The city of Tetouan in the northern part of Morocco means ‘open your eyes’ in the Berber language. The name probably was derived by the development of the town by the Muslim and Andalusian refugees of Spain. It is the only open port of Morocco on the Mediterranean Sea and is surrounded by the majestic mountains in the south and the west. Tetouan, Morocco’s most important art center, is famous for its school of arts and crafts (Dar Sanaa) and its National Institute of Fine Arts.
The ancient medina, a Unesco World Heritage site, looks like it has not changed in several centuries and is extremely well-preserved which is why it’s such a hidden gem for travelers coming to Morocco. Tetouan’s medina might be one of the smallest in Morocco, but it is unquestionably it’s almost complete. A special part of the old city is also the Mellah, the former Jewish quarter where they were once lived in its Mellah that was separated from the rest of the town by gates that were closed at night. Tetouan was once home to an important Sephardic Jewish community, which immigrated from Spain after the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition. This Jewish Sephardic community spoke a form of Judeo-Spanish known as Haketia.
Tetouan had a large Jewish population and today there are only about 10 Jews left in the city. The first school of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a society founded in Paris in order to help the Jews of the Mediterranean Basin, was opened in Tetouan in 1862. Sixteen synagogues were active in the Jewish quarter at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1960s many Jews from Tétouan moved to Madrid and other cities in Europe, Canada, and Latin America, seeking better opportunities or immigrating to Israel. Today, many of them visit Tétouan with great nostalgia. There are also Jews of Moroccan origin who come from Israel every year to visit the tomb of a tzaddik (“saint”) in the Jewish cemetery, that of Rabbi Isaac (Yitzchak) Bengualid (1777-1870), and his home and synagogue in the Mellah has been transformed into a museum run by the Moroccan Jewish community. The Jewish cemetery, in the northeast of the city in front of the Muslim cemetery, is well preserved and has an estimated 10,000 tombstones. Nowadays, some streets of the former Jewish quarter still bear their former Jewish names, such as Dr. Angel Pulido, Prado, Bentolila, Isaac Bengualid, and Sultana Cohen streets. The doorframes of some houses still have a strange rectangular hole on their right side, a vestige of long-gone mezuzot.
The Isaac Ben Walid Synagogue
Tetouan has a long and rich Jewish history. With one of the most important Jewish populations in the Maghreb, the city gained the nickname of “Little Jerusalem.” Every 9th of Adar, the 12th month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar, Moroccan Jews and others from around the world join the Jewish community to celebrate the Hilloula (anniversary of a revered rabbi’s death) of Ben Walid (also known as Isaac Bengualid). There are two synagogues in use for the Hilloula during that time. Buried in the Jewish cemetery of Tetouan, Rabbi Ben Walid was born to a family from Castille who left Spain for Morocco during the Reconquista in 1492 and devoted his life to the study of the Torah. He was appointed, in 1835, head of the rabbinical court in Tetouan.
Mystical stories are associated with this tzaddik. Rabbi Ben Walid had a stick passed down from one generation to another, which he used as a cane. With the help of this stick, he was said to have performed miracles; he brought healing to the sick and helped future mothers. During the month of Adar, on the day of his Hilloula, many Jews come out at night to reflect and pray on his tomb. Today, the Jews of Morocco continue to venerate the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Ben Walid, and in Israel, many institutions of learning bear the title Vayomer Yitzchak, named after the tzaddik.
Mr. Leon Bentolila, the caretaker of the synagogue, told the NYJTG that before 1968 there were more than 1,000 Jews in Tetouan; today, only ten are here and the last service was held back in 1968. The synagogue had a furnace to bake matzah for Passover and a small mikvah for the immersion of pots and utensils. “I live well for more than 50 years here, there are no problems, my neighbors are Muslims and the family is like my brothers and sisters until today. On my way to the synagogue, my neighbors always asked me if I had breakfast and were ready to prepare one for me.” Mr. Bentolila still keeps the laws of kashrut and said he receives kosher meat from the Jewish Community in Casablanca.
For more information, visit:
To plan a trip to Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office or log on to http://www.visitmorocco.com/en
Fly Royal Air Morocco – https://www.royalairmaroc.com/us-en/
Ride with Train Al Boraq – high-speed rail service between Casablanca and Tangier.
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Moroccan National Tourist Office.