Meet Moroc­can town’s last Jewish res­i­dent

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY BRIGID GRAUMAN

ES­SAOUIRA’S POR­TUGUESE for­ti­ca­tions are the stuff of travel posters. The At­lantic rollers thrash against the walls of this his­toric Moroc­can town, vis­ited by surfers and tourists charmed by its laid­back at­mos­phere.

Few among them know that Es­saouira was once pre­dom­i­nantly Jewish, con­sist­ing of a wealthy and cos­mopoli­tan com­mu­nity.

Joseph Se­bag, the self-pro­claimed “last Jew” of Es­saouira, will gladly chat about the fish­ing port’s Jewish past in his book­shop-cum-an­tique store where he sells Ber­ber jew­ellery along­side African masks and old French crock­ery.

His fam­ily has lived here un­in­ter­rupt­edly for 250 years and his 88-yearold mother can still re­call the story of al­most ev­ery Jewish home.

Wear­ing a sil­ver Ber­ber bracelet and rings on his fin­gers, Mr Se­bag re­ceives vis­i­tors in the cav­ernous shop that was once the of­fice from which his father ran a ship­ping in­sur­ance busi­ness.

“I am a sec­u­lar Jew on the out­side but ortho­dox within,” he says. His mother is of Ber­ber Jewish de­scent and his father was a Sephardic Jew from Spain.

After seven years in the United States and Canada, where he sold com­puter parts, Se­bag missed Es­souaria so much that he re­turned. Morocco’s Jews have had a che­quered history, but Se­bag has never been de­terred. “This is where my friends are, my fam­ily and my roots, and I have never re­gret­ted com­ing back. I feel safe in Morocco.”

Es­saouira’s Jews left mostly in the late 1940s and 1950s to go mainly to Is­rael, and also to France, the United States and Canada. But Se­bag thinks they should have stayed. Morocco was al­ways a wel­com­ing home, he claims, and is cer­tainly the only place where he wants to live.

When dur­ing the Sec­ond World War the French Vichy gov­ern­ment asked King Mo­hammed V how many Jews lived in Morocco, which was still a French pro­tec­torate, he replied, “I have no Jews, only Moroc­cans.”

Es­saouira has long been a sym­bol of tol­er­ance, ever since the 18th-cen­tury Sul­tan Mo­hammed Ben Ab­dal­lah founded the town then known as Mo­gador next to a Por­tuguese fort and set­tled a hand­ful of Jewish trad­ing fam­i­lies.

The last stop for trans-Sa­ha­ran cavarans car­ry­ing spices, al­monds and tiles, Mo­gador, along with Tang­iers, be­came Morocco’s only port open to Euro­pean trade and as such thrived for 150 years. Mus­lims, Jews and Chris­tians worked com­fort­ably side by side.

Trad­ing fam­i­lies from Eng­land set up home and founded an English school, and for a while English teas and bowler hats be­came the fash­ion. Eng­land’s fa­mous Se­bag-Mon­te­fiore dy­nasty has roots in Mo­gador.

The richer Jewish fam­i­lies lived in grand houses in the Kas­bah, while the poorer Jews from Mar­rakesh and the coun­try­side lived in the Mel­lah, the in­creas­ingly cramped Jewish quar­ter. For a while, Jews out­num­bered Mus­lims. In the old­est of the two walled Jewish ceme­ter­ies by the ocean, the lay­ered tombs tes­tify to gen­er­a­tions of Jewish pres­ence.

The houses in the run down Mel­lah are now oc­cu­pied by Es­saouira’s poor­est res­i­dents, but the re­fur­bish­ment of three of the town’s sy­n­a­gogues is a sign of a re­newed in­ter­est in the town’s Jewish past. De­scen­dants of one-time Jewish res­i­dents make nos­tal­gic trips to dis­cover traces of their an­ces­tral roots, while ev­ery Septem­ber pil­grims from around the world visit to pay homage to the leg­endary Rabbi Chaim Pinto who is buried here.

For a while, Jews out­num­bered Mus­lims in Es­saouir’

Joseph Se­bag in his shop

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