fruits – I could not believe my eyes, and neither could my stomach!
Over the year, events like this came thick and fast, and through awkwardly worded French conversations which bridged generational and cultural divides I was given a glimpse of modern Fassi jewish life, and I can’t wait to return and find out more (and eat some of their delicious chulent once again). The hospitality I have received from the Jewish community has made me so proud to call myself jewish and be part of a community that is across the world strung together only by a shared faith and loosely-similar practice, but with an eternally-filled spoon.
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