Saving Historic Songs, and a Jewish Culture in Morocco

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TANGE, Morocco. They sang to put the children to bed or cooked Purim cakes in the kitchen. They sang in the courtyards at night when the men gathered in the synagogue for evening prayers, songs about love, loss, religion and war.

Today, most of these women, members of Morocco’s dwindling Jewish population, are gone. But they left behind a rich historical treasure trove of northern Judeo-Moroccan Sephardic culture, handed down from generation to generation, that scholars of Judaism seek to preserve before it disappears.

These pieces of history tell vivid stories from the distant past, before the Moroccan-Jewish population, which once exceeded 250,000, was reduced to a few hundred left after several waves of emigration.

Women for centuries were chained to the Jewish quarters, fascinated by a world very far from their own, and sang ballads that eventually became tonal elements of their culture. They seized on music in order to maintain their identity and traditions.

Songs known as “romances” are a legacy of the Reconquista, or Reconquista, when Christians in medieval Spain waged a centuries-old struggle against Muslim occupation. As the Reconquista drew to a close in 1492, Jews who refused to accept Christianity were expelled. Many of them ended up in Morocco, bringing their Spanish heritage with them.

The songs reflect this story, many mocking the Spanish rulers and the priests who expelled them. Even though northern Moroccan Jews spoke a hybrid language of Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic, the songs were sung in Spanish.

But these are not just political statements. These are ballads and lullabies with metaphorical lyrics that do not just tell a story, but are deeply intertwined with personal memories and cultural traditions.

Oro Anahori-Librowic, a Moroccan Judeo-Spanish music specialist who donated 400 records to the National Library of Israel, says the songs were not originally Sephardic but borrowed from the Spanish and survived in the culture even when they disappeared from the mainland. Spain.

“It’s a way to save something,” she told Zoom from Montreal, where she moved in 1973. “Natural transmission is not possible in a community scattered around the world. It became a sign of identity. The women recognized themselves in this Hispanic heritage and it allowed them to retain a part of their Judeo-Hispanic identity.”

One Friday in February, a few hours before sunset and Shabbat, the three friends got together, as they do on many occasions, in the apartment of community pillar Sonia Coen Toledano, which overlooks the Gulf of Tangier at the northern tip of the country. , just a few miles by sea from Spain.

In animated conversation, they often interrupted each other, often finishing each other’s sentences. Looking through a stack of black-and-white photographs yellowed by time, they reminisced about happy times and talked about the shrinking of their community and the urgent need to make the past part of the present as well as the future.

The three women are among less than 30 Moroccan Jews currently living in Tangier.

And during many of their gatherings, they end up singing romances.

Music was in the air that day as they clapped and held hands, smiling as they sang. Sometimes joyful and sometimes deeply romantic words in Spanish filled the spacious living room, and women sat on the sofa and sipped Moroccan mint tea in a moment that felt like traveling back in time.

“We heard them all the time at weddings,” says Giulia Bengio, 83. “My mother sang in front of me, but I never thought to tell her: “Come here, let me write down the lyrics.” But she did. found cassette tapes of her mother singing and transcribed the lyrics so they wouldn’t get lost.

“We were never told what they were, but later we studied it, and I want to keep them,” she added. “Just don’t forget.”

Women sometimes read handwritten notes or turned to YouTube music videos to refresh their memories.

One song makes fun of a priest who impregnates 120 women. In the song, all women give birth to girls, except for the cook (from the lower class), who gives birth to a boy. It so happened that she directly asked the priest to make her pregnant, and this story is connected with some interpretations of the Talmud, which say that when women get sexual pleasure, they conceive boys.

Todas paren niñas, la criada varón.
Ciento veinte cunas, todas en derredor,
Menos la cocinera Que en el Terrazo Colgo.

(“They all give birth to girls, And the maid gives birth to a boy. One hundred and twenty cradles around, except for the cook’s child that hung on the terrace.”)

Key message: If their husbands want boys, they must please before they can please.

Dedicated to keeping in touch with the past, Ms. Coen Toledano is a treasure trove of everything related to the Spanish Judeo culture of northern Morocco.

“We used to have aunts, cousins, family,” said Mrs Cohen Toledano, 85, the only one of 16 children in her family who remained in Morocco. “Slowly everyone left. There are so few of us that we are close. We see each other all the time. It’s hard, but we’re getting used to it.”

Her home is a mini-museum of Hispano-Jewish culture, a mix of embroideries, artwork, photographs, and a collection of vintage dresses, some over 150 years old—just about everything she could get from departed Jews or unearth. at flea markets. “Every time someone died, they left something for me,” she said.

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, an American scholar of Judeo-Spanish music at the University of Cambridge, has spent the past 15 years collecting and archiving the voices of aging Jews in Morocco. To date, she has inventoried over 2,000 records (mostly records, but also some photographs and videos); trial version available online. Dr. Paloma Elbaz has family roots that go back five generations in Morocco.

When she was a child living in Puerto Rico, she learned her first romance while singing in a children’s choir. This piqued her interest in Judeo-Moroccan history, and although she no longer lives in Morocco, she still travels there regularly and writes down everything she can.

“If we think we don’t have a written text from women, we are wrong,” she said. “Some archives were in Spain, and no one paid attention to them.”

“It’s about learning to read them,” she added. “They sent all kinds of messages. If they were sad about something, they would sing some of these songs to convey a message to their husbands.”

One day that winter, she met Moroccan Jews in Casablanca at a kosher deli, and later with others backstage at a concert, recording them all. She also sought out the children of Alegria Busbib Bengio, a prominent figure in the city’s Jewish community, who spent the last years of her life recording family genealogies and sewing dresses. She died a few months ago, at the age of 91, leaving her children the task of preserving all that she had collected so carefully.

“It would mean betraying her if she didn’t share her legacy,” her daughter Valerie Bengio told Dr. Paloma Elbaz in the apartment where her mother lived from 1967 until her death. “Leaving things intact is letting them die.”

Ms Cohen Toledano’s daughter, Yael Azaguri, 51, now lives in Stamford, Connecticut, but her connection to Morocco remains strong. Music is the bridge that connects her to her childhood in Tangier. She said in an interview that she used to sing lullabies to her children that she remembered from her mother, but she doesn’t think her three American-born children will carry on that legacy.

“It’s a wonderful legacy,” she said. “Songs must be heard. These ballads are often very touching and are part of the world’s heritage. I feel like the last chain of a story that ends with me.”

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