Don’t be Late for a Minyan in Merraksh
As you can see from my recent travel blog postings, I just returned from a kick-ass tour of Morocco. Absolutely loved the experience and if you haven’t gone yet; go! But like most interesting things in my life there was a catch to it. The background is that I was going to be in Morocco for 1 Saturday, which is the Shabbath. Although I am not really religious, I try and go out of my way to keep the Shabbat (Saturday) more unique and set apart; one thing in particular not spending money (plus I had like zero money to spend at the time so it wasn’t really that hard I guess). I’ve kept Shabbat like that for 5-6 years now and when planning my trip to Morocco I had only 2 goals for the entire trip which was 1) not to spend any dough on Shabbat and 2) to attend a service or at least pray in one the synagogues in Marrakesh. In case you didn’t know, Muslims and Jews lived together in Morocco for a long time with almost no issues. Up until the 1970’s, there was a big population of Moroccan Jews located all over Moroccan cities, but now most have migrated to Israel or Montreal, Canada leaving behind a Jewish void in the nation. While there are still some fascinating synagogues in Morocco, the amount of Jews still living in the country is incredibly small. Being the stupid American that I am, I thought attending a synagogue service in Morocco would be just as easy as here in America. Go to their website, find the address, get there a fashionably late since its your first time, and stay for a little nosh after the service. That’s the way its supposed to work! Here’s the story –
The city of Marrakesh is large and spread out. The oldest part of the city, called the Medina, is always in the city center surrounded by some sort of ancient city wall from the middle-ages. In fact the entire Medina is literally an extension of middle-aged architecture and civil engineering. Imagine REALLY narrow streets and SUPER old buildings that people have lived in for hundreds of years, literally. Combine that with dusty hot air and filth covered alleyways and your in the Medina. The twisty & narrow alleyways measure less than 4 feet wide (some places less than that) and they’re dirty, smelly, and a little bit creepy, and often times packed with people, pack mules, donkeys, and an occasional motorbike. Don’t get me wrong! I spent hours walking through the Medina of Fez and Marrakesh and totally loved it, but lets just say its a more exotic experience. Feels like you stepped into a time machine and went back a millennia or two. So long story short, the old Jewish Quarter in all Moroccan cities is always located in or near the Medina. Historically people called the Jewish Quarters “The Mallah” which means salt in Arabic because most Jews were salt merchants back in the day. (Talk about a great business to be in before refrigeration!) Anyways, today zero Jews live in the Mallah of Marrakesh and instead its totally inhabited by Berber Arabs.
So using all this information I gathered from my tour guide that morning, I set out on the 45 min walk from my hotel to the old Jewish Mallah portion of Marrakesh. (And that’s 45 mins one way). From my research before my trip, I knew there was an old synagogue in Marrakesh that looks amazing, so I was determined to davin in this synagogue! After a LONG walk/navigation nightmare of trying to find the Mallah, I finally found the correct alleyway. Keep in mind that while I don’t quite look like a Berber Arab, I could totally fit in with my looks. In fact many times Moroccans would come up and ask me for directions(!). Even the other people on the tour said all I needed was a turban and I could look the part. While that last part is up for debate, my point is that I felt comfortable walking through the streets of Marrakesh. The only thing I had against me is that I speak basically ZERO Arabic and ZERO French which are the 2 national languages of Morocco. So in terms of communication, consider me useless.
So when I finally found the correct alleyway, I was just about to turn into its narrow threshold when all of a sudden I hear someone yelling at me in Arabic and then French. I turned to see a teenage Berber running my direction waving his arms, motioning me to stop. He switched over to a heavy Arabic accented English and yelled out “Sir, I’m sorry but it iz forbeedden it iz forbeedden!” as he approached me. He then explained that the alleyway lead to the synagogue and this street was closed unless you had permission to enter. [I later found out his job was basically to protect foot traffic through this alleyway and keep the street clear until the Jews finished their Synagogue service.] I slowly looked at this young man and told him that I was looking for the synagogue and I wanted to pray there because I am a Jew. His faced light up and then he proceeded to tell me that I had to follow him to his shop; which was only a few feet away. When I kindly refused, he then insisted and eventually said that he would lead me to the synagogue after I see his shop. So not knowing what to expect, I follow this teenage Berber Arab kid to this little and literally hole-in-the-wall shop where he sold all the typical Berber cosmetic and medisonal products. He insistently took me inside his shop, sat me down, poured me a cup of Moroccan mint tea, and then launched into a 20 min shpeal about every single product he sold. Not knowing what to do I just sat there like a little kid staring up at him with wide eyes as he gave me the detiled history of Berber argon oil. Not knowing if this was his method of stalling me so he could catch me off guard and then stab me, like an stupid American I just sat there in his dark little shop, sipping the lukewarm tea that tasted a little like dirty water. Eventually he abruptly finished his passionate explanations and smiled at me as he stood there with his hands behind is back gleaming with pride at his shop’s inventory. After a period of awkward silence during which he just stared and smiled at me, he then stuck out his hand and said, “You can to give me a uh, tip? Pleeze sirrr, you can for to give me a tip?”. I vainly tried to explain that it was Shabbat and Jews are not allowed enter transactions on the Shabbat. But he wasn’t buying it and instead asked with even more insistence that I could give him a tip. I didn’t want to piss him off, after all he did show he his Berber hospitality. I don’t normally carry money with me on Shabbat but I was in a foreign country all alone and didn’t want to be stupid, so I reach into my pocket and pulled out a few coins – a mixture of Euros and Moroccan Dirhams – and as I started to fish through my coins for the proper amount to tip this kid, he actually reached over and scooped all the coins from my hands! Not cool; but whatever I was just ready to leave his shop. He then held up his part of the deal and lead me the rest of the way to the Synagogue. On our way there I noticed a small group of people walking towards us on the small street and this group of people were being escorted by a rather large and muscular Moroccan police officer. As they passed me I distinctly heard members of this group speaking in HEBREW! One of the men actually had a kippah on!!! MY PEOPLE!!! I DID IT. I made it to the Synagogue! About 20 feet later we came up to the entrance of the Synagogue and to my horror the big metal doors were closing. My “paid” guide exchanged a few words with the Arab who was closing the Shul doors and he then turned to me and said, “It iz closed’a for… because’a services are finished. You can exit you the way you came in.”. Shocked I looked around and noticed that the only people on this street were now Berber Arabs. The small Jewish crowd was now out of sight and I was stuck…alone…in the middle of the Medina surround by strange people. As my “guide” turned and left I heard someone yell out to me in English, “Sir the Synagogue is only for Jews”. I turned and saw a transitionally dressed Berber Arab man sitting outside a little shop adjacent to the Synagogue doors. He took a second look at me and then starting talking in Hebrew! I was like “Say What?!?! This dude speak da ‘Brew?”. As it turns out this man was the shomer (guardian of the Synagogue) and he even studied for a short while in Israel! I chatted with him for a little and then he told me that the Shul is closed now but I should come back for the next minyan at 4pm. Now I was a little disappointed that the service had finished so early and that I was so late. So as I slowly made my way back, the shomer called out and asked me to come into his shop. I was like, “Oh great here we go again!” but this guy was nice and even spoke a little Hebrew. The more I thought about it the more I realized how cool it would be to chill with a shomer in Morocco so I somewhat hesitantly entered his little shop while he proceeded in giving me the exact same Berber cosmetic explanations that I had just experienced moments before! I must admit the Shomer’s presentation contained more enthusiasm, his mint tea was very delicious, and his hospitality struck me as quite genuine. This presentation lasted a bit longer until about 20 mins later when – once again – my Berber host ended quite abruptly – almost as if he he had reached his quota of English words – and then just awkwardly stood there and looked at me with a cheesy smile. He then pointed to himself and shyly asked “You can for to give me a tip?”. OMG! Here we go again. I set out that morning with a commitment to NOT spend any money and now for the 2nd time in 1 hour I’ve been placed in this weird situation. I tried explaining that today is Shabbat and that Jews cannot spend money on Shabbat. He nodded and said, “Of course I am Shomer, I know the traditions of the Jews…..but you can for to give me a tip?”. Gosh this guy was relentless. Around my 3rd time explaining that I could not pay him and he was still insistent; I started to feel like a nudnik. So reluctantly I reached into my pocket and pulled out a 100 Dirham note (about 10 bucks); which was the smallest I had and handed it to him. He then looked at it with disdain and said “Give to me at least 200 Dir’ham, what you give me now is nothing.” At this point I didn’t even care…so what the hell; I gave him the only other Dirham note I had and he took the 200 Dirhams, thanked me, told me to come back at 4pm for the next minyan, and then showed me the door.
Feeling a very irritated, I started the 45 mins walk back to my hotel. The entire walk back my attitude seethed with disappointment and regret that had twice had to compromise on my Shabbat observance. However after a while, I started thinking about the positives. I had actually found the Synagogue which is a miracle in itself. I had meet the Shomer. I had learned more about Berber cosmetics then I thought I ever would. Moreover, I now knew the place and time for the next minyan! My desire of davining in the old Synagogue of Merrakesh would still come true! This thought uplifted my attitude as I entered my hotel room for a short rest. Now my plan was to rest for one hour and then walk the 45 mins back the direction I had just come and arrive at the Synagogue about 15 mins before 4pm for the next minyan. With renewed excitement and a lightness in my step I made it back to the same little alleyway and right as I turned into the narrow street, I heard the voice shout after me, “Sir! It is forbidden! It is forbidden!”. I turned towards to voice and instead of the young Berber Arab teenager I meet that afternoon it was an older, larger, rougher looking man with deep scares down his face which added to his natural look of ‘don’t-mess-with-me’. He didn’t speak any English but thankfully the words in Hebrew for I am Jewish and I am going to the Synagogue are quite similar in Arabic so I successfully got my point across. He then pass me along to another man who lead me to the same Synagogue doors which were still closed. This new guide also spoke zero English, Spanish, nor Hebrew but he motioned to the door and I nodded. My new guide was the most usefully out of them all, for he then opened the large metal doors to the Synagogue and entered them, stepped inside and motioned for me to follow. Excitement! Reverence! Finally I made it! Walking through the threshold I could see the main courtyard of the Synagogue. Beautiful tiled floors and walls. Modeled in a similar layout of a traditional mosque, it was lovely! But here’s the part where it gets crazy. I had only walked about 10 feet into the building when out of nowhere, a Moroccan National Police Officer turned a corner and began yelling at my guide and I! While I couldn’t understand it, I got the point that we were not welcome at the moment. The entire conversation escalated with the police officer telling us that the Synagogue was closed and that we need to leave immediately. Even when my guide tried explaining that I was a Jew, the officer still made a ‘shewing’ motion and again started yelling something in Arabic. Before I even knew what happened I found myself out in the narrow alleyway of the Malah with the metal doors of the Synagogue closing behind me. My guide nodded apologetically and went about his business. AH! Maybe I was just to early! After all it was now just about 4 o’clock so perhaps I just need to wait. Maybe these Moroccan Jews have a bad case of Sefaradi time and will be late. So for the next 15 minutes I stood outside the walls of the old Synagogue of Merrakesh. Alas, no to avail! 15 minutes passed and no sign of another Jew. A waited a little longer but I had experienced enough disappointment for one day. Maybe it was the 2 hours of walking in the heat of the day combined with the various let downs, but I felt terrible. With a head held low I made my way back through the alleyway and out onto the main road of the Medina. As soon as I crossed I heard more yelling behind me. I turned and who should I see but Mr. Scare Face from 30 mins before. I was gibbering in Arabic and French and of course I looked back with confusion until another Arabic man dressed in traditional Berber garb came up and said that Mr. Scare Face wanted a tip. You have got to be kidding me! No way! I refused and told the new translator that I wasn’t able to enter the Synagogue, but it didn’t mater both men were pointing at me and demanding tips. Out of nowhere who should join the party of the young Arab teen from later that day! He came into the mix and after exchanging a few words also insisted that I give a tip to the other 2 guys. ARGGH! I was in no mood so I started arguing with these guys staying no one was going to get a tip today. This went on for a few minutes when I noticed the seriousness of my situation. Here I was, a lone stupid American Jew with no language skills, arguing with 3 aggressively insistent Berber Arabs, with my back literally up against the Medina wall. For all I know they could be plotting my kidnapping as I stood there. Enough! I reached into my pocket for the last remaining bill I had (10 euro) and shoved it into Mr. Scare Face open hands and turned to walk away. Now the eyes of the other 2 guys widened like golf balls when the saw the amount and they then started following me and insisting that they deserved tips. I was mad, scared, and ready to get the hell out of there. Finally about 20 feet later all 3 men stopped following me and headed to their little alleyway entrance. The next 45 mins back to the hotel were filled with thoughts of despair, anger, frustration, and serious disappointment. The one thing, THE ONE THING I wanted to do failed. And the one thing I DIDN’T WANT to do happened.
What lessons did I take from this experience? Well first off Jews in America have it good. We have huge Synagogues with friendly greeters and websites with service hours. Visitors can easily find a Temple and even stay later for a little kiddish and nosh. But in Morocco, national police officers have to guard the buildings during non-service times and even the Shomer will ask for a tip on Shabbat. I know that my case was particularly bad because I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t understand the culture. So I guess the second thing I learned was how stupid I am! I should have been less confident and more thoughtful about how to spend my Shabbat. But I guess the biggest lesson here is DON’T BE LATE FOR THE MINYAN!