Two nights ago I couldn’t sleep. Sleeplessness is a rarity for me. Too much coffee and sugar consumed on my first day in Essaouira? Solstice? Excitement? While tossing and turning I got up and decided to do some research about the Jews of Essaouira. Once a large vibrant community of merchants and silversmiths, now nearly vanished. When I finally gave up on trying to sleep, I mapped out my route and headed for the Mellah neighborhood and the Haïm Pinto Synagogue.
As I walked I thought about how it’s in moments like this when I feel Jewish. When I’m far from anything familiar. If I was traveling in Michigan or Iowa I probably wouldn’t make an effort to find a Jewish temple or cemetery, but somehow in foreign places, it feels necessary. This Friday is the first night of Hanukkah and maybe it would be nice to be with a group of Jews. Maybe, It’s not a major holiday, but this year it falls smack dab on Christmas.
I specifically wanted to be away from Christmas culture this year. Weeks before the Berlin Christmas market incident, I got very clear direction to be nowhere near European Christmas markets. In fact, anytime someone would talk about them I immediately tuned out. I’m not into shopping or Christmas. Grateful to be in a place with absolutely no Christmas anything. That also means no Hanukkah anything. To me, most Hanukkah decor feels like an act of political correctness. That I’ve gotten used to. Here in Morocco, I like that it’s just absent.
The route to the synagogue was blocked due to construction. I started to walk away in defeat. In my few days here I have not yet found my balance with eye contact and chit chat. Everyone wants to sell something and I’ve been warned to not engage. It’s so hard for me to not make contact and smile. I’ve erred on the side of little to no contact so far. On this day, I gave in and started chatting with people so that I could get guidance to the synagogue. I was kindly led around many twists and turns to arrive at a major demolition and construction site next to the synagogue.
I was passed to a kind Muslim woman who took me into the offices and Beyt Knesset. It felt good to go in, like this place and I are somehow connected. I am somehow meant to step into this place as my birthright. I am meant to keep seeking these spaces simply so they remain in existence and Jews are never forgotten in places where we have been exterminated or fled from. Perhaps that was my only reason to be there. To make sure no one forgets, and that people like me keep checking on places like this all over the world. Having this realization helped me end some of the internal conflict I sometimes have about my lack of temple membership or attendance. I don’t want to fight with myself about going to services, not knowing Hebrew prayers, or feeling anything more than this deep knowing that is encoded in my cells.
My Muslim lady guide whipped open the ark to show me two Torah scrolls and had to run off to take a call. I knew I only had a few moments here as she was eager to keep moving with her day. I took a lot of photos and deep breathes. When she returned she said they sometimes have services if enough people show up for a minion. At least that’s what I think she said with my limited French and even more limited Hebrew. She said they are expecting an international group to attend services for Hanukkah. She was told people are coming from Israel, Brazil, and America. Somehow I felt some excitement about this like I needed to attend. She then took me into the room where the women gather. I’ve never been orthodox, and this way of being Jewish is as foreign to me as being Muslim is foreign to me. Still, I felt some excitement about Hanukkah.
We walk out together and she explained to me how to get to the Jewish cemetery. I wasn’t planning on going to the cemetery. It wasn’t something we spoke about, and somehow I was directed. I went. As I stepped out of the medina walls for the first time in days I looked down at my phone to check the map. At that moment a dear friend was texting me, and I was excited to share with her my connection to something Jewish. “They are super into graves there too.” she writes. “Send me some things you’re writing while over there, would love to see.” she writes. (Note: She's actually a writer. Click here to see the connection)
I get distracted from writing by experiencing. I get distracted from experiencing by texting. Getting my ass seated and my mind focused apparently requires travel to many countries, packing and unpacking constantly, searching for ways to do laundry, stay hydrated, nourished, and trusting I will always be able to hold it until a toilet appears. I digress.
I arrived at a set of large blue locked cemetery doors at the end of a long cement wall, and again, was about to give up when someone behind me said something in Arabic. I turned around and a guy sitting in the back of a parked taxi motioned for me to knock hard on the door. My knock was heard and the big doors opened. I approached an expanse of flat gravestones in a raised field with the waves of the Atlantic ocean crashing at its western edge. A magnificent place for an empty body’s long rest of time. Some gravestones had long writing in Hebrew, which I later learned are poems. Some gravestones were blank, and some had figure drawings that I’ve never seen before. As I walked among the stones I was overcome with emotion, and tears began to pour. I picked up some small loose stones and placed them on graves as if they were the graves of my father and brother. I miss them both so much and being in this place called them both in.
I went into the memorial room at the center of the cemetery and had a few moments alone to breathe and take it in. There were three other people in the cemetery while I was there. I watched them go to a far corner and lean into brick windows. I thought maybe it was an information station, so I headed over. As I approached I realized it was not an information station, it was something I’d never seen and seemed to have some religious significance. It was la large chimney with three caverns. I asked one of the Hebrew-speaking women what they were doing and they explained that they light candles to honor the big rabbi who is buried here. She went on to explain that it is a Jewish tradition in all cemeteries to light candles in this way to symbolize the light of the soul glowing and rising in the universe, in the same way we light Shabbat candles. I had never seen or heard of this tradition before. We don't have anything like this in the cemeteries where my grandparents, father or brother are buried in the U.S. Well, at least I’ve never seen it or heard of it. She offered me a candle. Without thinking I leaned in and said my own prayer for my father, my brother, the people of Aleppo and all those who have died in wars and acts of violence this past year. May the light of their souls go on.
So this year for me, the light of Hanukkah has taken on new meaning. For me, I will light candles to remember the eternal flame of the souls that have left. I will light candles to ignite my own bright light of love and peace. I will smile at the thought of Jews around the world lighting candles on these nights, and at moments of reflection and memory.
Happy Hanukkah friends and family. Thank you for your love and support. I’m taking it in and sending it back brightly.