Between Lisbon and Marakesh:
The 'Inhabitants' versus 'Expelled' Controversy
Or the case for oral history in education

Marc Eliany © All Rights Reserved

A rift between Spanish-Portuguese Jewish refugees and the old Jewish 'inhabitants' of Morocco in relation to ritual slaughters practices has been used to suggest that the two populations did not mix. However, a massive flow of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal into Morocco and their assimilation into the 'inhabitants' population, with some exceptions, lend credence to the argument that the rift has been exaggerated and that the assimilation has been downplayed.

Historical background

It is quite well established that the origins of the Iberian Jewry was in North Africa and that people went back and forth between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. Most celebrated is HaRambam's travel to Fez to further his education, after studying with Rabbis of Moroccan origin in Spain (Hirschberg, 1965).

There are also occasional references to Morocco and North Africa as centers of refuge for the Spanish-Portuguese Jewry after the 1492 expulsion from Spain and the 1497 forced and massive conversion in Portugal (Hirschberg, 1965, Chouraqui, 1985, Zafrani 1983).

Occasionally, a rift between Spanish-Portuguese Jewish refugees and the old Jewish 'inhabitants' of Morocco in relation to ritual slaughtering practices has been used to indicate that the two populations did not mix. This, I would say, was a research bias due to excessive reliance on rabbinic documentation that reported the rift above and the lack of other empirical observations of everyday life in Morocco.

A good review of historical facts does point to a massive on land flow of Jewish refugees from Spain into Portugal around 1492 mainly due to lack of sufficient maritime means of transportation, impoverishment (and abuse) of the Jewish population around the time of the decree of expulsion, limiting the ability to buy a way out, in addition to constraints on massive immigration to neighboring countries, including North Africa (Hirschberg, 1965, Chouraqui, 1985, Zafrani 1983).

Similar circumstances limited the ability of Jews to leave Portugal in 1497, leading to their massive conversion and the establishment of a significant New Christian population in Portugal.

But life was not easy for the New Christians in Iberia and many sought refuge elsewhere. The tales of Spanish-Portuguese Jewish centers in places such as Amsterdam, Livorno, Sarajevo and Kushta to mention only a few, are well known. But less known is the tale of the massive immigration of Spanish-Portuguese Jews to Morocco.

Many Spanish-Portuguese Jews found refuge in Morocco for the following reasons:
1. Morocco was close and relatively easy to reach by sea at a modest cost;
2. Local Jews assisted their friends and relatives to settle in Morocco;
3. Internal conditions led Arab leaders to sponsor Spanish-Portuguese Jews to settle across the land including remote Southern areas;
4. Spanish-Portuguese New Christians used Spanish and Portuguese ports on Moroccan land, i.e., Mogador, to establish contacts with the so-called Jewish 'inhabitants' of Morocco and settle amongst them;
5. After settling in Morocco, Spanish-Portuguese New Christians returned to
Judaism and assisted their relations to leave Iberia in order to settle in Morocco (Roth 1932, Hirschberg, 1965, Chouraqui, 1985, Zafrani 1983, Fernandes 1980).

The case for assimilation

The question that remains is what happened to all the Spanish-Portuguese New Christians who settled in Morocco. Contrary to widely held opinions, I suggest that most assimilated in the local Jewish population and only a minority kept a distinct identity. The following case study provides some evidence.

According to established oral traditions, Cohanim played an important role in the development of trade and commerce in and around Marrakech since a very ancient time. Leading Cohanim families, among others, participated in the Moors' conquest of Spain and settled there. But family and commercial ties were maintained overtime, even during turbulent times.

Around the time of the expulsion from Spain and following the forced conversion of the Portuguese Jewry, Arab and Berber leaders sought skilled Jewish refugees to fortify Southern Morocco after a period of decline.

According to the same oral sources (1), several families of Cohanim adopted distinct New Christians names such as DeJesus and DeDieu. The Khesus (read Jesus) family, for example, had expertise in silver and gold embroidery and worked for the Glaoui family (governor of Marrakech and Southern Morocco around the independence of Morocco) from generation to generation and could trace their background to one of the New Christian families who were Cohanim before the conversion.

According to the same sources (1), the families could not re-adopt the Cohen status and name because of the 'conversion sin.' Some families maintained the 'Khesus' and 'Dadia' (3) names (Arabic distortions of Jesus and DeDieu) to remember the conversion disaster. Other families adopted Hebrew names such as 'Ben Zikhri' or 'Ben Shoshan' to denote their Cohanim ancestry.

It is interesting to note that most of the families above, with the exception of one (Ben Shoshan) (3) did no longer speak Spanish or Portuguese and one could not distinguish them from local Jewish 'inhabitants.' Among their elders, vestiges of memories were held that relatives lived 'across the sea' (read in Portugal, Spain, Cape Verde and Manchester) but their mention was taboo, probably because the foreign branches lived as Christians (i.e., Corcos and BenSaud as Protestants in Manchester and elsewhere in England as well as DeJesus as Catholics in Lisbon and Cape Verde) (4).

Members of some of the families above were known to live as Jews in Morocco but maintained a Christian lifestyle elsewhere until recent years. In one case, a relative of the Khesus of Marrakech, who lived as a Jew and Cohen in Mogador and who maintained commercial ties with the DeJesus of Lisbon, married in the early 1900's a woman of DeJesus family. This Cohen-Dejesus family settled later in Cape Verde and some of its descendents live in Lisbon, Portugal as well as Ottawa, Canada. Most members of these families remember their origins but live a secular lifestyle, wearing Jewish symbols such as the Star of David discreetly.

Empirical observations and fiction

My play 'Rezadeira' is a fictional creation based on historical readings as well as first hand anthropological research (Da Silva and Benaim-Ouaknine 1996), including interviews with some of the family members mentioned above. In the citation below, taken from the play 'Rezadeira,' a young man arrives to Belmonté, in Northern Portugal in search of the DeJesus family and asks a passer-by: where are the Jews? An old woman, who denies she was Jewish, retired into her basement, lights a candle and begins a monologue/confession. The reply of the choir is an adaptation of a New Christians prayer chanted during secret ritual (Eliany 1992):

"Where are the Jews?"
asks this stranger.

And still some reply
" I am a Jew,"
as if nothing had happened,
as if all had been forgotten.

Forgive me, Lord, if I have said:
"No, we are not Jews!"

Forgive me
if I recited "Our Father in Heaven"
if I ate impure beasts
if I attended mass
if I crossed myself.

Forgive me
For telling my brother
to reject everything.

You know
that he is a nobody, and
that he value not his life
since You have forsaken us and abandoned us
to the Princes that only cherish earthly belongings.


Those that seek
only earthly belongings
know not
that what they own
does not belong to them.

Those that seek
only earthly belongings
forgot their duty
to widows and orphans.

Those that seek
only earthly belongings
sold us as slaves
throughout four corners of the world.

Those that seek
only earthly belongings
are nothing
without good deeds.

Rezadeira continues her monologue

Adonay, G-d of the universe,
knower of all things

You know
that we follow Your path
even if we are lost;
You know
that in our heart we remain still Jews,
even if some of us
have forgotten it,
the others remind us daily.

(For The full version of the play, Please see Rezadeira, Eliany 1992).


In depth research and systematic documentation of Jewish life in Morocco improved in recent years but there is little doubt that the area remains a virgin land, full of blind spots and unknowns. This paper is an illustration how the rift between Spanish-Portuguese Jewish refugees and the old Jewish 'inhabitants' of Morocco in relation to ritual slaughtering practices has been used to convey that the two populations did not mix.

However, our case studies do indicate that Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal in Morocco assimilated into the 'inhabitants' population to a point that only vague recollections of the distant past in Iberia remained alive, with few exceptions, lending credence to the argument that the rift has been exaggerated and that the assimilation has been downplayed.

Finally, the play Rezadeira, is a fictional testimony conveying a reality, which however distant, does provide an indication that most Spanish/Portuguese refugees who settled in Morocco assimilated into the 'inhabitant' Jewish population and hardly remembered their passage through Iberia, with some noted exception.

Sources and notes:
Chouraki, Andre 1985 Histoire des Juifs en Afrique du Nord, Hachette
Da Silva A. and Benaim-Ouaknine E. 1996 La Memoire au Feminin, Editions Images, Montreal
Eliany, M. 1992 Rezadeira, and
Fernandez, L. S. 1980 Judios Espanles en la Edad Media, Ediciones Rialp, Madrid. (Gallimard, 1983 in French)
Hirschberg, H.Z. 1965 A history of the Jews in North Africa From Antiquity to our Time, Bialik Institute, Jerusalem (Hebrew)
Roth C. 1932 A History of the Marranos, Irene Roth (Liana Levi 1992, 2nd Edition)
Zafrani Haim, 1983 Mille Ans de Vie Juive au Maroc, Histoire et Culture, Religion et Magie, G.P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris

 1. Esther Eliany, formely Khesus, interviews in Kiriat Shemona, Israel, recalling oral traditions in Marakesh.
2. Yehuda Dadia (Gur Arieh), interviews in Beth Shean, Israel, recalling oral traditions in Marakesh.
3. David Shoshan, interviews in Casablanca, recalling family relations and oral traditions in Beni Melal, Morocco.
4. Daniel and Theresa DeJesus, interviews in Ottawa, Canada, recalling family relations in Portugal and Cape Verde.

Translation to Spanish and Portuguese, performances and lectures will be most welcome.
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