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From the Maghreb to Jerusalem and Back: Judeo-Moroccan at NLI


Marrakesh, Morocco, early 1950s (Photo: Joint Distribution Committee)

News of Israelis' surging interest in Judeo-Moroccan recently grabbed headlines in the Moroccan press, as a number of newspapers and websites have recently published reports on a course in the language currently being offered at the National Library of Israel.

Judeo-Moroccan is a unique blend of Hebrew and Arabic once spoken by Maghrebi Jews for hundreds of years. In many cases, Arabic would also be written in Hebrew letters. Second and third generation Moroccan-Israelis are now increasingly understanding that language is more than a simple means of communication. History, values and culture play an integral role in the Judeo-Moroccan language itself, just as Yiddish and Ladino each preserve their own precious treasures of the Jewish story.

As many of those who came to Israel from Morocco get older, their children and grandchildren more clearly appreciate the need to preserve their unique cultural identity. This was the case for Orly Simon, head of the National Library's Public Services Division. As her mother aged and underwent a number of medical procedures, Simon felt a strong desire to get to know her family's roots in order to preserve her Moroccan heritage and pass it on to the next generation. Simon began to learn the language, study the history and ultimately visited Morocco with three generations of her family.

When Simon came back from her trip she realized that the National Library, whose mandate is to preserve Jewish heritage, must act to preserve and promote the Moroccan Jewish language and culture. The Library already had collections of books, documents and manuscripts in Judeo-Moroccan, but would anyone know how to read them in the future?

In collaboration with the Worldwide North Africa Jewish Heritage Center , it was decided to design a course in Judeo-Moroccan to be hosted at the National Library, which would be open to the general public. While the initial plan was to have a small group of up to 15 students, overwhelming interest in the course necessitated that it be expanded to 30 students, with dozens more having to wait until the next time it is offered.

While participants are of all ages, most are native Israelis in their 50s and 60s whose parents came from Morocco. The current course required students to pass a very basic proficiency test so that all participants would have the foundation to learn the language at a more advanced level, though, based on the demand, it seems that future courses may not have this requirement.

According to Simon, the course is marked by a "warm intellectualism", meaning that while most of the learning is based on texts taken from the National Library's shelves with emphasis on their historic context, various elements including folklore and proverbs are familiar to the course participants from their parents and grandparents, imbuing the course with a sense of nostalgia. The participants have even opened a Whatsapp group to practice their Judeo-Moroccan, allowing them to share picture of Morocco, stories and sayings.

"In the last decade, you can see a cultural awakening on the part of second and third generation Moroccan-Israelis," says Simon, adding that "there is an attempt here to contemplate centuries of rich Jewish Moroccan culture and to not focus as much on the difficulties of their absorption into Israeli society, as was the case in the past. Language is identity and people want to know their identity."

So what's next?
The tremendous success of the Judeo-Moroccan course has paved the way for future courses open to those without a basic knowledge of the language, enabling many more young people to participate and engage with the heritage of their forefathers. It also may lead to courses in other Jewish languages, such as those spoken by the Libyan, Tunisian, Iraqi or other communities. Simon also hopes to collaborate with the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco in order to create a digital database containing the cultural treasures of Moroccan Jewry in one place, accessible to all.