Mission to Morocco: a trip back in time – Perspectives, by Deborah Corber

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Deborah Corber is the CEO of Federation CJA. In this dispatch she drafts an excellent piece on the evolution of the Montreal Jewish Community into a pluralistic, multicultural yet diverse group that has come together to form a cohesive, modern and progressive community. A wonderful read. Kol Hakavod Deborah.

Every spring my husband, Maurice, and I have the same disagreement: how to choose and organize the colours of our garden flowers. Maurice argues that the more colours the better, while I insist that we need to keep warm and cool colours separate. I now believe that we can put the dispute to bed.

We just came back from an extraordinary trip to Morocco, home of Maurice’s birth. This was my first trip and Maurice’s first visit back since he left, over 50 years ago. As we drove out of the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakesh I was struck by the profusion of bougainvillea falling gently across the retaining walls along the road. And there it was: bunches of bright colours, warm and cool, all mixed together, and utterly breathtaking.

In that moment, I understood that Maurice’s floral preferences were a natural result of having grown up in this environment of bold and exotic colours embedded in the landscape, and all these many years later, embedded in his unconscious memory.

Our trip was a unique tapestry of personal return and communal journey, covering vast geographic territory from the rugged terrain of southern Morocco (which we travelled privately), to the major cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh (as part of Federation CJA’s Mission to Morocco).

We learned about the rich and extraordinary history of Moroccan Jewry – a history that spans thousands of years. About the important and profound contributions of Moroccan rabbis, scholars and philosophers (including Maimonides, the “Rambam”) to our Jewish heritage.

We listened to young children in Neve Shalom Day School recite portions of Megillat Esther by heart, and could only marvel at the skill and enthusiasm of these 6-year olds. We visited cemeteries restored thanks to the dedication of Jewish leadership and support of the Moroccan Government, and lovingly maintained by Berber and Arab caretakers, elderly people who remember the Jews with fondness and respect.

We walked the narrow alleys of the Mellah (Jewish Quarters), most now emptied of Jews, but filled with ancient synagogues and other remnants of the vibrant Jewish life that once pulsated through these streets. We visited the tomb of Solica Hatchuel, a young Jewish martyr, who chose death (she was dragged by a horse through the streets of Fez in 1834) over a forced marriage and conversion to Islam.

We reveled in Moroccan crafts, admiring the workmanship of their rugs, mosaic, bronze, leather and fabrics as we travelled (and shopped) in the medinas (old cities) of Marrakesh and Fez. We delighted at the Jewish artifacts on display throughout the regions of the Atlas Mountains, where Berbers and Jews lived peacefully together for centuries and where our Berber guide said, wistfully, that the departure of the Jews represented the greatest loss that Morocco had ever known.

We were hosted by the Jewish leadership of Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh, and while their hospitality was great, the bleak reality of a dying Jewish community in Morocco was unmistakable.

And what about our financial obligations as part of the Jewish people? Some folks remember when Federation CJA allocations were evenly split between local needs and supporting Israel. Today, that breakdown is roughly 87% local and 13% Israel & Overseas. Some argue that this split is appropriate, given Israel’s relative economic strength today, and growing needs at home. But there is no right or wrong answer here: only trends in the Jewish world and judgments about what is most fitting today.

The history of Jewish life in Morocco is complex and mixed. Although over two thousand years of Judaism are woven into the very fabric of Moroccan culture, those years were not without their challenges for Morocco’s Jews. There appear to have been instances of pogroms during that period, and it is believed that at least 500 Jews lost their lives during the Shoah, which absolutely did reach Morocco in the form of concentration camps courtesy of Vichy France. And while King Mohammed V has been honoured for having protected the Jews from even worse destruction, that legacy is not entirely without controversy.

The Jews who still live there speak of Morocco as a model of Jewish-Muslim co-existence. And yet, Jacky Sebag, the brilliant rabbi who runs the Neve Shalom school confessed that the parents of his students don’t want their children learning Arabic, which is the official language of Morocco. Quite a stark contrast with many anglophone Jewish parents here in Montreal, who, like myself, want their children to master French so that they will be able to thrive in Quebec.

That said, I am neither a historian nor a political scientist. But I do know something about the Jewish community of Montreal. I know that we have been immeasurably enriched by the thousands of Moroccan Jews who emigrated here in the 60s, 70s and 80s. That they brought with them a depth of Jewish knowledge and tradition that has made an indelible mark on the Montreal Jewish community, and of which we can all be proud. That Montreal Jewry is stronger and more vibrant because of them.

This year, I intend to fill the garden with as many bright colours as I can find, hoping to recreate just a little of the splendour that I found in Morocco for our home here in Montreal. Perhaps our garden will become my own personal metaphor for the magnificent diversity of the Jewish people.

Tourism Minister will contemplate promoting Quebec to English-speaking community

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Quebec Minister of Tourism Pascal Bérubé

Quebec Minister of Tourism Pascal Bérubé

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with Quebec Minister of Tourism, Pascal Bérubé.

This 37 year-old cabinet member (the second youngest in cabinet) is not your average PQ MNA.  He is personable, articulate in French and English and down-to-earth.  He is also a good friend to the Jewish community and has visited Israel and has even introduced Israeli culture and society to his constituents in the Gaspé.

Bérubé is also no stranger to Cote Saint-Luc having lived on Old Orchard Ave in NDG.

I suggested to the minister that he consider Montreal’s English-speaking community as a target audience for a “Travel in Quebec” campaign.  So few west-end anglos have visited the many extraordinary regions of Quebec, yet are fluent in the towns, shops and restaurants of neighbouring Vermont, Upstate New York and Ontario.

Informally polling my friends, I wasn’t surprised that none were familiar with the Gaspé, North Shore, Saguenay and most other regions beyond the ski centres and popular lakes of the Laurentians and to a lesser extent the Eastern Townships and Quebec City.

I find Quebec to be a fascinating and extraordinary province, having traveled to every province and much of our own.  The Magdelene Islands is breathtaking, the scenic vistas across the Charlevoix is amazing, the North Shore is remote and isolated while the locals are so friendly.  The Gaspé is a very worthy destination (I traveled there overnight by train once) and the Pontiac in the Outaouais is friendly and great for biking along the mighty Ottawa River.

There are so many wonderful opportunities that I’ve personally enjoyed in cycling, photographing and eating my way across the province I call “notre home”.  From St. Louis de Haha to St. Leonard d’Aston, Entry Island to Chisasibi, the people and places in our very own province are magnifique.

I asked the minister to consider targeting a travel publicity campaign to the huge number of English-speaking Montrealers who have yet to visit the sights within our province.  He found the idea to be of interest and committed to giving it consideration.

I also took the occasion to tell Minster Bérubé that Bill 14 is causing the English-speaking community, and bilingual municipalities in particular, an enormous amount of frustration, discomfort and anxiety.  I urged him to think about what he is trying to accomplish with respect to promoting the French language and to do so in a constructive, positive and inviting manner.  Cote Saint-Luc, and many other cities and towns with bilingual status are strongly opposing this mean-spirited draft law, I said to the minister, and surely it is the job of the government to unite all Quebecers around a common idea rather than continuing to divide them, and even punish some, as is the case with this bill.

Overall, I found Pascal Bérubé to be a fine gentleman, someone really willing to hear the other side.  I could see him rising in the ranks as he gains in experience.

Read more: Canadian Jewish News 2011-06-23 Bérubé

VIA Rail strike a big hassle

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Open Letter to VIA Rail:

I was one of thousands of travellers who was greatly inconvenienced this past weekend when two of my bookings were cancelled due to the VIA Rail strike. Like so many others I had to make last-minute, alternative travel plans. I wasted much of my time and this created a great deal of stress to my travel companion and to me. VIA’s answer to this mess was to announce a 60% Off sale for all travellers, not just those who were abruptly dumped from their bookings. What’s worse is that VIA only offered a 3 days window to make these new bookings, right in the middle of Quebec holidays when so many are away and unavailable to take them up on the offer.

Even worse, VIA’s 1-888 number has been constantly busy and their website crashes, unable to handle the load of new bookings.

VIA should get its customer service on the right track, distinguish between those whose bookings they cancelled from those who are getting in on a good deal and offer a reasonable timeframe for these new bookings, say 30 days.

Published in Letters, Montreal Gazette