Kosher Hotel Takes Root in Marrakech
When Moroccan-born Israeli chef Mordechai Perez decided to visit Marrakech in search of his roots, he had no idea he would also be making a career move. In short order, he found himself chief chef of Marrakech’s first-ever kosher hotel and restaurant, Primavera, set to open next Monday. “After my mother died, I left Israel,” relates the 44-year-old Perez. “A month ago, I came to Marrakech searching for my roots,” he told Haaretz in October. “I came and I stumbled onto this kosher hotel project. When I got the job as head chef, I decided to stay.”
He came to Marrakech in part to learn about his father’s legacy. “My father was the head of a village 75 kilometers from here. He would come here every day because he was dedicated to the promulgation of Marrakech Jewish life.” Seated in the synagogue seat where he said his late father prayed 60 years ago, Perez shares stories about the Jews who inhabited the Mellah, the city’s Jewish quarter, in the beginning of the 20th century. He is especially moved to be serving the same community that his father, Yaacov, served as rabbi.
To the casual observer, the quarter, which is a short distance from the hotel, reflects the Muslim character of Morocco. Its narrow alleys were flooded with children playing and elders fasting for Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. But on closer inspection, the true nature of the Mellah – in essence, the Moroccan version of the ghettos of European cities – becomes clear. Many of the homes are still decorated with mezuzot and a wealth of other sacred Jewish symbols. “The sign of a Jewish home,” Perez sighs with nostalgia, referring to a mezuzah in a Muslim-owned house.
Today, Marrakech is home to 300 of Morocco’s several thousand Jews. Marrakech’s Mellah, once a vibrant shelter for those expelled from Spain in 1492, recalls an era when both Jews and Muslims were involved in salt and spice commerce, and both lived and prayed within the old city’s thick paprika-red walls.
A veteran of hotel kitchens in Israel and Belgium, Perez will be responsible for implementing all of the kashrut dietary regulations in the new facility. “I am one of the only ones in Marrakech trained to approve kashrut and be a proper shomer,” or kashrut supervisor, he says.
Jews in Marrakech
For co-owner Prosper Kadoch, 43, the new hotel and restaurant, located 15 minutes from the Mellah, is about creating a place for the Moroccan Jewish community as well as “providing a home in Marrakech for Jews worldwide.” In recent years, adds his partner Simon Acoca, 45, “Marrakech has undergone an incredible transition, and it is definitely a tourist hot spot. We are just trying to open the market for Jews as well.”
As one of the most important cities in Africa, there is without doubt a need for real kosher cuisine there, Kadoch says. Mindful of observant guests, the hotel and restaurant will maintain strict kashrut standards. The hotel will also have an in-house synagogue, and will try to meet the needs of those keeping Shabbat.
Although their primary target is Jewish community, the hotel will be open to visitors of all kinds. “What is important is that they understand that they will be complying with a kosher environment,” Acoca says. In addition, the hotel plans to organize sightseeing tours to historical Jewish landmarks and areas in Marrakech. The owners aim to “contribute to a Jewish experience in the middle of Marrakech while still indulging in everything the Maghreb has to offer.”
The question of terror
For some potential visitors to Morocco, the specter of terrorism has been a reason to delay a trip. Limor Azulay, 36, of Jerusalem, concedes that she has been held back from touring Morocco by fear. “My mother is Moroccan, and although I’ve always been interested, I’ve always been too afraid to go,” she says.
The fear was underscored by multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003, whose targets included a Jewish-owned restaurant. The following year, Moroccans were involved in the Madrid train bombings. Mindful of the damage to tourism, the government has since made security – and providing tourists with a sense of safety – a high priority. “When it comes to tourism, there is a certain air of tranquillity in Morocco, and no one is willing to sacrifice that,” Acoca says.
Perez agrees. “Word on the street is that there are little spurts of terrorism, but we know that the king takes care of them silently,” he says. “I have only been here for a month, I go outside of the Mellah and everyone tells me ‘shalom, shalom,'” Perez says. “I speak back to them in my mother tongue, Moroccan Arabic, and they know that I am a Moroccan Jew. I know that there is nothing to be worried about.”
Primavera, 78 Route de Casablanca, Marrakech, Morocco. For more information: www.primavera-marrakech.com.