MADRID, Dec. 2 (JTA) — Since the wave of Jewish immigration out of Morocco began half a century ago, Anita Ben Sadon has done everything she could in Spain to preserve her culture in her adopted homeland. The centerpiece of her efforts has been a wedding dress of crimson velvet, with a silk sash and golden embroidery. She calls it the “Traje de Berberisca,” or the Berber wedding dress, because it was influenced by the customs of Morocco’s Berbers. “My Aunt Ester used to dress all the brides in Tangier,” Ben Sadon said. “But when she got old, she wanted the tradition to continue, so she gave it to me, and I’ve been dressing all the brides here for the last 40 years. With the same dress.” The wedding dress, one of only two of a kind remaining in Spain, is the centerpiece of a landmark exhibit recently on the life of Sephardi Jews in northern Morocco being held at the Museo de la Cuidad, the municipal museum of Madrid. The exhibit, which closed Nov. 28, was titled “The Sephardim of Northern Morocco: A Bridge with Spain.” “It’s an honor and a recognition by the government, which has known there are Jews in Spain, but whose politics have leaned more toward the Arab world,” said exhibit curator Yolanda Moreno Koch, who teaches Jewish history at Madrid’s Complutense University. The bulk of the Moroccan Sephardim moved to Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities after Morocco gained its independence in 1956. More came later after the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War fomented violence in the Muslim African kingdom. Before independence, Morocco was divided into southern and northern zones that were French and Spanish protectorates, respectively. Tangier, at Morocco’s northern tip, was an international zone. Jews in “Spanish Morocco” and Tangier, both a stones throw away from the Spanish coast across the Strait of Gibraltar, were mainly descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. They have prospered since coming to Spain, mainly in business. Madrid’s Jewish community numbers 4,000 and was almost exclusively of Sephardi origin until the recent wave of economic refugees from Latin America, most of whom have Ashkenazi roots. Another 10,000 Jews live elsewhere in Spain and in Spanish enclaves on the North African coast. A measure of the Spanish establishment’s involvement in the Sephardim of Northern Morocco exhibit is the list of patrons, which includes Queen Sofia, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and Jon Juaristi, the director of the Cervantes Institute. Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, also a patron, told a crowd of hundreds of people assembled at the inauguration that the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 was “probably the biggest mistake we have ever made.” “It was a disgrace for Spain, but ironically it was beneficial for Spain in those places where Jews settled,” Gallardon said. Gallardon was referring to the role that Sephardi Jews abroad have played since expulsion, promoting Spanish language, culture and business interests from northern Morocco to the Balkans. The mayor also paid tribute to the longing of this “diaspora within a diaspora” to return to Spain, a nation that had treated them dismally. “The Sephardic Jews, which Spain had rejected and expelled, kept Spain in their heart,” he said. Jacobo Israel Garzon, president of Madrid’s Jewish community, noted that the Jews in Spanish Morocco were “a people that was very Hispanicized.” “We were a nexus between Spain and Morocco when we were in Morocco, and we are now a nexus with Morocco,” he said, referring to the communities’ links with prominent Jews still in Morocco. The Moroccan Jewish community has shrunk to about 4,000 from around 250,000 in 1948. But some prominent Jews remain active in Moroccan public life. Jewish financier Andre Azoulay is one of King Mohammed VI’s closest advisers, and Serge Berdugo was minister of tourism under former King Hassan II. The Moroccan ambassador to Spain, Abdeslam Baraka, was present at the exhibit’s opening. In an interview with JTA, he suggested that Spain’s Jewish community can play a conciliatory role in the often thorny relations between Spain and Morocco. Last year, the two countries’ militaries clashed over an islet in the Strait of Gibraltar, and recriminations constantly fly back and forth over the rising tide of illegal African immigrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. “The Jewish community knows that both countries can have a relationship that is based in peace and prosperity,” the ambassador said. Nevertheless, several speakers at the exhibit’s inauguration made reference to insecurity among Moroccan Jews’ after recent terrorist attacks. Last May, Al-Qaida terrorists blew themselves up at Jewish targets and at a Spanish restaurant, and two Jews were killed in September in suspected terrorist murders. Juaristi, of the Cervantes Institute, called on the Spanish government to use its influence with the Moroccan government to safeguard the community and also to “recuperate the heritage that is in the empty towns in the synagogues and cemeteries.” Some of those synagogues, with hanging gardens of chandeliers under Moorish arches, were pictured at the exhibit. Other items on display included ketubot, or Jewish wedding contracts, ornately embroidered Torah covers and old copper Chanukah menorahs. During the opening, Ben Sadon basked in the glow of a virtual celebrity, less because of the wedding dress than the platters of Moroccan deserts — swimming in honey — that she had baked for the occasion. As part of her effort to perpetuate Moroccan Sephardi culture in Madrid, she has given classes to young Jews in how to make the pastries. Ben Sadon praised the government’s patronage of the exhibit. But she said he thinks Spain can never do enough to make up for the expulsion and the subsequent hounding of suspected secret Jews by the Inquisition, or, more recently, for the ban on overtly Jewish institutions during the Catholic Church-backed dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, which ended in 1975. “Everything they do is too little, because we’ve been shunned from the Inquisition, and when we came back we were merely tolerated. But now, thank God, there’s a very big religious opening up,” which has allowed Jewish culture to flourish again, she said.
Preserving a Moroccan Jewish wedding dress