or… distance lends enchantment to the view
דברים שראוים מכאן לא רואים משם
Julian Resnick writes from Israel
So, which of the above is it?
Let’s, just for a moment consider the provenance of the two phrases. We all use hundreds of phrases every day without thinking for a moment where they come from. Such is the shape of any language. Our language use is enriched by reading (somewhat), by good conversation with others (to an extent) and just by use from a young age as we pick up vocabulary and phrases without even being aware of the process.
The first phrase appears in the original Hebrew first, as it is from the lyrics of a popular Hebrew song written by Yankele Rothblit and made famous in Israel by Matti Caspi and Yehudit Rawitz. A bit of context — the lines which precede it in the first verse of the song are (translated as you have dealt with enough Hebrew today), “You took my hand in yours and you said to me ‘let’s go into the garden’.
You took my hand in yours and said, ‘Things that we see from here we don’t see from over there’”.
The second phrase was written by one of the great masters of the unusual and pithy phrases of the English language, Mark Twain. Its context? Well, truth be told, he plagiarized it from the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, who wrote,
“Tis distance lends enchantment to the view
And robes the mountain in its
“Tangent!” you shout. True. But I love to explore the words which I/we, use. It enriches the language we use and enables me/us to become warriors in the ongoing battle for literacy.
I thought of these two phrases just a few weeks ago as I was travelling through Morocco. I have been to Morocco many times — this was my sixth trip — but this one was different. All my previous trips had been with groups, and my role had been to help interpret what they were seeing; to tell the stories of the Moroccan Jewish experience; to help make sense of this gloriously beautiful place, this under-developed place, this place where beauty and poverty go hand in hand, where democracy is only superficial; and everywhere, just below the surface, is the handwork of those whose role it is to maintain the supremacy of the monarchy.
This time it was just the two of us; my wife Orly and I. We were not with a driver or a guide. Morocco was not being interpreted for us. We were on a road trip in a smallish car with our wonderful digital friend, WAZE.
Follow us for a moment: Casablanca, Moulay Bousselham, Tangier, Tetouan, Chefchaouen, Fes, Sefrou, Bhalil, Rabat, Sale, Oualidia, Safi, Essaouoira, Marrakech. Wonderful, romantic, delicious, heady, challenging, overwhelming experiences. In many ways further from our reality than any of the other countries I have traveled in over the years (possibly further even than India or Sri Lanka). And yet, we are connected. Or are we?
In Tangier we cannot go to the Synagogue or the Jewish cemetery as it is Shabbat; so we go to St. Andrews church instead! Why? To see what a minority religious space looks like in Tangier.
In Tetouan we visit the modern Synagogue and it is underwhelming (except for the rather bizarre visual of large rolled up carpets along the walls of the synagogue like a metaphor for Jews long gone, leaving only their carpets behind).
In Chefchaouen we find a street next to the Kasbah called El Mellah (the Mellah is the name for all the ancient Jewish quarters) and it is deserted and filthy.
In Fes we visit the extraordinary Jewish cemetery with its powerful stories and the Ibn Danan Synagogue where we bump into a Jewish couple from New York with a son in Israel. Within two minutes we establish both what we share as Jews and where we differ on Identity and Political questions. You know how it goes: what sort of kipah was he wearing; where does his son live in Israel; from Brooklyn or the Upper West Side. The essential Jewish experience; both binding and immediately finding out what separates us; both ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and ‘No, we do it differently’. We’re a weird bunch. And then we find the building that tradition has as the home of Maimonides when he lived here for about three years in the 1160s, before the persecution of Moroccan Jews began when a new regime came to power (nu, what’s new?) and he had to flee to Cairo. Today it houses a Chinese Restaurant called, you’ve got it, Maimonides. (Just imagine the jingle, ‘Come to Maimonides for the best Chow Mein in Fes’). Perplexed? I might have a guide for you (and I really hope you got this joke!!).
In Sefrou we go to both the Jewish cemetery and the synagogue, and in both we come across something we know to be true in almost every synagogue and Jewish cemetery — the live-in Muslims who look after the place and earn a decent living with both a salary from the descendants of the Jews who once lived there and from us, Jews passing by who want to thank them, even when our grandparents came from Kuperchik (my Zeide), Vilna or Ponevezh. When I was in Kuperchik I could not give anything to the local equivalent as their parents had either helped burn down the shul or just sat and watched in January 1941 as the Germans and their henchmen began to murder us. And there was no cemetery with ancient tombstones either.
In Essaouira we visit Bayt Dakira, and an ironic smile creeps across my face as I witness on the walls the local Jews (once again, few left behind) trying to persuade anyone who enters this rather special little museum of just how loyal the Jews of Essaouira were to ‘King and Country’, literally King Mohammed V, Hassan II and Mohammed VI; what a great contribution they made to commerce and culture.
In Marrakech it’s once again Synagogue and Cemetery (where we meet Chassidim from Brooklyn; Chassidim!!). By the way, in each and every place the experiences are different, and each has a special and different moment to it; but here we also experience something else unexpected. We hear, for the first time, an anti-Zionist diatribe. Up until this point everyone we encountered were lovely to us when we told them we were Jews from Israel; welcomed us and told us how delighted they were with the newly upgraded diplomatic relations (I always tell people when I travel that I am an Israeli Jew, even though I know I could get by as a South African Plattelander). He is not a Moroccan. He is a 91-year-old Dutch expatriate who has lived in Morocco since the 1960s, doing anthropological research on the camel routes between Marrakech and, yes you guessed it (or perhaps you did not), Timbuctoo. For the poetry lovers among you, yes, the two of you, I include the lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson here (the rest of you, please indulge us for a moment),
“Then I raised
My voice and cried, “Wide Afric, doth thy sun
Lighten, thy hills enfold a city as fair
As those which starred the night o’ the elder world?
Or is the rumor of thy Timbuctoo
A dream as frail as those of ancient time?”
As always, I digress. I just wanted to find out whether you too had heard of Timbuctoo as a child and thought, like I did, that it was an imaginary place. When he heard we were from Israel he launched into a rant against the agents of the newly-born Israel, who “stole the young Moroccan Jews with their Messianic visions of a Jewish State”. I did, by the way ask him if he remembered the Jews of Arnhem (his home town) being taken away by the Germans. He remembered watching. It suddenly came to me that he was born in the same year as Anne Frank. Strange what we carry around with us, even in Marrakech in a museum dedicated to the camel routes between Marrakech and Timbuctoo.
So which is the better way to travel in Morocco? With the distance afforded by a large group or from up-close? Is it enchantment we are looking for when we travel or is it to occasionally get a glimpse of the truth? What is a glimpse worth?
What is our viewpoint as travelers? Are we looking from where we are standing at any given moment; or is what we see filtered through that which accompanies us wherever we are? Our personal and national histories? Our big commitments? Our struggles to make sense of the world we live in? Our ongoing search for meaning?
Where is here and where is there? What does enchantment look like?
Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the USA. He works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story). He’s married to Orly, and they have three children and six grandchildren and is a member of Kibbutz Tzora.
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