What I Wish I Asked My Moroccan Sephardic Grandfather

When I think of my Papi, I spend so much more time thinking about what I don’t know about him than remembering what I do.

My grandfather poured tea with precision.

I remember watching him as a little girl, when we would visit my father’s parents in Paris.

Tea is a big deal for Moroccans. The preparation, the pouring, the sharing. It’s an art form: seeing how high you can hold the tea pot and how clean the pour is.

There’s a photo in an album somewhere that catches him in mid-pour. The tea pot is a good two or three feet above the tiny cups on the low coffee table. Not a drop of tea was splashed.

A perfect pour.

A few years ago, I realized that I had subconsciously valued my maternal grandfather’s story above my paternal grandfather’s. My mother’s father grew up in Germany and escaped Europe in 1941. Being able to say “my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor” got me nods of understanding and solidarity in the Jewish community that my unusual name, dark skin and father with an accent did not. Most people, Jewish or not, seemed to instantly understand that this distinction evoked a sense of resilience, strength and perseverance.

But leaning into the European side of the family story meant that I mostly ignored the other side. And that side represents just as much resilience, strength and perseverance — even if the casual observer doesn’t see it.

My father’s family are Sephardic Jews. Exiled from Spain in 1492, they landed in Morocco and stayed there for almost 500 years. But then, in the early 1960s, they left for France. I still don’t have the exact details of their departure, whether it was sudden or a long time coming, whether they felt relieved to go or whether they were full of fear and grief. I do know that they left in the middle of the night and that my father wasn’t able to say goodbye to his best friend.

When I think of my paternal grandfather, who I called Papi, I spend so much more time thinking about what I don’t know about him than remembering what I do.

Born in a small village in Morocco called Azemour, he made his way to the city of Casablanca at some point. I don’t know when or how or why he ended up there, but I imagine he found a sense of belonging in that bustling place. He owned a cafe on the “main drag” called Café de France. He married my grandmother and they had six sons. He was respected in his Jewish community.

But there must have been moments of feeling displaced, excluded, of being distinctly othered: In 1941, when he was added to the list of young Jewish men by the French Vichy authorities and issued a yellow identity card that said “Juif” (Jew). In the early 1960s when they decided to leave Morocco. When they finally left in the middle of the night in 1963. When they entered France as refugees. When he, like many North Africans, was incarcerated by the French authorities on the pretext of preventing the spread of tuberculosis. When he was kept in a hospital — separated from his wife and sons — for several months and given an experimental treatment that caused him to lose most of his hearing.

He lived the rest of his life in a gritty suburb of Paris. I imagine he felt most at home when loudly “discussing” things (i.e. arguing) with my grandmother in Moroccan Arabic or presiding over a Shabbat table full of children and grandchildren.

Though I sat around that table occasionally, I have to imagine all this. I remember him as a kindly figure who blessed me at my bat mitzvah family party in Israel and poured Moroccan mint tea with precision. But during those visits, we never had a real conversation.

In part, that was because of the language barrier and his deafness. And in part, it was because my father’s family doesn’t talk about feelings or other difficult topics like trauma and exile. I never got to ask my grandfather about any of his experiences, and, to be honest, I never really thought to ask either.

There are so many stories — those of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, in particular — that get dismissed or ignored. There are so many stories that don’t get told, but are still held inside people, families, communities and in the suitcases that never get unpacked. When we tune in and listen for what’s left unspoken, we can hear one fearful question repeated over and over: “Are we safe here?”

Reaching back to the untold stories opens up even more questions:

How do we hold and process the stories of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in a culture that has its eyes so firmly fixed on European history? How do we sort through the stories that have been passed down? How do we make sense of what’s missing? How do we cope with the trauma that has been passed, often silently, through the generations? How do we carve out spaces for stories that get willingly overlooked and dismissed as “less than?”

My few actual, not imagined, memories of my grandfather from when I was a child and a teenager mostly take place in my grandparents’ tiny apartment. The tiny kitchen was barely big enough for one person, but large enough for a huge jar of homemade variantes (pickled vegetables) on the windowsill and for my grandmother to produce a constant stream of delicious food, from delicate tea cookies to savory Moroccan fish and stews.

I regret what I didn’t know to ask about as a kid. Not that such regrets are helpful. But I know now that all the stories matter — especially the ones that don’t traditionally get airtime in Jewish spaces, or anywhere at all — and I wish I had stories directly from my grandfather.

These days, I drink tea daily, thousands of miles from both Morocco and France. In fact, I can’t remember a day without it. The choosing, the steeping, the blending of various dried herbs, the slowing down of my hectic life just long enough to make tea a meaningful ritual.

The smell of sweet mint tea always takes me back to my grandparents’ apartment. I imagine that photo of my grandfather, taken long ago: his perfect pour. Tea connects me to my heritage. But still, it’s like sharing a cup with an absence rather than a presence. It’s something, but it isn’t enough.

Maya Benattar

Maya Benattar (she/her) is a New York based music psychotherapist and writer. Her client work and her writing focus on how family stories, intergenerational trauma, and inherited sense of "otherness" shape the way we show up in the world.

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