Interview date: May 21, 2011
Location: Miami Beach
Interviewer: Henry Green
Cameraman: Trevor Green
Transcribed by: Unknown
Total time: 1:28:50
David Cohen: Born in Fez, Morocco on November 8th, 1954. Arrived in Rabat in 1957/8. Arrived in Paris in 1965. Arrived in Montreal in 1965. Arrived in Miami in 2001.
HG: My name is Henry Green, I’m here with David Cohen, in Miami Beach, the date is May 21, 2011, and this is an interview as part of the project, Sephardi Voices.
HG: Good morning. Could you please tell me your name, place of birth, and date of birth?
DC: My name is David Cohen, David Cohen, and I’m born in Fez, Morocco, on Nov 8, 1954.
HG: And how old are you?
DC: I’m 56 years old.
HG: We’re here in Miami Beach, and this is part of the Sephardi Voices project, audio visual histories of Jews from Africa and the Middle East. Can you tell me something about your family background?
DC: My entire family, my immediate family, my parents, their parents and I think their grandparents, and I think Maybe even their great grandparents were all born in Fez. And, I have three siblings, currently three siblings, two sisters and a brother. My sisters live in Israel, and my brother lives in Montreal, Canada. My father is deceased, and my mother also lives in Israel.
HG: And, if you think back to when you were born in Fez, and family life, your parents, your grandparents, maybe, can you talk a bit about what family life was like?
DC: I was born in Fez and moved from Fez to the capital city of Morocco which is Rabat in, uh, maybe at the age of 3 or 4. Most of my childhood memories about family life center around the city of Rabat. However, we visited aunts and uncles and cousins in many other cities of Morocco on a regular basis until I left Morocco. And especially in Fez, Meknes, and Casablanca. My childhood in Morocco was characterized by family life. That’s what it is, lots of family, lots of cousins, each of my parents had numerous brothers and sisters. I mean, uh, six or seven brothers or sisters each. And these brothers and sisters had many children each. So we’re talking about lots of cousins, lots of uncles and aunts. However, most of them, by the time I was 5 or 6 or 7 years old, had already left Morocco, mostly to go to Israel. So, many of them left in the 50’s, and the late 50’s. So I didn’t get to see most of them, I only met them later in life, when I personally travelled in Israel, but as a child it was centered around a few uncles and aunts living in different cities, and my own immediate family.
HG: Did, uh… give me a kind of example of how family would get together. Say, a Passover meal, or was it a Jewish holiday, or—
DC: Let me tell you first, the central organizing event, if you will, was in your family, was Shabbat. So it was the Sabbath Saturday. So it started with preparations, cooking preparations, that Thursday where my mother would begin to prepare the Shabbat meal which would be held that Friday night. And we would come back at some point after school on Friday, and we would get scrubbed, we would literally get scrubbed. We would be in the bathtub, and we would get scrubbed, me and my brother, who was a little older than me, and then we would put on our best white clothes that we had, and then we would debate whether we would go out in the street and play or not, and sometimes we did and we came back with our clothes dirty. And then there was that evening, where the immediate family, you know, five children and the parents, were around the table, plus whatever guest was then present. It was, always some guest. Either it was a cousin, or a friend studying, or a guest coming through the town who wanted to meet my father, so there was usually someone present, and, or relatives coming, but the Shabbat meal on that Friday night, and the next Saturday were central organizing events of the week. If it was a holiday, it was that, squared. It was more preparations, more people, even bigger table, and so, there was a ritual, there was a prayer, either we went to the synagogue or we prayed at home. And then we got around the meal and we sang the Kiddush, uh, the Kiddush, songs and prayers, and we stood around the table, we were all dressed in our best clothes, the table was large, because I was a kid the table was huge, and in fact I have pictures of it and the table was huge. Sort of massive, wooden, art deco table from the 30’s or so, in a pretty large dining room that we had, and so we stood around it, and we ate, we talked, we talked about everything that was going on in our lives and the world and the news and the magazines, and we spoke. You know, five kids, parents, I’m the youngest, I’m listening, I’m talking, I’m screaming, and we’re eating, we’re drinking wine, we’re celebrating the Shabbat. That was the central organizing event, if you will, looking back on my life, it was a central organizing event of the week, was Friday night.
HG: Did your grandparents come to these?
DC: No, my grandparents had been deceased, I never met any of my grandparents. My mother lost her parents by the time she was 14, 15, my father the same thing. In my mother’s case, her mother died as the result of an epidemic, I believe it was a typhoid epidemic in Morocco in the early 40’s, I think she died in 1942, my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Her father died of Maybe a botched, medical kind of intervention or an injection of something as a result of being despondent over losing his wife, he died Maybe a year or two later. So my wife was an orphan at a relatively young age, and she had to then be taken care of by her own older sister, who was already married, who already had her own children, who became, who founded a moshav in Israel, and who was also a hijacked passenger in the Entebbe, in the Entebbe hijacking, in the early 70’s, in the mid 70’s. So that’s my aunt, my mother’s sister, who took care of her. She was herself an incredible woman, really an amazing woman. So, uh—
HG: What was their names, your grandparents’ names?
DC: On my mother’s side there was Rina, ben Simon, Rina ben Simon. And her father was Raphael Assouline. I have pictures of them, very interesting people, they’re idealized in the family lore, for whatever accomplishments that they May have done. They’re looked upon as nice, pious people, and, and trying to make the shift to the modern world also, as best they could. And then on my father’s side, my grandfather, my father’s father was a carpenter. And my father told me many stories about how he was in the city of Fez, and he was kind of a person who supervises in the [sedex], a kind of workshop of carpenters and builders, and he was a strong built man, as my father describes it, and he was a carpenter all his life. And he died a relatively old man, but he was dead when my father was, I believe, 15 or 16 years old he had died. And, my father’s mother, um, was—her first name was Freha, as we say. So it’s a kind of a Jewish and Arabic name, it’s translated as Evelyn. And, she was a homemaker, also born in Fez. All of the parents of my parents on both sides were born in Fez, in the Mellah of Fez.
HG: Do you have any memories of the Mellah?
DC: Not as a child, none. I went to visit it later, before we left Morocco, I was in Fez and I remember well, and also I returned once to Morocco in 1983, and I went, I was in Fez for a couple of days, and walked around through the Mellah of Fez and I had the names of a few streets. I didn’t extensively visit it as I would’ve liked to, but I went to the cemetery of Fez, gleaming incredibly white, uh, blinding area, and a few streets of the Mellah of Fez. But I, most of my memories of Morocco relate to Rabat.
HG: Was there a Mellah in Rabat?
DC: There was a Mellah in Rabat, too. And there was, which was of course always, in the old city of Rabat, in the walled city, and I have vivid memories of Rabat. We lived in the new city, my father was a civil servant and we benefitted from subsidized apartments in the really nice section of Rabat called L’agdal, L’agdal. And with, you know, with where foreign dignitaries lived and all kinds of things, and a few of the French people, and things like this, and there was an old city where we went to do some shopping for the holidays. I have vivid memories of going there and choosing chickens, we would go in these recessed areas where all the Jewish shopkeepers and so forth lived, and we would go in and pick a chicken, and that chicken would be slaughtered before my eyes, in a very interesting kind of way, a ceremony where the shohet, the executioners, the slaughterer, would take the chicken and , you know, would whisper a few words in its ears, and would say, would make a few prayers and the chicken would relax. And in one smooth motion he would bring back, fold back the neck of the chicken, and with his other hand, with that very sharp razor, would slit its throat, and the blood would immediately flow on the feathered, covered ground, and then that chicken was gone, it was given over to an old woman who was sitting there, who would pluck the feathers out immediately, and we would wrap it in old newspaper and bring it home, or two or three chickens. So this I remember, I did a few times, for holidays or other occasions, I remember we would go exactly to that place, I have vivid memories of that.
HG: Were you with your father?
DC: I would be with my father, yea. So I would’ve been 7, 8, 9, 10 when we were doing this, so I remember doing this dozens of times, so yea.
HG: Your, your parents, can you tell me how they met?
DC: Yes, I think I know, exactly how they met I’m not certain but I’ve heard stories of my parents telling me. My parents got married when my mother was 18 years old, and my father was Maybe 9 or 10 years older so he must’ve been 27, 28. I think he was—they met when my father was 28, 29, and my mother was 18, and they got married about a year after or so, something like that. And they both lived in Fez, my mother was living with her sister, so there must’ve been some urgency to get her married, possibly. I have pictures of my mother at 18, looks incredibly lovely, almost like a Rita Haywood, kinda, this hair, lots of hair, beautiful, those portraits they did in the 40’s. She looks like a movie star, I have pictures somewhere. And my father was a promising, educated young man who worked, let’s see, at the time, I think he worked—he was a manger of a brewery, Morocco’s only brewery in Fez. It was called [bahasni ju nou marakesh], which was a large brewer and a bottler, which bottled soft drinks and beer. My dad, I believe at that age, was possibly, maybe a little after that, ran the brewery for 17, 18 years, that was his major occupation. He tried a few things in business before that, he had a travel agency, he had a tea importing business, he had row boats that he used—that he put in a park in Fez, which is a mountainous city, there’s a lake in Fez that he may have helped dig a little bit, in a park, in a municipal park in Fez, and he put these rowboats in and they would go on Sundays—so he started these things, probably wasn’t successful at many of them, and then got into that brewing business, and was, I don’t think was an owner in any way but ran the place for many years.
So, as I was saying, my father ran this place, this brewery for many years, probably not when he met my mom, but at the age of 26, 27 he must’ve been, um, a business, owning some small business in Fez. He, his first education around, his first work, was around the age of 16, when he went to Marrakesh from Fez, and interned in the office of a French lawyer, from France. He got the job because he knew how to write, and he spoke French—my father had a sort of charisma, as a speaker, and hopefully I’ve inherited a little bit of that. And his French was just, was just perfect—his diction, his grammar, because he was at that generation which encountered it, that had the will, the motivation, they tried to meet civilization, French civilization was it.
And so they just drank of it as much as they could, and they went to school, they studied, they wrote beautifully, and they took great care of how they spoke, how they spoke—how they held themselves, so it was a cultural thing, but it was also a kind of a pedagogical thing, that they had learned and were transmitting. So he got a job at this lawyer, which made him probably learn more how to write, and how to acknowledge and record, these kinds of things, and then he became an accountant, because that’s also what he did in this brewery, he was very good with numbers, he was just gifted with skill, numbers, mathematics and so forth. So that’s probably, he must’ve been just a young, handsome promising young man, and my mother was a handsome, promising young woman, and they met, probably 1944, they were married in May, they were married in 1945.
When they were married they could not—the ceremony, it was the war, there was some rationing, the electricity, and they were not able to take their wedding pictures, they had to take their wedding pictures later. And we see in their wedding pictures that they have of their wedding, my mother has explained to me that the dress was not exactly as peppy and as stiff and so forth as it was, because it was taken about six to eight months after the wedding, that they took the pictures, because the circumstances—there was some kind of power failure, or the photographer was, uh, couldn’t get the lightbulb, there was something missing during their marriage, which was just before May or something, 1945.
HG: Did he study at the Allianz Israelite?
DC: Yes he did, he went to school at the Allianz Israelite of Fez, that’s exactly where my father studied, and my mother also studied, but she had to leave school when, during that—she was kind of forced out of school, because you know, when the Vichy, the Vichy regime that was sort of also responsible for France in a way, made life a little bit difficult for the Jews. Not in obvious ways, but in ways that—they got the kids, they closed down the schools for a few years, you just had to stop going to school. So my mom went, I probably still have, I don’t know if in a copy, but we had the original certification of having completed a few years of schooling centered around home economics. So from the age of 12 to about the age of 14, she took these courses, in sewing, in keeping house, you know, stuff like that, in the school, the Allianz Israelite. And she could’ve gone on, but the Vichy, the events, the regime, put an end to that, and she didn’t continue her schooling. And I think she always regretted that, because her life took on a different bent. And she became a mother and a homemaker, and she excelled at that, obviously, but had other gifts because she influenced all the kids also, both my parents, to get educations also. And my two sisters, my brothers, we all have PhDs, we’re all, I think, pretty, we do very well in our separate fields, which are close to each other, so something happened even though our parents didn’t have much formal education, the kids somehow picked up that education was key.
HG: Did your parents—in the home, did your parents speak Arabic or French?
DC: Both. They spoke Arabic to each other a lot, and with time, a little less, and they spoke to us in French. We—the children didn’t speak to each other in Arabic, we didn’t really speak to our parents in Arabic. I was—almost all my brothers, my sisters, they learned Arabic in school, and I had just one year of formal Arabic in school myself. I was just young enough, or too young, to really be bathed in learning Arabic formally, just one year, and it’s just too vague. But my older brother, who’s 9 years old, he learned to read and write Arabic, and he learned to speak it on the street with his friends, but we were basically brought up in a French atmosphere in the house.
HG: Your siblings, could you give me their names and their age, with years they were born?
DC: So Henry, uh, was born in 1945, Rina was born in 1949, Evelyn was born in 19—I’m sorry, Rina was born in 1947, Evelyn, 1949, then my brother George was born in 1952, he died at the age of 18 in 1970, and I was born 1954, so basically every couple of years. So my mom was, I think, 18 when she had her first child, and by the time she was 27 I think she had five kids.
HG: Did—did—what schools did you go to? In Rabat, I guess.
DC: In Rabat, my brother Henry and sister Rina, went to schools in Fez as young children, Henry must’ve, yea he went to Allianz Israelite for a while, and in the 50’s, we moved to—and must’ve I think, went to another school, maybe he went to a kind of, you know, boarding school at some point in his teens for a year, he went to a boarding school, that could’ve been in Casablanca or Meknes, we were living in Rabat, he may have done that for a year, for some extra education, maybe some extra Jewish education, just like maybe you would send a kid to a good boarding school, somewhere. All of us as children went to public schools in Morocco, funded by the Morocco government, by the Morocco state. Morocco gained its independence in 1956, and so it took over the functioning of the state. Most of the infrastructure, almost all of it, was inherited by the French. You had French teachers, French curriculum, as a child in Morocco in the independent Moroccan country I learned about our ancestors, the Gauls. [inaudible] The textbooks were in French, everything was French. The teachers, a few Arabic teachers and so on, especially though in the public school that I attended in Rabat. For all practical purposes it was a school in France, except it happened to be in Morocco.
In the front rows, you had the whitest, most European children. Immediately behind, sometimes in the front row you had the couple of Jews or so, including myself, sometimes I was sitting in the front row, sometimes I was sitting in the row immediately behind, and progressively as you move to the back of the class, you had the Arabic, Arab Morocco children, you know. So there was already that class and, not racial, but sort of ethnic class, colonial distinction, whatever, and I’m talking in the 60’s. So, and the schools were public, and there was instruction in French, in all the subjects, as you could imagine it was a French curriculum. With, at a certain age, an Arabic class thrown in, with an Arabic teacher who came. And that, so, that’s what I remember of my—oh, and [inaudible] elementary school which was in Morocco, was in one public school, after the name of the painter [Cezanne, Tou econ Cezanne] and I walked to school, on a beautiful tree-lined street, called [boulevard nations unies], boulevard of the United Nations, and walked to the school close by, about one kilometer away. You know, walked with my brother or on my own, came back from school, completely safe in that way, just, completely safe. And, as a young child, 6, 7, 8, 9, we would walk to school and come back
HG: Any Jewish education also?
DC: Jewish education, yes. I and the least Jewish education of all the kids in my family, or at least the boys. My brother Henry had more, he had Jewish education in his school, first as a child, and then at the boarding school he later went to. And we also had rabbinical school students come to the house, and teach us, you know, Aleph Bet, and the reading and the prayers, it was very, education was centered on, you know, the prayers, and doing, not doing. However, in my home, because of my father’s interest, because of all the books we had in the house and so forth, it was, you know, we discussed everything, every possible thing. My dad had his own circles, his own interests, he was a capitalist. So he had that bent to look and to read, to discuss with rabbis, to be involved in some community matters. So, as a result, some of that wore off in our family, we were exposed to a large concept of Jewish education, Jewish history, Israel, Zionism, everything that we—that one might think of as Jewish education, that was more of what we discussed around the table if you will.
HG: Zionism and Israel, how would that be—did you do activities, did you—?
DC: I don’t even know how to describe it. Israel was present in every way shape and form in the discussions, number one, around the table. The history of the state, the history of the Jewish people, all of this was discussed constantly. Also, what we had lost, and I mean that—the fact is that I was born, of course, after the birth of the state of Israel, but my parents, I think it was a momentous event. The idea that somehow Israel was reborn as a state, because they were of that generation, where thy were living in exile, and that’s how they, I think—this year I’m surmising, I’m inferring I don’t know, but they were, they had always been in that country which was their country but not their country. And they knew, they were very aware, and I was aware, that you were not quite a full-fledged citizen of that country, because you were not quite equal. There was something that was missing to you, there was something.
We did still have that status of we were not at home, we were not quite equal, we could not say what we believe, we could not quite be open about who we were, there was always that, that was always there. Even though, everything was equal, everything was available, yet there was always that second class citizen status that we had, even though we were so integrated, in every way. And so, but my parents, they grew up as, they were in the Mellah, when my dad was young until he was a young man in his 20’s, they closed the door of the Mellah at night and the Jews stayed in. during the day they were out everywhere doing whatever they needed to do, but at night they had to be back and if you were not back you had to sleep somewhere else. So, to them, they were in exile, that’s what they knew, and if they were in exile the Promised Land was the Promised Land, and that’s how they thought about it, so when Israel was established, that was probably the most interesting thing in their whole lives. That’s how they defined their era, this event which they had been waiting for, and next year in Jerusalem, at the end of Passover, that was said with great fervor. This was it, they saw that next year in Jerusalem, this was a possibility, where before it was just a song.
HG: Israelis ever come to your house, or the synagogue, or, was there a Jewish community center or…?
DC: Now, there were synagogues galore, everywhere, always and Maybe in Rabat, it was now, the synagogue we went to occasionally, not a lot, my father went more often than I did, was down some street, and it was not well identified, it was certainly not well identified, there was no sign that said this is a synagogue down here, and you opened the door and you went through a courtyard and another long hallway and then you realized this is a synagogue you’re in. So it was out of the way, but the synagogue—and that was the meeting place. And just like you might think, you know, Maybe in your fantasies of a movie synagogue in Morocco, there were carpets, hangings on the walls, there were dark reddish carpets, the old men playing with their beards, sitting there and giving some candies, and there were the people, you know, praying alone or not, groups, the tunes I still remember, and the melodies, so it was just like, you know, it was—there was some life centered around there. There were—I don’t’ remember of a formal Jewish community center that I went to. Jewish life to me was in the family and at home, occasionally in the synagogue, and of course getting together with relatives for the holidays, them coming or us going to their house.
HG: So you do mention that it’s very, very Jewish—what about non-Jews, the Arab population, the Muslim population. Did you play with friends, was there help in the house, the help, was it Jewish or non-Jewish, can you…?
DC: First of all, there was constant contact with everybody. And I’m going to stick to Rabat and that neighborhood in Rabat, which was different from other neighborhoods. Huge mix, several languages. And that, I think, was true of Morocco, but on any given day I heard Spanish, Italian, of course Arabic, but I’m not even mentioning. Hebrew, I would hear at home maybe for a prayer or a blessing or Kiddush, something like this. I would hear my father, he was observant, he made his prayers in the morning, he did his prayers in the evening. I heard Hebrew, we heard Hebrew, he did his blessings when he washed his hands, before every meal, we did the [motzi], and all these things, and so I heard that Hebrew, or when we had to study, so that was that. Arabic, everywhere, on the street, and so the shopkeepers, anything was, that was that. Plus, all the Europeans who lived in Morocco. In the area we lived in, there was an abundance of them. So of course I heard French, Spanish, Italian, and sometimes—Maybe even, no, Greek, I keep thinking that there was some—so you had all these Mediterranean sort of people who were working and living in Morocco too. So, lots of languages, now um, we had hired help, we had a maid who came, not every day, she came two to three times a week, she was Muslim, and she wore a veil and, on her head of course, and only her eyes showed, and when she came to the house she took off the veil.
Some vivid images would be, sometimes on a Sunday morning or a Friday afternoon, or early in the morning, someone would knock on the door. We lived on the 4th floor of a small apartment in a large three, four bedroom, we had three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, apartment with a nice terrazzo floor, two, three balconies, really kind of a Mediterranean place, and the building only had four floors, we were on that top floor, and it was a subsidized housing for government employees, that’s where we lived. And somebody would knock at the door, I would walk up, and I have very vivid memories of, sometimes, a woman, with a very young baby on her back, coming in, and my mom would usher her into the house, and she would, you know, take a breath and relax, and put her baby down, and then unwrap eggs that she’d brought from, easily she must’ve had to walk, easily minimum four to five miles, walking. And she would unwrap the eggs, and the smell of the country and of the eggs and the animals was still there, and of course as a young guy that’s what I remembered, and I would look there, and she would take a few eggs and we would buy. Even if we had eggs, my mother had to buy, of course because she was young, Maybe 14, 15, 18 years old, with her child, this is what she’s selling to the people in the town. And we would buy whatever she had, whatever she wanted, and we would give her then bread, any leftovers, a cloth Maybe, a veil or something that was, anything lying around that we could give her, we would give her, because that’s how my parents were, and so, that’s one of the things.
So you had that sometimes come to the house, and my parents interacted with, my father worked government in Rabat, he worked in French, but half his colleagues at least if not 80% were Arabic, and so we interacted with everyone that lived there. Some shopkeepers were Jewish, we interacted in French with them, so I would get my hair cut down across the street, and I would go and get my hair cut at the barber, and he would give me chocolate and be happy to see me, and I would go to school with friends, and, the butcher was called Mr. Cohen, and his friends, his children, were just our neighbors, and we would go to school with them, and the baker, and you know, all of these people were in the neighborhood. Just, I mean, you know, left down the street, across the street, and there was shops and the baker, and the clothes, clothing store, and half of them were Jewish, half of them were French, half of them were Muslims, Arabic, so it was all mixed together.
HG: So would you—when you went to school, and the way that you mentioned that there would be Europeans, and more of the local Arab population, the Berber population, would you go into these Muslim homes and play with the children—
DC: Rarely, rarely. We played in the street.
HG: And the Muslims would come to your house?
DC: Rarely did they come to our house, rarely did we go to their houses. But we played on the street—it was just—
HG: So everyone played together—
DC: Everyone played together like swarms of fish, schools of fish! Running in the same places, walking in the same places, and breaking the same windows together, and getting the balls, the soccer balls, whatever, lost in the fields, and all these things that we did, we did together, with four, five, six friends, all the time. And we played on the sidewalk, we played in the medians, we played in the fields, we played in the schoolyard, and we played indoors, but no, they didn’t come to our house, and rarely did we go to their house. And I rarely went to theirs, uh, a little different for my older brothers and sisters, they had more contact in the homes. I was younger, so maybe, that’s biased by my—perhaps I was kept closer to the house, and so I had less opportunities to go to other people’s houses, but I think it was different for my older sister, and my older brother, my oldest brother, I think they had more contact in people’s homes. But it was nonetheless pretty rare, I believe, that they would come to our house. Adults, guests, relatives, we rarely had, Muslim guests would come to our house—they did, several times, especially around Passover, and at the end of Passover, this [Mimouna], this big feast which has incredible folkloric significance, as there are stories about what it means for the connection of Jews and Arabs. That’s why people saw the [Mimouna], it should exist, is as a remembrance of the deep fact that most Muslims today come from the Jews of Morocco, and as a remembrance of that separation when some chose to convert, or had to convert to Islam, and some didn’t, the [Mimouna] was created, that’s a folkloric interpretation which may have some truth. I have a number of these kinds of stories if you’re interested, about the origins of the Jews pre-destruction of the Temple, and post-destruction of the Temple, how do you separate them, by what they eat and what they call themselves.
HG: And [Mimouna], you would celebrate every year?
DC: It was an incredible feast.
HG: In your house?
DC: In my house and everybody else’s house, everybody in our house, on the 8th day of Passover, Pesach, my mom and my sister would prepare the most incredible spread of cakes and cookies and things. I remember that most of them, except one, were things that you could prepare during the Passover festival, which excluded flour and yeast, so what did we have on that table? Well, dozens of things! I remember flans, I remember these jams that were made with oranges, they were cooked, and in Morocco the best oranges have this skin that, I remember the skin being this thick, and it’s cooked and cooked and it becomes—and you actually eat the skin of those gem, oranges, it’s really the best thing you could eat as this kind of sweet delicacy. I remember [nougat], [nougat] is that, that—there were all these different things that you could do for Passover despite the dietary restrictions and obligations, we had that, except for one thing which was done when it was nightfall, and it was [mufleta], which was a kind of a crepe, so delicious, and it was a flattened type of bread that was cooked on a grill or, on a pan, that you eat with honey or sweet things. And I still occasionally make it now, and can get it to something that’s, that’s really terrific. And that’s something that we got from the Arab population, and I mean they, these French beignets, too.
And so we left, we had this, dozens of people came into our house, the door was open, and we went into dozens of houses, or as many as we could fit into that night. The house was—all night long, people would come at two, three in the morning, at midnight it started as soon as it could and it went on for hours. And we would go to their house, and we wouldn’t leave until they had promised to come to our house, and vice versa. And it was, going to these houses and sampling these incredible delicacies. And I don’t remember this myself, but I believe in some houses, in some of our friend’s houses—that was the only time, that Muslims, came into the house, was [Mimouna]. You opened the house for them, and they brought things too, and then sometimes you went to their house. I don’t remember this myself, but I’ve heard from some people, that that was the time, that Muslims and Jews got together, [Mimouna].
HG: This—tell me about leaving, leaving Morocco. How did you—you were a young child, how old were you—
DC: I was ten and a half years old, I remember—I remember very well, perhaps, I have vivid memories of all my activities as a child. Uh, school, and eating, and home, and sleeping, and playing, and going to the shop, and—everything I remember very well. And, leaving was—I didn’t know we were going to leave until maybe a couple of weeks to ten days before we actually left. So it’s a testimony to how my parents actually kept it quiet. They did keep it quiet to me, I wasn’t aware until a couple of weeks when, then—I knew we were discussing it, but it didn’t seem real at all, and what my parents had to do, getting the passports, and the things that you had to do in Morocco, because nothing was easy, that I was quite aware of all this. And I only, about ten days before, ten days, my parents announced it to me anyways, perhaps, certainly my older brother, my older sisters, they must’ve known, but I didn’t. And uh, “We’re leaving. We’re leaving in ten days or so, we’re going away.” “Where?” “To Canada.” So I remember announcing it to my best friend, whose name was [Didier], I don’t remember his last name, this French boy, in the schoolyard. I said, yea, I’m leaving to Canada in a week, and he said, yea, I’m going to China. And he, you know, that was it, that was the conversation. He didn’t take it seriously, I probably didn’t take it seriously even though I said it. And that was it. I never got to say goodbye to any of these kids—they were our comrades, our friends, we left. That’s it. Boom.
One morning—so what we first did is we went to Meknes, where my mother’s sister and our closest aunt lived, and we grew up with them in many ways—we went to their house for about four or five days, we were there, we celebrated my brother George’s bar mitzvah, and two days later, we were—on July the 13th, we took a plane to Paris. And we left, we drove from Meknes, where they lived, to the airport in Casablanca. My uncle drove with us, he drove in his black Deuce, which was the car, he was a well off businessman, my uncle. He had a trucking, transport company, that he established with his two brothers. And he drove us to the airport, and he had this stack of crisp, probably 50 Franc bills. He must’ve had about, fifty to eighty or so of these bills. Brand new, crisp, still had a rubber band around them. And as we got into the airport, as we went through customs, which did not take too long, he was just handing out these bills, to every person who looked like an official that we were meeting, whether he was a guard, you know, or not—so we did not, I remember going through the area where you could, put your suitcase—they didn’t really look at what we had. We went through fairly easily, but my uncle was just there, talking and smiling, shaking hands, and giving those bills. And I remember because I was short and I was close to him, and looking, I remember that crisp little wad of bills that he was handing, to make everything smooth, that no one would stop, everything was good, and where did we say we were going? We were going to France to visit family.
We only had one suitcase each, and we had very little money. That’s the thing—you couldn’t take money out of Morocco legally, and so we were afraid that—so we did really have very little money, very little—I think we had maybe ten to fifteen bucks a person, and that was it. So we left everything behind. But nevertheless in those suitcases—one person, and I had a small one, I think we had seven suitcases, and that’s it—my mom and dad managed to pack some things that I still have today. Some books, they managed to pack some plates, they managed to pack some things that had value to them. Including objects, and they packed—they made a choice, and of course we left every single furniture, we left the house basically as it was. I’m sure my uncle or someone, they must’ve sold, the last couple days—“come take this,” the books, my dad had a huge rock collection because he was into mining—and we had these incredible books, all of this was just given, sold, just given away. And we left quickly, and we closed the door, and we never looked back and we were gone.
HG: And what was the date that you left?
DC: July 13th, 1965. We stayed one night in Paris, and on July 14th, national holiday in France, it was very quiet, and we drove to the airport and we left Paris, and we arrived in Montreal on July 14th, that same day, 1965.
HG: Were there any experiences of anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish feeling that you felt in Morocco before you left?
DC: That I felt? Well, I personally—directed to me, no. but I remember one time that my brother, it must’ve been in 1963, Maybe, I must’ve been about 8, something like this, and my brother came home time, and he was a member of a Zionist youth group, [Hashomer Hatzair], and they would go to some meetings, there was—and he, the police had busted up. They had taken some kids, and, Henry my brother had run away, you know, run from the meeting. Two or three had been arrested, had been beaten, he managed to run away, he came home, Maybe he managed to elude some pursuit, so he was, he got home, and we were concerned, he was worried. I remember the discussion going on, my parents, they were worried, were they going to come to the house, to take him. So, that’s something that, a palpable, that’s one of the rare palpable fear that I felt. I must’ve been about 8, you know, oh my God, we could be in trouble, he could be in trouble, seriously they could take him away, his friends had been beaten, so that was—I remember that, and that was in Rabat.
HG: Did your parents ever coach you—in terms of how you were Jewish, you felt like a second class citizen—did they coach how you should behave, say things—
DC: Well that was, they didn’t have to explicitly do it, you just, you know, there was this [hutunieu] so you were modest, you held back, you did not speak of these things, you know. I think, a lot of the Jews in Morocco—and I hope I don’t generalize too freely—but there was this sense of certain things you don’t talk about too much outside, you don’t talk about Jews too much on the street, you know. Besides things that people don’t talk about much, you know, you don’t talk about politics, you don’t talk about the king, unless you want to say something nice, you don’t talk about these things too much, which is what probably people in any kind of mild, you know, mild authoritarian dictatorship or so on learned to do. But in addition, you don’t talk about Judaism on the street. You certainly don’t go out in a [kippah] or anything like this, you have to be very careful about that. We just watched ourselves doing that. But when I was in school, in public school, about twice a year, someone would come into the classroom with a clipboard, and they would come into the classroom and thy would just, you know, they were either pat of the school of they were outsiders, and they would do a count, like this: “[speaking French]”. “How many Catholics are there?” “How many Jews are there in this class?” I think they wouldn’t ask about Muslims, but they would ask about things like this, you know. Usually, in the class, it was me and one other boy or so who were Jews, so I would raise my hand, and he would count, you had that distinct feeling here of, why is he doing this, why does he need to know this, is this relevant to what you think that he has to do or—so there was this sense of, why are they asking these minority groups, so—I felt singled out that way, but I didn’t see that as anti-Semitism, I just saw it as, why is he doing this, why is he counting us?
Now, if you ask my brother, my brother I know was, you know, beaten up by kids who yelled dirty Jew at him when he was 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, but yes, those stories, I heard of them both in Fez and in Rabat. And my parents also went through things where they, so and so said this to me, and also we had a couple of little pogroms, but that was in the beginning of the 20th century , in Fez you had these [speaking French], this three day major—the bloody days of Fez. And my grandmother, my mother’s mother, was sheltered—that was I think in 1912—was sheltered as a very young child in a basement, by her parents, when this went on. So there’s that story, definitely. So she—that’s my grandmother—survived. They closed the doors, they had people there to try and bribe the crowds away, there were at least forty, fifty who got killed, at least. They sacked, and then the French, and some of the soldiers of one of the sultans eventually protected them, after three days and so on of the pillaging and sacking of the Jewish quarter in Fez. And so my grandmother was a child, and there was that story, that she survived, and that her father protected her and so on and so forth.
HG: Were you told about—do not talk about Israel—?
DC: Yes, absolutely. You do not talk about Israel, you do not talk about Jewish things too much, and that’s it, but at home it was discussed all the time.
HG: When you came to Montreal, can you describe what that experience was like?
DC: First of all, we came to Montreal with the help of the Jewish Immigrants’ Aid Services, JIAS, which was, I think, sponsored our—I think they paid for part of our tickets, and they, we arrived there in Montreal, and we were sent to a residence which was actually a basement on, at the time it was called Dorchester Street, it was renamed [Boulevard Rene Levesque], in downtown Montreal, of, under I think it was a hotel. And it was this very large, huge, two rooms, large, with, almost like a small dormitory for a family of seven who arrived there. And I remember the very first day, arriving there, taking our suitcases, being in Montreal, and going out to the store with my sister to get some salt, get a couple of spices, because my mom was going to cook something—either we went, or had gotten some eggs or something, but we were gonna start to cook something right there, that first day, to feed the kids, we had just gotten off the plane—and I went to the store with my sister, to go get some salt, and we were trying to practice—where is the salt, and I remember we were out, saying that out loud on the street, we will be asking this, but we got into this place with rows, in this mini supermarket, we found the salt ourselves, it was packaged in plastic and things, it was all new. All this was new to me.
So, that was it, we arrived there, and that summer, that very summer, within a couple of weeks, I went to a Jewish camp, camp [woodenacres]. Wonderful! At first—yea, camp [woodenacres], that’s what it was called—and then later went to, next year, as a 10, 11 year old, went to a camp called [neighbor], and it was funded by the Jewish community, and I had initial difficulty in integrating, I didn’t speak a word of English of course, I knew “Yes,” “No,” I don’t even think I knew “Yes No,” I knew nothing. And so that was ten and a half, quick learner, it was a difficult couple of weeks, but they had a counselor, who was a French speaking counselor, I think from France, and he was one of the counselors, and I was in his bunk, I had some difficulties with some of the other kids at first—because I was different, you know, didn’t speak the language—but I learned quickly, I integrated, like any kid dealing with any circumstance I never though, never looked back, never wondered, but realized how different this country was, how free.
And then I went to school in the fall, so July arrived, went to camp for a couple of weeks, they gave us a voucher, JIAS I think, and we went to a store, and I got a pair of jeans, I think, a little plastic poncho, a couple of t shirts, because we had nothing. And then, within a month or so, we had moved into an apartment, and I think we, within a week or so we had a TV set, and you know, my dad found something to do, but he was not seriously gainfully employed for several months, it was really difficult. But, I went to school, and I encountered freedom, freedom as a child, you could even put your feet maybe on the desk, or you could sit back in your chair. You didn’t have to put your finger up if you wanted to speak in class, you could even talk loud to one of your classmates. Where I went to school, you didn’t do that, and also teachers didn’t hit you. In Morocco, still when I went to school in the 60’s, they hit kids. I got hit a couple of times, I didn’t even mention it to my parents because it was such a shameful thing to be—but they punished us a couple of times, made us hold books, and stand in a corner, stuff like that, which, you know, that’s ok standing in the corner but there was some physical abuse, and punishment of the children in the classrooms even as I was growing up.
HG: You went to a French school, public or Jewish, or—
DC: French Protestant school, because in Quebec you had the Protestant school system and the Catholic school system, and if you were not Catholic it was much harder to go to—and so the Catholics were French, and everybody else went to the Protestant school, the Asians, whoever was not Catholic went to the Protestant system which was by definition English. Even though we were French, we spoke French, we thought we would go to a French school, it was a big surprise to go to the English school, big surprise for me, because we thought we would go to the French school, and that was—I had these headaches, I would come at home wondering—but I picked up English real quick, in fact so quickly, so well, that I was given a prize for having learned English so fast, at the end of the year, they had this ceremony, these awards, and they called out my name, for being just the number one fastest kid who picked up English so fast, because I had to go to school an extra hour early in the morning for that remedial English class—very nice teacher, me and a couple of other kids, maybe from Morocco also, maybe another Morocco kid, another kid was from china, we went on hour early and got that extra English class, you know, ABCDEFG, that’s how, at the age of 10, I began to learn the alphabet that way, and learning to read and pronounce but I was doing very well in spelling.
I remember the first test I didn’t even speak the language, and I remember spelling and getting 24 out of 25 on the language test in English, I didn’t even know the words, but just the sound and the French, and my sister saw this and went to school the next day, and the next day after that they raised me up a grade. They put me in sixth grade because they put me in fifth grade, and my sister said no, he’s done fifth grade, and look at his test, and whatever it was, my sister advocated for me, Rina, you know, she was really good that way, she said, you know, he’s really a smart boy, look what he does without knowing English, look how he—just by figuring out, and he can spell without knowing the words.
HG: Did you go to a Jewish school also?
DC: No, did not go to a Jewish school. Just, you know, and then a year later I went to Quebec City, because my dad had found a job in Quebec City.
HG: What kind of job?
DC: He found a job at the Ministry of Natural Resources, which was, he did what he was doing in Morocco, the last few years in Rabat he was sort of, the, the chief, you know, statistician, recorder, [French] as they would say. You know, he would be the guy who knew the entire production of phosphates and minerals of the state of Morocco, the kingdom of Morocco, and this was his thing. You know, he wrote about it, and he put it in ledgers, he did the annual reports, and he counted, whatever, for the state, and he found something extremely similar in Quebec with the government in Quebec City, capital of Quebec. And that’s what he did until he retired.
HG: Do you have memories of 1967, which was Canada’s—
DC: Vivid memories. You mean the Six Day War?
HG: Six Day War, and the Confederation.
DC: The Confederation. Yea, we were singing the songs, and we were celebrating, at Expo 67 in Montreal. I remember going with my sister, and getting, my parents got passports, for the Expo, you could get passports for an extended visit, this was such a big deal, Expo, because you know it’s so international, we were going to go to the Israel pavilion, and the Morocco pavilion, and the French pavilion, and the Buckminster-Fuller geodesic dome, it was the 60’s, and oh yea, so, such an opening to the world, and it was so amazing to be in Canada at the time. And the confederation, we would sing this song we learned in school—Canada, one little two little three little Canadians, we love thee, now we are twenty, something like that. This song, that we were singing as schoolboys, that we learned, as children. So I remember the 60s very well, and I remember the Six Day War, and my father, he immediately got himself involved in television, because he was a French speaker. Quebec City, small Jewish community, no native French speaker Jew that anyone had ever met. Most people didn’t even imagine that you could speak French and be a Jew, because the community was sort of a post, was an Ashkenazi, Anglophone type of community with some people that came after WWII, so the idea of a native born, French educated speaker who was also Jewish was new to them.
So my father immediately got on TV and radio, defending and exposing the Israel position, what it meant and why it was important. And he was interviewed all over the place, and he also eventually got very involved, in conferences—and he would go to these convents, he was often the first Jew to ever walk into some of these convents, where he spoke about Judaism, and he taught them what it was about. He had Seders, he led Seders with priests and nuns who had never spoken in French, or maybe even never spoken to a Jew that they had met, and he became president of the Judeo-Christian, the sort of friendship association, and he became the president of that in Quebec City, he gave dozens of talks, he wrote about that.
HG: Did you remain a traditional family in terms of celebrating Shabbat?
DC: We did, yes, absolutely. Except that the kids, my sister in 1968, both went to Israel. They got admitted to the Hebrew University, they both applied, you know, the kids are smart. And I’m not speaking for myself, you know, my brothers and sisters, they were all smart. We were a bright family. And so, so, they, my sisters was doing extremely well as a psychologist, she got a [bursary] and everything, and both sisters, they had won literary prizes even as teenagers in Montreal, they wrote, they did things, and they applied to Hebrew University and they got accepted, and they got scholarships from the, from the Canadian friends of Hebrew University. And they, both went in 1968, and they studied, and then they made their lives. They met people, boys, men, and they made their lives and stayed in Israel ever since.
HG: So they made Aliyah?
DC: Well, they made Aliyah, yes. First they came back, and then they would visit a few times, and ultimately they just settled in Israel, and basically.
HG: Where do they live now?
DC: My one sister lives in Yavne, not too far from Tel Aviv, after living in different places, but that’s where she settled, she has children now and such. And my other sister, got married, she has children, lives in Metula, that’s in the upper northern part of Israel, my brother Henry quickly went to Montreal around the age of 18. Went to [CJAP], went to college—no, he went to [CJAP], and then he worked in a bank and then eventually after years, after he got married, went back to school, and he’s on top of the food chain in neuropsychology and Parkinson’s disease and whatever, so he’s very accomplish. And one of my sisters, she’s the chief psychologist in one of the hospitals in Israel, she’s in charge of teaching the residents, and she has her own private practice, and another sister is a neurolinguist and psycholinguist and has invented her own tests for learning education and so forth, and still today is sort of the CSO in a business that creates, sort of, games, educational tests to enhance cognitive function.
HG: And yourself? What do you do?
DC: I’m a professor in the field, I guess you could say, of the sociology of health. I’m in the school of social work, and I straddle sociology and psychology, and public health, so I’m sort of in between a number of fields. All of us are in these psychological kind of—I have a sister who is kind of a psychodynamic kind of practitioner, one who’s into psycholinguistics, my brother is a neuropsychologist, and I’m a sort of social psychologist, you could say. So we all, I don’t know why we’re around that, but that’s the way it worked out.
HG: When you go back and think in terms of—you went to Quebec, you went to a Protestant school in Quebec—
DC: Protestant school.
HG: English Protestant school.
DC: English Protestant school. Elementary school for a year, and then a high school called Quebec High School, which I loved, I have fond memories of that place. And then I went to [CJAP], which is college intermediary, and then I went to Carlton University in Ottawa for a year of journalism, and then I studied psychology for two years at McGill University, and then I traveled around South America for a while, I started working, and then I became a social worker, and I worked for a few years in a juvenile court, in a family agency, as a community organizer, and then I went to get a Master’s in Social Work, again at Carlton in Ottawa, and then I worked for a bit, and then I decided that I really wanted to pursue and study and, you know, maybe be—I didn’t know if I wanted to be in an academic setting, but I went and got a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in the mid 80’s, and then I became a professor at University of Montreal, in the late 80’s, and I’ve been in that academic field ever since.
HG: When you were growing up in Quebec City, what was the relationship between—you talked about your father being very active. But did you have experience of French Canadians yourself, and were they good, or was there any anti-Semitism, or—
DC: I would say that they were good. Any anti-Semitism was—there was some anti-Semitism, but an anti-Semitism born out of very, just, ignorance, mild, a kind of strange curiosity or beliefs that people attributed to you—but don’t you people do this, and so on and so forth. There was one incident in the schools, where I opened my locker—I think I must’ve been 13 or 14, so it must’ve been ‘68, maybe ‘67… Maybe it was around the time of the Six Day War, possibly. And I opened my locker—we had these lockers, with locks—somebody had managed to get into my locker, even though I had my combination—so somebody—and a couple of friends must’ve known my combination—so somebody must’ve managed to find out what the combo was, got in my locker. And on the door of the locker, it said—in English, of course, it said—you Jew, ha ha. And the letters were dripping, you know, kind of had dried, and I opened my locker and I saw that, it was the first time really, I felt, that somebody was targeting me for something—me, personally. Before that, I knew that some people didn’t like Jews, but to be personally—somebody had taken an effort for me, and it was honestly one of my classmates, but that’s the only time that I felt something directed personally at me. It was mild, minor, nothing, I forgot about it the next day. But it did take a while to scrape off, a while. That’s it.
HG: When the Party Quebecois was starting to become much more active, and their policy was one of separation, where did your family, where did Sephardic communities stand on this?
DC: Well, that’s a good question. Because there were differences of opinion within my immediate family, there were differences of opinion within the Sephardic community. As a rule, I knew that the Sephardic community, the people that I knew, were not in favor of separation. We were very sympathetic, and very interested, and very puzzled, and very intrigued, not by separation—not so much by separation, but by the idea of this autonomous native population of people, you know—native basically in the sense of native to the country—who wanted more autonomy, and who wanted to express themselves, and who felt attached to their language, and felt attached to their culture, because that’s us! We were attached to something that, even without knowing it, we had lost. We didn’t speak about it so much, but, eventually as I grew up I realized, there was something that I was attached to that I lost, that was broken. And in fact, leaving, when I did, has been a defining feature of my life. I have realized, thirty or forty years later, without being aware of it, it’s defined everything I do. It’s defined who I am, how I live, how I think, how I eat, it’s been defined by the fact that I lived in on place, I suddenly left it, and I went to other places. That has been a defining feature of my life.
So, we were intrigued, and sympathetic to that. However, we realized that it could not, it might not be good for the Jews to have a nationalist movement, when we had the FLQ crisis in 1970 in Montreal and Quebec and so forth, I remember that well, I remember seeing the soldiers, I remember traveling to—Quebec City we didn’t have too much, but I remember traveling to Montreal at the time because my brother Henry lived in Montreal. I would go visit him regularly, every few weekends, at the time we even hitchhiked, we hitchhiked to Montreal from Quebec and so forth, and I remember going and seeing the soldiers on a few streets, near the museum, near the mount royal, and the bombs, that—when the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister Laporte was killed, executed, that was, it seemed like it was just—not acceptable. This was dangerous, this could veer, but, so there was that sense of, hey, this could be like what we left, when there was some nationalism in Morocco, when some Jews got swept up into that, when some people were sent to jail, and there were two famous Morocco Jews who were in jail at the time, only freed much later, in the 80’s, much later, so we had these, it evoked fear but yet, we liked the Quebecois. I liked the Quebecois, they were the nut—Canadians, as a rule, include the nicest people in the world!
And I was so proud when I became a Canadian in 1970, or in ‘71 I became a Canadian citizen I remember, going in that courtroom, and there was a Bible, and there was a Bible with Hebrew in it, they had a Bible, that they had gotten from the congregation, and that’s where I put my hand and swore, whatever it was, allegiance to the Queen I think it was, at that time, and I became a Canadian citizen, and I was feeling, what a country, that it’s welcomed us, we’re going to school. Ok, it’s cold, but what a place, such warmth, such friendliness, people who helped us, and they’re saying you can reimburse us, whatever. It was fantastic, such—you know, I felt—best people in the world, Canadians.
HG: So did you—do you feel more Sephardic, or Quebecois, or—
DC: No, I don’t feel Quebecois, because it would, I was never made to feel Quebecois. Because, at the time, there was always astonishment, first of all. I did not speak with a Quebecois accent, I spoke with a French accent. Which was not really a French accent, it was a French Morocco Jewish accent. But nevertheless, having been away from Jewish Morocco as I was speaking French in Quebec City and with my family, my accent sounded French. And there was always, where you from, and you’re French. And I say, no, I’m Morocco, and they say, Cohen, Cohen, that’s Jewish. And, so, people always question, try to place me in their own map. Jewish, French, Jewish but not speaking English, French but no Quebecois, so there’s always having to situate myself, and explain, and justify who I was, and why my name is like that and why I spoke French, over and over and over again, until the day I left, really, until—even though I must’ve spent thirty years, there was always that, until the last few years, people were used to the fact that, you know—but so as a child, as a youth, you couldn’t feel Quebecois, there was no way. There was no way to feel Quebecois, because I didn’t speak Quebecois, I was going to an English school, and they were proud of, and, they were at first somewhat closed. But, the nicest people around—Canadians really are the nicest, the best people around. And it is, maybe, the best country in the world.
HG: Sephardic. Is Sephardic part of your identity?
: Of my identity? Yes. Sephardic simply in a sense of I happened to be a Jew who happened to be born and raised in Morocco, and because of that, I happened to have been exposed to something that some people call Sephardic. Now, there is a Sephardic element, a literal Sephardic element for instance that I didn’t realize that, but, the Spanish element, In 1993 I was in Spain, I was giving a series of lectures, it was the northernmost part of Spain, A Coruña, the west, in Galicia, and I went into a restaurant and I was given a little voucher to order whatever the meal was. And they were serving fish ball, balls made of ground fish, and I remember sitting there and it looked familiar, and I tasted it, and I could swear that my mother had been in that kitchen and had made that, because it tasted exactly like when my mother, the few times she made fish balls—it was that, it wasn’t like that, it was it! And I realized immediately that that, there was a connection to Spain, we were Spanish Jews. There it was. Such a meal could not have been made by my mother if there was no Spanish connection. It looked the same, it tasted the same, and I was like, my God we really are, these traditions have been kept alive, and my mother, taught by her own mother, or her sister who was taught by her mother, that’s what she cooked. And I could see it, we were Spanish Jews. And I realized it most fully in 1993, when I tasted it. So clearly there is something Sephardi, Spanish, in that background, I was made in that too. And, I learned about, even before that golden age of Jewry, at least—
HG: Did you go to a Sephardic synagogue in Quebec City—
DC: There was no such thing, there was only one synagogue, and it was Ashkenazi. We were the only Sephardic family there for twelve years, there may have been families that visited, but none that came and stayed. There was the [Bubbot], who were then, I think, in Israel, and he came maybe a year after… they had two young children, we were friends with them, there was another, Maybe later on, a few other Sephardim, and moved to Quebec City, but for ten, twelve years we’re the only one. We were an object of curiosity, really, because my father was who he was, and when he said prayers, when he was called forward to read the Torah, he had this accent, really, this Sephardi accenting, and he knew Hebrew so well, so that he just stood out that way by his uh, you know, that way he carried himself, and he stayed Sepharad, that was his culture and he was proud of it, but he was just at ease with the regular world, as you would say.
HG: When you’re in Miami, do you go to a Sephardic synagogue?
DC: When I’m in Miami, I almost always go to a Sephardic synagogue. I don’t go to synagogue too often, but when I do go, for certain holidays, I go to Sephardic synagogue, because nothing else really has meaning for me. If I’m going to go to synagogue, it has to be what I grew up with—that’s what I grew up with, otherwise there’s no point, that’s what defined me in terms of the rituals. So if I’m gonna go to do something as a ritual, I’m gonna participate in that, it has to be the ritual that first had meaning to me. Later on, the later forms of the rituals don’t have as much meaning for me. So it has to be the one that I was first exposed to. So, that’s the Sephardic Morocco ritual. Not even the Sephardi Morocco, but the Sephardi Iraqi, or the Egyptian, ritual, or whatever, but the Sephardic Morocco, because the Jews and the melodies just bring me right back, to where I was as a child, right back, to this. And it hasn’t changed, you know, when I go into one of those Sephardi synagogues, I’m thrown right back into, into childhood in Morocco.
HG: Did you find when you were growing up in Quebec City that, because you were—you had this—you were the anomaly as a Sephardic family, you weren’t Quebecois, did you have the same kind of feeling that you had in Morocco that you were like the other in a way?
DC: Yes, totally. I don’t know how else to say it. This is—you’re getting to a deep area, in the sense of—being other, for better or for worse, is again another defining feature of, I would like to say the Jewish experience, clearly my experience. Being other in Morocco, although it was a wonderful other, being a child in Morocco was paradise, as I would like to say, then in Quebec City, definitely other, a different kind of Jew to the Jews, a different kind of Quebecois Canadian whatever to the others, and in my own family aa different kind of person because, as many immigrants, the children are the bridge and the buffer between the parents and the rest of the world, you know, a lot of immigrant families, it’s the children who do most of the negotiating with the outside world, even though my parents were totally, as integrated as they could be, still the children are always going to beat them. So, in a sense, your whole family is other and you’re other to the rest of your family, because as I was more involved and, making that bridge to the, between the outside world and the family world even more than others, because I was younger and therefore more involved with the rest of the world, a bit more at ease with all the axioms, the Quebecois, the this and that that I could play with, or practice, so you’re other in your family, you’re other in your immediate community, you’re other, yes, definitely.
And that’s why, I think that, a lot of my work has been fruitful, because of that other experience that I can bring. First of all, other. When you see two well-functioning societies, but that don’t observe the same rules but each one functions well on its own, what a perspective. To go to one place and see that it works well, and to go to the other place and it functions completely differently, but it still works! And to know that, to be in the middle, to see them both, my god, how, what a rich experience that I’m so grateful for, because that’s what I apply to everything I do, my work, my academic work, and it’s wonderful, I wish everybody could have that because that’s, I think they would understand things differently. Not better, but differently. And that’s so rich, and that’s because I was an other.
HG: But, is your understanding of Miami the same—you’ve now been here ten years, so, would you describe it with the same kind of—
DC: Everywhere I go, I think I have felt that people have defined me according to their understanding of who I am, which is according to their own—and I’m never the same, in the different places. So, they don’t quite catch me for who I am, they only catch me for who, they want me to be. And so, in Miami, I think I am in the—it depends on who’s looking at me. So I think in the eyes of the surrounding more, what we might say Latino community maybe, I’m a, you know, I’m sort of possibly, and I’m thinking sociologically now, I’m probably a, just a Jew from Miami Beach, because Miami beach has probably, you know, I don’t know, probably 50% or 40% of the households, maybe 30% Jewish, and so, and there’s, they don’t have to figure out more about me except that, oh they realize that maybe my accent, when I do speak Spanish sometimes, is not a—so they know I’m not Spanish, but then they know that there’s Cuban Jews, but I’m not Cuban, so there’s something that—so I’m positioned in something else. When I was in—so here it’s, I think there’s a very heavy sense here of where you come from, what your country is, because of all the ethnicities, and all the Central American countries, and are you Venezuelan, or Colombian, or Dominican, or Cuban, and all these things, I think it’s stronger here, than I’ve ever felt anywhere before. It’s a different, a different kind of environment than anything I’ve lived in, any other environment I’ve lived in.
HG: What message would you like to give to anyone who might listen to this interview?
DC: Message? None. No message whatsoever, there is no message. Since you explained to me a little bit at the beginning, before the interview, the purpose, some of the purposes of your interview, that many Jews, probably most of the Jews who left Arab lands have never formally talked of their experiences and formally described their leaving, and I think that, again, as I said it, that leaving has been a defining feature of my life, and—it has been a huge loss, but it has been an immense gain, you know, because that’s just what happened. It’s a loss and a gain at the same time, and at least I’m fortunate to have the choice to emphasize the loss when I want to, and to emphasize the gain when I want to. So maybe other people are not so fortunate, because they—to them it’s been mostly a loss, and they’ve just had to adapt with great difficulty to the new part, and for others it’s just been a gain and they’re so happy, that they left, something that was maybe oppressive and backward, but for most maybe I think it’s mixed.
HG: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
DC: You’re welcome, thank you very much for the opportunity.