I had lunch today in the old Jewish Mellah in Essaouira, in a restaurant converted on the second ( top ) floor of a former Talmud Torah, or Jewish primary school. On the ground floor the building had been converted into a Day Hospital for people suffering with Alzheimers Disease, the first floor was now a creche and the top floor, with a large terrace area, was the children’s playground and the small restaurant.
The walls of the terrace had been painted with animals and symbols, in common with many if not all schools I have seen in Morocco. An old circular table where the intricate zellige tiles were crumbling was of interest and the three-legged chair beside it also attracted my attention, as well as the symbolic drawings behind it. Beside the play area the restaurant was light and airy, with stunning views over the old Mellah city walls to the crashing surf of the Atlantic ocean. It was a stormy day, with gusting wind and heavy rain, and the surging waves flew into the rocks and spray went everywhere.
Talmud Torah schools were conventionally for poor boys; no fees were paid. It was unusual for girls to receive a free education so subsequently it was rare for girls to receive any education. Boys started by learning the Hebrew alphabet, and then learnt spelling. Following this they were taught Perasa, the beginning of the Bible, then the Nebiim and the Kitubim; the Prophets and the written Law. Designed only to provide basic education, the primary school education stopped there, and those who wished to pursue further education were required to pay for the privilege. However following this, the boys had some notion of Jewish history; they knew the Hebrew alphabet, but didn’t know Hebrew. Their major language skills depended upon the locality where they lived. If children lived close to ports then Spanish was the most common; whereas in the other cities of the interior, Arabic was spoken with a very distinctive accent. They used their Hebrew alphabet to write in Hebrew characters and in Spanish or Arabic, depending on the language they spoke.
As I ate I saw that a large part of the dilapidated Mellah had recently been fenced off and large new signs and posters provided plans for its regeneration, a decade or more since redevelopment had originally been mooted. I had not been in this building before; its views were spectacular. I wondered how old it was and when it had been converted. There was no information available.
Some photographs of the terrace and restaurant follow below, between paragraphs of an article providing a first hand and contemporaneous account of the expulsion of Jews, following those from Andalucia in 1483, from other parts of Spain in 1492 and their subsequent difficult journeys.
Taken from the Internet Jewish History Sourcebook, a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts, it was written in Hebrew by an Italian Jew in 1495.