“Half of My Soul Is Made of Longing”: One Man’s Mission to Preserve the Jewish Heritage of Debdou

If not for the efforts of "Rabbi Eli", much of what we know about this particular Moroccan Jewish community would likely have been lost forever…

Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Jewish girls in Debdou, Morocco, early 20th-century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For much of its history, the town of Debdou was home to more Jews than Muslims. The Jewish community in the town in Northeast Morocco traced its roots back to Jewish refugees, many Cohanim (priests), from the Spanish city of Seville, who fled the Iberian Peninsula after the anti-Jewish violence of 1391. The town hosted tens of synagogues, well-known ritual scribes, and several scholars. The Jewish community was active and had all the institutions needed to thrive, including (if an early 20th century French postcard is any indication), a traditional school for young Jewish girls, who came to their studies in elaborate headscarves.

A young Jewish woman“, Debdou, Morocco, early 20th-century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Like other locales with significant Jewish presence, we learn about its history from books, photos, legends, documents, and even gravestones. As time passes, many documents are lost, and history becomes harder and harder to document and reconstruct. Regarding Debdou, however, we have a surprising quantity of documentation, thanks to the tireless efforts of one modest man with an unassuming attitude and easy smile. Rabbi Eli dedicated much of his long life to preserving the memory of Jewish Debdou, publishing dozens of books, ranging from the genealogy of the towns’ Jews, to  lists of the communities’ local and unique religious practices (minhagim) and folklore, and even a bibliography of Hebrew printing in North Africa.

The grin that spreads quickly from his mouth to his eyes does not fully hide a light sadness that appears when he speaks of his birthplace. As Rabbi Eli tells it, his passion for the memory of Debdou stems from yearning and loss, from the half of his soul made of longing.  His mother passed away in the early 1940s, within a year of his birth, and he grew up with his grandparents, father, and later stepmother. But Debdou had little to offer a young man as bright and religiously motivated as Eli. In his early teens, he travelled alone to Paris to study in a Yeshiva for mostly North African young men. After marrying and serving as a young rabbi through the local French Jewish community (the Consistoire), the fears leading up to the Six-Day War inspired him and his wife to move to Israel.

There, he reconnected with his dear grandfather, who had since moved from Morocco to Jerusalem, and whom Rabbi Eli described as a walking encyclopedia of the lore of Jewish Debdou. But within a few short years of their reunion, his grandfather had passed away, and in a moment of profound regret, Rabbi Eli realized that the man’s accumulated knowledge had been lost.

Eli dedicated the rest of his years to collecting memories and documents. At first, he knocked on the doors of Jerusalem residents who had moved from Debdou, asking them to share stories, memories, and lore. Many laughed at him, wondering why he was bothering. Others cooperated, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly. In the course of these conversations, many former residents gifted him with documents, letters, marriage contracts, and communal record books. These interviews and pages served as the basis for his lifelong research and publishing. During the 1990s, a philanthropist asked him to travel to Morocco, and he spent several months gathering information and documents. Over the years, he worked with related sources housed in the National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, where he developed a relationship with the staff. Every few years since 1997, he would donate some of his collected documents to the NLI. One morning in April 2023, he woke up knowing that the rest of his collection should be donated on that very day to the Library. He took the remaining materials and, unannounced, knocked on the door of the archives department at the NLI.

The documents say less about learned topics, and much more about the daily life of the community as reflected in letters, business deals, or marriage contracts. One manuscript records the impressions – and criticisms! – of Moroccan Jewish life made by Meir bar Sheshet, a Shadar (charity collector) who had come from the Land of Israel to Morocco to raise funds for the Jews of Tzefat in the Holy Land.

A pinkas (ledger) maintained by Meir bar Sheshet, who  recorded his impressions and criticisms of Moroccan Jewish life. The Eliyahu Refael Marciano Collection, the National Library of Israel

Another document that struck my eye was a recording of the local rabbinical court’s decisions regarding family life, while World War II raged in Europe. A couple had divorced, and the husband would not pay child support properly. The court took measures to ensure that he would. In another case, a wife refused to move with her husband to a new location, and the court ruled that she would thereby lose her divorce settlement (Ketubah). I asked Rabbi Eli if there was any document that stood out for him. He did not hesitate, answering that it was an 18th century will that demonstrates the connection between the Debdou community and its roots in Seville. An elderly man wrote a will, giving his descendants his property, including the known piece of land that the family “owned” in Seville. Nobody expected to ever get that property back, but it was part of the family lore that they came from there and their ancestors had owned it.

As time passes, fewer people will have personal memories of Jewish Debdou, but the legacy of the community will live on in the hundreds of documents that Rabbi Eli gathered over his long life and in the research and writing that it enabled.


The Eliyahu Refael Marciano Collection is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.





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