Bridging Time, Distance and Distrust, With Music


She grew up in Netivot, a relatively poor town of Sephardic Jews in southern Israel. Their language, music and food survived in such places — until her parents sent her to boarding school when she was 14, Ms. Elkayam said, she did not know any Ashkenazi Jews — but have faded with time.

Ms. Elkayam was very close to her father’s mother, who left Tinghir, an Amazigh village in the Atlas Mountains, in 1956. Sephardic immigrants struggled for years in Israel, and Ms. Elkayam said her grandmother lived inside her memories of home, never fully learning Hebrew or adapting to her new setting. She kept the rhythms of her pastoral life in Morocco, waking at 5 a.m., making bread every day and socializing with other Moroccan exiles.

“If it weren’t for the faith and religion and the memories, she wouldn’t have survived,” Ms. Elkayam said. “She lived like she was still in Tinghir. She had a neighbor she spoke Amazigh with. My grandmother wasn’t a happy person, but she was always singing.”

Ms. Elkayam’s parents, teachers who were born in Morocco but left when they were young, made their first trip back in 1996. She joked that they brought back nothing but pictures of the cemeteries Jewish tourists visit to trace their family histories.

“I never stopped hearing about Morocco,” she said. “We talked about Morocco all the time. Jewish immigrants from Morocco had a lot of troubles and difficulties. That’s why Morocco was always present in their memories.”

That longing and sense of displacement, which Ms. Elkayam inherited, is a constant theme in her work, as is a search for her own identity. She has been working hard on improving the Moroccan Arabic she sings in, and her music videos alternate images of Morocco and Israel.

About a million of Israel’s population of nine million are from Morocco or of Moroccan descent, one of the largest demographic groups in the country, and Ms. Elkayam has introduced many of them to the music of their forebears, including artists like the singer Zohra al-Fassiya. Ms. al-Fassiya was a huge star in the Maghreb in the mid-20th century, even performing for Morocco’s royal family. But she moved in 1962 to Israel, where she faded from view, dying in relative obscurity in 1994.



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