Ourika Valley, Morocco
The Tzadik’s Last Berber-Jewish Protector
Hananiyah Elfassie is the last Berber Jew in the Ourika Valley of Morocco's High Atlas mountains, two hours by bus from Marrakech. Though most members of the Moroccan Berber tribes are Muslim today, some North African Berbers, like Elfassie's ancestors, were Jewish before Arab conquerors arrived here over 1300 years ago.
"Fifty years ago," Elfassie remembers, "Ourika had 300 Jewish families. We had two synagogues, Jewish schools, rabbis to perform circumcisions, bar-mitzvahs and weddings, and plenty of kosher food and matzah for Pesach." In those days, Elfassie worked the Ourika Valley's olive presses and traded Jewish crafts with local Berber Muslims.
Then Elfassie's Berber-Jewish family and friends joined a wave of Moroccan immigration to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. Eventually, only Hananiyah Elfassie, his mother Saada, and his wife Yamna remained.
Saada Elfassie was born in Ourika and devoted her life to guarding the tomb of a tzadik, Rabbi Shlomo ben Hensh, dead 500 years but still revered like a saint. Like their Muslim counterparts, who revere each departed holy man, Jewish Berbers always made tzadik commemoration a cornerstone of their religious life.
When Saada died 24 years ago, Hananiyah and Yamna assumed sole responsibility for guarding the Tzadik's tomb, said to be the source of miracles. Yamna died two years ago. The couple never had children. Now, Hananiyah Elfassie is alone with three graves - those of his wife, his mother, and the man they stayed in Ourika to watch: the Tzadik.
Though the Elfassies have long been supported by tzedakah donations from pilgrims who come for blessings and miracles from the long-departed rabbi, few visit Hananiyah and his tzadik these days. Israeli tourism to Morocco halted with the renewed Palestinian Intifada and American and Western European tourism have slowed to a trickle since the September 11 terrorist attacks. But the spirit of the Tzadik has survived many crises during his five centuries interred in the Ourika Valley.
Although Hananiyah often considered making aliyah, his path was impeded by a recurring dream, which his wife likewise experienced. In their dream, a snake appeared and became a staff that blocked their home's doorway. Hananiyah believes this vision was a sign from the Rabbi, who fears his grave will be lost without Hananiyah's vigilance.
Hananiyah Elfassie clings to the hope that Rabbi Shlomo ben Hensh's spell is strong enough to attract new protectors to take his place preserving the Tzadik's memory -- the last vestige of Berber-Jewish history in Morocco's Ourika Valley. It may take a miracle.