A Look at Jewish Artisans and Crafts in Morocco

The story behind the professions of Moroccan Jews, including a look at some unique photographs documenting Jewish artisans in Morocco in 1953

Brass engraver in Morocco. All the photographs in this article are from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

What professional crafts did the Jews of Morocco practice? Perhaps you were expecting a clear-cut answer, but we found the issue to be rather complex and dynamic. And, for this very reason, we shall now proceed to share the whole story with our faithful readers (as we like to do), as well as some unique photographs that shed some extra light on the subject. These images have a story of their own, but more on that later.

For centuries, Jews in Morocco made a living from crafts that the Muslim majority society engaged in as well. The terms of the Pact of Umar as well as the laws of Sharia did not impose severe restrictions on non-Muslim occupations, though only Muslims were allowed to work in the fields of government and public office. This was intended to prevent a situation where non-Muslims would hold more important government positions and have greater economic power and influence than Muslims. In other words, despite the fairly common claim among Israelis of Moroccan descent, it’s statistically impossible that everyone’s Jewish-Moroccan grandfather served an adviser to the king.

A Jewish shoemaker in Morocco

Despite the tolerant legal infrastructure, the Muslim majority population did eventually impose restrictions on non-Muslims through the guild system as a way to lessen competition in the craft professions. Not having much choice, the Jews flocked to the trades that were open to them.

According to Sharia law, Muslims are forbidden from working with silver and gold, as the labor results in a greater profit than the true value of the metals, making the profession immoral. The exclusion of Muslims from metalwork enabled Jews to integrate into the industries of goldsmithing and production of gold thread.

Being a professional craftsperson was considered a respected occupation among the middle and lower classes. Prof. Eli Bashan, who researched this subject, wrote – “Even sages and rabbis, who did not want to be paid for their Torah teachings, worked as professional artisans, and this was considered a virtuous act; These included mainly goldsmiths but also other skilled workers such as builders and barbers. Those who were chosen for communal leadership roles came from the ranks of the artisans.”

While most of the professional artisans concentrated on a single area of expertise, we found a number of photographs showing Moroccan Jewish women working in two professions. In the image below, the women of the Casablanca Jewish community (apparently) are shown working as both seamstresses and childcare providers. This was decades before 2020, when working from home became an unexpected reality of life.

Women of the Casablanca (apparently) Jewish community sewing while taking care of children
A Jewish artisan making leather pouches, apparently for storing glass and ceramic ware

The field of commerce was also open to Jews in Morocco and ranged from local to regional to international trade. The Jewish elite class consisted mainly of rich merchants who lived in major port cities – key players in the trade between Morocco and the West.

All this began to change in 1912 with the establishment of the French Protectorate in most parts of Morocco and the Spanish Protectorate in a small area in the north of the country. While the French occupation brought with it the winds of change and progress, this did not necessarily improve conditions for the Jews. It had nothing to do with persecution or discrimination, quite the opposite. The liberal economic policies pursued by France threatened the source of livelihood for many local artisans in the colonial period, at a time when most Jews practiced minor crafts such as leatherworking, goldsmithing, food preparation and various services.

Local consumers were now able to buy significantly cheaper imported goods, reducing the need for local artisans. Some of the country’s traditional professions actually collapsed due to the tough competition from abroad. Others only managed to survive because they sold their goods and services mainly to the Arab population, and not to Europeans who flooded Morocco following the occupation. One can assume that this is the reason why, from the colonial period, the proportion of Jewish merchants rose to 50 percent of Moroccan Jews, while that of artisans dropped to 38 percent.

Historians of the period have grappled with the question of which artisans managed to maintain their source of livelihood despite the fierce competition from the West. The fate of one particularly dominant area is quite clear: when the Jews left Morocco following the establishment of the State of Israel, the local goldsmithing industry practically disappeared, and Moroccan immigrants and Morocco’s Arab population repeatedly claimed this to be the case.  Even today, visitors to Morocco say that local goldsmithing has been unable to recoup its former success from when the Jews worked in the field, despite various attempts at its revival.

A Jewish coppersmith

A great way to learn about the crafts of Moroccan Jews is to explore photographs from the period. One of the most important collections in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (at the National Library of Israel) is the JCA Archive (Jewish Colonization Association), founded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The JCA was established in the late 19th century in order to help solve the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe, with most of its efforts centered on re-settlement in Argentina. However, during the 20th century, the organization became a philanthropic foundation supporting various projects throughout the Jewish world. Among other activities, in the early 1950s, the organization supported Jewish artisans and farmers in Morocco. Many photographs documenting artisans are preserved in its collections. The photographs in this article show Jewish artisans from 1953, probably from Casablanca, engaged in traditional crafts such as copper engraving, shoemaking, sewing and leatherworking.

Help us identify this artisan’s profession. Write us in the comments section!

 

Further Reading:

Shai Srougo, “The Social History of Fez Jews in the Gold-Thread Craft between the Middle Ages and the French Colonialist Period (16th-20th centuries)”. Middle Eastern Studies. 54 (6) (2018): 901-916.

Shai Srougo, “The Artisan Dynamics in the Age of Colonialism: The Social History of Moroccan Jewish Goldsmiths in the Inter War Period”. European Review of History. 21 (5) (2014): 671-690.

אליעזר בשן, אומנים יהודים במרוקו במאות הי”ח-י”ט על־פי תיאורי נוסעים ומקורות יהודיים. בתוך: יהדות צפון אפריקה במאות י”ט-כ’. עורך: מיכאל אביטבול (מכון בן-צבי, תש”ם).

ירון צור, היהודים בתקופה הקולוניאלית. בתוך: קהילות ישראל במזרח במאות התשע-עשרה והעשרים: מרוקו (מכון בן-צבי, תשס”ד).

 

Six Friends, One Immortal Bond

On the eve of World War I, a group of Polish yeshiva students signed a pact to make their friendship everlasting...

"We open our hearts completely to each other... there are no secrets between us" (Image: Colorized photo of young men in Będzin / The Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Archive, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

On February 5, 1914, mere months before the shadow of World War I settled over Europe, six young men gathered to discuss friendship and love. These passionate yeshiva students in Będzin, Poland, aimed to immortalize their friendship by establishing the “Beloved and Gracious” association.

Title page of the association’s “Golden Book,” which includes its purpose and rules

Joining was a lifetime commitment, and according to rule 26, opting out was not an option:

“Each and every one, once he signs in his handwriting […] he is thereby considered a member of the association, and he cannot remove himself from it […] and even if he fails to follow some or all of the rules, he is considered to be only rebelling from the great idea of the association, yet to be considered liberated from the association is impossible.”

In order to cement their bond and establish their association, the friends composed “The Golden Book of the Association”, a large notebook containing objectives and 31 rules, written in Hebrew and intended to make sure that the association would endure and realize its purpose. The innocence and optimism conveyed within its pages, on the eve of one of the darkest periods in modern history, is striking.

The young men, whose ages ranged from 18-23, saw the darkness waiting for them outside the walls of the study hall, and searched for a way to make the transition to the real world more bearable through love and friendship. They rejected the cynicism and loneliness that they saw around them, and wished to offer an alternative, in which all group members would be vulnerable and mutually committed.

They saw the current reality as one in which:

“Each and every one carries on his shoulders his burden of desires and goes about his way. No one enters the mind of the other […] no one desires to enter his friend’s threshold, to see, to look, and to participate in his joy and sadness.”

The future only seemed to them dimmer:

“We will now paint our foreseeable future […] we are Torah-learning young men, what will our future be […] our lives flow in a simple and predictable path. After getting married, each of us becomes a different person. Life, sometimes sad and usually full of worries, begins to change him […] the years pass […] and all the hopes and dreams that he had hoped and dreamed in his youth […] the wind has carried away, and they are gone.”

According to the association’s founders, when life becomes harder to bear, the adult sadly remember the peaceful days of youth:

“…days in which he was most joyful, in which he was surrounded by a wide world of hopes and dreams… And he then says to himself, this friend who was close to me like a brother, attached like a wick to a candle, is now so far away. Now he does not participate neither in my joy nor in my sorrow […] anyone with a heart will feel his chest tighten and his soul fill with gloom, when he looks back on the days of his youth and remembers his friends […] with whom he had grown up, learned, and dreamed.”

Thus, to prepare for the future and prevent that loneliness and grief, the six friends decided to officially seal their commitment to each other:

“Before we part from each other, before we go out into the world […] now, as the spark of our friendship has not yet burnt out […] now we wish to establish and perfect the “Beloved and Gracious” association […] one association which will bind and connect us for the rest of our lives […] we open our hearts completely to each other […] there are no secrets between us […] this association concerns mostly the future rather than the present. To take part in [each other’s] joy and sorrow, and in all affairs, including finances and advice.”

 

“Declaration of intent” appearing in “The Golden Book of the Association”

The rules included commitments to help each other; to be bonded closely just like brothers; to take interest in each other’s situations; to write letters to each other, and at least once every three months to send a letter to the chairman detailing one’s life affairs; to take part in family celebrations; to visit each other as much as possible; to gather when one of the friends requires special assistance; and in conclusion: “to be beloved and gracious to each other with the love of David and Jonathan, independent of all else, for the rest of our days. A true love which rises from the depths of the soul and the breadth of the heart”.

The rules of the “Beloved and Gracious” association
The association’s rationale and objectives, along with the signatures of the association members

“The Golden Book of the Association” was signed by all six members, with some of them offering a few personal details as well. The members were: Ze’ev Yaakov son of Moshe Watinsky (born 1891), Yeshaya Yona son of Shimon Yehuda Pszenica (born 1896), Chaim Yitzchak son of Alter Shmuel Welner (born 1896), Asher Arye Langfus, Yom Tov Lipa Rotenberg, and Moshe Betzalel Zeidman.

What became of the association and its members?

Did they keep their bonds of love?

We know at least a bit about two of the friends. Yeshaya Yona Pszenica took part in establishing a branch of the Noar Mizrachi religious Zionist youth movement in his town after World War I, and a few years later he took a position as the principal of Yavne, a school in Działoszyce, a town near Będzin.

As a principal, he was described as “very devoted to developing the school. The school was spotlessly clean and organized. The lessons were run punctually, in accordance with the schedule” (Yizkor book of the Jewish community in Dzialoszyce and surroundings, p. 116).

Yavneh School picture, ca. 1930s (Ghetto Fighters House Archive / Public domain)

Yeshaya Yona, his wife Chana, and his daughters Esther and Shifra, were all murdered at the Belzec extermination camp.

Chaim Yitzchak Welner met a different fate. He died in old age, in Tel Aviv in 1980. According to the Encyclopedia of Religious Zionism, Welner was also involved in establishing a branch of Noar Mizrachi in Będzin in 1918, and was also chosen for the central committee of the movement in Poland.

In 1925, he moved to the Land of Israel but had difficulty settling in, and decided to move back to Poland. Ten years later he made Aliya again and settled in Tel Aviv. Though he was a learned and knowledgeable Torah scholar, he refused to make his living from being a rabbi, and worked instead as a clerk.

Chaim Yitzchak Welner

Interestingly, there is a difference of more than one year with regard to Welner’s date of birth in the book and what appears on his gravestone.  In the book, it appears as the 23rd of Tammuz, 5656 (July 4, 1896), whereas on his gravestone it appears as the 2nd of Tammuz 5655 (June 24, 1895). The latter seems to be more reliable, as it was written when Welner was young.

Welner’s date of birth as it appears in “The Golden Book”
Welner’s gravestone

Welner’s two sons became quite prominent figures in Israel: Alter (1923-2020), who was a journalist and one of the founders of the “HaTsofeh” newspaper, and Simcha (1931-2011), who was a nuclear physicist and taught in the department of mathematics at Bar-Ilan University.

 

The Golden Book of the Association” was recently acquired by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. It provides a glimpse into the group’s touching and optimistic innocence in early 20th century Poland.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

A Letter from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to His Wife Constanze

The intimate letter, written in 1790, a year before Mozart's death, offers a glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of the legendary composer

It wasn’t easy being a late 18th-century celebrity superstar…

Despite his copious amounts of talent and fame, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in constant pursuit of financial resources, which could help him fund the costly lifestyle he had grown accustomed to. During the later years of his tragically short life, he traveled to numerous locations across central Europe, performing concerts in the hopes of receiving generous payments, as well as further invitations to still more performances and events.

In September 1790, only a year before his early death, Mozart traveled from Vienna to Frankfurt am Main at his own expense to a most special event he could not afford to miss: the coronation of the new German Emperor Leopold II. After arriving in the city, he wrote a letter to his wife Constanze describing his journey, which took him ‘only’ six days. Frankfurt and its suburbs were fairly crowded: “We are happy that we were able to get a room”, he wrote in his letter.

The letter by Mozart to his wife, signed – Ewig dein Mzt (“Forever yours, Mzt [Mozart]”) September 28th, 1790. The National Library of Israel collections. Click on the image to enlarge.

The letter provides insight into Mozart’s impressions of the trip, which passed through a number of cities on the way. These include the composer’s delight at his comfortable carriage (“I’d love to give it a kiss”), the wonderful food in Regensburg – “we had a splendid lunch, godlike table music, an English waiter and a fantastic Moselle wine”, as well as the coffee in Wurzburg. He was less impressed, however, with Nuremberg – “an ugly city” – and he was convinced that the inn-keeper in Aschaffenburg had cheated him.

In contrast to these details concerning his lavish lifestyle, Mozart did not write much about the actual purpose of his travel, which was the concert he gave on the occasion of the coronation. He did not refer to the event, nor to the program (the famous “Coronation Concerto”). He simply wrote: “I am determined to do my work in the best possible way”, before finishing his letter with financial matters. If not for Mozart’s signature at the bottom, it would completely lack any indication that it was written by one of history’s greatest composers.

Girls’ Day: Celebrating Girl Power During Hanukkah!

This is the story of a holiday that originated in the Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East and its revival here in Israel

For more than a decade, Eid al-Banat—Girls’ Day, also known as Rosh Hodesh L’Banot—has been observed across Israel, in a variety of settings and usually in large gatherings. The holiday is celebrated on the seventh night of Hanukkah, which falls on the eve of the first of the Hebrew month of Tevet. For this reason, the festival is customarily linked to the crowning of Queen Esther which, according to tradition, took place on the first of Tevet. But Girls’ Day is actually associated with not one, but several different Jewish heroines, including Esther, Judith and Hannah, who each saved their people from danger. (Queen Esther, who saved the Jews of Persia; Judith, who slew Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar’s general; and Hannah, daughter of Mattathias, who encouraged her brothers to rebel against the Greeks, sparking the Maccabean Revolt.)

Celebrating Girls’ Day in Israel. Photos courtesy of Esther Dagan Kaniel

Although the holiday’s origins are commonly (and perhaps retroactively) attributed to the Bible and the Jewish Apocrypha, the modern observance of Girls’ Day was preserved in the communities of North Africa and the Middle East: Tunisia and Libya, Djerba and Morocco, Algeria and Turkey and Salonika (Thessaloniki). The number of communities that celebrate the festival attests to the rich and varied traditions that surround its observance. At first, the holiday’s traditions were something of a secret, shared only by women of the observant communities, but soon enough the celebrations caught on and women and their families began marking the occasion openly and publicly.

Writer and storyteller Esther Dagan Kaniel shared with us her childhood memories of Girls’ Day celebrations in Tunisia, which she remembers by its French name la fête des filles:

According to lore, the exiled priests from the First and Second Temples came to the island of Djerba, bringing their ancient traditions with them, among them the celebration of Eid al-Banat. This is what is beautiful about Tunisian Jewry’s traditions; traditions like the Girls’ Day rituals didn’t develop in the Diaspora, but date back to the time of the Temple.

On Girls’ Day, mother would recount the heroism of Judith, who saved the people of Israel, and Yael and Queen Esther, who was crowned queen on this day. It was no different from other holidays, for mother associated each holiday with a different character. For example, she said that the person who fasted on the Fast of Esther was able to “taste” some of what Esther experienced.

When I long for Tunisia, I long for the Land of Israel. For me, it is the longing for our synagogue, for our community. When I came to Israel, I wanted to be a sabra. At some point, I realized that I had an advantage—the two worlds live within me in perfect harmony.

In an article by scholar Yael Levine, we learn of how each North African Jewish community celebrated female empowerment: in Tunisia, Jewish girls would exchange gifts and food and refrain from work on this day. In Libya, the young girls would visit each other and throw a joyous party. On the island of Djerba in Tunisia, unmarried women also celebrated the holiday, which was thought to bring good luck for a successful match. In addition, a special celebration was held for couples engaged to be married: In the afternoon, the bride-to-be’s family would bring the groom’s family a tray of sweets, and in the evening, the groom would reciprocate by bringing gifts such as perfume and jewelry to his bride’s home. Later, his relatives would join and the two families would conclude the evening with a shared festive meal. It was also customary in Tunisia to celebrate joint bat mitzvah parties on Girls’ Day. Some would even feast on meals of milk and dairy products, presumably to commemorate the heroism of the biblical heroine Yael, who slew the Canaanite general Sisra after sedating him with milk.

Storyteller Shoshana Krebsy told us about the holiday’s significance in Morocco. According to her, Girls’ Day celebrations on the first of Tevet were less common in Moroccan communities for the simple reason that a similar celebration was held on the first day of each and every month of the Hebrew calendar. According to Shoshana: “In patriarchal societies and families, women needed to be able to express their feelings, and female circles formed as support groups for women, and especially for young brides. Thinking about this ceremony, it’s really a kind of contract among women—a sisterhood.”

On the first of the new month, the women would to meet in the hamam (bath-house). There, they would ask forgiveness in unconventional ways:

Either the midwife or the healer would lead a ceremony in which two friends who have quarreled must recreate the argument right there in the hamam. Then the arbitrator, the same midwife or healer, decides who of the two needs to apologize. The reason for the ceremony is that the beginning of a new month is considered a kind of “little Yom Kippur”, on which Moroccan women celebrate their own holiday and create support groups. Women would plan the monthly agenda and assign tasks—who is responsible each day for helping the new mothers who have given birth, who brings refreshments, and who visits the families in mourning, among other things.  The forgiveness ceremony is meant to resolve tensions so that the community of women can help each other.

The holiday is bigger than you think: on the first of every month, the ladies would meet at the home of the wise woman where they would learn the secret of a special dish, such as couscous made from medicinal plants and beef bone marrow. Part of the ceremony was the initiation of young brides. The ceremony included songs of desire—bawdy, salacious compositions dedicated to love and sexuality. Whoever didn’t share her troubles wasn’t invited to the next gathering…

The descriptions above indicate that Girls’ Day is a celebration of mutual support and peacemaking. The historical record corroborates this: songs documented in the Thessaloniki community preserved to this day also share the theme of celebrating peace and reconciliation. The girls would sing in Ladino: “Peace, peace, on the life of [= I swear on] the Father’s locks [the Christian-Orthodox priest who refrains from cutting his hair], may we not quarrel until [next]Hanukkah!”

 

Thanks to Yael Baruch, Heli Tabibi Barkat, Yael Levine, Esther Kaniel Dagan and Shoshana Krebsi for their help in preparing  this article.