Moroccan Americans in New York’ Celebrates Mimouna for the First Time

Rabat- Moroccan Americans in New York (M.A.N.Y.), a new cultural non-profit organization, which grew organically out of the significant Moroccan community presence in the city, this weekend hosted the celebration of the traditional Jewish Moroccan holiday, Mimouna, which marks the end of the holiday of Passover. 
While abstaining from consuming leavened bread throughout the 8-day holiday, the tradition has been to bring together Muslim and other neighbors to Jewish homes for a celebratory meal. Families would go from home to home, where neighbors will bring traditional baked goods. Such celebrations also include music, singing, dancing, and a great deal of rejoicing among the communities.
There are various traditions concerning the origin of this celebration; however, in recent years, the celebration has gained in popularity among Ashkenazi Jews around the world – thanks to the large Moroccan Jewish communities – and the festive nature of the celebration. Although currently, the Jewish community in Morocco numbers no more than 5000, the tradition remains vibrant. Furthermore, thanks to the educational efforts of the student-run Mimouna Association, Muslim student groups in various universities across the country are starting to rediscover and enjoy the tradition.

In the United States, Mimouna likewise has been picking up steam in the last few years. Indeed, there is now even an app, that allows people interested in participating in a celebration to connect to Moroccan Jewish hosts. There is likewise no shortage of articles covering celebrations all over the country, even in cities where Moroccan Jewish communities are relatively small.

The interfaith, intercultural, appeal of the holiday is only part of the story; the truth is, there is no shortage of interfaith efforts that go on year around. Yet Mimouna remains distinct and special; it is touched by magic. Precisely because the holiday is specifically Moroccan, rather than yet another generic effort at the Jewish-Muslim dialogue among American communities, many of which are not in touch with their ethnic or religious identities, there is the appeal of a long history and tradition of the holiday.

The question on everyone’s mind of course is: “How did the Moroccans manage to do it so organically, without having to rely on endless lectures on the importance of coexistence and interfaith dialogue?” Indeed, for a nation where citizens of different religious and ethnicities live harmoniously side by side, sharing delicious food, and similar tastes in music and fun, seems like the most natural thing in the world.

For communities, which  live far apart from each other, and which have never shared such experiences to begin with, the continuity of Mimouna may appear mysterious, even miraculous. The Jewish communities in Morocco themselves, however, enjoyed continuity for several understandable reasons.

The more ancient community of the Jewish Amazigh shares the same dialects and customs with their Muslim counterparts, and indeed, at times appears indistinguishable. The highly educated Sephardic Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the 1492, and who found a safe haven in Morocco, led distinct cultural lives from their Southern brethren; however, in the end, they likewise became a significant part of the culture.

Morocco, located at the intersection of three continent, has always been a bridge of different cultures and religions. For that reason, coexistence and tolerance of various backgrounds came naturally; most Moroccans of any background prided themselves on being cosmopolitan and open-minded, frequently knowing multiple languages, and being involved in trade and other activities that made them particularly worldly. Moreover, the King has traditionally maintained a connection with the Jewish community, historically interjecting on their behalf in the instances of anti-Jewish episodes.

The King would also traditionally have a position for an adviser of Jewish background. King Mohammed VI is no exception; his counselor Andre Azoulay, in addition to his financial background, is also known for his cultural patronage and support for interfaith projects. Likewise, Morocco’s new constitution specifically includes its Jewish heritage as part of the country’s identity, and offers it distinct recognition and protection.

Likewise, when the king undertakes personal projects, such as the restoration of the country’s 167 Jewish cemeteries, this example sends a signal to the rest of the country, about the importance of respect for different faiths, and for collegiality among neighbors, despite whatever differences – and because of them.

Indeed, Morocco is both uniquely situated, due to its inherent diversity, and important role as an intercultural bridge – and specifically led in the direction of coexistence. Mimouna arose as a result of these conditions, and Morocco’s history and paths. Such celebrations are possible due to concerted efforts of many generations to continue to learn about each other’s cultures and respect each other’s traditions – and even enjoy them, without sacrificing one’s own distinct identity and religion.

Morocco’s protections for its various groups have been stronger than many, if not to say, most other countries’, historically, not because it was a complete melting pot of assimilated peoples with no strong cultural heritage, but precisely because its citizens have always retained a strong connection to their own communities, while fully embracing a larger national identity and destiny.

To be sure, none of these developments have been straightforward or easy. With the creation of the State of Israel, the majority of the Moroccan Jewish community left the country. Others looked for better financial opportunities in France and the United States. With the dwindling Jewish communities scattered among several cities in Morocco, retaining Jewish customs have been increasingly difficult, and for a while, it seemed like they were at a risk of being forgotten.

At the same time, extremist influences from the outside started penetrating Morocco, and battling these ideological influences, which promote bigotry and hatred, has been a major priority, but also a struggle. Likewise, the Middle Eastern media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict created the potential for additional tension, seeking to inflame passions rather than to inform diverse perspectives on the unfolding events from 1948 onwards. Through it all, however, Morocco never became a tyrannical dictatorship like Syria and Iraq under Ba’ath party.

Jews who have left the country retained their Moroccan citizenship. Many of them, and their descendants, return regularly to Morocco for pilgrimages to religious sites, or to visit remaining family and friends. Increasingly, there looks to be potential for future educational exchanges, and Jewish students coming to spend a semester learning in Moroccan universities.

The country is ripe for investments and opportunities, and being Jewish is not an obstacles. Whether or not some portion of Jews with Moroccan roots will ever return to live in Morocco remains uncertain; however, the constant flow of observant and exploring Jews with a strong connection to their roots and national heritage keeps traditions like Mimouna from dying out. It is in fact the inherently MOroccan element that makes it so strongly rooted and compelling to everyone who partakes on it on an annual basis.

In the United States, by contrast, the holiday seems to have taken on a life of its own.  Besides the fact that most of the American Jewish population is Ashkenazi, and most of the Moroccan communities are concentrated in several big cities, the popular appeal of the holiday is growing even outside the traditional circles.  Cultural exploration is a wonderful antidote to the accusations of cultural appropriations; the more people learn about Mimouna and the special Moroccan heritage, the better it is for everyone.

However, the question is – what happens if the holiday is adopted by groups with separate agendas, not interested in learning about or promoting Moroccan culture and values of tolerance, but rather, content with spreading generic messages, or utilizing the holiday which has been an achievement of many centuries of communal cultural advances, to facilitate soulless and bland imitations?

What if Mimouna, thanks to the disinterest and utilitarianism of cynical self-promoters, is sucked dry of its cultural attributes to become yet another stab at multi-culti interfaith efforts, which mean nothing and everything at the same time? Worse yet, if Mimouna is popularized as nothing more than just another opportunity for Jewish-Muslim dialoguing,  and its background and history are forgotten, will this not go a long way towards cheapening the value and meaning of the holiday, and in fact, being destructive towards the way the holiday’s message is interpreted? Not only Morocco may end up being denied its own cultural heritage, but Mimouna may become so universalized that it eventually becomes nothing more than another commercial occasion for thoughtless get togethers and partying, actually putting off, rather than attracting, potential participants.

In response to first signs of such eventuality, evidenced by groups seeking to host Mimouna with only a hint of “Moroccan flavor” (and no real interest in Jews, Moroccans, or the heart of its traditions),  Moroccan Americans in New York, led with admirable alacrity towards putting it all together on short notice by its founder and president Simo Elaissaoui,  set out to infuse Mimouna, its first event ever, with the depth of Moroccan spirit. Despite being planned as a small private event, it attracted a diverse crowd of Moroccan Muslims and Jews of assorted backgrounds to a lovely restaurant called Bab Marrakech in Brooklyn.  The attendees partook in a delicious authentic Moroccan dinner, followed by the inevitable sweet tea and traditional holiday desserts.

The biggest attraction of the memorable occasion was Innov Gnawa, a Grammy-nominated “Moroccan blues” group based in the US, which plays traditional Jewish-themed gnawa music, along with Itamar Borukhov, a Bukharan Israeli musician, who is considered to be one of the most famous jazz performers in the world. They were quite a treat, and had the whole restaurant either dancing or filming the whole experience on video.

Some participants, filled with joyous Moroccan fervor, even jumped on the chairs, where they continued dancing. The crowd danced like no one was watching (though everyone actually was) and had fun like the holiday would never end. It achieved exactly what it was supposed to do – brought people together to engage in a positive and uplifting experience, while exposing the newcomers to an unforgettable reflection of Moroccan spirit and identity.

Because there is an interest and dedication towards preserving the authenticity of the holiday (as well as giving credit where it’s due), the appeal of the holiday for what it is – a lively, slightly crazy, occasion to fist and rejoice in the end of a somber reflective period – is bound to carry on, grow in numbers and scale, and by next year, attract more people than ever before, not to participate in meaningless symbolic gestures, but to get a taste of the real Morocco, discover something new, and hopefully come back for more.

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