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The Fascinating Tale of the Jews of Melilla

Miguel González Novo

A modest placard beside a storefront door announces the existence of the Beth Minzi Synagogue in Torrremolinos on Spain’s Costa del Sol. It is a Friday night in late February, and some twenty men, a few fathers with young sons, and three women assemble in the small sanctuary while the Moroccan-born rabbi/cantor, natty in a trim black beard, long gray coat, and black homburg, begins the Sephardic service. During the next two hours, men in the congregation ascend the altar one at a time to sing a portion in Arabic-sounding melodies until a spirited rendition of Leha Dodi (Welcome the Bride of the Sabbath) concludes the service.

“You should come tomorrow morning when we get a much bigger crowd,” says Victor Alberto Pinto, a youthful businessman, as we exit onto the quiet darkened street. “Ashkenazim as well. There is so much opportunity with the tourist industry that Jews keep moving here. The situation is fantastic. It’s hard to believe that 500 years ago the Spaniards threw out the Jews.”

He pauses for a moment, then adds: “But do you know there is a part of Spain where the Jews were never thrown out, where my ancestors have lived for centuries? I have an apartment here in Torremolinos because of my business, but my home is still there.”

Pinto gestures southward where a block away, the Mediterranean tide is just beginning to recede. His birthplace, the city of Melilla, lies directly across the sea on the African coast. A refuge for Jews fleeing the expulsion and subsequent Inquisition, Melilla is a little known yet unique part of the Spanish-Jewish story that continues to unfold even today.

It is a strange place, a small port city in the arc of a deep harbor edged with wide white beaches, a modern marina, and steep, seemingly impenetrable cliffs. Ramparts on the heights of the old city overlook the sea to the north and the new city to the south where a neat arrangement of Art Moderne buildings, typical Spanish plazas, and two shimmering municipal parks in the compact downtown give way to a sprawling urbanity. At its highest point, Melilla’s luxurious parador(government-sponsored hotel) provides a panoramic view of the coastline, the metropolis, and the Moroccan expanse beyond that runs into a rim of mountains across the horizon. The ambiance is modern, cosmopolitan; yet an aura of intrigue hovers around sudden corners and down narrow walled lanes. Casablanca, Nador, Marakeesh are but short flights away.

Melilla is a mini-metropolis wedged in between the sea and the wilderness, with one foot in Europe, and the other in Africa, and a place almost entirely devoted to commerce. Except for the siesta hours of the afternoon, its shop-lined streets bustle with pedestrian traffic: Spaniards in fashionable European garb, Moroccans in floor-length caftans and hoods, old men loitering against buildings, looking for the occasional tourist with American dollars to change, unkempt children who sneak across the Moroccan border each morning and spend the day begging passersby'for spare coins. Though the city can easily be traversed by foot, its thoroughfares are crowded with Mercedes Benz. Melilla is a free port. With no tax, luxury cars are an irresistible bargain – even if there is no place to go.

In 1492, when the Jews of Spain were looking for a place to go after being expelled from Spain, some crossed the Mediterranean to North Africa, where the first stop was Melilla. It had been a strategic site since ancient times, a terminal station for desert caravans traveling up the timeless roads from the south. It was also a place abundant in honey (in Arabic, melilla means sweet; it is thought the city was named for the many bees in the region) and salt. Protected by forests, the early settlers lived in little cabalas (communities). Five years after the expulsion, Medina Sidon, an Andalusian nobleman of Jewish origin, established a Spanish fortress in Melilla, (marking the beginning of Spain’s expansion along the north African coast), and a number of Jews moved into the city that grew around it. In 1535, the half-Jewish king of Debdu, a city 38 kilometers to the south, journeyed to Granada to obtain a promise of protection from the Spanish monarch. Subsequently, 1,500 Jews followed him to Melilla. Graves dating back to 1565 are still there. 

During the centuries that followed, depending on the political situation of a given period, Jews moved out of the Spanish stronghold into neighboring little kingdoms, picking up the language and customs of the Berbers and Arabs they lived among, and back into Melilla when times were propitious, all the while fiercely maintaining their Sephardic heritage. Fleeing antisemitic outbreaks in Morocco in 1889, a sizable population of Jews found welcome sanctuary in the little city on the sea.

In modern times, Melilla became a haven for Jewish refugees from Nazi aggression. Although still recovering from the Spanish Civil War (which began in Melilla) and despite Franco's Spain's alighnment with Nazi Germany, during World War II it provided a Spanish passport and safe passage to those Jews who crossed the border from France into Spain and made their way down the coast and across the Mediterranean to North Africa.

“The Jews owe Franco a big thank you,” said Leon Benjumin who headed the Cultural and Educational Department of Melilla’s Jewish community several years ago. “Hitler planned to move from Alexandria across North Africa, destroying the Jews in all the coastal cities, but Franco would not allow it. It is one of history’s ironies that this Fascist dictator is responsible for saving so many Jewish lives.”

A soft-spoken scholar, rabbi and scribe of early middle age, Benjumin traces his family’s roots in North Africa to a century before the expulsion. “According to our oral traditions, our ancestors left Seville in 1391,” he says. “They lived in Debdu for many generations until early in this century, when my grandparents moved to Melilla.” 

Benjumin himself has moved to Málaga, the Costa del Sol city whose Jewish history is aptly commemorated by a statue of the 9th-century Jewish poet-philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabriol, donated by its American creator to this city of the poet’s birth in 1970. Set in a small plaza before Málaga’s Juderia (Jewish quarter), the bronze’s elongated, sad aspect seems to confirm the tragic history of Spanish Jewry.

Which makes the story of Melilla that much more remarkable. “There is no other place in Spain like Melilla,” Benjumin says. “There was no Inquisition here. It has always been like a free zone. People were left alone to live as Jews and not conversos (forced converts to Christianity). As a result, there has been a continuous Jewish presence here for more than 500 years.”

Chaim Morelli Levi, a multi-lingual accountant whose grandmother lived among the Berbers, speaks the Berber language Chelka fluently. “There are about a thousand Jews in Melilla today,” he tells us in equally fluent English. “We all know each other. We have 12 functioning synagogues. Some extended families have their own synagogues.”

The synagogue that serves the Benarroch family, one of the oldest and most distinguished in Melilla, is housed in a small apartment building across from the Parque de Melilla, a vertical swath of greenery and porticos, shaded by towering palms and crisscrossed with paths of intricately designed stonework. The sanctuary, up on the second floor, is a room with high cceilings and walls of pale pink, ceramic tiled floors of gold and green, and wooden benches that face a central abimah. A little alcove behind a latticed wall forms the women’s section. Its walls are filled with photographs of venerable Sephardic rabbis and, somewhat incongruously, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Despite its modest size, the Benarroch synagogue has six Torahs. Leon Benjuim takes one out, lays it gently on the reader’s desk, unwraps and opens it with great care. “This one,” he says, “was written in Debdu.” 

It was in this synagogue that Simi Mandel spent the High Holy Days and Shabbats of her postwar childhood. Today an American citizen who lives with her Brooklyn-born husband in suburban Connecticut, Simi recalls how she and her sisters accompanied their mother to the Benarroch synagogue while her father, a Cohen, went alone to his. “There were 30 synagogues in Melilla that we could have gone to,” Simi says, “but Mommy’s uncle had built this one in 1921, and this is where she felt we belonged.

“My mother’s father was a Benarroch. My father’s ancestors had lived in the mountains behind Melilla for generations. Only my maternal grandmother came from someplace else, and that was Ceuta (the second city of Spanish Morocco, on the western tip of North Africa) which was the same society. 

“Melilla was a dreamland, isolated from the rest of the world,” she adds. “There was a calm, a peacefulness, a charm that didn’t exist anywhere else. I didn’t know what the world was until much later in my life. We had such a strong community. The Jews were successful merchants. Some, like my uncle Carlos Benarroch, had studied law. But they couldn’t practice so they ran the little stores. Still, if there was prejudice, we didn’t know it. We were all in our own self-contained world.

“When I was growing up, we were a group of maybe 15 Jewish kids, about the same age. It was like having that many brothers and sisters. We spent holidays together, we went to the park, to the beach together. There was such camaraderie, such respect, and not a bit of jealousy. We’d get together in the afternoon and walk up and down L’Avenida. It was closed to cars. The girls would walk by the boys, hoping they would stop and talk to us. We’d play in the park, throwing stones at the palm trees to knock off the dates. My mother would yell at my sisters and me to stop: ‘The dates will soil your clothes. We have plenty of dates in the house.’ But it was more fun to knock them off the trees. 
“In those years, you felt like you were in Spain surrounded by Arabs,” Simi continues. “But you didn’t see them. You had nothing to do with them. We went to a convent school about ten blocks from where we lived simply because it was the best school in the city. The public schools were for the poor children. But we didn’t associate with the Catholic kids. My mother felt if you made friends with a Catholic girl, she might have a brother or a cousin. She kept us apart. Each group stayed apart in those days: the Hindus, the Christians, the Arabs, and the Jews.”

As a boy, Mario Carcienti was part of Simi Mandel’s crowd. Today he owns and operates a dry goods/hardware store and is the president of Melilla’s Jewish community. At the Jewish center, he delights in showing off a nursery school classroom where mini Torahs painted by little hands are suspended from clothespins on a line like so many shirts to dry. Yet he reveals a sensibility much changed since he and Simi were children.

“Our primary preoccupation today is not with the Jewish population but with the fate of Melilla as a whole. It is a unique place. There are no differences among the people here. Christian, Moslem, Jewish – we all get along.”
His words are born out by our translator and guide, Rachid Chilali, a dynamic young man, the son of a Moroccan mother with Egyptian, Arabic and Italian roots and a Berber father. The irony of a Moslem helping an American Jewish couple understand the Jewish history of his Spanish city while he is learning about a civilization and culture that fascinates him is not lost upon Rachid. “I feel akin to the Jews,” he says. “They have had to move from place to place, to work very hard. They have come out from the Holocaust. If a person has problems, it’s easy to see your spirit reflected in the Jewish experience. For me, they are an inspiration.” 

Rachid accompanied us and Leon Benjuim on a tour of the Jewish cemetery. Like many places in Melilla, and indeed throughout Spain, it lies beyond a closed door on a busy commercial street. The wooden portal bearing the number 10 opens to a narrow alley. To the left is Melilla’s largest synagogue. “We used to call it the Bride’s Synagogue because all the weddings took place there,” Simi says. Directly ahead, the alley opens up to one of Melilla’s newer residential neighborhoods. 

An avenue bordered with brick walkways and small apartment houses climbs a hill that ends in a great clearing. There stands a dome-roofed church and both the Christian and Jewish burial grounds. Accessed through a small building with a sacramental washstand, the Jewish cemetery is an orderly arrangement of above ground tombs, each with a box at the foot for memorial candles. Leon paused meditatively before the grave of his granduncle who had been the Chief Rabbi of Morocco. He gestured to a white stone wall some ten feet away. “That is where the Jewish cemetery ends,” he said. “On the other side are Catholic graves. There is another, older cemetery just outside the old city’s wall. That was from the time the Jews lived within the old city, and the dead had to be buried outside the city wall.”

The cemetery is high enough to provide a vista of the Moroccan wilderness, where in the distance, the faint outlines of a road can made out. Simi Mandel explains its origins. “There was a rabbi who lived in Arab territory on the other side of the mountains. He was very sick and very old and prayed that when he died, he would have a Jewish burial. According to the story, upon his death, God sent a big stone to mark his grave. Every year, the Jews from Melilla would make a pilgrimage by foot, going through the wilderness and over the mountain.

“Some decades ago, a group of men from Melilla went to Caracas, Venezuela. All became very wealthy, and each returned to Melilla to find a wife. There are such roots. They invested in synagogues in the city; one paid for the Jewish Center’s construction. One of them went even further. He had a road built through the mountains to the burial site of this rabbi so that the men who visit the grave can drive there.

“What drew them back to Melilla?” Simi wonders. “Was it the privileged life we had? Franco was in power; the government was totally repressive. But for us children, uninvolved in politics, it was an ideal way of life. You didn’t have fear of anyone bothering you. You went to stores and everybody knew you. It was hi! You took what you wanted. And if they didn’t have it, they’d bring it tomorrow.

“We had a couple living in who took care of everything. We had a seamstress making our clothes who practically lived with us. The shoemaker would make shoes for my mother. My father had a chauffeur drive him around. He was very generous. He’d come home for lunch, and there would be a group of people waiting to see him who needed things; he never turned anyone away. On Sundays, he’d take me to the seafood restaurants. When they had a good catch, they’d call him. My father was the only male in his family and carried the name Cohen, which is a priestly name. He felt he was important, special. We were made to feel we were important too.”

The Melilla of Simi’s memory, an oasis of a well-to-do Jewish subculture largely isolated from the outside society, no longer exists. Today its Jews have moved into the mainstream of a city that prides itself on tolerance, on the easy interaction among its four ethnic groups: Catholic, Hindu, Moslem, and Jewish.

At the same time, the open society of the post-Franco years, new commercial and educational opportunities, and a welcoming environment throughout Spain have lured many of Melilla’s Jews, like Leon Benjumin, to larger cities. Others have emigrated to Israel, the United States, and Venezuela. Simi Mandel is a case in point. “My mother felt Melilla was too small a place for me and my sisters, that we needed to be exposed to other people and a larger community,” she says. Accordingly when Simi was a teenager, she was sent to school in Tangiers and then Barcelona. When she married, she moved to America. 

“After my father retired, my parents joined me in the States,” Simi adds. “But my father did not like it. He felt he wasn’t given the respect he had been used to so they returned to Spain. Only to Barcelona, not Melilla. My sister and other family members had moved there by then. Now with my father gone, Mommy talks of relocating to Jerusalem. But she still longs for Melilla.”

Mario Carcienti is concerned about the future of the Jewish community he heads. Nevertheless, he understands the pull of the outside world. “We have no university in Melilla. Naturally the young people go to the larger cities for their education,” he says. “Not all come back. But we have young families committed to living here. Our population has stabilized over the past decade. There are eighty children at the Jewish day school.” 

Those Jews who choose to remain in Melilla today resist the pull of the outside world. They treasure their collective memory of sanctuary; they are committed to perpetuating a presence now more than 500 years old. Yet they are aware that while the Jewish population of Melilla is static, in cities across the sea, it is growing. “When the Jews were expelled from Malaga, they came here. Now they are going back to Malaga, Torremolinos, Marbella,” Carcienti concedes. “Here it’s old, there it’s new, resurgent.” 

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College in the MALS program where they have been for more than two decades. They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean.

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