Hallowed Ground: National and Otherwise

Oren Kosansky

Shrine of R. Amram Ben Diwan (Asjen, Morocco)
Shrine of R. Amram Ben Diwan (Asjen, Morocco). During pilgrimages, the olive tree within the courtyard withstands towering flames from pyres of candles
underneath. Courtesy of the author.
Is it yet possible to consider the land issue in Jewish Studies without acknowledging, whether in naive implementation or adamant refusal, the totalizing compass of nationalism? Can we think "land" without accounting for the regularized myths of ethno- geographic origin, the telos of the nation-state, the exclusionary practices of citizenship, and the militarization of borders? In our world of maps, geolocation, passports, diplomacy, and warfare can we escape the accretion of national geographies in our consideration of the issue? Would it be enough to catalog all of the various relationships, modern and premodern, that have pertained between Jews and their lands in order to appreciate non- national ways of experiencing, interpreting, and identifying Jewish place? Can we, in the end, decenter the land issue or dispense with it entirely, replacing it with textual notions of a mobile Torah, utopian visions of nonracialized genealogy, or postmodern constellations of identity in which place is one of any number of affective vectors of Jewish identity? Would we want to?

All of these questions have been answered in the affirmative with dynamic and instructive results. If the more ancient cases help us to disentangle land and nation in their modern articulation, there are plenty of more recent examples of Jewish attachment to land that are not entirely constrained by the brute politics of nationalism. An inquiry into Jewish relationships with the land in the present might, for instance, begin with the most local experiences of Jews as they engage with sand, dirt, stone, and water. The biblical overtones of such encounters may not be lost on those involved, even if left unspoken, and it is more than plausible that a genealogy of canonical significance can be traced especially in places deemed sacred. In Morocco, a country rife with sacred Jewish places associated with the hundreds of Jewish communities that once dotted the landscape, encounters of this sort remain common.

Pilgrimages to the shrines of holy men and women, which have sustained my own interest for some time, form one of the most conspicuous channels of travel, narrative, and ritual that bind Jews to their the ancestral towns, villages, and cities. The fact that these holy places are marked by boulders, trees, caves, and rivulets was once taken as evidence of the pagan origins of North African saint veneration. Even a cursory glance at the Torah and the Talmud suggests, more efficiently, an indigenous Jewish source. At the shrine of the revered Rebbi Amram Ben Diwan, there is even the famous tree whose branches continue each year to be engulfed by the flames of hundreds upon hundreds of votive candles without being consumed.

Kabbalistic accents accrue to Moul Djebel El-Kebir, whose grave in the Jewish cemetery of Sefrou sits in the shadow of the Middle Atlas Mountains, where the saint is said to have found refuge from malevolent pursuers. As noted by those who told me this version of the story, the strategy hearkens to the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoh . ai who similarly escaped his Roman antagonists and whose veneration is at the center of pilgrimage traditions in Morocco.

Saint veneration, in short, has provided a vital context through which Jews have experienced the Moroccan landscape as sacred, both through rituals of pilgrimage encounter and narratives of hagiographic miracles. Broader Moroccan idioms of place have also played their part. For one, the homologies between Jewish and Muslim pilgrimage practices and hagiographic tropes are extensive enough to have made the idea of Judeo-Muslim pilgrimage congeal as a fact to observers, commentators, and researchers over the past century. Whatever the problems with this hyphenated nomenclature, there are certain relationships to land that pertain in both cases. For example, there is no mistaking a Muslim shrine, with its characteristic domed roof and Islamic inscriptions, for a Jewish one, often housed within a clearly identified Jewish cemetery and associated with a synagogue. In both cases, however, the pilgrim's goal is often to reach a certain patch of land in which the saint was buried and so find oneself in proximity with his palpable presence, concentrated at the grave and dissipating throughout its physical surroundings. At that singular place, the saint's presence penetrates the living bodies who touch the gravestone, see the light from candles placed upon it, and drink the wine that has been brought into the sacred precincts. Celebrating the anniversary of a saint's death—the hillulah— can be accomplished anywhere, but for pious devotees nowhere is the encounter so intense or the benefits so abundant as at the land in which the saint's body rests. For the faithful, the very land of Morocco is experienced as hallowed ground by virtue of the sanctified bodies that seed its soil.

Pilgrimages provide opportunities for participants to experience their relationship with Moroccan places in other ways as well. Pilgrims who long ago moved to Morocco's major cities (where the few thousand Jews remaining in the country live) or return from France, Canada, or Israel (where most Jews of Moroccan origin newly reside) take the opportunity to visit the settlements in the shrine vicinity, guiding their children through the streets and alleys, forests and fields, hills and homesteads of their ancestors. I have witnessed warmhearted conversations between elderly Jewish pilgrims speaking with local Muslim residents about common memories, shared friends, and altered neighborhoods. During one pilgrimage to the shrine of Rabbi David u-Moshe in the south of Morocco, a woman I knew invited her young grandson to accompany her to the small hamlet in which she grew up. After touring the few lanes that constituted the place, she paused by a source that emerged from the ground to form a small creek. Dipping her cupped hands in the stream, she spoke about the prophylactic properties of the water and insisted that the boy drink as she had in her own youth. Reflecting the logic of pilgrimage, in which sanctity can be ingested in liquid form, the land itself was encountered as a material source of good fortune.

All this is common in the Moroccan context, mediated by a series of Arabic words with which Jews were, and in large measure remain, familiar: 'ayn for water source, bled for ancestral land, baraka for blessed bounty. Indeed, the saint-shrine-pilgrimage complex has emerged as a focal point for imagining the relationship between Jews and the Moroccan landscape, with as many permutations as there are historically situated and politically interested actors. One way of experiencing the hagiographic universe has been, in fact, to defer any singular relationship between saints, pilgrims, and place. Saints buried in one location often trace their biographical or genealogical roots to another. Saddiqim buried in Casablanca hail from saintly lineages from the deep South of Morocco, where ancestral shrines continue to thrive. Other saints are situated in family trees that extend back via the Spanish expulsion to Sefarad. Yet another hagiographic trope involves the rabbinic emissary who arrives in Morocco to collect funds for his yeshiva in the Holy Land. Devotees themselves reenact this saintly proclivity to move through the act of pilgrimage, coming from elsewhere in Morocco, Europe, and Israel to land only briefly at a given shrine before moving on. Pilgrimage defines, in this sense, less a singular attachment to place than a mobile relationship between temporary destinations.

But does Jewish pilgrimage in Morocco hover, evade, or extend effortlessly across the defining limits of a world made of nation-states and inhabited by modern citizens? Of course not. Insofar as shrines are located in a place called "Morocco" (with its full complement of national narratives, symbols, and institutions) and pilgrims arrive from within its borders or carrying the passports of other countries, there is no escaping national framings of the events.

The pilgrimage tours to Morocco organized by travel agencies in Israel over the past several decades concentrate this experience of mobility into packages that include multiple stops at shrines throughout the country. Into the twenty- first century, pilgrimage transnationalism follows the circuits of capital, which have never respected national boundaries.

Within Morocco, Jewish pilgrimages have been nationalized in multiple ways, including their organization within a state-recognized bureaucracy that authorizes, publicizes, coordinates, and manages the events. Government officials attend to pilgrimages as delegates of an inclusive and tolerant state, protective of all citizens within its boundaries. Representatives of the organized Jewish community of Morocco hearken to the primordial installation of Jews in Morocco, their millennial presence in the land, and their enduring attachment to its landscape, made sacred by the eternal resting places of its saintly forefathers. In this imaginary, the relationship between holy land and nation is established in Morocco, challenging the uniqueness of Israel as a sacred Jewish homeland. Land might not only be a national issue, but it is still difficult to imagine a case where it is not a national issue at all.