MELILLA, Ciudad autónoma de España (North Africa) — In a way, it’s still 1492 in Melilla. There are no mezuzot on the doorframes of the synagogues or the Jewish-owned shops. In fact, there are no markings at all. If you don’t know where they are, you don’t know where they are.
After the expulsion of Jews from Spain five centuries ago, a few dozen managed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and take refuge in Melilla and Ceuta, two fortress towns that the King of Spain was establishing in order to protect the southern frontier. Today, the autonomous Spanish cities on the northern fringe of mainland Africa are still jealously guarded. What the Spaniards refer to as “Spanish Morocco,” the Moroccans simply call “Morocco.” The territorial disputes have long been a thorny issue, and it flares up from time to time.
While Jews on mainland Iberia were forced to convert or be killed, the Jews who settled in Melilla (and Ceuta) were largely left alone by local bureaucrats. The cities became sorts of “religious free zones,” if you will, places where to this day Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews live mostly in harmony.
But those first Jewish arrivals certainly kept a low profile for drawing attention could have had serious consequences. In some ways, that avoidance of attention is part of the psyche here.
It is unfair to say or suggest that Jews in Melilla live underground. They most certainly do not. Many, like my contact Mordejay Guahnich, founder and president of Asociación Socio-Cultural “Mem Guímel” which aims to document and disseminate the history of Jewish Melilla, walk the streets wearing kippot or big black hats. The flashless fashions of both the men and women don’t look much different from other observant Jewish neighborhoods around the world. Upon closeup inspection, the beautiful Jewish Community Center building has a mezuzah on its main entrance door as well as a small posted notice clarifying the building belongs to the “Israelita Community,” and Or Zaruah Synagogue is adorned by numerous Magen David. The butcher stores have “kosher” written in Hebrew on their shop signs. Most Saturdays, after morning services, community members gather openly to chat in Hernandez Park, the city’s eminent public gardens.
I MET MORDEJAY outside the Or Zaruah Synagogue at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday. I had incorrectly assumed that I was going to be photographing the synagogue. When a busload of tourists poured in, I realized it’s open to visitors at that time, most of whom are in town only for the day or a night on a cruise ship port of call.
“I can’t work with all these people here,” I explained to Mordejay. “I need photographs of the shul without people [certainly not a bunch of sloppily dressed, water-bottle toting tourists].”
I decided to make use of the time by attempting to photograph some of the details figuring that I’d save some time when I come back later without the people there.
I would never return.
The city’s principal synagogue, of the six that remain out of as many as 19, is privately owned, as are all the others. Mordejay later gave me some disappointing, if confusing, news.
“The owner does not allow you to take photos.”
“Huh? But all the tourists were there taking photographs earlier. Why am I not allowed to take photos too?” I responded incredulously. “That makes no sense.”
“That is the way [the owners] are,” he said.
1492. There’s that psyche.
MELILLA’S SEPHARDIC JEWISH POPULATION peaked in the 1960s with about 1,000 souls. Today there are some 300~800, depending on whom you ask. Many have left over the years for reasons that are hardly surprising: better economic prospects elsewhere and a rise in anti-Semitism.
“In the past,” Mordejay told me, “it was always peaceful. We never had any problems. But today, the young people are more and more radicalized.”
“That’s sad,” I replied. “Melilla has so much going for it…We are living in uncertain times.”
Though elements of north Africa are all around — some architectural details (though by and large a Spanish Colonial look pervades), mosques, traditionally dressed Muslims and Berbers, and certainly the summer heat — the Jews here are Spanish, i.e. European, to the core. No one here sees themselves as “African.” In fact, most people in north Africa refer to everyone else living in Sub-Sahara as “African.” Indeed, Melilla is culturally and politically Spain and the flag flies prominently above the Old Town.
I included Melilla (and hopefully, Ceuta, too) in my Jewish Africa project for its geographical and historical African connections. The mixture of Melilla’s soul and spirit makes for an interesting contrast, for sure.
I LANDED IN MELILLA from Madrid an hour late, meaning by the time I got to my hotel, I had 40 fast minutes to sort myself out, freshen up, and be ready to meet Mordejay in the lobby at 7:30 p.m. I made it. Barely.
In August, the sun shrines brightly and hot until late, meaning Shabbat itself does not start till late. After a short stroll around the central streets (everything in Melilla is close and reachable on foot), we went to Isaac Benarroch Synagogue, Mordejay’s usual place. I was immediately struck by the dozens of hanging oil lamps. Today, they are filled with light bulbs, but they are still beautiful when alight.
My presence, of course, attracted many eyeballs, but everyone seemed welcoming. Once the service got rolling, the prayers were chanted earnestly and in such unison that they almost sounded like hypnotic musical verses or incantations. By the time it was all over, I was very hungry and very tired. My day had started at 3:00 a.m. in Madeira where I had a 5:30 a.m. flight to Lisbon for breakfast, on to Madrid for lunch, before finally dining on tapas around 10 p.m. in Melilla. It had been an extraordinary day. I slept very well that night.
I WAS IN NO RUSH the next morning. It was a day off to casually explore the town. Then, serendipity: I started at the tourist information office across the road from my hotel. I asked specifically about any Jewish points of interest. The only one the young man could offer — and it was a good one — was the Museum of Ethnography of the Amazigh and Sephardic Cultures. The exhibits were a bit thin, but the fact that there is a museum dedicated to the history of the Sephardic Jews is significant.
On the way there, just in front of the Old Town walls, I chanced upon a monument to Sefarad (Sephardim). And on the same square, there is also a monument to the memory of Jewish philanthropist Yamin Benarroch. In the Old Town itself there are three former synagogues. They are unmarked, however. Mordejay would like to have plaques put up.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, I was constantly in and out of my hotel as Mordejay created time and photo opportunities for me. One interesting part of town he took me to is the old Barrio Hebreo (Jewish Quarter) with its almost whimsically named lanes of Calle Tel Aviv, Calle Jerusalem, Calle Haifa, and Calle Sion (Zion), now home to a Muslim community.
Funnest of all, was an hour we spent the evening before my departure walking from Jewish-owned shop to Jewish-owned shop to photograph the owners. All but one of the ten shops we visited declined (though she did allow photos of the shop itself). After a crash self and project introduction from Mordejay and me, I took aim at the camera-shy side of Jewish Melilla. Reluctant but willing, they stood at their counters — the butcher, the mini-market man, the hotel receptionist, the perfumaria owner, the cafe baristas. But it was in Tiferet, a women’s apparel shop, that the owner actually started to strike model poses. I thought that was sweet.
I didn’t get to photograph, and, therefore, reveal, nearly as much as of Jewish Melilla as I had hoped to, but without Mordejay’s help and enthusiasm, I’d literally have had nothing. I’ll check in again next century. Perhaps by then, that 1492 psyche will itself have become history.
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