In Morocco 's mountains, elderly Jew watches the shrine of his holy rebbe

BRYAN SCHWARTZ

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

OURIKA VALLEY , Morocco -- Hananiyah Elfassie is the last Berber Jew in the Ourika Valley of Morocco's High Atlas Mountains, two hours by bus from Marrakech.

He used to have visitors during Passover -- pilgrims, in fact.

This year, it may take a miracle. But for Elfassie, miracles are a part of daily life.

"They came from all over to visit," boasts the dark-complexioned, white-bearded Elfassie in Arabic, adjusting his pointy, knit skullcap. "They arrived from America , France , Spain -- and of course Israel . They said prayers, burned candles and asked the tzaddik for miracles."

The tzaddik is Rabbi Shlomo ben Hensh, dead 500 years but still revered like a saint. Elfassie has devoted the last 24 years of his life to guarding the tzaddik's tomb.

These days, few visit Elfassie and his tzaddik to ask for blessings. Israeli tourism to Morocco halted with the onset of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, and American and Western European tourism has slowed to a trickle since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States .

But the spirit of the tzaddik has survived many crises during his five centuries interred in the Ourika Valley .

Most members of the Moroccan Berber tribes are Muslim today. However, some North African Berbers, like Elfassie's ancestors, were Jewish before Arab conquerors arrived here more than 1,300 years ago.

Like their Muslim counterparts, who revere each departed holy man, Jewish Berbers always made the commemoration of tzaddiks a cornerstone of their religious life.

Today, commemoration is not merely life's cornerstone for Elfassie -- it is life.

Fifty years ago, he says, Ourika had 300 Jewish families, two synagogues, Jewish schools, rabbis to perform circumcisions, bar mitzvahs and weddings, and plenty of kosher food and matzah.

Elfassie worked the Ourika Valley 's olive presses in those days and traded Jewish crafts with local Berber Muslims.

Then his family and friends joined a wave of Moroccan emigration to Israel in the 1950s and '60s. Eventually, only Elfassie, his mother, Sa'ada, and his wife, Yamna, remained.

Sa'ada, who was born in Ourika and devoted her life to guarding the tzaddik, died in 1978. Elfassie and Yamna assumed sole responsibility for the rabbi's tomb.

Two years ago, after more than 40 years of marriage, Yamna died. The couple never had children.

Now, Elfassie is alone with three graves -- those of his wife, his mother and the man they stayed in Ourika to watch, the tzaddik.

"There are still many tombs of tzaddikim around Morocco ," Elfassie says. "Some are being forgotten, but I cannot forget my tzaddik."

Elfassie begins recounting the legend of Rabbi ben Hensh: "More than five centuries ago, he came from Palestine , crossing the desert and mountains for three months on a mule.

"He was coming to collect tzedakah donations to bring with him back to the Holy Land . On the road from Marrakech to Ourika, some men tried to kill him and steal everything, but the first miracle happened.

"Though he was about to die from his wounds, Rabbi ben Hensh turned into a snake and hissed from the back of the mule to protect his possessions. The bandits ran away terrified," Elfassie says.

"So the snake turned back into the rabbi, and he rode to the Ourika River ," he continues. "It is customary for Jews to wash a dead man and wrap him up before he is buried. But the rabbi was alone, so he had to wash and wrap himself before he died. Then he climbed his mule and said he would be buried where the mule stopped walking.

"But it was Friday," Elfassie says. "The sun was going to set, to begin Shabbat. It is forbidden to ride on Shabbat, the day of rest."

Elfassie proudly elaborates whatever Jewish knowledge he has retained against the forces of time and isolation. He remembers few standard Hebrew prayers, and reading in any language is a struggle for him, but Elfassie said Kaddish daily for his wife and mother after they died.

"Then another miracle happened," he continues. "The sun stopped going down."

He explains: "It is also forbidden to carry on Shabbat, even for a mule. But with the sun stopped, it was OK, and the mule came to this spot."

Elfassie points to the tomb before him, lined with stacks of Hebrew prayer books contributed by foreign visitors. The room is filled with a soft glow that permeates three windows divided into purple and gold panes.

"The tzaddik buried himself here."

The primitive, ancient grave is covered with a raised, white marble tomb donated by expatriate Moroccan Jewish devotees in 1976.

The Elfassies always felt that the tzaddik's bizarre story was their most pressing Jewish reality. Although the Elfassies often considered leaving the Ourika Valley , and once spent two months in Israel , their departure was impeded by a shared, recurring dream.

Both Yamna and Elfassie saw a snake, which became a stick and blocked the door. They believed the vision was a sign.

"The tzaddik does not want his grave to be lost," Elfassie explains. "Insh'allah," he says in Arabic, "May it be God's will that someone will come to protect the tomb when I die."

He places his Jewish faith in God's will, but calls God by the Islamic name "Allah."

Elfassie usually only travels from Ourika to Marrakech to attend synagogue on the High Holy Days with the 240 remaining Jews there, or to buy kosher meat. Soon he will make the long bus trip for the Passover seders.

Elfassie clings to the hope that ben Hensh's spell is strong enough to attract visitors to Ourika during this Passover season, despite the global political situation. But even more, Elfassie hopes that new protectors will take his place preserving the tzaddik's memory -- the last vestige of Berber-Jewish history in Morocco 's Ourika Valley .

It may take a miracle.