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What I learned about memory and inheritance and fallibility, in the land of my forebears

Oped

What I learned about memory and inheritance and fallibility, in the land of my forebears

Irin Carmon

My great-grandmother Mimi lost her mind from too much memory and found it at the rabbi’s grave. To cure her, my grandfather, just a boy, carried her weight on his shoulders two hours each way in the desert.

This is the story my grandfather told us about his childhood in Morocco, though by then he ceased to be a child except in age. I would make him tell it to me again and again in the summers, when we came to Israel for languorous months, or the autumns he and my grandmother would spend in New York, where we had lived since I was a toddler. As a child, I was sometimes afraid of my grandfather, who was fierce and precise, who had a low and rumbling voice, whose edges my grandmother energetically smoothed.

So I would ask him to tell me about Morocco. Some stories he told with a twinkle in his eye: how his grandmother once asked him how many eggs he wanted in his omelet, and when the 7-year-old boldly said 12, she gamely obliged; how his grandfather was rare among the Jews because he was allowed to farm grapes, and they would stomp on the grapes with their feet to make wine.

There was a lot he said he had forgotten, which I later understood to be a choice. He had forgotten how to speak Arabic. He had deleted from his mind so much about his childhood in Agadir, where his parents had migrated from the city of Essaouira, known then as Mogador, seeking opportunity. It wasn’t such a bad thing, to forget; they had a new country to build, all the Jews from around the world together, and no one believed more fervently than Meir Abihasera, from the moment in 1944 his sister’s boyfriend showed him a postcard of Herzl and told him the Holy Land was to be a real country.

And then nature did its own forgetting for him: In 1960, 10 years after he left, an earthquake leveled Agadir, killing about 12,000 people in minutes, including his family members. There’s still a city called Agadir, but the one he remembers is a pile of rocks, a mass grave.

I tried to imagine this place where graves could cure memory sickness. It had to be a magic land. I had little desire to visit the grim landscapes conjured by my European grandparents, whose worlds had been erased through man-made violence. The mysteries lay in Morocco, which people who were not my grandfather said was a paradise for the Jews. How could such a practical man, a man with no use for religion or anything that didn’t clear the bar for rational, believe that a rabbi’s grave had cured his mother? And it was said that my great-grandmother was both a Berber and a Jew. How could that be?

When I got a little older and became a journalist, I begged him to take me there and let me tell the story. I had the crassness of a reporter on the hunt, the necessary obtuseness to probe for more pain. He refused. He wouldn’t go, he said—over and over. His city was gone. Only a few graves remained. “I was never a Moroccan Jew,” he would remind me. “I was a Jew in Morocco.”

I didn’t understand it. My parents had left Israel, the country of their birth, the country my grandfather had endured beatings and imprisonment to reach, though even today my mother will tell you she never really left. But we always came back. Why couldn’t he?

Last year, I decided to go to Morocco myself, while my grandfather could still tell me the stories and draw me maps on napkins. There was a part of me that thought he might change his mind about coming with me, but it turns out he isn’t one to change his mind. He did agree to let me come to his carefully arranged apartment in Rehovot, where he still dreams of my grandmother being alive and at his side again. There, he glanced sideways at my notebook. “You can record,” he said, “but you have to erase it.”

“This is not fiction; it’s a true story.”

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