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Things Jewish

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Matt and I recently returned to Morocco after a long interlude. We had first been there in 1956 serving as officers in the U.S. navy at an air station near what is now Kenitra. Our role at the time was to help guard our ships at the entry way to the Mediterranean and otherwise support the Sixth Fleet. During our two years in what was then called Port Lyautey, we grew to be close friends, a friendship that has lasted for over half a century. I had never known a Catholic as well as I came to know him, nor he a Jew.

Our plane landed in the late afternoon at the airport near Casablanca. I arrived from Chicago and Matt from Madrid. By the time we picked up our rented car and set out for Kenitra, it was early evening, but there was still enough light on the horizon to see dried-clay mosques with their domed roofs in the distance. The allure of observing droves of Arabs on foot along the deserted two-lane highway brought back similar scenes from more than 50 years earlier.

Most of the Arab men wore garments of sackcloth, often with hoods, and trudged along on their sandaled feet. Some were pulling donkeys laden with bundles of grain. Others led camels carrying cruses of oil, honey and flax. Many of the women were covered in a darkened fabric that concealed everything but their eyes and their bespangled and tattooed hands and feet. They were doubtless on their way to pray in one of those far-off mosques or assemble for a family meal of figs, dates and flat cakes of leavened bread heated on an open oven outside the metal shed or tent where they lived.

We spent the night in Kenitra and the following morning drove straight to where the naval base had been. There was still the appealing aroma of jasmine in the air as we approached the main gate, but now under Moroccan military rule it was not nearly as well maintained. When we were stationed there, the buildings, which we could see had now fallen into disrepair, were surrounded by expanses of meticulously leveled lawn, almost like carpeting, and there were date palm bushes and honey-scented pomegranates planted everywhere. No longer.

While serving there in the 1950's, Matt and I would venture beyond the base's confines on days off, hoping to find Bergman and Bogart in some undisclosed hideaway. Instead, we discovered the Jewish community of Port Lyautey. They lived in a separate part of the Arab medina called the mellah. A number of these Sephardic Jews found work on our naval base, which I learned upon meeting one of them, Moishe, who was then the barber at the officers' quarters. I introduced him to Matt, who at that point was developing a keen interest in things Jewish. Moishe quietly told me that, given the end of the French protectorate and the coming to power of the Arab monarchy, most, though not all, the Jews there and elsewhere in Morocco, some 200,000, would secretly depart, mostly for Israel.

On one adventure Moishe had taken us to his synagogue in the mellah. When we entered, we observed the bearded rabbi reciting prayers from an elevated bima and some 15 male worshipers moving about, each at his own pace and in his own direction, intoning a portion of scripture while rocking back and forth and up and down. We stood at a side wall -- there were no chairs on the dirt floor -- and Matt whispered to me that what he was seeing was not unlike portions of the Catholic service back home. Those in the synagogue were dressed in black just like the priests, and just like the priests there were only men.

We reminisced about other threads of our past as we had a dinner of hummus, couscous and Moroccan chicken at an Arab restaurant that night in Kenitra. The next morning we left and headed south, exploring familiar haunts in Fez, Quarzazate and Marrakech. Unlike when we were first there some 50 years before, many travelers have now been to these places so a current description of our visit to them adds little.

Besides, it was our drive back from Marrakech to catch our flight at the airport near Casablanca that evokes the strongest memory of our trip. We were on the desolate highway about halfway there when the car's motor began to sputter and then, as we pulled over to the side of the road, it died. After trying to restart it several times without success, we got out and raised the hood. We jiggled the spark plugs but the motor still didn't start. We looked at each other in frustration and stared at the emptiness around us. There wasn't a camel or donkey in sight.

All at once two men of olive complexion appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. We stepped back in apprehension. They moved directly to the car and, while one of them watched us, the other carefully inspected under the hood. I worried that they were about to steal some part of the engine. They started talking to each other. They could have been speaking the Moroccan dialect of Arabic but Matt, a linguist, assured me it was no form of Arabic he'd ever heard. There were Berbers from the Atlas Mountains who spoke their own dialect but Matt said it wasn't that either. He told me their words did sound familiar to him but he couldn't make them out.

In a flash I sensed what I was hearing. The same guttural tone and nuance is repeated time and again when I occasionally go to religious services. The language is rarely spoken in my home, so I couldn't interpret what they were saying. But I knew the sound. I knew the intonation. I said to them in my halting French, "Je suis Juif," hoping they would understand me, but all they seemed to see were my blue eyes and white face.

It suddenly dawned on me what I should do. Slowly but firmly I began to recite a prayer that almost every Jew has been taught, regardless of how little trained in Hebrew or whether from Russia, Yemen or South Dakota. It is the prayer that reflects the Jewish gift of monotheism conceived thousands of years ago: "Shema, Yisraeil: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad -- Hear, O Israel: the Lord, our God, the Lord is One."

Their Sephardic eyes lit up. They quickly moved in my direction, threw their arms around both Matt and me -- and immediately fixed the car.

Matt smiled as my religious kinsmen warmly gestured to us as they receded into the barren wilderness to an unseen settlement somewhere in the distance. He turned to me and said, "Thank God some of your brethren are still here." We two Americans then drove on, Matt having now added another notch to his awareness of things Jewish.