Jewish life in Morocco goes back more than 2,000 years. I learned that fact shortly after receiving an invitation in the mail to relive its unique cultural splendor.
The invite was to attend a Noche de Berberisca, a Jewish Moroccan pre-wedding ceremony, for my son and his bride, who is of Moroccan descent. The evening (Noche) honors the bride to be, who wears an intricately designed gown passed down through generations, as the couple is surrounded by family members who sing and offer blessings in celebration of the marriage.
The new bride’s Noche de Berberisca was held on the Friday night before the Sunday wedding at her uncle’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There our families came together, many of us meeting for the first time, to share in a multigenerational tradition of joy and to break bread.
Her family printed out a program that described what was to come: “The Night of the Berberisca is named after the sumptuous dress worn by the bride. It has its origins in the traditions of the Jews who came to Morocco from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century.”
“The ceremonial gown was part of the bride’s dowry transmitted from mother to daughter, from one generation to the next, serving as powerful evidence of the continuity of the Jewish people. The Berberisca gown is made of velvet and embroidered with gold. It wraps around the bride just like the traditional cover of the Sefer Torah. The patterns of the Bererbisca dresses are rich in symbolism, invoking the Hebrew alphabet, the sun, and the seven blessings recited in weddings.”
The program featured a watercolor of a bride in the Moroccan gown, called Traje de Berberisca, painted by her aunt, on the cover. On the back was a photograph of the first woman to wear the dress over 100 years ago.
The ceremonial dress, the Traje de Berberisca, was first worn by her great- grandmother in 1912 and traveled through the women in her family, including her aunt in 1974 and her cousin in 2010. To symbolize the bride leaving her home to be part of her future husband’s family, the bride to be was led through the apartment by a candlelit procession featuring a medley of spiritual songs in Ladino to meet her groom in the living room. Once the songs ended, we all enjoyed traditional and delicious Moroccan treats, including pastries made with honey and almonds.
I later learned that pre-impressionist artist Eugene Delacroix had painted a very similar scene in a painting, entitled “Jewish Wedding in Morocco,” in the 1830s after visiting Morocco and coming upon an outdoor wedding. Like the artist, I felt inspired by what I saw that magical night, and felt the need to share it in my own creative way. I also felt proud of this wedding celebration that would become a part of our growing family’s traditions.