Yamna Maxwell will celebrate her 90th birthday in Colorado Springs on Dec. 31, 2019. At least, that is the date her employer chose for her when she needed papers in order to work in Morocco, her birthplace and home. Maxwell is not certain about her actual date of birth.
Yamna Maxwell was born Mina Ettedgui to a Jewish family in the tiny village of Tizguine, not far from Marrakesh. The Jews there lived in a ghetto, under the protection of the king of Morocco.
Maxwell grew up in a house made of mud and slept on a straw mat. Her father, a leatherworker for Muslims, traveled for his vocation and did not send financial support home.
Her mother did odd jobs for anyone she could find who needed help. In return for her labor, the family was given food and other supplies. Her mother made her own couscous from wheat and her family’s clothes from the sheep’s wool she earned. Maxwell had five step-siblings and a brother.
When Maxwell was approximately seven or eight, her father returned home; she did not recognize him. Her mother would not allow him to enter their house.
That night her father stayed with a neighbor, and in the morning he was dead. She was not told the cause. Her neighbors reported that her father had told of a dream he had had in which a voice directed him to return home or die in a Muslim house.
In Tizguine, survival was difficult. The boys studied all day in the synagogue, but the girls were not permitted to do so. They roamed the streets during the daylight hours, begging food from neighbors. They were always hungry.
Maxwell says there was a waterfall in her neighbors’ yard and that camels lived in the field next to her house. Despite the stark conditions, the villagers became “like a family” and looked out for one another.
One day, a family on the street decided to move to Marrakesh and invited Maxwell to come to work. Maxwell’s mother agreed and allowed her to go. But she was treated harshly by her employers in Marrakesh.
She ate leftovers from their meals after they had finished eating and slept on a mat.
She carried buckets of water from the stream.
She wanted to return home, but had no way of doing so. Because her labors earned her only room and board, Maxwell did not know what money looked like.
While in Marrakesh, she met her first husband and had a son, Simon, at approximately 19. Maxwell’s husband left to make aliyah to Israel, but she did not want to go. Her husband left without her.
Maxwell and Simon moved to Casablanca. She wandered the streets looking for work. A woman offered to hire her to help in her home-based restaurant, but Maxwell had no papers. The woman took her to a government office and had papers made for her, with approximate birth date and age.
Names in Morocco did not have the importance they have in the US. She was called several names during her time there, including Mina, Yvette and Yamna.
Maxwell’s step-brother David had been searching for her and finally found her in Casablanca. He took her with him to Morocco’s capital city of Rabat. There she found work at a factory, sewing buttons on military uniforms, so that she could hire a babysitter for her son Simon.
Maxwell befriended another girl in Rabat, who was married to an American. When she visited her friend, Bill Maxwell, another American friend in the US Air Force stationed in Morocco, was also there.
Yamna’s first words to him, as a joke, were the only English she knew: “You marry me?” They started dating and became engaged. Yamna spoke French and Arabic with Bill, but only learned English when she moved to the US.
Bill’s work in the military took him all over Morocco, but he came back for Yamna and adopted Simon. It took four years for them to acquire the official papers to allow Yamna to leave Morocco.
During this time, Bill re-enlisted in the USAF in order to remain in Morocco until Yamna could join him in America.
Maxwell believes that some Jewish Moroccan customs differ from Jewish American traditions on Shabbat and during the holidays. For Shabbat, the men typically went to synagogue and the women stayed home.
On Shabbat morning, they had a large meat meal — usually brisket and rice. In the afternoon it was kept hot in the oven in the town bakery. After the meal, the men would study Torah while the women went outside and talked.
Maxwell remembers the men screaming at each other while discussing Torah. She usually took a walk or listened to the women’s stories.
For Pesach, the cleaning in her home was extensive and began months before the holiday started. Toothpicks were used to clean gaps; everything was moved away from the walls and out of the kitchen entirely. Mattresses were torn open to air and clean.
In addition to the seders of the first two nights, Maxwell remembers two seders in the middle of the week-long holiday and a huge feast on the last night.
Villagers would move from house to house, eating traditional foods such as candied eggplant, oranges and nuts. Greens and a whole raw fish would decorate the middle of the table in each home.
For Purim, the villagers in Tizguine bought new clay dishes and there were special foods. During Shavuot, the children had to stay outside on the street because the young people threw buckets of water at everyone.
No meat was eaten for seven days during the period leading up to Tisha b’Av.
During a shiva minyan, mourners sat on the floor in the home and no meat was allowed for one month following the death.
Maxwell is now a widow living in Colorado Springs with five children, 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
She has been a member of Temple Shalom for many years and is still active on a team that prepares weekly luncheons for Shabbat.
We wish Yamna a very happy birthday — whenever it is.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News