Festival to celebrate Jewish life in Morocco

Andre Azoulay

TORONTO — An unprecedented Canadian Jewish cultural event under the patronage of the King of Morocco will celebrate 2,000 years of Jewish life in Morocco, as well as 50 years of Canadian-Moroccan diplomatic relations.

The president of the newly established Communaute Juive Marocaine de Toronto (CJMT), Simon Keslassy, said he is thrilled to be joining with Toronto’s Sephardi synagogues to present the weeklong festival, which opens June 4.

Keslassy, who is part of the 18,000-strong Moroccan-Jewish community in Toronto, said Jews have maintained good relations with the largely Muslim country decades after emigrating.

“Morocco is the only country in the Arab world that recognizes Jews as Moroccan citizens,” he said, adding that there are still Toronto Jews from Morocco who collect pensions from their homeland.

“That’s why we have such good relations, and it is the only Arab country that does that… It was also the first country in the Arab world that recognized the Shoah.”

He said King Mohammed VI met with the president of the Jewish community in Morocco last year and pledged to finance the restoration of the old cemeteries when many tzaddikim are buried.

“That’s another reason we’re so grateful,” Keslassy said.

When he was approached by the Moroccan Embassy in Ottawa about organizing an event to celebrate the thriving relationship, Keslassy was eager to do his part.

Throughout the months-long process of organizing and programming the festival, he said he developed a rapport with the Moroccan ambassador in Ottawa, Nouzha Chekrouni.

“She’s a tremendous woman,” he said.

 “She told me that she was very excited about the program, and she said she would ask the Royal Palace to put this event under the patronage of the King of Morocco. This is the first time in Moroccan history that in Canada we have a festivity under the patronage of the King of Morocco.”

Keslassy said similar festivals have been held in other cities around the world, including one in New York that was also endorsed by the king.

“This kind of thing has been done in the U.S., in Paris, in Brussels, in London, England, and I was approached by the American Sephardic Federation to see if we would do the same in Canada,” he said.

Keslassy said the aim of the event – which runs from June 4 to 12 and is sponsored by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Canadian Sephardic Federation, Friends of the Simon Weisenthal Center and other private donors – is to educate the younger generations as well as the Ashkenazi Jewish community, about Judeo-Moroccan heritage.

Keslassy said the first event, to be held at the Sephardic Kehila Community Centre on June 4, is an exhibit that will present a traditional Mimouna, a celebration held the day after Passover that marks the return to eating chametz, as well as a lecture by Université du Québec professor David Bensoussan.

“The general community doesn’t know what [Mimouna] is, so we’re inviting the whole community to teach the Ashkenazis and the young generations about our traditions,” Keslassy said.

The following evening marks the opening of an exhibit at York University’s Glendon College featuring Judeo-Moroccan art and artifacts. The exhibit runs until June 28.

Other festival programming includes an exhibit of a traditional Judeo-Moroccan wedding, a youth conference, an interfaith conference, film screenings and a gala dinner to pay tribute to King Mohammed VI, during which the king’s adviser, Andre Azoulay (who is Jewish), will address the gathering.

A student, Elmehdi Boudra, will lead the youth conference and the interfaith conference.

“That young fellow is promoting the Hebrew language in the universities in Morocco. For me, that was a big surprise,” Keslassy said.

“He put together a forum in the university in Ifrane [in the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco] about the Holocaust, and he brought in survivors from Poland and Germany and this forum was under the patronage of the King of Morocco. We were very happy that the King gave the OK to do this kind of thing in Morocco.”

Keslassy said apart from the gala dinner that closes the weeklong event, all the events, which include cocktail and dessert receptions, are free.

“We did that on purpose so more people will come, will learn about our traditions and give them an opportunity to taste our food,” he said.

“We’re doing this for the young generations, because we have come to the time when the young generation will take over for us and we want them to remember.”

For more information about the festival, visit www.cjmt.org.