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Sto­ry­tellers in Moroc­co tend to recre­ate tales of heroes in their own image. In my col­lec­tion, I shed light on how por­tray­als of Seha, a wise fool in Moroc­can folk­lore, have evolved as a result of social change and mod­ern­iza­tion in Jew­ish Moroc­co. Specif­i­cal­ly, I explore Seha’s rela­tion­ship to lit­tle-known aspects of Moroc­can Jew­ish cul­ture, such as humor (exam­in­ing Ash­er Knafo’s Can­tor at the Bath­house and The Can­tor, the Silent, and the Sto­ry­teller in par­tic­u­lar).

Rep­re­sent­ed in Jew­ish, Mus­lim, and Chris­t­ian sto­ries through­out the Mediter­ranean basin, Seha was depict­ed in a vari­ety of ways. In Jew­ish inter­pre­ta­tions, Seha was the prophet Eli­jah, the Baby­lon­ian Rab­bi Yose, an une­d­u­cat­ed spice-mak­er, a saint, a yeshi­va stu­dent, a wan­der­ing mer­chant, a jew­el­er, and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Jew­ish Moroc­can res­i­dents. He also took on many oth­er roles, includ­ing an Amazigh fkih or sage, a folk doc­tor and birth reg­istry hold­er, and a mir­a­cle-mak­ing beg­gar. When my grand­fa­ther, a rab­bi, told me sto­ries, he described Seha as sim­i­lar to him­self. My mater­nal grand­moth­er pre­sent­ed Seha as a socioe­co­nom­ic and polit­i­cal hero — as a reflec­tion of her own prox­im­i­ty to local polit­i­cal lead­ers. My pater­nal grand­moth­er, on the oth­er hand, trans­formed him into a comedic, self-dep­re­cat­ing figure.

In fact, self-dep­re­ca­tion in Moroc­can Jew­ish sto­ry­telling serves as a means of cop­ing with the lim­i­ta­tions of the dhim­ma sys­tem — a Mus­lim law that charged non-Mus­lims a tax in exchange for free­dom of reli­gion and prop­er­ty own­er­ship. Humor in Seha tales lessens the dif­fer­ences between Moroc­can Jews and their Mus­lim neigh­bors, ful­fill­ing a com­mu­ni­ty need to ele­vate the sta­tus of dhim­ma Jews. In some ways, Seha is rem­i­nis­cent of Sam­sa, the pro­tag­o­nist of Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis, who is trans­formed into a despised insect and tries to adjust to his liv­ing con­di­tion (Alt, 2005). How­ev­er, the Moroc­can Jew­ish Seha dif­fers from Kafka’s Sam­sa; even though Seha is laughed at as a clown, he remains a proud, wise sage.

When my grand­fa­ther, a rab­bi, told me sto­ries, he described Seha as sim­i­lar to himself. 

The under­ly­ing nar­ra­tives in Seha tales also shed a light on mod­ern­iza­tion as an autonomous process. The results of World War II gave rise both to Zion­ism and the Moroc­can nation­al move­ment. Many Jews began to leave Moroc­co, hop­ing to achieve eman­ci­pa­tion through ratio­nal demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es in their new home­lands. While they did find progress toward equal­i­ty in West­ern coun­tries, Israel’s advance­ment was some­what delayed.

Despite frac­tion­al­iz­ing pres­sures, Moroc­can Jews in Israel tend­ed to incor­po­rate lib­er­al think­ing into tra­di­tion­al, rab­bini­cal Judaism, in line with the prac­tices of Mai­monides. Israel’s vet­er­an” lead­ers, who were pre­dom­i­nant­ly East­ern Euro­pean, built a soci­ety in which Arab char­ac­ter­is­tics were deval­ued. What’s more, author­i­tar­i­an poli­cies sti­fled grass­roots demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es, result­ing in a fac­tion­al­ized soci­ety against which Moroc­can Jews protest­ed. Dhim­ma Jews rarely addressed these anx­i­eties direct­ly in their sto­ry­telling. Instead, they expressed them through humor so as not to cre­ate ani­mos­i­ty. Seha was assigned ever-chang­ing roles that embod­ied wis­dom, light­heart­ed­ness, and com­pas­sion. The tales along with my com­men­taries fuse cre­ative fic­tion with per­son­al and fam­i­ly reality.

My analy­sis demon­strates that oral tales offer use­ful infor­ma­tion about com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion, eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal con­di­tions, social change, and mod­ern­iza­tion. Moroc­can sto­ry­telling con­tains rich his­to­ries worth fur­ther schol­ar­ly and lit­er­ary explo­ration — and hero­ic Seha, in all his forms, makes for the per­fect guide.

Marc Eliany is the chair­man and founder of the Jew­ish Moroc­can Muse­um and Archive.