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La bienvenue et l’adieu | 1

Frédéric Abécassis
Karima Dirèche
Rita Aouad

Première partie : « Mille ans, un jour »

Judeo-Spanish in Morocco

Language, identity, separation or integration?

Vanessa Paloma

Texte intégral

1The hybrid identity of the Jews of Northern Morocco is exemplified in their language “Haketía” and through multiple expressions of oral traditions. I have participated in Jewish community life between 2005 and 2011 with the extant community in Tangier, and they practice synagogue chants in Hebrew, liturgical poetry in Hebrew and Spanish, readings from the prophets in Spanish on certain holidays and the Passover seder in both Hebrew and Spanish. They put their children to sleep in Spanish and express humor and certain emotions in Arabic. Many previous researchers have been privy to this complex relationship that language has in the identity and literature of this community amongst them Zarita Nahón (1929) in Tangier and Arcadio de Larrea Palacín (1954) in Tetuan. These are among the early compilators of Romances which recognized the importance of Judeo-Spanish literature in Morocco and its individual importance in parallel to Hebrew liturgical poetry.

  • 1 Private Interview A.B. from Alcazarquivir (January 4, 2008) in Casablanca, Morocco.

2Although the conscious identification of most members of the community today is as Spanish Jews, a profound interconnectedness to Moroccan language and culture is revealed in colloquial speech, idioms and intimate conversations. The Jewish community in Northern Morocco today has been reduced to less than one hundred, with close to seventy in Tangier and ten in Tetouan. The other cities which formed part of this Judeo-Spanish Moroccan identity historically, such as Chefchauen, Larache, Asila and Alcazarquivir have no Jews left. However, there are others who were born and raised in Northern Morocco and moved to Casablanca in the 1950s and 1960s, all the while maintaining Spanish language as their main household language.1 Others left Morocco in various waves of emigration which began with the Spanish invasion of Tetuan in 1860 and continues until our days.

3The current Judeo-Spanish diaspora is concentrated mostly in Spain, Venezuela, Gibraltar, Toronto, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro (Garzón, 223). This paper explores the remaining current community’s identity formation and their complex dynamics of separation and integration to Moroccan culture and society.

Historical development

4Starting as early as 1391, Jews began fleeing the Catholic fervor that was sweeping through the Peninsula in what has been called the Gerush Sbilia, Expulsion from Seville (Levy 143). There had been previous recent migrations across the Strait of Gibraltar during the European middle ages for religious reasons. Those migrations were prompted by the Muslim Almohad’s Orthodoxy in the twelfth century and their intolerance of non-Muslims in their midst. Many families left Spain for Morocco, the most famous case being that of Maimonides, whose family went to Fez. Their house is claimed to this day as one which is next to the Medersa Bouanania in that city. Fez was the preferred Jewish destination in the early migrations, because it had an established rabbinic leadership, and was known as a center of study.

5By the early sixteenth century, Tetuan, north of Fez close to the Meditterranean coast and next to an active port, became a new center for Jewish migration, allowing for an exclusively Sephardic leadership to establish itself. This new locality became a nucleus with a specifically Spanish and Andalusian heritage in its architecture, family lineages and music.

6Fez had an ancient Jewish community, which came to be known as the Toshavim (dwellers) that had been decimated in 1465 in a wave of persecution and conversion in central Morocco (Deshen, 8). When the Megorashim (expulsed ones) arrived in great numbers after 1492, the existing community was overwhelmed by the newcomers. There were significant differences in Jewish practice and perceptions. The liturgical rites were slightly different between the newly arriving Spanish Jews and the local community. For instance, their shehitá (kosher slaughtering) and their ketubot (marriage contracts) had significant differences.

  • 2 March 18, 2010, Essaouira, Morocco.

7In Fez, in the sixteenth century, a group known as the Hajamei Castilla became dominant in decisions of rabbinical law, but at the level of language and culture, the struggle was more protracted. Even though the Sephardic community of Fez had become an Arabic-speaking community by the eighteenth century, having dropped their Spanish language traces, it is striking to note that in the 1940s there was an Ein Keloheinu prayer sung in the synagogue Slat al Fassiyin in Hebrew, Arabic and Judeo-Spanish. In a private conversation2, Professor Joseph Chetrit mentioned that as far south as Taroudant, his village of origin, there was one family who sang this prayer with its Spanish addition on the holiday of Simhat Torá. They did not understand the Spanish anymore, but it was in honor of their Spanish ancestors that they kept this tradition alive. This served as a remnant and trace to the memory of this community’s connection to Spain.


8I started my paper by mentioning the unique language of the community of Northern Morocco : Haketía. The classic work on this topic, Dialecto judeo-hispano-marroquí o hakitia is by José Benoliel. He started publishing a series of successive articles in the 1920s and it was published as a book as recently as 1977. Benoliel explains the origins, grammatical structure and various usages of Haketía. He also provides a list of proverbs, Romances as well as a incipient dictionary of Haketía. Benoliel states that there are three causes that attribute the fact that this language was created, conserved and evolved. I find his articulation of these different periods of evolution of the language as a demonstration of the perception of identity formation in his time.

9According to Benoliel, the pre-expulsion necessity for a language exclusive to the Jews, was a means of protection. It benefitted Jews to communicate in a manner that neither Muslims nor Christians could understand completely. He continues to say that in present times (85-90 years ago or so) Jewish Hispano-Moroccans were feeling more comfortable, and less afraid, and it is this level of comfort which was propitiating them to move into a more “pure and Castillian manner of translating their thoughts.” (author’s translation p. 6) Secondly he brings up a matter of geography : the distance of Haketía speakers from Spain, and Spanish. This created the necessity of replacing words that were forgotten from Spanish with others which more more easily accessible in Arabic or Hebrew. Lastly, he states the third reason as,

“emanating from the first two, and of the growing distance in time, space, education and customs between expulsed Jews and Spaniards. This leads them to the natural desire to have a proper language to understand each other and recognize each other, and to not be confused with their Arabic-speaking co-religionists.” (Page 6, author’s translation)

10In sum, what José Benoliel is stating here, is the slow, organic historical process of the formation of a new intertwined identity, the Judeo-Hispano-Moroccan. The Jews who chose to live in an exclusively Spanish speaking Jewish community at the time of the expulsion (Tetuan, and not Fez, for example), began to integrate and assimilate aspects of their Moroccan cultural and lingüistic surroundings.

Double diaspora

11As a minority living through a double diaspora (Jewish and Spanish homelands) there was a communal decision to be made. One possibility was to integrate fully into Moroccan society, as was eventually done by Jews who settled in Marrakesh and cities in the south. Another possibility was to live in a parallel community, as was the choice in Fez, where Megorashim and Toshavim lived side by side, with tensions, power struggles and both positive and negative influences between the communities.

12There was a third vector that came into play : this was establishing population centers where the authoctonous Jewish community was not very strong, thus allowing the newcomers to maintain a monopoly on the form of Judaism that was practiced. They were able to try to transplant their Judaism without much negotiation with the existent rabbinat and community. By keeping strong ties to the Spanish language as a marker of Judaism, I believe that they established another demarcating boundary between them and the Arabic speaking Jewish population.

Identity formation

13Judaism has maintained its relevance and continuity throughout societies, surviving through cataclysmic events, migrations, and mutiple layering of priorities in people’s lives. This historical reality owes much to the manner in which Jewish personal and communal identity is created, preserved and transformed.

14Amin Maalouf’s On Identity (2000) succintly articulates the complex factors forming and developing one’s identity :

What determines a person’s affiliation to a given group is essentially the influence of others : The influence of those about him – relatives, fellow-country-men, co-religionists – who try to make him one of them ; together with the influence of those on the other side, who do their best to exclude him… He is not himself from the outset ; nor does he just “grow aware” of what he is ; he becomes what he is… Deliberately or otherwise, those around him mould him, shape him instil into him family beliefs, rituals, attitudes and conventions, together of course with his native language and also certain fears, aspirations, prejudices and grudges, not forgetting various feelings of affiliation and non-affiliation, belonging and not belonging. (21-22)

  • 3 Private Interview J.Bengualid in Tangier, Morocco, November 1, 2008.
  • 4 Private Interview Marcel Botbol from Fez in Tangier October 12, 2007.

15For the Sephardic Jews in Fez, maintaining a relationship of double diaspora and living with the division within the community of Megorashim and Toshavim became a mute point at a certain time. The slow “becoming” of their identity formation as Sephardic Moroccans dropped Spanish and adopted Arabic as their main language. It is mostly through lingüistic identifications that the final separation was defined as a community. Even though Fassi Jews kept many halachic rulings from Spain, today they express themselves musically and culturally as what Jews from the North pejoratively call “forasteros,” foreigners3. Many of the so-called “forasteros” may be actually Spanish in origin, but their cultural identity became slowly identified as Judeo-Arabic.4 In return, Moroccan Jews from the North, who kept Spanish as the basis for Haketía are called “les espagnoles” or “rumi” (a word in Arabic denoting European or Christian). Notice that each community names the other with an exclusionary label.

16It is this separation from the Jewish “other” that I am interested in exploring. How and why did this come about ? What consequences does it have on the perceived Marocainité of the Jewish community from Northern Morocco ?

17The names each one of these Jewish communities had for the other, identifying them as a Jewish member of a local culture that was different from their own, is an example of what Shlomo Deshen’s The Mellah Society : Jewish Community Life in Sherifian Morocco explains as

…there are parallels between Jewish and non-Jewish living in a given time and place... Jews living in any given time and place exhibit a variant of Jewish society, but in their commonalty with contemporary non-Jews they also exhibit a variant of the local society that is common to Jews and non-Jews. (6)

  • 5 Ibid.

18Thus, the Spanish Moroccan Jews, were “les espagnoles, or rumi” for the Moroccan Arabic-speaking Jews, who claimed to be authentically Moroccan.5

19The duality of belonging and not belonging as illustrated by Maaluf became simplified one layer less for the Jews in the communities of Tetuan, Tangier and later Arcila, Larache and Alcazarquivir. I am focusing on these five cities, because they are the urban centers that maintained a sizable corpus of oral traditions in Judeo-Spanish until our generation. It is through the imprints of the languages embedded in speech and song that I seek to discern threads of multiple identities that found ways of living side by side.

20Here are a few examples that demonstrate the intermingling of Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew words and concepts in Haketía.

1. The traditional name for Rabbi Yitzhak Bengualid, the Tsaddik of Tetuán is Baba Señor, Arabic for father, Spanish for Sir and referring to a Rabbi.

2. In the Romance El Dio del cielo Abraham that talks about the tests that Abraham was confronted with, we have a permeation of Haketía in line 19 “De ahí se a[l]hadró un mekatreg” referring to the Angel of Death going to tell Sara of Isaac’s near death at the hand of his father (Weich-Shahak, 2008, 59), As Weich-Shahak stated, this addition includes information from the midrash, which is not found in ancient and peninsular versions. It is with this added element from the midrash that there is a word from Arabic (alhadró) and one from Hebrew (mekatreg).

  • 6 Private Interview Julia Bengio, from Tangier in Paris, June 1, 2011.

3. In the funny short cantar of “Al entrar a la judería” it finishes with the statement haudéalas , as Julia B. explained to me recently6, it comes from the word awed, do it again, repeat it.

4. The famous song of Rahel Lastimoza, telling the story of a married woman who is wooed by a rich young man and stays true to her husband is sung at Hilulot. There is a refrain awed awed (again, again) which was said to be the “forasteros” telling the Jews of the North that they liked the song and to repeat the melody one more time.

5. Another exclamation is aiwa, which means something like “so ?” It is found in the chant/song Ay Esterica, aiwa, cerra el ferrojo, aiwa, sube a la cama, aiwa, pa’ que te coja, aiwa. etc

21There are many other examples of words in haketía permeating into mostly Spanish songs.


22Proverbs refer more succintly to complex identities. The following examples include simple words from Hebrew or Arabic, as well as specific cutural contexts that would only be understood by an insider.

23Yaakov Bentolila illustrates a word used in the cultural context of Jewish traveling husbands, and women’s changed status (254)

1. “Cuando la mogaiba pide carne se serro la carniceria.” Moghaiba comes from the ‘arubi Darija : rhaiba/no está en casa/is not home) The moghaiba is a woman who does not receive a monthly stipend from her husband because he travels to make a living.
This proverb refers to a cultural reality many Jewish women lived with, which was the absent husband. The men would leave for work, and many times the wife would be left in a difficult financial situation, thus the implication that the butchers close when they see her approaching.

2. Mas vale rico cuando en’anese (Hebreo/ani/pobre), que pobre cuando enriquese. Here the usage of poor is in Hebrew ‘ani, whereas the word for rich is kept in Spanish and not transformed into a’shirese.

3. Pasar del alef bet a la guemará – This proverb implies knowledge of Hebrew and the context that it is impossible to pass from the alef bet (basic alphabet) straight to the guemará (complex Talmud study), without having done the middle stages.

4. Patas que nunca miraron saraweles – the word for pants here is the arabic, saraweles (sarwal)

5. Te entre una mehná (illness) – This curse uses the word mehná for added strength.


24In intimate conversations in contemporary Morocco, people express the layers of their identities in a non-codified and free manner. This can take the form of words in haketía

1. Fui en ‘ca de mi madre ayer (I went to my mother’s house yesterday)

2. Estoy guahsheada de ti (I miss you)

3. La dafina me quedó akkdeada (The shabbat stew is a little burned)

4. El terrah pasó para llevar la hala al farrán (The oven-boy came by to take the challah to the oven)

5. El mel’ok, se le caiga el mazzal (What a scoundrel, may his luck disappear)

25The oral tradition of the Jewish community of Northern Morocco is a rich deposit of the traces of these intertwined identities. This simultaneous intermingling of three seemingly disparate identities, which are all present in one community, and at times in one sentence, elucidate the nuanced dynamics at play in this community’s identity.

26Although identity politics have usually placed Arabic speaking Moroccan Jews as “fully” Moroccan and Haketía speakers as Spanish Jews living in Morocco (albeit for centuries on end), it is clear that the five centuries in Morocco have molded this community’s identity, even though they have not completely abandoned the previous diasporic experience. The “double diaspora” has just added another level of richness and complexity to their cultural palette. They are Judeo-Hispano-Moroccan.


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Weich-Shahak, Susana, “No hay boda sin pandero. El rol de la mujer en el repertorio musical sefardí : intérprete y personaje,” El Prezente Studies on Sephardic Culture Gender and Identity vol. 3, Beer Sheva : Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Culture (2009) 273-291.

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1 Private Interview A.B. from Alcazarquivir (January 4, 2008) in Casablanca, Morocco.

2 March 18, 2010, Essaouira, Morocco.

3 Private Interview J.Bengualid in Tangier, Morocco, November 1, 2008.

4 Private Interview Marcel Botbol from Fez in Tangier October 12, 2007.

5 Ibid.

6 Private Interview Julia Bengio, from Tangier in Paris, June 1, 2011.


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