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Jewish Journal

Letter from Tangier: Preserving the music of the Jews of Morocco

by Vanessa Paloma

September 13, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Vanessa Paloma

Vanessa Paloma

At 6:30 a.m., I was walking toward Sha'ar Rafael, the synagogue on Boulevard Pasteur, the central drag in downtown Tangier. It is the last synagogue in this community of fewer than 100 Jews, the last one left in this Northern Moroccan port city that at its zenith housed 22 synagogues, had 100 cantors and 50 kosher butchers.

The city was still sleeping; few people were out. The cafés were open, men were sitting at sidewalk tables looking toward the street; veiled women were wearing jalabiyas and hurrying on their errands and a few older Jews were going to Selihot services. As I crossed the street, I met Rabbi Avraham Azancot, president of the Tangier community hurrying up the synagogue steps.

I am in Morocco for five months on a Senior Fulbright award from the State Department and the Moroccan government, researching Judeo-Spanish songs from Northern Morocco for their connection to liturgical poetry and kabbalistic practices. I arrived just two weeks ago and have installed myself in Tangier. Selihot, led by Rabbi Azancot, was very moving, with a piercing shofar that brought tears to my eyes. Later, over breakfast of homemade bread, argan oil and biscuits with coffee, Rabbi Azancot described for me the particulars of the Tangerine community's prayers for the High Holy Days, especially Rosh Hashanah. The Achot Ketana, a piyyut (liturgical poem) welcoming the new year and sending off the old, follows a different order in Tangier than in the traditional prayer book: They sing Achot Ketana first, then the psalm for Rosh Hashanah and finally the Kaddish, to maintain the integrity of saying Kaddish over the holier text, which is the Psalm.

Some of the siddurim, published in Livorno, have both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers together; full of piyyutim sung with Andalusian melodies. Listening with Western ears, the music sounds Arabic, but this music was brought to the communities of Tangier and Tetouan by the Jews exiled from Spain -- with lilting melodies, counter rhythms and many flourishes.

The first wave of Spanish Jews came to Morocco after the riots of 1391, and the larger group came during and after 1492. The expulsion brought scores of people, and later others followed who had thought a nominal conversion to Catholicism could be an easy solution to the persecution but then learned otherwise. Many of them moved to these communities in the North of Morocco, returning to Judaism. The community that predates the Spanish Jews has been here since the time of the First Temple.

Tangier's community is very international and educated, situated at the door between Africa and Europe. Many Tangerine Jews are also Spanish and French citizens, and everyone speaks at least French, Spanish and Arabic; conversations often flow between all three languages. Last Shabbat, at Rabbi Avraham and Ester Azancot's, our conversation was in French, Spanish and Hebrew, and though there was always one odd one out -- I don't speak French, someone there didn't speak Spanish, the others didn't speak Hebrew -- we always had one common language in which to communicate, it was just not always the same one!
Leon Azancot sings piyyutim
Rabbi Avraham's cousin, Leon Azancot, is a great singer and was a professional cantor when he was in his 20s. He is now 80 years old and an expert in Tangerine prayer. I visited him in his insurance office on a second floor at the entrance to the socco/souk (the medina of Tangier), where he told me about the wonderful community that existed here during the days of the Protectorate.

The Azancot's grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Azancot, corresponded regularly with Yeshivat Bet El, the Yeshiva of the mekubalim (kabbalists) in Jerusalem. This is one of the reasons this community has deep connections to kabbalistic practices in prayer and ritual. Leon told me their grandfather passed away on Simhat Torah exactly at the point when the last parasha was read. He was moved to tears when he remembered the funeral of this great rabbi who helped imbue Tangier with kabbalah.

Kabbalah and the kavanot (intentions) behind the prayers as well as the order of the prayers are crucial elements in Tangier liturgy. The forefathers are mentioned many times in the selihot prayers in order of the sefirot (divine emanations). We remind God of our forefathers and how in their merit He should have mercy on us, not corresponding to their chronology, but to the sefira that corresponds to their personality. Abraham is kindness, Isaac is discipline, Jacob is beauty. Josef should follow, being that he is Jacob's son, but he represents sexual purity (foundation) so he is preceded by Moses (endurance) and Aaron (thanksgiving) and followed by David (kingship).

Leon Azancot, between cigarettes, sang some of the liturgical prayers from Rosh Hashanah, with a special love for the ones written by Yehuda Halevi, the poet of the Spanish golden age.

The prayer that has me especially curious is the blessing of the king on Yom Kippur. Moroccan dignitaries are invited to the synagogue, where Rabbi Torjeman will say a misheberach (prayer for healing) in Hebrew and Arabic; they will open the Ark and say a blessing for the king; his son, the prince; and the Moroccan army.

Even though this community is small and growing older, there is a wealth of information, beautiful music and a depth of connection to Judaism that is truly wonderful to be part of. I am most impressed with the respect for the integrity of the liturgy and tunes (los aires/la tonada). I am looking forward to a sweet and wonderful beginning to the year with Tangier's Jews!

Vanessa Paloma sings and plays harp with the Los Angeles-based Sephardic/Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Folk Music group, Flor de Serena (Siren's Flower).

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