This is the story of a young Jewish girl born and raised in Morocco in the late 1940’s. As the girl’s amazing life story unfolds, the reader is offered glimpses of the colorful heritage and lifestyle of the Jewish communities in Moroccan cities and particularly in Marrakech. Superstitions and values, innocence and corruption, equality and social snobbery, arranged marriages and intermarriage – the book opens up a complex society full of contradictions and fascinating, steadfast customs.
“During the Second World War, the majority of the Mellah community was extremely poor and could hardly subsist independently. It was rare for a house to have electricity and running water. On the Mellah’s main streets, water vendors who offered to carry heavy pails for a pittance permanently flocked beside the water pumps serving the community. Life was grueling; some families went to bed with empty stomachs. They could be seen lining the cemetery’s walls, begging for money and food.”
The story begins with the unwelcome birth of a baby girl to a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. Subsequently, the woman marries another man (who later proves to be an abusive alcoholic) who brings further suffering and heartbreak to the child’s life. Her paternal grandfather is the community’s rabbi, a wealthy and powerful man, but he too ignores this unwanted granddaughter and ensures that her errant father need not accept responsibility for her everyday expenses. Marie’s main pillar of support is her maternal grandfather, who loves her deeply, but is too ill to fight her battles for her. “Life my dear, you enter it from one gate completely naked and exit it, as naked as you came in, through another door. The journey from the entrance to the exit is what we commonly call ‘the adventure of life,’ in which we are expected to behave, distinguish ourselves, and act according to our conscience and beliefs. Money, luxuries, and power are only tools used by the creator to test our behavior and judgment. In fact, the glamour of fortune may blind us. Instead of using our funds to improve our own lifestyle and that of others, we often use it to put pressure on the lower levels of our society. This is absolutely wrong.
“See,” this wise grandfather went on, “up to now, no emperor, king, or rich celebrity has died differently than the most impecunious person. Wealthy societies misinterpret the real objective of fortune and power. God intentionally gave us free choice, enabling us to independently use our assets and domination. Don’t allow this to mislead you. This is only His way of testing and unveiling our genuine value. I know that sometimes in your little head you have many conflicts that could change the direction of your preconceived intentions. Your strength and opposition to these feelings will defeat them, and you’ll come out of it victorious and content. This will be your real reward. It will bring indisputable power and richness.
As she matures, it becomes clear that she is extremely clever and talented. Although she is placed years ahead in the school system, her classmates are reluctant to accept her because she is far younger than they are. Despite her emotional upheavals and personal suffering she remains pure, innocent and uncorrupted. She staunchly opposes the cold indifference of the rich Jewish elite to the suffering of the poorer classes. She chooses to ignore the malicious gossip rife among the wealthy families and pays a high price for her independence and zeal.
During Marie’s childhood, the Jews of Morocco are forced to face a dilemma; should they move to the fledging Jewish state of Israel that is embroiled in a grueling battle for this existence of should they stay where they are; will the Arab rulers turn against them because of their religious convictions? Many of the Moroccan Jews are descendant of Jews who fled persecution in Europe centuries earlier. Marie watches as hundreds of them clandestinely leave Marrakech, the city of her birth, and other Moroccan cities, for the State of Israel. Have they made the right decision or will they live to regret it? Can the Jews remaining in Morocco sustain the vivid Jewish heritage that has developed over the centuries?
This is primarily a novel about the coming of age. The book also records the slow death of a rich civilization and heritage that diminished due to overt discrimination, desertion and rank poverty.
With the creation of the State of Israel, in 1948, and its recognition by the United Nations, the Jewish Agency extended its connections among the Jewish population of the North African States. These representatives were determined to gather all of the dispersed Jewish communities in the Diaspora and help them immigrate to the “Promise Land, Israel.”
Through her youthful but discerning eyes, we observe both Moroccan Jewish society and subsequently the young Jewish state. Marie grudgingly agrees to visit her estranged father in Israel. At her side, the reader travels throughout the new country and learns of its difficulties and challenges when attempting to absorb Jews from all over the globe. Moroccan Jews, she is warned, suffer labeling and discrimination because of their Sephardic roots as well as many erroneous generalizations attributed to them.