The Extraordinary in Storytelling in Jewish Morocco

The Extraordinary in Storytelling in Jewish Morocco

El Hi Ani © All Rights Reserved


I heard many tales in my childhood. Grandparents, parents, relatives and friends told tales to entertain, educate or convey a sense of history. Later, I tried to understand what the tales were all about in an attempt to distinguish between fiction and substance. I also wanted to go beyond the entertainment and moral content to find historical information of interest. I remembered that people used historical markers to tell personal stories, i.e., your father was born when the French came to Morocco. I following this lead and looked into historical sources, rabbinical accounts as well as oral tales, in order to re-tell them in a relevant context.

Appropriating tales

People often told tales in a most personal way. They appropriated stories and told them as if events happened to the immediate family, although the account may have happened in a very ancient time. Like them, I appropriate story lines, although I try to situate them in a relevant historical context. For this purpose I rely on rabbinical and historical accounts. In some cases, I did not recount tales in the traditional way, but I remain respectful to the spirit of storytelling in Morocco.

Note for example the similarities between the two Solika tales. In “Solika-the-Just and Queen Esther” the main emphasis is on historical details, while in “The Tale of Solika-the-Just” fictional elements are added. Such variations in storytelling are common in Jewish Morocco. They illustrate the ongoing process of appropriation of tales.

Historical leaps

Imagination knew no bounds in the process of associating legendary figures with sanctuaries. Huge historical leaps linked local saints with ancient heroes. David Ben Yamin in Beni Melal is considered a descendent of Benjamin the son of the Patriarch Jacob. Similarly, David O’ Moshe is related to Moses and Zephra, (their son?) and Yacov Ben Serouya, King David’s Biblical chief of staff, left his footmark on a stone that covers his tomb…

In spite of my aim to convey a relevant historical context in tales, I often take advantage of ‘historical leaps’ not only to create mythical or legendary effects but also to convey that oral tales contain vestiges of ancient collective memories that may be of important value. For example, my grandfather believed firmly that we were descendents of Ephraim. I subsequently sought biblical sources, canonized and external, as well as historical evidence to confirm or refute my grandfather’s suggestions. I use the different sources to re-tell tales in a creative way, combining relevant fictional and non-fictional elements.

Common phrases in story telling

Many of the storytellers I heard in my childhood used phrases such as:
– I had a dream in which it was said…
– We still remember although it happened in an ancient time…
– Happy is the man who can dream…
-The saint appeared through the flames…
– It happened, that is what people say, about [X years] ago…
– When our feet stepped on holy ground, the saint’s presence inhabited us…
– When our feet stepped on the holy ground, my hair stood on end, and prayers and wishes came out of my mouth as if I knew them by heart from some old and ancient time; suddenly water came out of the tomb and the place filled with cries of joy (zegharit):
“The saint is here!
The saint has come!
To bless and cure,
Grant wishes, and
Hearts’ desires!”
– Men and women dipped their hands in the saint’s water and spread it on their eyes and lips and other parts of their body which craved for a cure…
– We came to the saints full of anxieties but we always left happy, content that our wishes would be fulfilled…
– It was a time when men were strong and had the vigor of horses, enabling them to cross the land in length and breadth by foot, unlike the young today, who need a car to travel and even a plane to fly…
– It was a time when belief was our might!
– When the saint lifted his eyes to heaven, he saw the whole universe in its entirety… he could cross the land with a blink of an eye, so mighty was his power…
– Our ancestors lived the lives of saints and made this land holy…
– Our ancestors lived an exemplary life…
– It is said that once upon a time in the Land of Maghreb, small acts elevated life on earth to heights known only in heaven. All living creatures and matters that exist led a peaceful and exemplary life, respectful of the consecrated and fearful of the desecrated (hram).
– Those were the days when…

I rely on phrases used by my ancestors to tell their stories in my own way, appropriating them in the process.

An extraordinary view of the world

Extraordinary things happened in sanctified places. Saints appear in pilgrims’ dreams, turning perfectly ordinary people into prophets capable of astonishing visions. All of a sudden pilgrims might witness extraordinary natural events, i.e., heavenly light hovering over a saint’s tomb, nature mourning his death in dark skies, rain and storms in unlikely places or perhaps candles that remained lit forever without any logical explanation.

Previous generations believed in the power of saints, angels and God to make extraordinary things happen on earth. Contemporary generations tend to dismiss such amazing powers. In fact many of the people who told me stories do not believe every word they say, yet they are charmed by the legends they have created. They are fiction makers. I follow their cues and walk in their footsteps.

Devotion and soul cleansing

Sanctuaries were places to bathe or cleanse one’s soul before engaging in significant lifecycle rituals such as a first hair cut, naming a girl, circumcision, Bar Mitzvah or wedding. Highly ethical conduct, chastity and modesty are expected in sacred places. Pilgrims engage in charity, alms giving and sharing food without distinction between rich and poor. Yet, in spite of the frenzy of celebration, moderation rules consumption and fasting is common. Pilgrims spend their time in prayer and study. Displays of devotion are the norm in sanctuaries. They bring pilgrims closer to prophets and saints as well as to Heavenly spirits.

Devotion is displayed through charity (i.e., participation in auctions for charity), candle lighting, huge fire (hundreds of candles), sacrifice offering (slaughter of animals), cries of joy (zegharit), singing and dancing, sleeping at a sanctuary, placing water, oil, wine, spirits (mahia), and other objects such as clothing and jewelry on tombstones to acquire sanctification by proximity. Story telling is a form of devotion. It is a mean to reaffirm affinities to the sacred and holy and in the process cleanse one’s soul and become holy.
Heaven on earth

In my childhood tales, the presence of Heaven on earth was everywhere, in a carob tree at Elazar Ben Arac’s sanctuary, in stones such as Yacov Ben Serouya, the Biblical army chief, who left his footmark on a stone that covers his tomb till this day, in mythical caves like the Ait Couhain’s at Zerktein, in waterfalls at Shlomo Amar’s tomb, or in mountains such as Isaac Halevi at Imi N’ Timouga. Objects and places could not be considered sacred on their own merit. An association with revered leaders or ‘saints’ was required to merit sanctification. Perhaps the worship of a place or an object seemed too pagan while saint adoration was not.

It is likely that early Israelite settlers in Maghreb brought with them pagan practices from Canaan where trees, among other elements of nature were worshiped, but it is also possible that newcomers adopted local rituals. In any case, it seems that adoration of nature (i.e., a source of water, a tree, or a mountain) came first and that an association of a saint with an element of nature followed.

Miraculous cures

Storytellers attribute miraculous powers to long dead saints. Saints save people from certain death. They cure diseases of all sorts. They can make the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb talk, sterile women give birth and the dead return to life. They can also restore mental health.

Saints acquired their miraculous powers before death. They were devoted rabbis who dedicated their life to their community, helping ordinary people but sometimes advising powerful leaders too. Sometimes, people attributed miraculous powers to saints postmortem, i.e., an ancestor who grants a wish in a dream becomes a saint!

It was a time when saints satisfied not only individual wishes but community needs too. They listen to prayers from the depth of their tombs. They answer calls for help to fulfill love wishes. They also satisfy desires and resolve conflicts.

Saints also respond to requests made by proxy, when one person cannot go on pilgrimage, others can make the request on his/her behalf just the same.

Saints bless food consumed in sanctuaries to satisfy pilgrims’ needs. One loaf of bread or one bottle of wine can provide for everyone’s needs.

Saints save whole communities from disasters. They bring about storms (i.e., stones, ice, rain) to prevent harm to entire communities. They are able to summon darkness to save people from harm. Sometimes they even rise from their tombs to prevent injustice.

Saints are able to enlist the forces of nature. They can stop the sun in its course to allow a saint to surrender his soul before Sabbath, to complete a funeral in due time or to arrive in town before dark. They can bring rain in season or after a long drought and they can call upon a source to produce water in a most unlikely place.

Saints are able to move in time and space in extraordinary ways. They can cross oceans on a flying carpet or with a blink of an eye. They ‘fly’ to Jerusalem for consultations and return at will. They are able to act after death, i.e., reappear after death to study among students, to pray at favorite synagogues and to bless weddings, bar mitzvahs… Although they may be buried in one place, they are able to appear elsewhere, i.e., a place they used to live or pray….

Functions of saint adoration: holy times and sacred sites

Storytellers placed Jewish solidarity in ritualistic contexts, i.e., celebration of holidays bring people closer, reinforcing thereby common bonds. The ongoing and cyclical rituals point out a common past and history and thus reinforce affinity.

Holy sites in tales are consecrated sanctuaries – places to rest from the profane, to celebrate, negotiate, make promises, seal contracts, resolve conflicts, but also to provide refuge for the deviant and the weak as well as safety for stocks (i.e., grain).

It seems that Jews in Morocco needed to consecrate places because their immediate environment became hostile time and again. Sanctified sites remind Muslim neighbors of the need to respect Jews, who can contribute to the well-being of the Muslim community too (miraculously but in reality too). Consecrated places provided spaces where solidarity was ritualized between potential enemies. A breach of a sanctified refuge (i.e., the abuse of Jewish neighbors) becomes associated with desecration and thus punishment of heavenly dimensions.

Holy times are shared with Moslem neighbors too. On the occasion of the Mimuna, Moslems make offerings to Jews and Jews welcome them into their own homes to share sweets and food.

The saint is a wise entity. His wisdom contributes to the well-being of the community, and thus he is commemorated to remind the less wise of the disaster that can ensue if abuses occur.

Saints symbolize exemplary justice (haq). They create affinity (i.e., marriages) and solidarity (qraba). Sanctuaries reaffirm the claim for territory through supernatural protection. They are sanctified places where excesses are consumed and shared, where equality between rich and poor is reclaimed and re-established through rituals (i.e., equal sharing of food and charity).

Time spent in sanctuaries is holy. It is meant to provide rest and re-energize. It allows reaffirmation. It is also an occasion to reclaim spiritual values as well as sacred holdings. It is an occasion to wish for dreams to come true, to make the imaginary real, the fantastic to become reality, and to turn illusions and meaningless existence into actual and meaningful experience (i.e., weddings, births, bar mitzvahs). These are occasions to tame the All Mighty and domesticate It, so that It does not cause harm and hopefully make things better.

Not everything goes well at sacred sites. Sometimes deviance takes place even there. It occurs due to excessive consumption and adultery as well as debt accumulation by pilgrims who overspend due to excessive saint adoration, flirting with paganism.

Pilgrimage celebration

Many tales take place during pilgrimage. Pilgrimage celebration (hilula in Hebrew or moussam or maaruf in Arabic) is a meal offering dedicated and consumed at a sanctuary (a tomb, a mosque, a synagogue…). It is a form of sacrifice that may include shedding the blood of an animal. It may be a meal dedicated to the memory of a dead person. Pilgrims often use the offering to seek the intercession of the dead person to achieve the healing of a sick person (mentally or physically) or the fulfillment of a wish such as to have a boy or a girl. A meal offering is also made subsequent to a vow, i.e., if a person does well in business, he will dedicate a meal to his saint.

Charity and justice

When Moslem pilgrims make a food offering, they dedicate the first portion to a saint and whisper a prayer, a wish or a benediction (i.e., Birkat Allah). Five (hamsa) or seven (sabaa) or ten (assor) portions may be dedicated to the poor, depending on local traditions or pilgrims’ generosity. The portion allocated to the poor aims not only to practice charity but also to re-establish justice, i.e., giving a just share to people who do not have any. The words ‘charity’ and ‘justice’ share the same root (sdk) in both Arabic and Hebrew.

Animal offerings (i.e., ritually slaughtered animals) are often sold in an auction. Revenues are used for communal purposes i.e. to support the poor. Auctions often fetch very high prices, as generous bids are believed to bring good luck! Volunteers are expected to respect pilgrims’ wishes. Pilgrims believe that misuse of community funds or fraudulent appropriation of food dedicated to the poor, may bring serious calamities and even death.

Appeasing the underworld

Interestingly, Berbers in Morocco still practice pilgrimage celebrations (i.e., isgar) dedicated to ‘underworld creatures’ (jnun). In such cases, a portion of the food offering is dedicated to the jnun. It is not salted or spiced. On certain occasions, pilgrims spread their offering on a perimeter around a house, a field or a village, using the left hand. There is a taboo on speaking during this ritual. One unaccompanied person, usually a woman, makes the sacrifice in complete silence. The said offering is sometimes plain hot water boiled in the pot in which the meal offering is prepared. The offering may also be a mixture of water and flour or water and animal blood. This ritual appears to be very similar in nature to a Phoenician rite, which requires pouring a stew (a new born animal cooked in its mother’s milk) in the four corners of a field to enhance fertility. (These rituals are strictly forbidden to Jews. For the same reason, religious Jews do not consume meat and milk in one meal.)

Berbers make a special offering on the fifth day of the week (Thursday), in the fall (around October), considered the beginning of the agricultural year. On this occasion, a black cow is offered to Shamharoosh, the king of the jnun. (Jews are not permitted to take part in such rituals but offerings to appease underworld creatures are not unknown among Jews in Morocco, in spite of rabbinical prohibitions.)

Jews did rarely make offerings to underworld creatures (jnun) but they often acknowledged them in story telling and took special precautions to appease them, i.e., by referring to them by insinuation rather than directly.
Chanting (piut and ksida)

Pilgrims spend much of their time telling stories (ksida) and chanting (piut). Sometimes, older storytellers chant tales. Chanting Psalms, prayers and secular singing make pilgrimage a very joyous event. In this sense, pilgrimage celebrations do not differ from contemporary festivals.

The most heard chant in sanctuaries is the following:

“The saint is here!
The saint has come!
To bless and cure,
Grant wishes, and
Hearts’ desires!”

Chanting includes phrases such as:

“Pardon wrongs past,
Think of current needs,
Follow the good path, and
Share passing wealth
To deserve merit.

Light a candle,
Drink a glass,
Make a sacrifice,
To earn:
For the blind to see the light
For the poor to earn a living, etc…”

Saints in Morocco

Tales recount how people gained sanctity. Many saints in Morocco inherited sanctity due to a blessed historical lineage, i.e., King David, Moses, Aaron the priest, or Mohamed. But many accounts indicate that sainthood was often gained through the merit of exemplary life. People who dedicated their lives to the community earned its respect and thus are commemorated after death. Messengers from Jerusalem, who settled in Morocco and dedicated their life to teaching local inhabitants, were often celebrated as saints after death. Local inhabitants gained sainthood for similar reasons.

Sainthood characteristics

Saints are blessed. They intercede on behalf of ordinary people. They are neutral arbitrators. They dedicate their lives to the well-being of the community and to charitable causes. They do not accumulate wealth and they share what they have with others.

Saints are devout and learned and they share learning with others. They often dedicate their lives to teaching common people as well as to grooming teachers and guides (rabbis). They participate in study sessions, alone and in groups when alive and do the same after death (i.e., they oversee study session in spirit or appear disguised as old men). They live a very humble life.

Saints have many special abilities. They can cure using traditional medicines as well as extraordinary (magic) ways. They make people feel secure and in peace. They can resurrect the dead or speak to them. They can bring drought as well as rain following long droughts. They can walk on water and transform matter, i.e., turn water into honey.

Saints have special relations with animals. They can enlist animals to the service of men, i.e., lions, snakes and dogs listen to Torah and Psalm reading with obedience. They can bring back to life a cow to settle a dispute. They find lost animals. They can also appear in animal form as birds, snakes, lions, or chameleons in daily life as well as in dreams in order to convey messages. Saints communicate with animals, reason with them and even pacify the wildest among them. They can transform themselves, i.e., appear as animals, angels or ordinary poor people.

Saints can reduce distances (kfitsat derec) by whispering special formula (shem meforash). They are able to reduce time or stop it, i.e., stop the sun in its course. They can bear cold and heat as well as thirst and hunger.

Interfaith solidarity

Storytellers often tried to create interfaith solidarity in their tales. Their saints help all people in need. They do not distinguish by religion. Interfaith solidarity is complete in sanctuaries. Jews, Christians and Moslems get all the help they need equally.

Saints can predict the future like prophets. They unravel plots inspired by the underworld to save the king or the community.
They can predict death on distant roads as well as know the exact time to surrender a soul.

The end result of all saints’ actions is to produce peace on earth or peaceful coexistence among nations and neighbors. Pilgrimage thus becomes a symbolic ritual, which aims to transmit messages of importance in communities where oral traditions prevail. Pilgrimage enacts the message in actual practice. It enhances social cohesion and solidarity.

Once food is shared in a sanctuary, even enemies are expected to overcome prior hostilities to express solidarity. Moslems seek the intercession/blessing of Jewish saints by joining Jewish pilgrims or asking them to intercede on their behalf by proxy. Moslems often maintain sanctuaries and provide related services, especially transportation, often for free. Jewish saints cure Moslems in exchange.

Food offerings produce solidarity. It is blessed and it is a good omen (mitzvah) to eat it. Pilgrims set aside portions of the sanctified food for symbolic and ritual consumption by people who could not make the pilgrimage in person. Similar rules apply for food from weddings, births and bar mitzvahs. Interestingly, some food is often set aside for angels or ‘underworld’ creatures (jnun) to enhance solidarity between earth, heaven and the underworld. (Salt played an important role in creating solidarity between human beings and underworld creatures).

Solidarity between Arabs and Jews

Storytellers often tried to create interfaith solidarity in their tales. Tales recount how saints enhance peace and solidarity between Arabs and Jews. Pinhas Ha Cohen saves the life of the governor of Marrakech and thereby improves the living conditions of the Jews. The governor stands up to honor Pinhas Ha Cohen and his guards do the same. Moslems express sorrow for the death of a revered person and even attend his funeral in Israel. The king’s representatives and envoys of the French administration attend the funeral of Raphael Ankaoua (1935) and respected him for his medical knowledge and role as chief judge. In one of the tales a Jew saves Muslim pilgrims from drowning on the way to Mecca.

It is common in tales to recount that Muslims stop by tombs of Jewish saints to kiss them. They wish Jewish pilgrims: “May God be with you!” or “May the saint be with you!” They refuse to accept fees for service rendered on account of saints. They make offerings. They build roads to sanctuaries using Muslim’s funds. They forbid pasturage near Jewish tombs. They maintain or labor land around tombs. When they build road, they go around sanctuaries rather than displace tombs. They respect land and trees around tombs, which are considered sacred. When trespassing occurs, Moslems seek clemency: they express repentance, hands behind their back and knife between his teeth, they make offering and seek pardon. They even pay restitution.

There are also tales recounting that Moslems often relied on Jewish judges or Jewish mediators to render justice rather than use the Muslim justice system, especially in towns and villages in which it was believed to be corrupt. Although these tales intend to highlight interfaith solidarity, similar tales do indicate that religious authorities discouraged Muslims’ reliance on Jewish courts, sometimes even causing persecution of Jews.
Solidarity amongst Jews

Pilgrimage (hilula) is an occasion for Jews to meet to renew ties and express solidarity. Pilgrims believe that the burial sites of many saints remain unknown and that their discovery would enhance the redemption of Israel (wider solidarity).

According to some accounts, there were 652 Jewish saints in Morocco; ten saints per jubilee (i.e., 50 years), adding up to 3260 years of Jewish life in Morocco. The inter-generational historical continuity as well as the dispersion of the saints about the country aim to consecrate Moroccan grounds for Jewish living and thereby create solidarity amongst Jews as well as cross-cultural affinities.

There are families or individuals who have a saint who is invoked and who participates in family events. They light candles in his honor. They hold study sessions in his memory. And they make meal offerings to commemorate him.
Talismans and Amulets

Tales were sometimes consecrated into holy legends, which were written into a talisman or amulet, especially when the story involved a saint or a miraculous event. The talisman then offers a sense of security. There was a time when Moroccan Jews (Moslems too) carried small amulets in their pockets, around their necks on a chain or hung them on walls. Amulets contain a prayer to protect or bless a person or a house or a community. Sometimes amulets contain soil from a consecrated site or from the Holy Land. Nowadays people wear a Star of David, a miniature Torah Scroll or the Hebrew letters ‘het’ and ‘yod,’ which mean ‘live’ in Hebrew in a similar way.

In Jewish Moroccan tales Jews appropriated stories and told them in a most personal way-as if the events had happened to the immediate family, although the account may have occurred in a very ancient time. Imagination knew no bounds making room for huge historical leaps in which the past and the present converge. It was a way to express closeness and affinity to historical and beloved figures as well as reduce the gap between Heaven and earth, to sanctify the profane and make it holy.

Storytellers conveyed an extraordinary view of the world, an imaginary place where wishes may become reality. They did so using commonly used phrases, almost like in prayers. In this sense, story telling takes a form of devotion. It becomes a mean to reaffirm affinities to the sacred and holy and in the process cleanse one’s soul and become holy. It is also a way to reduce communal anxiety in face of uncertainty. Thus sanctuaries and saints are spread across the country and rituals are shared across faith to produce solidarity. Tales of generosity re-establish justice on earth as if to tame the All Mighty and domesticate It, so that It does not cause harm and hopefully will make things better.

Story telling, like time spent in sanctuaries, is holy. It is meant to cleanse and re-energize. It provides an occasion to reclaim spiritual values. It is also an occasion to wish for dreams to come true, to make the imaginary real, the fantastic to become reality, and to turn illusions and meaningless existence into real and meaningful experience. It is a form of pilgrimage (hilula), i.e., an occasion for Jews to meet to renew ties and express solidarity by retelling stories as they experienced them themselves, an important edict in transmission of knowledge as well as celebration of significant historical events (similar to telling the tale of freedom from slavery in Egypt during Passover). Tales were not only recounted, they were also chanted. Experienced older storytellers chanted tales, as they would recite Psalms. In other cases, tales took the form of sung liturgy, although forms of secular singing were common, turning events into joyous occasions.
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Eliany, Esther, formely Khesus, interviews in Kiriat Shemona, Israel, recalling oral traditions in Marakesh.

Eliany, Joseph, interviews in Kiriat Shemona, Israel, recalling oral traditions in Morocco

Elhiany, Mordecai interviews in Kiriat Shemona, Israel, recalling oral traditions in Morocco

Shoshan, David, interviews in Casablanca, recalling family relations and oral traditions in Beni Melal, Morocco.

DeJesus, Daniel and Theresa , interviews in Ottawa, Canada, recalling family relations in Portugal and Cape Verde.

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