A Hidden Gem on the Edge of the Mediterranean: Discover Tetouan’s Jewish Heritage

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    Nestled in the northern region of Morocco, Tetouan derives its name from the Berber language, which signifies “open your eyes.”

    This name likely reflects the city’s historical development, shaped by the influx of Muslim and Andalusian refugees who sought shelter in Spain. Situated along the Mediterranean coastline, Tetouan holds the unique distinction of being the sole open port in this region of Morocco, surrounded by majestic mountain ranges to the south and west.

    Distinguished as Morocco’s preeminent artistic center, Tetouan takes pride in housing the renowned School of Arts and Crafts, recognized as Dar Sanaa, alongside its esteemed National Institute of Fine Arts.

    Place Hassan II Square- Tetouan – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    The ancient Medina in Tetouan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that appears to have remained virtually unchanged for several centuries, making it a hidden gem for travelers visiting Morocco. While Tetouan’s Medina may be one of the smallest in the country, it is remarkably well preserved, offering an almost complete historical experience.

    A distinctive part of the old city is Mellah, the former Jewish quarter where the Jewish community once resided. Gates separated the Mellah from the rest of the town and were closed at night for security. Tetouan was once home to a significant Sephardic Jewish community, which migrated from Spain following the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition. This Sephardic Jewish community spoke a variant of Judeo-Spanish known as Haketia.

    Mellah, the former Jewish quarter of Tetouan, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Tetouan once boasted a substantial Jewish population, but today, only around 10 Jews remain in the city. In 1862, Tetouan became home to the first school of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a society established in Paris to support Jews across the Mediterranean Basin. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were sixteen active synagogues in the Jewish quarter.

    In the 1960s, a significant number of Jewish residents from Tetouan embarked on journeys to Madrid and various other European cities, Canada, and Latin America, driven by the pursuit of better opportunities or the desire to immigrate to Israel. Today, some of these individuals revisit Tetouan, carrying with them a profound sense of nostalgia.

    Every year, Jews of Moroccan descent make pilgrimages to Tetouan, particularly to the Jewish cemetery, where they pay their respects at the tomb of Rabbi Isaac (Yitzchak) Bengualid (1777–1870), revered as a tzaddik or “saint.” Within the Mellah, his former residence and synagogue have been transformed into a museum, under the stewardship of the Moroccan Jewish community.

    The Jewish cemetery, located in the northeast of the city, just across from the Muslim cemetery, remains well preserved, featuring an estimated 10,000 tombstones. Some streets in the former Jewish quarter still retain their original Jewish names, such as Dr. Angel Pulido, Prado, Bentolila, Isaac Bengualid, and Sultana Cohen streets. Additionally, some house doorframes still bear a rectangular hole on their right side, remnants of the long-gone mezuzot.

    Isaac Ben Walid Synagogue, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    The Isaac Ben Walid Synagogue stands as a testament to Tetouan’s profound and storied Jewish heritage. This city, with one of the most significant Jewish populations in the Maghreb, earned the affectionate moniker “Little Jerusalem.” Each 9th of Adar, which falls in the 12th month of the Hebrew calendar, Moroccan Jews, and visitors from around the globe gather with the local Jewish community to commemorate the Hilloula, marking the anniversary of the revered Rabbi Ben Walid’s passing.

    During this time, two synagogues were utilized for the Hilloula ceremonies. Rabbi Ben Walid, also known as Isaac Bengualid, rests in eternal repose in the Jewish cemetery of Tetouan. Born into a family that left Spain for Morocco during the Reconquista of 1492, he dedicated his life to the study of the Torah and, in 1835, was appointed as the head of the rabbinical court in Tetouan.

    Mr. Leon Bentolila, caretaker of the synagogue Isaac Ben Walid, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Mystical tales and legends surround the figure of Rabbi Ben Walid. He possessed a wooden stick that had been handed down through generations, which he used as a cane. With the aid of this remarkable staff, it is said that he performed miraculous acts, bringing healing to the infirm and assisting expectant mothers.

    During the month of Adar, particularly on the day of his Hilloula, many Jews gather at his tomb during the nighttime to engage in contemplation and prayer. Presently, the Jewish community in Morocco continues to hold Rabbi Yitzchak Ben Walid in deep reverence. In Israel, numerous educational institutions proudly bear the title “Vayomer Yitzchak,” in honor of this esteemed tzaddik.

    Isaac Ben Walid Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Mr. Leon Bentolila, the dedicated custodian of the synagogue, shared with the NYJTG that prior to 1968, Tetouan was home to a thriving Jewish community of over 1,000 people. Today, only a mere ten remain, and the synagogue has not hosted a service since 1968. This historic place of worship once featured a furnace used for baking matzah during Passover and a small mikvah designed for the ritual immersion of pots and utensils.

    Mr. Bentolila has resided here contentedly for more than five decades, describing a peaceful coexistence with his Muslim neighbors, whom he regards as family. He emphasized the warm and supportive relationship he shares with them, sharing that on his way to the synagogue, his neighbors routinely inquire about his well-being and offer to prepare breakfast for him. Mr. Bentolila still adheres to the laws of kashrut and obtains kosher meat from the Jewish community in Casablanca.

    A 1997 Bar Mitzvah Invitation – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Synagogue Isaac Ben Walid – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    For further information, you can explore the following resources:

    1. To plan your trip to Morocco, you can get in touch with the Moroccan National Tourist Office or visit their website at http://www.visitmorocco.com/en.
    2. For booking flights, consider Royal Air Morocco: https://www.royalairmaroc.com/us-en/
    3. If you’re looking to travel within Morocco, check out Train Al Boraq, a high-speed rail service that connects Casablanca and Tangier. You can book tickets at https://myticketservices.com/tgv-morocco-al-boraq-high-speed-train-e-tickets/.

    This story and photography are courtesy of Meyer Harroch, featured in the New York Jewish Travel Guide and New York Jewish Guide. Please note that the author participated in a press trip sponsored by the Moroccan National Tourist Office.

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