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Lives of Moroccan Jews aadetailed in Magnes Exhibit

by Joshua Schuster
Date published:  June 25, 1999
Publication: Jewish Bulletin

A Moroccan Jew clothed in dirty rags does his metal working over a small fire. Another teaches an eager pack of kids who have nothing to write with how to memorize prayers, And a shaggy jeweler crouches on a dusty mat to weigh precious metals.

The photos in the exhibit “Roots and Memory: A portrait of the Last Moroccan Jews of the Atlas and Sahara,” depict the lives if Jews in little-known rural Moroccan communities. The exhibit runs through Oct.31 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

Taken in the 1940s and 1950s, the photos are intimate portraits of a community that has since vanished through immigration to Israel.

But for more than 1,000 years, Jews coexisted with the Muslim Berber tribes in the same desert lands. The two shared customs and traded goods while still retaining distinct religious identities.

In one photo, a Jewish tailor wearing a black kippah casually offers some wares to a Muslims client. Neither seems to notice the camera’s presence. A caption says that Muslims now use the same tailoring methods as the Jews, and credit them for the knowledge.

Elias Harrus, a Moroccan Jew born in the Atlas, snapped the photographs. Harrus now lives in Casablanca and directs the Moroccan branch of the Alliance Universelle Israelite, a system of Jewish schools designed by French Jews.

Although technology seems to never have touched the Jewish community in the desert like mountains, the people who are photographed open up warmly to the camera.

Harrus shot some of the photos as part of documentary on his establishing the schools in the mountain areas. One photograph shows Harrus with a few young girls who are undergoing their first organized learning experience. Harrus is the only person in all of the photos to wear a suit. The girls, dressed up for school, wrestle uncomfortably with their clothes.

The photos seem to have biblical feel to them. The desert-dwelling Jews ply at basic trades, most wearing just a one-piece frock and a kippah. All the men have bushy beards.

One striking photo shows a woman in the typical desert garb breastfeeding her baby. In any other context, the picture would seem an ordinary, anthropological view of the local life. But knowing that such a community no longer exists, the calm and comforting appearance of the mother emphasizes all the more how a home Jews were in Morocco.

The photography exhibit runs simultaneously with “Exploring the Elements of Art: A Hands-On Learning Exhibit on a Moroccan Theme.”

The exhibit runs through Oct. 31 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley, Information (510)549-6950.



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