The joys of visiting Morocco? One of them certainly is Casablanca. It may not be the prettiest city, but it is busy: busy port, busy streets, busy hotels, busy stores and busy restaurants.
Ah, Casablanca … with its broad avenues, skyscrapers and luxury hotels in the "new city," and traditional, much smaller, block whitish-gray houses in many of the "old city" quarters.
Some 30 million people live in Morocco, 5 million of them in greater Casablanca. It is one of the four largest municipalities on the African continent. Of the 3,000 Jews in Morocco, most live in this city, which means "White House." At the end of World War II, some scholars say that more than 300,000 Jews lived in Morocco, with 70,000 in Casablanca.
Between 1948 and 1968, tens of thousands of Moroccan Jews moved to Casablanca to settle here or await emigration. Eventually, they went to France, Canada, the United States and Israel. Today, you can see many Israeli groups visiting the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout this country.
A few synagogues function every day. One is Temple Beth El, 61 Rue Jaber Ben Hayane (ex Rue Verlel-Hanus), Casablanca. Every morning and every evening - a minyan. Beth El is the main synagogue, and American and Israeli tourists attend services here. The stained-glass windows are very moving.
In an affluent neighborhood - the Anfa section - replete with villas, lies the the King David synagogue.
Demographically, Jewish leaders here worry of the future of Moroccan Jewry, as most young Jews leave to further their education in Europe, Israel or the United States, and many marry abroad, never to return.
A highlight of any visit to Jewish sites in Morocco must be the lovely Museum of Moroccan Judaism, "Le Musée du Judaisme Marocain," at 81, Rue Chasseur Jules-Gros, Casablanca, in the Oasis section. It is reportedly the only Jewish museum in a Muslim country.
Architecturally, the museum is a gem, with a garden, palm trees and a lovely patio. But inside is the real treasure: the artifacts of a once great Jewish home gathered from hundreds of Jewish communities. Even though the collection is still being worked on, a vast array of Judaica is professionally and carefully placed in glass enclosures in the walls.
Torah scrolls, kiddush cups from Fez, Chanukah menorahs, tefillin bags from Casablanca, kaftans beautifully designed and embroidered, and mezuzahs from Essaouira - all make up the collection, open for viewing Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by appointment on Sundays. E-mail: [email protected] .
Until the 18th century, Casablanca was a mere fishing village. Then, it began to boom as the principal port of North Africa. It held a major role in the trading of sugar, tea, wool and corn products to the Western World.
The French, who held a protectorate over Morocco from 1912 to 1956, did much to modernize the city; during and after World War II, many G.I.s were stationed there. In 1943, the Casablanca Conference was held at the Anfa Hotel. The meeting, attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, planned the European strategy of the Allies.
A visit not to be missed is the Hassan II Mosque. This astounding edifice is said to be larger than St. Peter's in Rome and second only to the Mosque in Mecca. Construction took six years, from 1987 to 1993. English-speaking guides are available here.
Dining pleasures: On a Sunday afternoon, it's hard to get a table at the crowded fish restaurant in the Port, frequented by middle-class families speaking French and Arabic. But it is well worth the wait. Ask a taxi driver to take you to Le Restaurant du Port. Except for some very high-end establishments, restaurants are reasonable.
On any trip to Morocco, you should not linger too long. Casablanca is the jumping off point in this land of the Moors. Head to Rabat, Meknes, Marrakesh and beyond to the Atlas Mountains, where, yes, in winter it does snow. Head south to the fortified towns built by the Portuguese, especially Essaouria, now a very "in" place, located on the Atlantic.
Morocco plays havoc with your imagination. Alas, when the trip to Morocco is over, a mirage could appear in front of you, as it often does before a camel driver. For instance, instead of Mohammed V International Airport, I began searching for the small airport and hanger that I had seen a million times in the film "Casablanca." There, out on the tarmac: Bogey, Ingrid, Paul and Claude Raines, who as Capt. Louis Renault gave orders to his police: "Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects."
And there he is: Rick saying to Capt. Renault, in the last line of the movie, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
In Casablanca, of course!
Heritage Tours Private Travel, a destination firm based in New York City that specializes in custom-designed private tours of Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and all of Southern Africa, comes recommended: www. HTrprivatetravel.com.
Royal Air Maroc is the only airline that flies nonstop between the United States and Morocco. The airline code-shares with Delta: 1-800-344-6726; www. royalairmaroc.com/eng.
Ben G. Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine; and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.