A Chanukah Story

Disclaimer: I'm an American who happens to be Jewish. I served in a Muslim country and concealed my religious identity for the entirety of my Peace Corps service. The only people who knew about my background were the wonderful staff of Peace Corps Morocco, 90% of whom were both Moroccan and Muslim. Even my host family and close friends in Morocco still do not know about my Jewish heritage. While it did add another level of difficulty to my service, I did not want to needlessly complicate my 27 months, potentially making it difficult for local partners to work with me and the American volunteers that followed. I'm convinced that when I do decide to tell them, that it won't change anything, that they will still see me as the goofy and sweet American who came to their country to help educate their children, learn their language, and embrace their culture. While Morocco sits in what I like to call the "Suburbs of the Middle East," it is still very much affected and interested in what happens in the "city center" and Moroccans understandably have very strong opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And so I pray for the day when the Israel-Palestinian conflict is over and I can at last be open with them about my true identity. Enough background, here's the story. Certain names and place names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.


December, 2006. Rabat, Morocco.

As we're now in the middle of our Peace Corps service, we were called to Rabat for our mid-service medical check-ups last week with our Peace Corps medical staff. I do not have tuberculosis or any parasites, but I do have 3 cavities - one in an old filling and one in each of my upper two wisdom teeth, which they want to pull out next month, right here in Morocco. In general, Peace Corps volunteers are required to leave their wisdom teeth at home but because I've never had any problems with mine, they let me keep em. How sweet. Anyway, our story begins at the Radiologist where I was sent to get a panoramic view of my 32 teeth.

"Are you Jewish?"

I was sitting in the waiting room staring at the wall while my fellow PCVs Mosley and Bert took their turns biting down on the plastic bit while the x-ray machine circled their heads, when I saw a framed poster on the wall with some text in French and a Jewish star on it. I stood up and walked over to the poster and was shocked to realize it was a quote from a 12th century Jewish scholar, philosopher, as well as physician - Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon - or more commonly known as Maimonides. Born in Spain in 1135, he fled religious persecution at home and settled for a time in Morocco, attending the University of Fes, before continuing on to Egypt. Important to Jews for his Mishneh Torah, a seminal work on the code of Jewish law, he is also held in high esteem by Jewish doctors and perhaps even more so by Moroccan Jewish Radiologists.

After leaving the office with Mosley and Bert and taking note of the plaque on the wall of the building with the doctor's name on it, Ben Moussa, or Son of Moses, I told my friends that I'd meet up with them in another 10 minutes. I ran back upstairs and asked to speak to the doctor in private. We walked into his office and closed the door.

"I saw the paper on the wall with the words from Maimonides," I said in my Moroccan Arabic, and in a quiet whisper in the security his private study, asked him "Are you Jewish?"

"Yes, my origins are," he said, confirming my suspicions. I breathed.

I picked his brain about living in a Muslim country as a Jew and he told me that in the big cities, especially in Rabat and Casablanca, it's not a big deal to be Jewish. It's certainly not something you broadcast to the average person on the street, even the very observant don't wear yarmulkes outside of synagogue, but it's apparently safe enough for him to hang a decoration of a Jewish physician in his place of business, something that took me by surprise.

With it being the 4th day of the 8-day holiday of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, I asked him whether or not he knew of any festivities going on in town. He told me that he was only a "couple times a year Jew" and wasn't aware of any gatherings. However, he mentioned an older Jewish couple who happen to live in the same building as his office who would probably have better information. The doctor game me directions to the man's shop.

I asked about the man's name before leaving. "Cohen," said the Doctor. "And what does this guy do?," I asked. "Sells Gold. C'est typique!" he replied. We both smiled.

Finding Mr. Cohen

Bert had another appointment and Mosley was being a great sport and agreed to take a walk with me to try and locate the gold shop of Mr. Shimon Cohen. After wandering around for a good 20 minutes in the area in which we were directed, we figured it wasn't meant to be, and headed into the old city a bit dejected that we never found Mr. Cohen.

But on our way back to the hotel as we passed the area where we were originally directed, I saw it out of the corner of my eye and was certain that we'd found Mr. Cohen's shop. Mosley and I crossed over to the other side of the large boulevard and opened the heavy front door of this tiny storefront. Inside was an elderly man and his wife who both sat behind the counter.

I introduced myself and my friend Mosley and asked him "Is your name Cohen? I heard you are Jewish?" as I stuck my hand out to properly greet him. A full 5 seconds passed before he grasped my hand to return the gesture, only doing so after I looked down at my own hand in disbelief.

"How do you know my name?" and "Who told you I was Jewish?" asked the man.

I tried to explain that we're both Americans (this was before President Obama and Mosley doesn't fit into their TV image of an American, being black and all), but it was futile as we were speaking Moroccan Arabic to people whose common language, especially in this neighborhood, is the French of the educated urban elite. And there I was, claiming to be Jewish. I understood his reluctance to speak to me.

After failing miserably in my first attempt at explaining my presence, I then took the envelope with the panoramic x-ray out of my bag and showed him the return address, pointing my finger to Ben Moussa, Radiologue.

"Ahhh, Ben Moussa, we know him!" they exclaimed and feeling comforted by the familiar name of the Jewish radiologist whose office is in the same building as their apartment, both Mr. Cohen and his wife began to warm up. Yet, Shimon was still skeptical about my story and made me clear another hurdle.

He gave me a test. He pulled out a Hebrew/French TaNaKh, a three-part text so central to Judaism which includes the Torah (The Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im (Prophets) as well as Ketuvim (writings) and Mr. Cohen laid down his own commandment.

"Read," he ordered.

"Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim," I said as I read the golden leaf Hebrew title of the book, utterly amazed that even now I could still read Hebrew. He opened it up. Mosley gave me a towel and a bucket and some positive encouragement. "You can do it Champ!," he said and the bell rang. " Breisheet," right jab. "Shmot," body blow. "Mishlei," upper cut 2nd round knockout. We all smiled, I had passed the test.

Mr. Cohen was the gatekeeper, and I was the keymaster, and I had just been granted access to the holy of holies, the realm of confidential information about Jewish gatherings in the capital of Morocco. He told me that the next night there would be a celebration at the old synagogue in the Mellah, or old Jewish quarter, and that I should show up around 7. "Thank you so much, Mr. Cohen," I said. "Thank you so much Mrs. Cohen," and I then asked about her first name.

"Mazal Tov," she said. "Mazal Tov? Your name is Mazal Tov!?!?" I asked, surprised by her assertion that her name is Hebrew for "Good Luck." "Mazal Tov," she confirmed.

"He's Kosher."

Per Mr. Cohen's instructions, the next night I made my way over to the old city in my beat up New Balance sneakers, khakis and a sweater and followed the old city walls until I reached Bab Mellah, the gate of the old Jewish quarter, and took a few steps inside a dark alley. The area of town was pretty quiet at that time of night but looking through a series of doorways, I could see some well dressed people in a distant courtyard and decided to try my own mazal tov.

I approached a group of 5 or 6 people and they all turned to see who I was, expecting me to announce my presence in some way. I had to ask if this was the Jewish get-together without exposing my own closeted Judaism and I found myself to be a bit tongue-tied. Unsure of what to say and in what language to say it in, I eventually just blurted out "Chanukah?" and waited for their response. They all smiled and welcomed me in. Phew.

As I approached the front entrance of the synagogue, the leader of the community was standing in the doorway, greeting guests. I asked him if I could speak to him in Moroccan Arabic and he responded with an affirmative head nod. "Hello, my name is Andrew Meyerson," I explained as we shook hands. "I'm an American working at a youth center in the south. Mr. Cohen, the one with the gold shop down the street told me that there would be something here for Chanukah." "Of what religion are you?" he asked. "I'm Jewish," I responded and he asked to see my Moroccan national identity card. "His name is Meyerson!" he exclaimed to his friends after inspecting my ID. "He's kosher." We shook hands again and he invited me inside.

As I took the few steps into the main sanctuary, I caught my first glimpse of this seldom used monument of Moroccan Judaism. The walls were adorned with backlit colored glass featuring the 10 commandments, embroidered quotes from scripture, framed posters with the historical "Dream Team" of Moroccan Rabbis, as well as tributes to the great 18th-19th century father of their synagogue, Rabbi Zowiya. But while the walls said much of the religious identity of this house of worship, the ceilings - ornately designed plaster work and tiling - both spoke to its national identity, as ubiquitous characteristics of Moroccan interior design.

I walked further inside, unsure of what to expect, and the sight of bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label and Moroccan Kosher Wine was certainly not what I had pictured. The little main room of the centuries old 'Zowiya' Synagogue had been transformed into a fine dining tapas bar with a 6-course meal. White tablecloths lined the large communal tables circling the central raised prayer altar. I knew I'd be here for a while.

As I was wandering around the main room taking in the sights, I heard someone speaking French with a bad American accent and recognized the man as an American embassy official and grabbed a seat near him. He spilled the beans about the significance of that night.

"Not only is this the 5th night of Chanukah but it's also the Hilula of the Great Rabbi Zowiya," he said. "Hilula? What does that mean?" I asked. He explained that 175 years ago, this "Grand Jewish Saint" of Rabat passed away and every year at this time they all gather and pay their respects in a great party. It's one of only a handful of times a year they use this synagogue, and its used as an occasion for fundraising for the Jewish community.

"Good night to be in town," I thought.

Then the approximately 75 people who had gathered for this event joined together in song as the president of the community lit the Chanukah candles. We opened our prayer books and after an unsuccessful attempt at following along with the service, I abandoned the book and just stood there absorbing the Middle Eastern melodies that were so foreign to me, yet felt so at home.

"Keep Walkin'" was the motto for the evening as we indulged in quite a bit Red Label nectar with the high-rolling grandfathers of the community, their grandchildren stopping by every 15 minutes to kiss their grandpa's cheek. As the laughter and singing continued, the auction to raise money for the community began, with some of the older gentlemen of my table forkin' out nearly $500 for the honor of purchasing a large meter-long candle to dedicate to a loved one.

As the hours passed, I chatted with Francois, a mid-thirties Parisian who at the time worked at the embassy of the European Union in Rabat. At just about 11pm, as it was time to head back to the hotel, Francois asks me if I'd like to join him and his family for a dinner party at his house to following evening with some members of the community and some other embassy officials. I graciously accepted. He gave me his card and said farewell, "Au revoir!"

Andrew's Real Skin

By this time I was running out of nice clothes so I hand washed my khakis and scoured the old city market for a new dress shirt in order to look presentable at this dinner party. The old man selling flowers near the McDonald's who usually gets nothing more from me than a nice smile as I pass by with some familiar grub, was now the recipient of 25 Dirhams ($2) as I purchased a half dozen Birds of Paradise. I wrapped them in the clear plastic bag from my new dress shirt and tied it with a spare shoelace. I was proud of my ingenuity.

I then hopped in a taxi to one of the posh neighborhoods of Rabat, and arrived at #29 Avenue Moulay Idriss, Embassy of the Republic of Albania. Francois didn't tell me that the party would be at the Albanian Embassy, but the last couple days had been quite a crazy ride so I just knocked on the door. An enormous security guard opened up gate, took one look at me with the shoelace-tied, plastic bag-wrapped Birds of Paradise and told me that I needed to go to the other #29 Avenue Moulay Idriss. "The OTHER #29 Avenue Moulay Idriss?" I asked him with a slight smirk on my face. Not amused, he pointed me across the street.

I knocked on the door and the master of the house greeted me. "Sorry, I'm late!" I told Francois as I handed him the flowers, "I went to the Albanian Embassy first." Smiling, he welcomed me in and introduced me to his wife and children.

We all sat down near the fireplace and over some more Red Label I was introduced to the most interesting guests of all - real life Moroccan Jews - Marcel and his wife, and Josette and her children - not ex-pats who happen to be living and working here but I was about to sit down for an intimate dinner party with the real thing, real Moroccan Jews. I naturally wanted to put them under a microscope and study their remarkable species up close. Nationality: Moroccan. Religion: Jewish. Size of Get-together: Very Small. Attending a quiet, intimate dinner party with people who know that I'm Jewish and that's okay for the first time in 15 months: priceless.

With all the husbands and wives, parents and children gathered together, we lit the Chanukah candles and I felt that holiday feeling of being surrounded by family and performing rituals that have been handed down from generation to generation, for the first time in too long. I didn't have to worry about these Moroccans thinking anything bad or different about me, I didn't have to worry about these people finding out. I no longer had to pretend that I was anything but myself, and I felt alive and comfortable in my own skin. Andrew's real skin.

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