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World Jewry At The Jewish Museum: "There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans"

by Staff Writer

His majesty Mohammed VI, King of Morocco, the Jewish Museum (92nd St. & 5th Ave., 212-423-3271), and the distinguished curator, Dr. Vivian B. Mann, an expert on Jewish art, contributed a great new exhibition to the cultural life of New York: From September 24, 2000 through February 11, 2001, the Jewish Museum presents a new exhibition focusing on the multicultural art and traditions of Morocco and the history of Jewish life in Morocco for over 2,000 years. More than 180 objects - among them Orientalist paintings by well-known European artists such as Eugene Delacroix and Alfred Dehudenocq; beautiful jewelry and ceremonial objects of silver and gold; sumptuous textiles and costumes; and 19th and 20th century photographs - will be on display in Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land. Two original short films will be included in the exhibition, evoking the spiritual and mystical importance of spaces and sites in Morocco, many of which are holy to both Jews and Muslims. The exhibition will depict a culture from the vantage point of "outsiders" - Orientalist painters and photographers - and from the "insider's" perspective of the objects Jews created for themselves and others. Visitors will be encouraged to consider the contributions of Muslims, Jews, and Europeans to Moroccan culture - a culture that developed from ancient Berber traditions.

Both of the films in the exhibition are by Hamid Fardjad. In the first short film visitors will see two sets of film images simultaneously - projected on two side-by-side screens. The second short film is projected on one screen. Images of Morocco's countryside and urban landscape, of a synagogue, of people moving along bustling thoroughfares and marketplaces, and shots of contemporary life in Morocco including men praying inside a synagogue, and women embroidering are included in the films.

Exhibition highlights include paintings by European artists who began traveling in Morocco during the 18th century, in search of the "mysterious" Orient, such as Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), Alfred Dehodencq (1822-1882), Charles-Emile Vernet-LeComte (1821-1900), Francisco Lameyer y Berenguer (1825-1877), and Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926).

"There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans," replied King Mohammed V to the German representative who demanded a list of Jewish residents during World War II. His reply reflected the fact that Jews and Muslims have lived together in Morocco for more than a millennium, and the Jews were residents of the land for seven centuries or more before the coming of the Arabs.

Many strands of history and culture have gone into the making of Morocco's people during the past three thousand years. Waves of settlers joined the native Berber tribes: Phoenicians in the 9th century BCE; Jews and Romans in the 1st century CE; and Arabs in the 7th century. During the later Middle Ages, other Muslim and Jewish immigrants came from the east and from the Iberian Peninsula, especially following the expulsions from Spain in 1492 and 1609.

Morocco has always defended her Jewish minority. King Mohammed V left a legacy to follow. Today, his grandchild, the son of the late King Hasan II, Mohammed VI, the new King support the well-being of Jews in his country as well as the peace process and the good relation with Israel. So it is not surprising to find that: His Majesty Mohammed VI, King of Morocco, is patron of the exhibition and has contributed a statement to the catalogue. He has written "The Jewish Museum's exhibition pays tribute to one of the most remarkable experiences of tolerance of our time and also to one of the most encouraging lessons of modernity, through the very rich and long-standing history and memory shared by Muslims and Jews in Morocco." The Jewish Museum is also grateful to Andre Azoulay, Councillor to His Majesty the King of Morocco, who has encouraged and facilitated preparations for the exhibition.

As to the Jewish community in Morocco: Some four to five thousand Jews remain in Morocco. The rest have left, most of them during the 1950s and 1960s. Many emigrated to Israel, France, Canada, and other countries. What binds the entire community together are their common religious practices and customs, frequent visits to Morocco for pilgrimages and for private visits, and loyalty to the country of Morocco and its King. 500,000 Jews from Morocco live in Israel and 800,000 live in France. The richness of the Moroccan Jewry is being represented in this exhibition. For example, the section which details its folk practices: The folk practices of Moroccan Jewry mirror the varied origins of the community. Some derive from Pheonician and indigenous Berber roots, while others were brought by Sephardic refugees at the end of the Middle Ages. Jews also began new customs in Morocco and transmitted them abroad when they emigrated.

When the Phoenicians sailed to the northwest coast of Africa in the 9th century BCE, they brought an amulet of hand form, known among Jews as a hamsa (five) and among Muslims as the "Hand of Fatima" (Mohammed's daughter). It is worn as a personal amulet and is found in synagogues, on hanging lamps, and inscribed wall plaques. Jewish tombstones in the coastal cities were, until recently, carved into stylized human forms similar to those on Pheonician monuments.

Moroccan Jews have the unique practice of venerating the Zohar, the primary text of the Kaballah (Jewish mysticism). In Moroccan synagogues, it is given second place to the Torah and is the focus of pious donations. During personal crises, the Zohar can be removed from the synagogue and brought to a home for ritual reading. Although lower in status, the Zohar is more accessible to ordinary Jews, and the honors given it are similar to those accorded the Torah.

A well-known and uniquely Moroccan Jewish custom in mimouna, a day of outdoor celebration that follows Passover. It symbolizes the reintegration of Jews into general society, following eight days of restricted eating. Muslims believe that the "returning" Jews bring a bountiful year in nature. To mark this return, Muslim neighbors furnish foods to their Jewish friends. The custom of mimouna was brought to Israel by Moroccan �migr�s, where it has been transformed into a celebration of ethnic diversity.

One can also enjoy Dr. Vivian B. Mann's book Morocco - Jews and Art in a Muslim Land (Merrell Publishers).

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