I still haven’t quite gotten over the shock of being the first Jewish person someone has met. It’s happened twice now: once in the conservative, predominantly Christian community of Spokane, and again in a rural Moroccan town named Errachidia.
On a study abroad trip to Morocco I became friends with Said, a young Moroccan student who was working on his tourism degree. When we established the fact that I was Jewish, he looked at me as someone would look at a unicorn. He told me that he had never met a Jewish person before; even the mellahs (Jewish quarters), which were still standing, no longer housed any Jews; and the closest synagogue was three hours away — and abandoned. In larger cities like Marrakech, Rabat, Casablanca, and Fez, state-funded Jewish schools and synagogues do in fact exist, but a 2015 study found that only about 4,000 Jews remain in Morocco today, compared to over 250,000 in the 1940s and 1950s.
When my group made it to Marrakech on our last stop, I rallied my professor, our local guide, and three classmates to find my grandmother’s childhood home in the Marrakech mellah. On an earlier WhatsApp call, my grandmother threw vague directions at me through the static and told me how excited she was that I was carrying out this overdue mission. We pushed our way past donkeys carrying huge hay bales on their backs, vendors selling fresh mint, and young men pouring spicy snail soup into paper bowls.
We finally reached the mellah. Children played while their mothers hung laundry from clotheslines suspended between houses. A woman approached us, intrigued by our little group. She asked the guide about our story and he responded with a glance in my direction. The woman’s face lit up. She explained in heavily accented French that her great-grandfather used to be the main neighborhood baker and maintained close relationships with all the Jewish families of the town despite not being Jewish himself. She hugged me and told me she would gladly help us look for my grandmother’s home.
After the arrival of the friendly stranger, our group grew larger and larger. Soon, we resembled a traveling circus. I announced details that my grandmother had provided me with, such as the hammam near her house; a street name here, another there. Through a frenzy of languages and a stroke of luck, we found the hammam, and from there were able to find the house, now divided into four sections. No one was home, but inquisitive neighbors provided us with details on births, deaths, marriages, jobs, and names. Despite not getting to see the inside, I felt at peace — and at home.
A year later, on a typically rainy evening in Seattle, I found myself seated at a bar next to a young Israeli man named Roï. We realized that his mother’s maiden name and my grandmother’s maiden name was Azran. We began comparing family photos and other scraps of information, piecing together our shared history. It turns out that Roï’s mother was from Marrakech originally, just like my grandmother. He had been there just once, with his mother. We agreed that these brief pilgrimages were simply not enough.
Scholars and locals agree that today Morocco is friendly to Jews, yet many of us remain detached. Perhaps it’s because Moroccan Jews feel as if they dodged a bullet by leaving the country, and they don’t want to return only to become a target of another one. However, our connection to Morocco will only continue to lessen as future generations grow more distant. I was raised with the unwavering belief that I can’t be sure of where I’m going without knowing where I come from — after all, I am the sum of my family history, and it’s part of me whether I choose to acknowledge it or not.
The Bible states, “Do not remove the ancient landmark that your ancestors set.” It’s up to us — the Jews whose ancestors left our ancient landmark many years ago — to pull the curtains back on this disappearing act and protest it by returning in person or by confronting the memories captured in a worn photograph.