Morocco and the Jews

The New York Jewish Museum's "Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land" explores the multicultural art and traditions of Morocco and 2,000 years of Jewish life there. It is the first time an exhibit at the Jewish Museum has had an Arab leader - the king of Morocco - as patron.

"These close intergroup relations are reflected in the art of the Kingdom," King Mohammed VI writes in the show's catalog. "The architecture of mosques and synagogues, the music of Muslims and Jews, the patterns and designs of textiles, stucco and tiles all reflect this commonly held artistic tradition."

The peoples were long unified to such an extent that, asked by a Nazi commander for a list of all the Jews in the North African nation, King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current king, responded: "We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens."

More than 180 objects--including paintings, jewelry, ceremonial items, textiles, costumes, photos and two short films--offer a rare glimpse of Jewish life in Morocco and the spaces and sites there, some of which are holy to both Jews and Muslims. About 250,000 Jews once lived in the North African nation.

A painting of a Jewish marriage in Tangiers that brings together the main themes of the show serves as a prelude to the exhibit.

"Jews and Muslims are joined. The musicians are Muslim. There's an emphasis on jewelry and textiles, and there's the hand print on the wall, which was an important amulet for both Muslims and Jews," said Vivian B. Mann, the show's organizer and the museum's curator of Judaica. Also featured as a prelude to the show is a 1521 edition of a Moroccan book in Hebrew that, when first published in 1516, became the first book known to have been printed in Africa.

With beautiful Moroccan music as an accompaniment, the exhibit is entered through an arched doorway that seems shadowed by palms. Two side-by-side film screens give a feel for the countryside and its holy places of both faiths.

The show is organized in a rough chronology, with the first gallery devoted to paintings and photographs of Moroccan life by outsiders. Among the highlights are five works by French artist Eugene Delacroix, perhaps the first European artist to spend time in Morocco depicting scenes of life there. Because Jews were generally more willing to pose as models than their Muslim compatriots, many of the paintings are of Jewish life.

Another gallery focuses on the two arts most dominated by the Moroccan Jews: the making of textiles and jewelry. The works, divided into cities influenced by Spain and those more influenced by Berber culture, are among the most stunning in the show. Included are dramatic headpieces made of silver, with bright beads and long braids of false hair, and Jewish wedding dresses embroidered in gold. Artistic influences can be traced east to Byzantium and north into Europe.

There are also religious objects, such as ornate lamps and Torah finials that feature some ofthe artistic touches also seen in Islamic art.

The last section of the show is devoted to the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French philanthropic organization that educated Moroccan Jews in Hebrew and in French. A classroom from one of the schools has been brought from Morocco and reconstructed for the show--complete with a prominently placed photo of the king and writings in Arabic. With the schools' introduction, Moroccan Jews began looking outward, and many later left for Europe or the new state of Israel.

Today, only about 5,000 or 6,000 Jews still live in Morocco, although those who have emigrated still retain their Moroccan citizenship and many return to visit sites in Morocco they still consider sacred.

The show runs through Feb. 11, 2001.

Source: Los Angeles Times, Saturday, November 4, 2000


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