Her name was Dina & she served us some leftover hamin (Moroccan cholent), in which every garbanzo bean tasted like it had been cooked individually to perfection.
As we sat in her kitchen, I couldn't help noticing the massive placard of Birkat Hamazon taped to the wall next to the kitchen table, similar to what you find in some schools. Above was a handwritten sign saying: Rosh Chodesh today – ya'aleh v'yavo!!!
Ya'aleh v'yavo is a special prayer inserted within Birkat Hamazon (and Shemoneh Esrei) in honor of Rosh Chodesh.
That's odd, I thought. Her youngest in his 20s. Why does she need such a large placard by the table?
She must have put it up for her grandchildren, I figured.
Nice. She initially impressed me as more traditional than religious – the type that keeps Shabbat and kashrut, but isn't always knowledgeable in other areas – but apparently she's more knowledgeable & serious about her mitzvah observance than she appeared. Very impressive.
At the time, I also didn't realize she was covering her hair because the shaitel she wore was a very realistic copy of the bordeaux-colored hair popular among older Sefardi women in Eretz Yisrael.
Then I noticed a sign on her fridge: Rosh Chodesh today – don't forget ya'aleh v'yavo!
And on her upper kitchen cabinet, I saw another handwritten sign: Remember – ya'aleh v'yavo!
I was no longer so sure the massive Birkat Hamazon with its accompanying Rosh Chodesh reminder was for her grandchildren because signs on refrigerators & kitchen cabinets are usually for oneself and not for the grandchildren.
Then we moved into the artfully decorated living room, where I saw another massive placard of Birkat Hamazon taped to the azure wall next to the dining room table.
That's definitely unusually because many people don't wish to affect their living room-dining room look with a massive placard of Birkat Hamazon.
I realized that in this home, Birkat Hamazon was of the utmost importance.
And this placard also sat under another handwritten admonishment to remember to say ya'aleh v'yavo.
I realized it must be for her.
Just to make sure, I politely asked her about it.
With a self-conscious yet contented little laugh, she admitted that yes, it was for her. Still, self-conscious she murmured something about how it's just her thing.
"Nice," I enthused. "Very nice, actually."
In all my life, I had never seen someone so concerned about forgetting to say ya'aleh v'yavo during Birkat Hamazon.
Impressed, I wondered where her dedication to ya'aleh v'yavo came from.
And I think I got the answer several years later on the way to a family wedding.
The Long-Lasting Influence of "Beis Yaakov" of Tangier, Morocco
Not only did I like Dina, she also had the most beautiful French-Ladino accent on her Hebrew, making her even more of a pleasure to listen to.
Also, whenever I find myself with my husband's older female family members, I always try as gently as I can to get them to tell me about their lives back in Morocco.
Usually, they're a bit hesitant due to Moroccan culture being looked down on by Ashkenazi (mostly secular) Israelis as primitive. Sometimes, their own children make fun of them for it. The fact that for many (maybe even most) Moroccan Jews, Arabic is their main mother-tongue didn't help things.
(It's a very Jewish-style Arabic however – it's not Judeo-Arabic, but more like yeshivish English.)
Some cover it up by emphasizing their knowledge of French, but the majority of Moroccan Jews I've met are more comfortable speaking Arabic.
But once you show you're open-minded and even eager (though not too eager, because that can be kind of demeaning too), they usually open right up.
Dina had grown up in Meknes speaking French and Arabic. Then her parents sent her to the Jewish girls school in Tangier, where they spoke Ladino.
Dina was of that age which some girls attended school and some didn't. And no offense to the romanticized image of the pious unlearned Moroccan woman (who did exist, but that type was more characteristic of the generation above Dina), but in Dina's generation, there is a sharp difference between the ones who received a Jewish education and the ones who didn't.
The ones who didn't are often traditional, but not necessarily so pious or so knowledgeable.
I know how weird that sounds because their own mothers were pretty knowledgeable in the areas they needed to be. So why didn't it get passed down to their daughters without a formal education? I'm not sure. I think it has to do with the same ruach that affected the Jewish girls in Europe pre-WWII. The Beis Yaakov girls were stunning in their knowledge, middot, and mesirut nefesh. But most of the girls who did not manage to receive a good formal Jewish education did not end up the same way as the Beis Yaakov girls, even if they had pious mothers. Some did, but most did not.
But the Moroccan women you'll meet who received a solid Jewish education in Morocco are incredibly committed.
Anyway, I asked Dina if it was Beis Yaakov, and she said it wasn't exactly a branch of Beis Yaakov, but it was very similar to Beis Yaakov.
Because these were sheltered Jewish girls from good families living away from home in a dorm in a country where neither Jews nor females had many rights, the school really watched over the girls like their own daughters.
Dina recalls that in addition to the warmth of the teachers, there were also madrichot (counselors) in the dormitory (which was in the same building as the school, I think). Because girls married by age 18 in Morocco at that time, the madrichot weren't much older than the students, and they were more like big sisters to the students.
One of Dina's warmest memories of her school was Rosh Chodesh.
On Rosh Chodesh, all the girls would get together and produce a meal fitting for Rosh Chodesh, along with a variety of the tasty little Moroccan pastries you see at their simchahs until today.
Then they would all sit down to eat and sing piyutim (poetic Hebrew love songs to Hashem written by holy rabbis), including special piyutim for Rosh Chodesh.
And I realized that this solid foundation in Yiddishkeit is what held Dina so firmly throughout all the years and transitions.
She covered her hair even when it was uncomfortable & unfashionable to do so, like among secular upper-class people who already looked down on her for being Moroccan.
While I normally don't admire shaitels that are indistinguishable from real hair, I feel that in Dina's situation, it's a tremendous virtue & I admire her so much for it.
It shows her mesirut nefesh for covering her hair. In her situation, there was no other comfortable way to do it.
And now her unique dedication to ya'aleh v'yavo also made sense.
The "Beis Yaakov" of Tangier managed to ingrain into their students a profound appreciation of Rosh Chodesh – a monthly holiday with a special emphasis for women.
And that quiet impact still reverberates many decades later.