In the Sephardi world of the time, it was not unusual that rabbis would also be involved in commerce, as the two professions often went hand in hand well into the 19th century.Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 5.49.38 PM

I RECENTLY taught a seminar about the Italian Sephardi Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh (1823-1900) at a leading rabbinical seminary in New York, on a retreat dedicated to a rediscovery of Sephardi culture. The student body, future rabbis and cantors, was agreeably diverse: men and women in their forties, all of them vivacious, engaged and intelligent. But though inquisitive and well read, none had ever heard about Rabbi Benamozegh. Such ignorance is not an isolated phenomenon. While I was assembling the course, I discovered that no one among my cultured friends in New York knew anything about Benamozegh.

Yet Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh (also known as Elia in Italian, Élie in French or Eliyahu in Hebrew) was a towering intellectual figure of the 19th century. Born in the Tuscan port of Leghorn (Livorno), on the northwestern coast of Italy in 1823, he wrote several books, but his most important work, “Israël and Humanity” was published posthumously in 1914 by his Christian disciple Aimé Pallière. Pallière had been so engrossed with Benamozegh’s teachings that he even sought to convert to Judaism, though Rabbi Benamozegh dissuaded him from it. A distinct blend of irreproachable Orthodox credentials, combined with a ceaseless dialogue with the non-Jewish world, conferred a recognizable stamp to his doctrine.

Written in French (the philosophical language of the time), conversant with the foremost intellectual figures and contemporaneous scientific debates, “Israël and Humanity” quotes seamlessly from the Tanakh, the Kabbalah, the Gospels and Eastern spirituality. For its clear-eyed tackling of the challenges of religion faced with modernity, it is a remarkably fresh and relevant work.

It is also a keen examination of the role and mission of Judaism in the early 20th century, specifically dealing with the dynamics between the particular and the universal in Jewish thought. Since it has been available for more than twenty years in Maxwell Luria’s brilliant English translation, it should be a high priority for anyone interested in Jewish texts, in general, and in the Sephardi rabbinical tradition, in particular.

Who was Elijah Benamozegh? Why did his work all but vanish from the Jewish annals, as has most of the Sephardi cultural legacy? In America, Sephardim are a minority, and this on its own might explain their low cultural and intellectual profile. But in France, for example, Sephardim are highly represented relatively to Ashkenazim, and in Israel they are the majority. Other causes must be at play.

Though born in Italy, Benamozegh’s roots were firmly planted on Maghrebi soil: his parents were Moroccans who settled in Leghorn early in the 19th century. Some scholars even view him as a quintessentially Moroccan thinker. On his mother’s side, he came from the illustrious Coriat family, which had produced several esteemed rabbis and kabbalists. On his father’s side, he descended from solid rabbinical stock as well, and his patronymic points to his Judeo-Berber origins (Ben-Amozegh is derived from son of Amazigh – Amazigh means Berber in the Berber language.)

The Benamozeghs were also merchants. In the Sephardi world of the time, it was not unusual that rabbis would also be involved in commerce, as the two professions often went hand in hand well into the 19th century. In contradistinction with the more insular Ashkenazi society of Eastern Europe, the Sephardim actively pursued trade across the Mediterranean basin. Commerce underpinned a particular religious consciousness, anchored in tradition while cosmopolitan in nature. Tellingly, Benamozegh’s family was originally based in Fez, Morocco, which had been a center of civilization and an important commercial hub in the medieval period.

When economic conditions deteriorated in Fez in the 18th century, members of his family migrated down the Atlantic coastline of Morocco, where the Sultan Sidi Muhammad b. Abdallah had just created the port of Essaouira, modeled after Leghorn. Constant commercial activity between the Jews of Essaouira and Anglo-Jewry in London at that time has been well documented in recent studies, as is the rich exchange of religious teachers and students between North Africa and Tuscany.

Benamozegh’s parents then settled in Leghorn in the early 19th century. Livorno, as it is known in Italian, was a prime hub of trade and Jewish scholarship in the Mediterranean. Its Charter, known as the “Livornina,” granted special rights and privileges to foreigners, as well as freedom of religion. The Charter dated from 1593, when the Medicis of Florence sponsored it to attract Jewish merchants with trade links to the Ottoman Empire. Enticed by its wide-ranging liberties, Jewish exiles from the Inquisition brought with them their art, wealth, scholarship, and fascination with the Kabbalah. They were joined by Maghrebi and Italian Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries. The only city in Italy that never had a closed ghetto, Livorno welcomed Jews to live among Persians, Poles, Armenians or Turks. A cosmopolitan culture blossomed.

Leghorn became famous for its printing houses, producing Hebrew books and diffusing Jewish culture to the Orient. Rabbi Benamozegh established a printing press himself, publishing responsa and mahzorim by Maghrebi rabbis, like the esteemed Moroccan Rabbi Yitzhaq Bengualid’s responsa dealing with hillula (visits to rabbis’ graves in Morocco). He also published the Algerian Rabbi Abraham Ankawa’s “Kerem Hemer” (Vineyard of Wine), which included “Sefer Hatakanot,” the progressive statutes of the Castilian communities that arrived in Fez, Morocco, in 1492 (these laws are still prevalent in contemporary Moroccan Jewish communities: twelve years ago, I was married to an American citizen under their regulations).

In this context of great freedom and pro found rootedness in tradition, Benamozegh expanded his ideas, achieving an unusual synthesis of old and new, of orthodoxy and openness to the world. Recent studies have viewed this as a stamp of the Sephardi religious tradition in general. The phrase “Sephardi Religious Humanism” has been coined to describe it.

Rooted in this duality of the particular and the universal, Benamozegh’s doctrine was however often misunderstood in his time. He was derided by the maskilim, scholars influenced by the German-Jewish Enlightenment, which spanned the long 19th century, as being too “Oriental,” especially for his attachment to Kabbalah. Enamored with the idea of progress, these scholars viewed Kabbalah as a pack of superstitions. At the same time, he was chastised as heretical by the ultra-conservative Rabbinates of Jerusalem and Damascus.

Key to his doctrine was his desire to reconcile Jews and Gentiles in a commodious framework, where they would be connected and interdependent. His main thesis is as follows: As the recipient and guardian of God’s unique revelation, Judaism has been anointed to communicate to the nations of mankind the universal essence of humanity, which is crystallized in the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah. These are called Noachide laws, to which every person must defer. Because the vocation of the Jews is to bring this set of laws to the world, they must preserve their identity at all cost, in order to form a priesthood that will enable them to serve mankind’s religious needs.

This is the meaning of Israel’s election, and why Israel has been given 613 mitzvot, many of them arcane and seemingly irrational. These are the Mosaic laws, to which Jews only are subject, in order to pursue their providential task for the common interest of humanity. As Maxwell Luria notes, “Israel and mankind are thus two entities, but the difference is one of function, not of merit.” For Benamozegh, the unity of Hebraism – as he called Judaism – is contingent on the complementarity of the Noachide Laws, concerned with a universal code of conduct applicable to all people, with the Mosaic Laws aimed more particularly at the Jewish people.

Equally central to his doctrine (and his Moroccan heritage) is the role of Kabbalah, and especially the Zohar. For Benamozegh, the Kabbalah’s desire to allocate sparks of the divine to the entire creation is far from a dubious set of magic beliefs. It is, rather, an interpretative device doubling as an ethical implement to explain the universe. Concerned with grand metaphysical synthesis, Kabbalah is just as worthy as the Law. Benamozegh draws upon this to explain his paradoxical appraisal of tradition, which he views as progress. Far from considering history as a series of breaks with the past, as in Hegel’s philosophy, Benamozegh views progress as naturally proceeding from tradition.

Historian Daniel Schroeter attributes the discrediting of Sephardi culture to the dominance of German-Jewish historiography. In this school, Jewish history follows those Western modes of interpretation which track a single, familiar trajectory: from darkness to emancipation, then to secularization and assimilation, from antisemitism to Herzlian Zionism. In his view, this is an oversimplified narrative that does not pertain to Sephardi Jews, who belonged to a wide, transnational Sephardi world, which he calls “the Sephardi world order.” They moved easily between North Africa and Europe until the early 19th century, when increased European intervention on the world stage marked the end of a transnational Sephardi identity, and a new division between a backward “Oriental” and a modern “Western” emerged, shaped by the West. Schroeter sees this dichotomy as outdated, and requiring reevaluation.

Elijah Benamozegh’s Sephardi melding of past and present, blending of tradition and modernity, and fusing of rationalism and faith, markedly deviates from the “classic” model invoked in the German school of thought. Because of their different circumstances, Sephardi Jewry responded differently from Western Jewry to the forces of modernity. Benamozegh’s work forces us to consider a radically different, alternative path to Jewish modernity.

Dr. Yaëlle Azagury writes about contemporary art, literature and Sephardi culture.

Her work appears frequently in The Jerusalem Report


The Jerusalem Post - Israel News
NOVEMBER 5, 2017 13:59

Adam Kirsch selects 18 compelling texts from Deuteronomy to ‘Tevye’

Baruch Spinoza

ADAM KIRSCH has earned a considerable reputation in the United States as a poet, literary critic and journalist writing for Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture. Just 41 years old, he is a polymath and prolific author whose thoughtful and ubiquitous analyses explore a wide array of topics, from a page of the Talmud to fine points of literary theory. “The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature” is his latest work.

It might not be his most consequential. That is not, however, because of the work’s lack of cleverness, or even discernment.

Kirsch is an attentive reader, exceptionally adept at finding resonances between texts separated by centuries. His prose is limpid, elegant, pedagogic, with each chapter preceded by a helpful synopsis. He is a knowledgeable guide who also makes arcane concepts accessible. Through a cherry- picked selection of 18 “classic” Jewish texts from Deuteronomy to Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” he offers “a panoramic portrait of Jewish thought and experience over the centuries.” His purpose is to sketch an outline of recurrent themes of Judaism, thus allowing the reader “to escape present-mindedness.” And there is a beauty to this endeavor as he identifies four central elements whose iterations over the ages have crystallized Jewish thought: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish People.

His comparative method is one of his strong suits. Employing a bird’s-eye view, he surveys authors such as the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Roman Jewish general Flavius Josephus, Maimonides, the diarist Glückel of Hameln, Moses Mendelssohn or Theodor Herzl, and retrieves pointed commonalities between seemingly disparate systems of thought. He demonstrates, for instance, how Philo, living in Roman Egypt in the first century CE, “asked some of the same questions as Maimonides, who lived in Muslim Egypt in the twelfth century CE”; how the Jewish rite of circumcision has ignited Jewish debate through the ages. He shows that the notion of the “chosenness” of the Jewish people perplexed the Spanish Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevy in the 12th century and that the Book of Esther in the Bible, which features the oft-encountered predicament of a Jewish servant to a non-Jewish power, hasn’t lost its relevance in Jewish history, as echoed in the modern charge of “dual loyalty.”

If one is looking for an expeditious overview of Jewish thought, Kirsch’s work will provide an informative, if incomplete, introduction to texts he has read in translation himself. This is a book for the casual reader, not the scholar, and that’s fine.

It is stimulating to read about authors such as Philo or Josephus, typically debated within the Christian canon and reclaimed here as a central contribution to the Jewish world they belonged to (I, for one, learned about both for the Western curriculum of my French Lycée with little awareness of their Jewishness). Kirsch finely clarifies how they cloaked central Jewish concepts in the language of the Greco-Roman world in which they lived.

However, some of his conclusions are sketchy, partial and one-sided. For instance, he ultimately construes Philo as a philosopher torn between the “respect owed to inheritance” and “the respect owed to reason,” one who interpreted sacred texts “against the grain.” “Philo of Alexandria was one of the first Jewish intellectuals to feel the pull of these competing demands; he would certainly not be the last.” He, thus, oddly offsets the very point made initially. Incongruously, Philo emerges no longer as a part of the Hellenistic Jewish universe of his time, but instead as a kind of rebel against it.

The trope of the Jewish intellectual caught between two worlds, and ever striving to make them converge, unwittingly transpires as the red thread of Kirsch’s book. Most praiseworthy in his eyes are precisely those figures, perennially pulled in two different directions, who finally adhere wholeheartedly to the secular path.

There is the first-century historian and general Flavius Josephus, a privileged witness and actor in the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire in 66 CE. Leading to the destruction of the Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, the war presented Josephus with the following dilemma: “rush headlong into glorious death” with the Jewish rebels or “see reason and live” by ending the fighting against the overpowering battalions of the Roman army. He chose the latter ‒ an alternative Kirsch obviously favors ‒ moving to Rome as part of the imperial entourage and spending the rest of his life “explaining the Jews to their conquerors.”

There is Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher of Sephardi origin, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656 for his heretical views. Living in free-thinking Amsterdam where philosophical and scientific thought blossomed, he is a vexing figure for the classic rabbinical tradition. In the “Theologico-Political Treatise,” one of his most famous works, Spinoza exposed the inability to reconcile our intellectual and scientific knowledge about the universe with our religious beliefs. In Kirsch’s perspective, Spinoza’s predicament transposed Josephus’s choice in philosophical terms: “How much of Judaism could, and should, be preserved in the face of other ways of thinking ‒ above all the rationalism of the philosophers?” Opting out of Judaism, his pantheistic views affirmed instead the “absolute necessity of everything that exists, in the same intuitive way that we affirm the truths of mathematics.” For Kirsch, when Spinoza relinquished tradition, he became a thinker for the modern world.

At the same time in Eastern Europe, the Tzenarena, a Yiddish retelling of the Torah, mostly aimed at a female audience, solidified similar ideas on a more popular plane, according to Kirsch. A compilation of practical sayings, maxims, advice and folk wisdom especially agreeable to a Yiddish-speaking public of laypeople, the Tzenarena was a widely read work, present in most Jewish households “that did [the] most to shape Jewish women’s lives.” Once again, Kirsch draws an implicit line between Orthodoxy sensu stricto and what he commends as “real life.” His sympathies clearly align with the latter, but are they mutually exclusive?

Tellingly, Kirsch views the haskala ‒ the Jewish Enlightenment that began at the end of the 18th-century in Germany ‒ and the subsequent tension between Orthodoxy and modernity as a losing proposition for Orthodox Judaism. And there is the rub. He often exhibits an ethnocentric view of Jewish history, gauged through his anachronistic 21st century lenses. His perspective is teleological, in as much as it steers us inexorably toward the religious attitudes of the majority of today’s American Jews (his primary readership) ‒ refractory to an Orthodox practice for the modern world and secular, for the most part.

Often, he extrapolates contemporary modes of thinking retroactively onto the texts he is seeking to elucidate. The “good” Jew, in his view, is one less grounded in his beliefs than in his skepticism. The central paradox underlying his vision is provocative: the less literal-minded a Jew is, the more Jewish he or she might be. This is an engaging contention, but, at a minimum, it necessitates more vindication than he affords it.

In highlighting the struggle between Orthodoxy and modernity as the defining debate of Judaism past and present, he leaves large swaths of it in the dark. It is true that Orthodoxy has suffered from the assaults of the modern world, but it is an oversimplification to brush it away as irrelevant. Kirsch’s Judaism is oddly reduced to a shell, an empty container for a set of rules at once sterile, austere and outmoded.

In a work about literary criticism, he might have summoned The Song of Songs, one of the Bible’s most poetical texts, which can be read as an allegory of the love between God and Israel, and marveled at its complex sexual imagery, which deftly weaves the lay and the religious. Or, instead of delving into the Book of Esther, which stresses for Kirsch “the movement outward into dispersion, exile and assimilation” of the Jewish people, he might have favored the bewildering Book of Job, whose majestic darkness plunges us into the most perplexing recesses of faith and the problem of theodicy.

But Kirsch’s thesis decidedly rises against such endeavors, in as much as they translate “a movement inward into tradition, Orthodoxy, and nationhood.” Modernity, in his eyes, is exclusively validated in a Eurocentric perspective, and celebrated in the tidy narrative of an unstoppable march toward a secular society.

Might there be more than one modernity, perhaps? Postcolonial theory has long ago certainly shown so, but Kirsch is unimpressed by it. Jewish modernity to him is firmly rooted in an Eastern European tradition that rejected the narrow religious confines of the shtetl, which was severed from society at large. Therefore, there is no mention of the classical Sephardi heritage, which is grounded in a tradition of religious humanism and cultural pluralism accustomed to engage in unabated dialogue with the outside world.

Glaringly absent from his explorations are the theological writings of such figures as Elijah Benamozegh (1823-1900), the Livornese rabbi of Maghrebi descent (his family was from Morocco), who wrote about religious universalism at the end of the 19th century in Israel and Humanity, his most famous work. Confronted with the process of assimilation he witnessed as a consequence of the haskala, he famously made a plea to combine religion with modernity by highlighting the humanistic and moral characteristics of halacha. In his view, these principles must guide Jews in their dealings with Gentiles. Nonetheless, Benamozegh is ignored by Kirsch as he was by his German contemporaries.

The Other, as a dimension to engage with rather than to emulate or lose oneself in, is equally unaccounted for in Kirsch’s opening set of four main Jewish preoccupations (listed in the first paragraph). So, it is regrettable not to read here the writings of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a French philosopher of Lithuanian origin who underscored the primacy of ethics in Judaism. Teaching young North African pupils at the École Normale Israelite Orientale (ENIO) in Paris, Levinas was also steeped in the Sephardi tradition of religious humanism. For him, it is paramount to consider what he called “the face of another” and to examine Judaism’s call for moral responsibility, which starkly differs from the Christian notions of love and charity. Levinas’s Judaism is most compelling because it is positive, replete with substance, compared to Kirsch’s solipsistic view of Judaism as a negative, vacant receptacle.

No wonder the book closes with a chapter on Sholem Aleichem titled “On the Brink,” when European Jewry is about to be wiped out by the somber forces of Nazism and the Final Solution. Kirsch’s nihilistic thesis (the choice of life and secularism at the peril of Orthodoxy, particularity and, ultimately, identity) is like a wounded phoenix rising out of the ashes of disaster. It settles, it compromises.

But I wonder if, instead of going for the mere survival of Judaism, we ought to turn elsewhere, both backwards into a Jewish past ‒ at once more imaginative, complex, diverse, multilayered and still pertinent today ‒ and ahead into a Jewish future, because it is the only one that might propel us, as Jews, forward.


Yaëlle Azagury is a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Report. Her work has also appeared in Lilith, The New York Times Book Review’and The Washington Post

The Modigliani Myth


(This review was first published in the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post in 2012, and is being posted here again to coincide with “Modigliani Unmasked”, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York which opens on September 15.)

JERUSALEM REPORT, January 16, 2012

Modigliani: a life
By Meryle Secrest
A. Knopf
416 pages; $35

The Modigliani Myth

Meryle Secrest fails in her attempt to debunk the myth of Amedeo Modigliani, ‘the cursed artist’

by Yaëlle Azagury

“There is some Myth for every man which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all that he knew and thought.”515oYk78ZNL._AC_UL320_SR226,320_

This quote from Irish poet W. B. Yeats launches the American researcher and biographer Meryle Secrest in her quest for the “myth,” or key, of the Italian Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). Secrest, the recipient of the 2006 U.S. National Humanities Medal, sets out to debunk the prevailing wisdom that Modigliani “was a brilliant young artist who ruined his health and died prematurely from drugs and drink.”

But though she reinterprets old sources with insight as well as bringing new evidence into focus, and avoids the temptation of fictionalizing her subject, she fails to make her story compelling, or even lively.   Her investigation is serious and her efforts earnest, yet Modigliani never entirely comes alive.

Born in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, into a cultivated Jewish family, the painter known for his elongated figures with swan-like necks and almond-shaped eyes died in poverty in Paris at age 35 just as his art was starting to earn recognition. His death, followed two days later by the suicide of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, then eight-months pregnant, is represented by Secrest as Greek tragedy. Hence Modigliani, “Modi the cursed artist,” as his friends called him (maudit means cursed in French), and the myth that followed.

Secrest starts off with an examination of Modigliani’s family.   His mother came from the Garsins, a genteel family of Sephardi Jews from Marseilles. They were cultured and sophisticated. They had a talent for acting, a strain of superstition, eccentricity, and even madness, with an aristocratic disdain for money: easy come, easy go. The Modiglianis on the other hand were a less sophisticated but more money-savvy Jewish family from Livorno, a thriving center of Sephardi Jewish life. Unfortunately, Secrest’s account of her subject’s family background doesn’t quite captivate our attention.

Her narrative is often tedious, unimaginative, and confusing. Granted, the sources on Modigliani’s family are patchy. But we do know quite a lot about the fascinating Livornese Jewish community.

The Mediterranean port of Livorno, where Jews had enjoyed unprecedented rights and privileges since the 15th century, was a thriving commercial and intellectual center of Jewish life. Because of its strategic geographic position, the Jewish community, mainly Sephardim who had arrived after the Inquisition in the late 1590s, acted as a meeting point for other Jewish communities such as those of Amsterdam, London, Tunis, Fez or Damascus.

But Secrest’s account of Jewish life in Livorno, which probably shaped Modigliani, is sketchy. She is not fluent in Italian and Italian Jewish culture: her sources are old and do not reflect modern scholarship. Worse, she notes that Modigliani was circumcised “eight hours after his birth,” not eight days; and she quotes Leo Rosten, a writer best known for his work “The Joys of Yiddish” (1968), to claim that Sephardim spoke Ladino. In fact, they spoke Judeo-Spanish (Judezmo), Judeo-Italian, or Judeo-Arabic. Ladino, a literal Spanish transcription of Hebrew texts, is properly a term applied only to written literature.

The book fortunately gets more compelling as Secrest follows Modigliani to Paris where he arrived in 1906 to pursue his calling, fresh from his studies in Livorno and Venice’s Scuola Libera del Nudo and Academia delle Belle Arti. He led “la vie de bohème” in nonconformist Montmartre, and then Montparnasse. Secrest does not have anything new to say on bohemian Paris, but she does get our attention.

A dashing young man with the looks of the Roman emperor Hadrian, “Modi” had a great ability to make friends: he quickly attached himself to painters such as Gino Severini, Maria Marevna, Moise Kisling, Chaim Soutine, and Pablo Picasso. Picasso and Modigliani admired each other’s style: both experimented with mask-like stylization and geometric emphasis of the face. But there was also a secret artistic rivalry between the two. He also numbered among his acquaintances the sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Chana Orloff (Modigliani had wanted to be a sculptor early in his career), and writers such as Ilya Ehrenburg, André Salmon, Jean Cocteau, and Anna Akhmatova.

Secrest reports on life at the Bateau Lavoir, a squalid tenement turned artists’ home, where Modigliani lived, and his subsequent moves to even more rudimentary locales as he became increasingly poor. He was a notorious spendthrift, quickly dissipating the stipend sent by his family, and ate on credit-especially at Chez Rosalie, a vermin-ridden restaurant which fed starving artists. Legend has it that he paid the picturesque eponymous Rosalie once by painting a fresco on one of her walls. She covered it with white paint the next day.

Secrest is at her best on Modigliani and the women who loved him. The portrait of Anna Akhmatova is finely sketched; the poet and journalist Beatrice Hastings, a charismatic free-thinker with whom Modigliani fell madly in love in 1914 and had a tempestuous relationship, and the young Jeanne Hébuterne, his last mistress, both complex and enigmatic, are evocatively and convincingly recreated. Even Jeanne Modigliani, Amedeo’s daughter by Hébuterne poignantly comes alive.

But one of the biographer’s central contentions is unconvincing. Secrest attributes Modigliani’s drinking and drug – taking (hashish, opium, absinthe and ether were among his intoxicants of choice) to his ill-health. As opposed to previous biographers who did not find his illness significant, Secrest contends that he succumbed to tubercular meningitis, related to tuberculosis, which can infect the brain. Tuberculosis had affected him for a long time and his drinking was a way of controlling his symptoms. Alcohol, Secrest reminds us, is an efficient, albeit primitive anti-spasmodic. Acting as a kind of anesthetic, it suppresses the urge to spit and cough.

This, however, seems overstretched and unconvincing. Alcohol is addictive, regardless of the intention, and has the same outcome, whether one drinks for pleasure or for medical reasons. Modigliani was often drunk.

Furthermore, Secrest draws the portrait of an artist harrowed by tuberculosis, the disease whose impact on the collective imagination then is comparable to AIDS today. She devotes an entire chapter to consumption, as it was then called, listing artists, writers, and poets who were affected by it. Several studies have explored the link between creative temperaments and tuberculosis, weaving a romantic mythology around it.

In other words, Secrest is reinforcing the myth of Modigliani, the cursed artist, just from a different perspective. She believes this made him obsessed with death (“I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar”). But even an amateur observer can see that Modigliani’s paintings are luminous rather than ominous.

Finally, another of the book’s weaknesses is the lack of discussion on Modigliani’s Jewishness, or rather, the Jewishness of his art.   Secrest deals with this issue in a single paragraph. She notes: “he was casually blunt about his beliefs. “Hello, I’m Jewish,” was the direct approach to anyone who wasn’t.” She also adds that he vigorously attacked anti-Semites, and mentions that Stars of David and other religious symbols featuring in the sephirot of kabbala, and in the teachings of the Livornese 19th century Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh appear in his art.   But overall, Secrest concludes that he should mainly be linked to the “Greco-Roman and Italianate roots of Western art.” For instance, his Caryatids (1911-1913), a series of drawings and watercolors, clearly bear the influence of classical antiquity.

It is true that he was less haunted by his Jewishness than Marc Chagall or Soutine who came from lands where Jews were severely persecuted. Chagall made extensive use of Jewish imagery and myth, as did Soutine, who blended Jewish themes with Fauvism and Cubism. Both are considered Jewish artists.

But what exactly is Jewish Art? Is it merely defined by the artist’s religious identification or by the themes that preoccupy him? There is Christian art, as exemplified in the stained glasses of churches and cathedrals; or a Muslim art in Persian miniatures, or a Buddhist art in the statues and temples of Asia. But ever since the Golden Calf, Judaism has always been wary of visual representation, which may lead to idolatry. This is perhaps why it is an intellectual rather than an esthetic religion.

Esthetics lead to the exaltation of beauty, and exalted beauty is a subtle pathway to the sublime, a concept reserved to God. It may be the reason why Jewish artists – painters and sculptors – are rare, at least until recently. In fact, Jewish artists, limited by their observance in what they could portray, expressed themselves through traditional Judaica, the making of ritual objects, manuscript illumination, textile embroidery, and so on. But apart from Judaica, is there Jewish art as such, or must it be relegated to “arts and crafts?”

If the very notion of Jewish art is problematic, what is Jewish about Modigliani’s paintings? His themes certainly aren’t, save for a portrait called “The Jewess,” which, (I must agree here with Secrest) seems unusual enough in his body of work to be singled out by art historians as a quasi-caricature at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in France.

Some critics have suggested that Modigliani’s Jewishness lies in his stand as an outsider in the art world, in his artistic independence: mainly a portraitist, he followed no trends, ignoring Cubism and the avant-garde. The argument is fair, but vague. I have another hypothesis. At a time when painters and writers were focused on the deconstruction of the self, Modigliani’s portraits are preoccupied with its construction, its integrity. His art offers a deep concern for the human and a search for unity and essence. There is something ethical about that project. Perhaps therein lies his Jewishness. Judaism, a humanist religion, puts a strong emphasis on human form and dignity.

Ultimately, Jewish art might not exist, at least not in the same way as a Flemish art of portraiture, or an Italian art of form, or a British art of landscapes, or a French art of color. All four artistic traditions rest on a history, a tradition, a theory, and an established culture. Judaism has none of these things precisely because visual representation has always been frowned on.

So there might not be a specifically Jewish art, but rather great art executed by great Jewish artists who were shaped by their tradition. Although Secrest emphasizes the eccentric side of Modigliani’s family, she also hints at his traditional Jewish upbringing. Isaaco Garsin, his grandfather and a man of enormous erudition, was an important influence on Modigliani’s intellectual development until he was 12. He opened him up to Western history, literature and philosophy, but also saw to his religious education. We also know that Amedeo’s father, Flaminio Modigliani, whose authority over the family was absolute, was a strictly observant Jew.

A final hypothesis: it has been argued that “port Jews” (from port cities such as Livorno, Trieste, Amsterdam and Bordeaux) share a similar outlook on the world: religious practices and beliefs tempered by continuous contacts with the outside world brought in by commerce. Their religious observance is broad-minded rather than fierce or militant.

The kabbalist Eliyahu Benamozegh, mentioned above as a source for Modigliani’s imagery, and a proponent of religious universalism, exemplifies this stance. Drawing from halakhic sources, he emphasized Judaism’s universal and humanistic vocation, at a time when emancipation distanced Jews from their religion.

A corollary of this position may be internal contradictions, and a tireless yet dynamic tension between “Self” and “Others,” self-assertion and self-denial, religious isolation and assimilation. This ambivalence is echoed in Modigliani’s significant words to the sculptor Chana Orloff: “I carry no religion, but if I did, it would be the ancient religion of my ancestors.”

Dr. Yaëlle Azagury writes about French and Sephardi culture.

JERUSALEM REPORT, January 16, 2012

Two Films Expose Anti-Sephardi and Anti-Mizrahi Racism in Israel

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The New York premier of “The Women’s Balcony” was at the NY Jewish Film Festival in January, and the film was also
screened as part of the New York Sephardic Film Festival at the American Sephardi Federation in April. The JCC Manhattan will show the film this Sunday, May 21 and it will officially open in Manhattan on May 26 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and The Quad.

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Dimona Twist and The Women’s Balcony (both 2016 releases) are two fine new films grappling with the status of Sephardim and Mizrahim in Israeli society. Screened at the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival at the American Sephardi Federation in April, they both seek to uncover the obliteration of Oriental Jews in Israel since the creation of the State. Both discredit long-established stereotypes while puncturing the myth of a Jewish homeland equally welcoming to Jews of all ethnic backgrounds.

Michal Aviad’s revelatory Dimona Twist is a documentary focusing specifically on women of Moroccan and Tunisian descent who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. It is the companion piece to The Women Pioneers (2013), which elucidated the trajectory of Jewish women from Eastern Europe to Mandate Palestine in pursuit of a utopian society. In both films, Aviad excels at capturing the experience of immigration from a female perspective. She strikes a pitch-perfect note when speaking of the disillusionment experienced by these women upon arrival at the Promised Land. Her latest documentary also comes in the wake of a new wave of films, such as Kamal Hashkar’s From Tinghir to Jerusalem (2013), that strive to challenge the official Israeli narrative regarding North African Jews, who were often portrayed by Zionist propaganda as victims of Arab enmity in order to encourage them to emigrate to Israel.

Aviad’s film uses interviews and archival footage to sketch the complex and tenderly humane portrait of six women of middle-class background from North Africa (Solange Saraga, Alice Saraga and Ilana Nahmani from Morocco; Sonia Allali, Esther Ohayon and Huguette Amanou from Tunisia; and Hannah Levenstein from Poland, who serves as a foil to the 6 others.) Currently in their 70s, they each tell their stories, from immigration to older age, and their faces, delicately furrowed by time and apprehended with sympathetic warmth in Aviad’s close-ups, are muted testimonies to their struggles and joys, their victories and regrets.

They first reminisce about their departures. They left in the 1950s and the 1960s and had enjoyed modern, prosperous life in Morocco and Tunisia. They’d listened to American records, The Platters and Elvis Presley, and danced The Twist. Why did they leave? Was there a tide of rising Islamism caused by contemporary Pan-Arab movements of the 1950s? There was unease, assuredly. But the answers remain somewhat imprecise. It was “trendy” to go to Israel, says Solange, the sunny seamstress who always sees the glass half full.

A powerful episode epitomizing dislocation is related by Ilana, who hails from the town of Sefrou in Morocco, at the feet of the Middle Atlas Mountains. The site is famous for its beautiful orchards. On the eve of her family’s departure in 1956, Ilana, 7, requested a last farewell to her beloved trees: “Goodbye, orange tree. So long, clementine tree,” she recalls saying, as though they were a metaphor of the roots she was leaving behind.

Equally well-portrayed are the hardships of their harrowing immigration: their arrival in Israel after a long boat journey, the subpar conditions of the trip by bus, where they were stacked like cattle for endless hours, the surreal and arbitrary choice of their final destination—Dimona, a development town created in the 1950s in the Negev desert. It was populated mainly with North African immigrants, and later viewed as a “second-class Israel.” Recorded here are the heart-wrenching–and often preventable–losses of lives, like Ilana’s baby brother, a six-month-old infant who became dehydrated on the bus journey and died, unable to receive medical treatment for want of a doctor or a hospital. Dimona’s stark barrenness took the six women by surprise, as some had come from vibrant, modern cities like Tunis or Casablanca.

Sonia’s story of children with ringworm is no less alarming. “The nurses would not even touch their heads, God forbid,” she recalls, visibly distressed by the coarse treatment inflicted to her brother, who was one of them. Without a word to his parents, he was later whisked away in a vehicle with other diseased children to receive treatment in Haifa. Radiation was administered, and the film’s footage captures the ominous beeping of the machine encircling their heads- a dark sign of things to come. Many suffered from cancer later in life.

As documented in Shlomo Swirski’s germinal study Israel: The Oriental Majority (1989), the mistreatment of newly arrived North African Jews was common, though not broadly known. Their accounts were frequently dismissed, perhaps even covered up by a government oftentimes too preoccupied with the construction of a new nation to address these injustices. Aviad is correct in pointing out the racial prejudice against those who were regarded by an Ashkenazi elite as “mangy Oriental Jews.” Speaking of them, Hannah exposes her parents’ brisk pronouncement shortly after their arrival in Dimona: “There are no Jews here, no one speaks Yiddish.” The filmmaker sheds a jarring light on everyday, minute injustices discreetly endured, stoically suffered by North African Jews.

We also learn chances were not equal for all. If one was a member of the Mapai party, like most Ashkenazi Jews, one received a “little red book” granting work. The situation was harder for Mizrahim—most of whom adhered to the Ahdut Ha’avodah party—and often lived off menial jobs. For instance, Sonia’s father, who had never before worked with his hands, was forced to take up grueling labor as an iron welder.

If Aviad’s documentary probes the dirty secrets of a silenced discrimination, it nonetheless declines to dwell in rancor. Instead, it emphasizes how the women soared above adversity while highlighting their feminism. It also counteracts deep-rooted clichés about “shallow” Sephardim against “serious” Ashkenazim. Take Solange, the seamstress, who divorced and, as a single mother, provided for her children (“So what?” she explains matter-of-factly “this is instinct for women.”) Or Sonia who got a fresh start in Tel-Aviv after he cruel ex-husband denied her alimony. Alice, the tough head of the worker’s committee at the Kitan factory, is another example of resilience. She negotiated with bosses by day and danced The Twist by night. Huguette left her first spouse because he forbade her to keep the position she so cherished in a lab. Even Hannah, whose role in the film is to embody the Ashkenazi side, is portrayed in a congenial light (“I married an Ashkenazi”, she explains, but hastens to add half-jokingly “he didn’t look like one.”)

Despite their struggles, there is no acrimony in any of these women. Rather, there is magnanimity, even grandeur. “We could see nothing wrong in the Land of Israel,” says Huguette. “Limhok, effacer” stresses Solange referring to their trials, for emphasis using both the Hebrew and French word for “to erase.” In this thoughtful, delicate film woven like a tapestry, Aviad powerfully restores all that what was blotted out.

The Women’s Balcony, a comedy of manners written by Shlomit Nehama and directed by Emil Ben-Simon, is also about erasure, namely of one religious tradition by another. A box-office hit in Israel, the movie is a universal fable decrying the excesses of religious zealotry. But under its lighthearted guise, it is also an acerbic critique of Haredim, as an avatar of Ashkenazi tradition. A bit of a polemical, it specifically chastises the ways Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent have sought to usurp Sephardi observance in Israel. Nehama based the movie on her own experience growing up in an Orthodox community like the Bukharan one depicted in the movie. In her view, shared by many Sephardim and Mizrahim, these Jewish communities partake in a tradition of religious moderation averse to “an all-or-nothing approach” that often encapsulates Ashkenazi practice.

The movie opens with the bar-mitzvah of Osher, the grandson of Ettie (played by the splendid Evelin Hagoel, who was born in Casablanca) and Zion (Igal Naor) Yazdi, whose surname marks them as Mizrahi. It is the Sabbath, and they are merrily gathered for the ceremony with other members of their close-knit congregation- the Musayef synagogue. Their observance is faithful to Jewish law, but also adaptable, easygoing. This is best captured in one of the opening sequences: when a young boy inadvertently turns off the power switch in a hot water urn designed to prevent electrical use on the Sabbath, Tikva, one of the women in the congregation, scolds him for breaking the sanctity of the holy day. But soon realizing she would thereon be unable to prepare tea, she attempts to coax him into rectifying his mistake by pressing the switch again. Terrified by the thought of a double crime, the boy declines to oblige. As soon as the young sinner leaves the room, Tikva turns it back on herself.

That hiccup notwithstanding, the morning proceeds in generalized good humor, until it takes a darker, more unfortunate turn: the women’s balcony, the section reserved for women in Orthodox synagogues, collapses, gravely injuring the Rabbi’s wife, and straining the Rabbi’s mental sanity. Lacking an officiating rabbi, the congregation’s men start looking for a temporary replacement, stumbling by chance on Rabbi David, whose long black overcoat and hat signal him as a Hasidic Jew. Bringing his students to fill in for the quorum of ten necessary for prayers in Judaism, and eagerly volunteering to take over Musayef’s renovations, including a new women’s balcony, he appears at first like a savior.

But as he attempts to change the ways of the Musayef congregation, we soon realize he has his own agenda. In the vein of 18th-century moralists unmasking hypocrisy, Nehama’s screenplay presents a caustic indictment of him: he is a smooth talker, a religious casuist. Paradoxically, he justifies the women’s exclusion from the synagogue to a different building by referring to their “sanctity” when it is clearly segregation and argues that women are exempt from Bible studies because of their inherent “perfection.” Blaming the unfortunate accident on the women’s lack of modesty, he even coaxes them, with specious arguments, into covering their hair. And when the women rebel against him, demanding a new women’s section while he seeks a new Torah scroll instead, he uses the biblical story of Jacob and Leah to extol the virtues of deception, a deception he is in fact practicing himself.

In a scene that mirrors the power-switch mishap of the opening scenes, the lights go out suddenly as Rabbi David is conducting a Passover Seder at the Yazdi’s house. Ettie immediately seeks out help from the “Shabbat goy” as her father, a pious man, would have done, so as not to desecrate the holiday, but Rabbi David promptly objects, confronting Ettie’s customs, which he regards as unorthodox. Nehama neatly juxtaposes this episode with the one involving Tikva and the young boy earlier on, highlighting the diverging responses—Tikva’s pliability against the rabbi’s intransigence.

As in Dimona Twist, the women’s resourcefulness proves redeeming. Far from submissive housewives, Ettie and her friends declare war on the Rabbi, and walk out on their husbands. The scene of Ettie and her friend Margalit negotiating the price of a new women’s section with a contractor is a succulent exemplar of Levantine haggling, and provides delightful comic relief. When Margalit brings a check with the raised money to Ettie and her niece Yaffa, Ettie declares, demoralized: “The men are waiting for God to send Michael and Gabriel to build the women’s section”. “Well”, retorts Margalit, fiercely: “Here come Gavriela, Michaela, and Yafaella!” Through their feminist empowerment, the women turn out to be the real keepers of tradition.

As in Shakespearean comedies, this gratifying movie ends with a marriage, which happily bridges the two sides, and restores cosmic harmony. But the dark subtext covered by the general mirth is perhaps one we ought to heed.

Compass by Mathias Enard



By Mathias Enard

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

New Directions, 464 pp.

by Yaëlle Azagury

I was perhaps 13 or 14 when I first met Muhammad Asad, alias Leopold Weiss, the distinguished journalist and author of The Road to Mecca (1952)-a memoir of his mid-century travels in the Middle East and his conversion to Islam. He and his wife Pola – her Muslim name was Hamida- had invited my parents for afternoon tea. Their house was located in the verdant Djemaa-El-Mokraa neighborhood in Tangier, also known in my hometown as “la nouvelle montagne”- amidst pretty oleander hedges and dainty bougainvillea, not far from a charming neighborhood mosque. I had tagged along, an only child more accustomed to the poised company of adults than the clamor of my peers. I recall the cultured atmosphere of their residence, its outer walls bathed in suffused light and the interior draped with wall hangings that traced the arc of his travels by camel in the Arabian Peninsula. I recall Asad’s ascetic features, framed by a delicate beard, and his wife Pola’s milky face, pierced by intense, small blue eyes. And then there were their dogs, two sumptuous white Afghans. The name of one of them -Shamshir, sword in Farsi, is still inscribed in my memory. So is the taste of the cake we were served –gâteau Reine de Saba or Queen of Sheba cake- and the smoky flavor of the Lapsang Souchong tea. All together these fill my senses with the allure of exotic lands.

Muhammad Asad figures prominently among the pantheon of distinguished Orientalists at the heart of Compass, Mathias Enard’s enthralling novel, newly translated after winning the 2015 Prix Goncourt in France. This literary tour de force is foremost an in-depth probing of Orientalism-the spell cast by the Orient in Western eyes- in the 21st century. Its refutation of the idea of cultural purity makes it a conspicuously urgent text for our times.

An audacious endeavor both esthetically and intellectually, Compass glides through multiple genres. It is at once a travelogue to the Orient in the tradition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem (1811), a biographical exploration of the lives of famous Orientalists, a lucid account of past and current political stakes in a much-disputed region, an encyclopedic treatise on Oriental music and poetry, and an elegiac ode to Sarah, the hero’s unattainable beloved. Lastly, Compass is an epistemological recasting of East and West, a prolonged dialogue with and subtle recalibration of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism.

Enard’s prose is no less exhilarating — pulchritudinous, opulent, lavish with exactitude. The reader visits regions of munificent digressions and lands of vast erudition. The opulent language finds a perfect match in Charlotte Mandell’s minute translation. While the book is well versed in musicology, it also has a distinctive cadence of its own. Enard’s looping sentences spiral like zikr, the hypnotic Sufi rhythm, which “sticks to your ear and keeps you company for hours”, enveloping the reader in its bosom, blurring time and space.

Enard’s previous novels have been compared with Balzac’s 19th-century omniscience or the modernist James Joyce’s dense textures, but Compass has a distinctive Proustian mark, if only in its insomnia motif or its utter rescinding of time. The novel unfolds during a long sleepless night for Franz Ritter, the narrator. As in In Search of Lost Time, time here eschews linearity. Past, present and future are abolished-one night spanning the duration of twenty years. Dreams and realities collapse and commingle. Memories and anticipated moments mesh in a copious stream of consciousness.

Enard has wielded this device before in Zone, his celebrated 2008 novel, which took place during a nighttime train ride, used as a slate for the narrator’s ruminations as well. Here, however, it is less contrived, more organic than in Zone, which relied on the formalistic prowess of a single sentence stretching from beginning to book’s end.

Franz Ritter is a Franco-Austrian musicologist who specializes in Oriental melodies. Ridden with insomnia, afflicted by a mysterious and fatal illness, and addicted to opiates-a legacy of his travels to the East, he is an anti-hero, a misfit and a spurned lover, alternately melancholy, hypochondriac and sickly, in the vein of 20th-century pusillanimous narrators, like Marcel himself. Frequently quoting “Maman”, who still sends him off to his travels with a shoehorn, soap, washing powder, and an umbrella, he is an incorrigible mama’s boy, bittersweet in his self-deprecating humor and gently laughable in his defeats. He is oftentimes lost, confused, dis-oriented.

Like Xavier de Maistre who wrote Voyages around my bedroom (1794), a parody of the grand travel narrative, Franz journeys a great distance while ensconced at his own desk, employing “the djinni Googgle” to trace, in one instance, Sarah’s minute movements in Sarawak, Malaysia, where she is conducting research for her scholarly work.

Ritter’s evocation of famed, if forgotten Orientalists has an epic breadth. We read about Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), the first great Austrian Orientalist, a translator of One Thousand and One Nights, of Diwan by the Persian poet Hafez (b.1362), and Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), with whom Hammer-Purgstall translated Roumi. We pursue, breathlessly, the trail of Lady Jane Digby (1807-1881), an early feminist who escaped Victorian England to find love in the arms of cheikh Medjuel el-Mezrab in the desert between Damascus and Palmyra. We palpitate at Ritter’s account of the adventures of Marga d’Andurain (1893-1948) in the French Levant of the 1930s. And there, of course, is the charismatic Muhammed Asad (1900-1992), the very man I met in adolescence. Here I am immersed in his back story—a Jewish Viennese journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung who was entranced by the Muslim call to prayer, drawn by the immanence of Islam and the humility of Bedouin life in the desert, and ultimately converted. This is an Orient of culture and refinement, poetry and wine, which has bequeathed so much to the West. Pointedly, one of the book’s crucial scenes takes place in Palmyra, where the novel’s main characters enact a Maqâma, a noble genre in Arab literature, taking turns to speak about a given topic. As a locus of sophistication, it is grimly juxtaposed to today’s Palmyra, twice taken in recent years by the “Islamist demolishers” of ISIS.

A key question runs nonetheless sotto voce throughout Enard’s evocative summations: Were these men and women perhaps nothing other than instruments of the West’s ideological domination of the Orient, as Edward Said fiercely claimed? Aren’t Enard’s biographical vignettes veiled Orientalist clichés themselves: of lust, homosexuality, espionage, knowledge as power? Lastly, didn’t these nomads’ calling “owe a great deal to the fantasy of colonial life”, as the narrator suggests, anticipating criticism?

A compelling rebuttal is provided by Sarah, both Franz’s dazzling alter ego and luminous beloved, as bold in body and adventurous in spirit as he is timid. Sarah is French, but her Sephardi ancestors originated from Turkey via Algeria, so she partially embodies an Orientalist fantasy, by reenacting the trope of “la belle juive” (literally “the beautiful Jewess”), which hails back to Salome and Rebecca in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

However, like Enard himself who studied Persian and Arabic, she is an indefatigable analyst of the Orient, fittingly distilling the book’s ultimate wisdom (traditionally, Mediterranean and Levantine Jews were the close companions and interpreters of Islamic culture). Orientalism, contends Sarah, embodies “a need for otherness as an integral part of the self, its fruitful refutation”. If the Orient has fascinated for centuries, it is because it enabled us to escape from ourselves, investigate the idea of difference, probe the self within the other. In other words, she concludes, “Orientalism is a humanism”.

Enard is assuredly tearing at the limitations of Said’s model. Said, whom he daringly calls “the wolf amidst a flock of sheep”, and “the Devil in a convent of Carmelites”, was right, he believes, in identifying the ideological underpinnings of Orientalism, but wrong in invariably extrapolating them, without considering the individuality of each of his exemplars. By so doing, he ended up “fabricating a general discourse which becomes in turn an ideological construct, a theory which finds in itself its very vindication.”

Instead, posits Enard through Sarah, we must revisit history as one of diversity and common sharing. East and West do not occur as competing narratives. Rather, the history of this binarism rests on the porosity of their outlines, on a continuum of cultural hybridity and mutual borrowings. Exposing the mirage of purity, which he wittily dissects as “the Wagnerian illusion of the Whole”, he correctly points instead to a cosmopolitan syncretism alive for centuries. He illustrates for instance what Western music and literature owe to their Oriental counterparts. Or the many guises in which Oriental culture ironically began “Orientalizing” itself in response to Western desires. Thus was “Orientalism” born and nurtured.

I think here of myself on that afternoon of my adolescence, an “Oriental” by all possible standards, raised in Morocco after generations of my ancestors, and still susceptible to the lure of Muhammad Asad’s Orient. To each her Orient.

Rather than either idealizing or vilifying it, Enard concludes we must recognize it “is an imaginal construct, a series of representations, where each one of us, wherever one is, draws at leisure”. In other words, inasmuch as they are both fabrications of our own, East and West do not exist.

Enard’s Compass is thus a remarkable love letter to the Orient. Its greatest flaw, and also its greatest strength, is that, much to our enjoyment, it succumbs to Orientalism while unmasking its mechanisms.

Significantly, the novel climaxes in a torrid embrace between Franz and Sarah. This rendering of their first and only lovemaking, an exquisite exercise in eroticism, captures the heart of the novel. Exploring the body of his beloved in Tehran in fleeting and lyrical snapshots, Franz conjures up the metaphor of imaginary voyages. It is love, he and we discover, love as both an impulse to forget oneself and to conquer otherness empathetically, which stands for Enard as a metaphor for Orientalism. Love, and not ideology. Enard entreats all of us to reset our “compass”, remediate the current state of “dis-orientation” of the West, and seek the Orient once again.


Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky


The remarkable story of forger Adolfo Kaminsky encapsulates the Jewish experience in the 20th century By Yaëlle Azagury


FORGERY OF artworks is commonly carried out for financial gain, often exposed in the rarefied atmosphere of the art world, the suave antechambers of wealthy buyers, col- lectors and auction houses. Seldom, however, do we read about counterfeiting for survival.

Sarah Kaminsky’s book, “Adolfo Kaminsky: a Forger’s Life,” narrates in forthright, conversational style the remarkable story of her father, a master forger with lofty ideals, whose vocation was sparked by dire necessity during the Nazi Occupation of France in WWII. He created false papers for the French Resistance, and later for a vast array of revolutionary national movements, such as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), and the South American revolutionary factions of the 1960s.

Kaminsky’s life is novelistic material, encapsulating the Jewish experience in the 20th century, made of displacement, exile and deportation. Born in Buenos Aires in 1925 to Russian Jews who had met in Paris in 1916 after fleeing pogroms, he came to France at a young age with his family, who had decided to return to “the country of the rights of man” after securing Argentine nationality. Settling in 1938 in the town of Vire, in Normandy, to escape Paris’s precarious atmosphere for foreign Jews, Adolfo was a pensive adolescent who, at age thirteen, dreamed of being an artist.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression, France was experiencing economic and political instability, so his parents suggested a more useful trade. After finishing elementary school, he dabbled with printing, later becoming an apprentice dyer to a knowledgeable chemist who taught him science “the way you would pass on recipes.” Enthralled by the subject and becoming expert in making indelible inks vanish, he was sought after to treat stained lace, communion gloves, and silk wedding dresses.


Adolfo Kaminsky poses in front of a ‘Lorillon’ view camera at his home in Paris, in 2012

In 1943, after a brief but haunting imprisonment at the Drancy internment camp, the ill-omened waiting room to the German extermination camps outside of Paris, he was approached by a member of the French Resistance in order to make false documents to save Jews. Spanning three decades, his long career as a master forger in the shadows – he was known as “Monsieur Joseph” – had just begun.

Penned in unassuming, unembellished language, perhaps as discreet as Adolfo’s self-effacing personality, and rendered in a smooth translation by Mike Mitchell of the original French work published in 2009, the book is more historical document than literary feat. Nevertheless, Sarah Kaminsky, an actress and scriptwriter, dons her father’s persona seamlessly by transcribing Adolfo’s account to her in his own voice, so the book reads like a memoir. It is a powerful homage, written with a casual, if poignant, simplicity, often masking heartfelt conundrums.

The first half of this account, which deals with his time in the Resistance, is the most engrossing. The reader learns about Adolfo Kaminsky’s technical prowess with inks (“There is no such thing [as indelible inks]. They can all be removed.”), his sleepless nights, his all-consuming work ethic – he lost the sight of an eye as a result of working many hours on the microscope – or his self-denial in the service of humanist ideals: “Stay awake. For as long as possible. Fight against sleep. It’s a simple calculation: in one hour, I can make thirty blank documents; if I sleep for an hour, thirty people will die…”

As Kaminsky becomes one of the greatest forgers of the 20th century, intriguing questions crop up along the way: What is an original? What is a fake? “Anything that’s been conceived and made by one man can naturally be reproduced by another,” professes Kaminsky, whose forgeries included the Swiss passport, then thought to be impossible to imitate.

There are suspenseful encounters with the French militia while transporting false papers for Jewish children before an announced raid, and incognito rendezvous in anonymous hotel rooms, as in a film noir. Unsavory characters menace Kaminsky. Aloïs Brunner is one, the sinister commander of Drancy who, in an instance of chilling comedy, spares a defiant Adolfo because of his name, the same as the Führer’s. Though he never had direct dealings with him, Maurice Papon is another, a civil servant and collaborator with the Germans who sent hundreds of Bordeaux Jews to their death, and was later in charge of the Paris police in the 1960s, when Kaminsky was helping the Algerian FLN.

Kaminsky’s personal account is key in supplying invaluable insight into the history of the Resistance. The underground organization, whose mystique conjures up stories of sabotaged trains and guerrilla warfare, has long remained a shadowy subject because of a lack of documentary evidence (resisters destroyed the paper trail; Adolfo himself literally swallows it in one scene).

Kaminsky unearths previously little-known facts such as the existence of different interconnected groups within the Resistance (communists, Jews, extreme-right French anti-Semites who wanted to clear France of the German invaders), often at odds over goals, methods and leadership. In France, the myth of a unified front against the Nazis was first punctured in 1969 with Marcel Ophüls’s film “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a seminal work which investigated French collaboration with the Nazis in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. It was followed by several other unyielding examinations of Vichy France, culminating this year in Olivier Wieviorka’s comprehensive and accessible “History of the French Resistance,” which sheds light on the identity, allegiances, numbers, motivations and impact of the resisters. Kaminsky’s story illuminates this complexity from a personal angle, as when he speaks of Goumard, a Jew-hating photo- engraver from the extreme right, and one of his masters, also a member of the Resistance.

Though sparked by extraordinary adversity, his skill as a counterfeiter became a willful political project after the war. Refusing payment for his services – he believed it would turn him into a mercenary at the mercy of his employer – he grew to be a humanist forger, a utopian outlaw, the Robin Hood of false papers, preparing passports and identity cards for the world’s oppressed.

His commitments were not lacking in contradictions. He was a pacifist, but helped revolutionary struggles; he respected the law (even asking his daughter if there was a statute of limitation for his own activities),but infringed it throughout his life. The sec- ond, somewhat repetitive half of the book is devoted to his work for revolutionary caus- es. He accumulated various movements of all sorts just as he collected lovers.

A LUKEWARM Zionist, he nonetheless provided forged documents to hundreds of orphaned and disenfranchised Jewish children, who survived the Holocaust, upon vis- iting a refugee camp in Germany, to facilitate their emigration to Mandate Palestine. He helped both the Haganah whose nonviolent means he upheld, and the Stern group whose aggressive methods he eschewed.

In an astounding story, he even agreed to manufacture a bomb to kill Ernest Bevin, the postwar British foreign minister, who opposed the withdrawal of British troops from Palestine. But ever averse to terrorism, he played an eleventh-hour deus ex machina – using putty instead of a plastic detonator – to corrupt the mechanism. Ultimately, he chose to remain in France, a secular democracy whose flaws he had experienced firsthand.

Kaminsky’s incongruities are the garb hiding his profound humanity. If the book lacks a full-fledged, more vivid portrait of him, it makes up for it by posing deep ethical and philosophical questions with a light touch, preoccupations which shaped his character. Is legality always legitimate? Is civic obedience an ill or an imperative when faced with iniquity? What is the difference between resistance and terrorism?

Take for instance the story of Madame Drawda, a Jewish widow with four children, French for generations, who declined the false papers handed to her by Kaminsky in 1943, in anticipation of her arrest the next day. She claimed she had done no wrong, and mindlessly trusted the authorities. Conversely, as voiced by Ernst Apenzeller, Adolfo’s friend and more combative alter ego in this story, also in the Resistance, “If Jews had been persecuted since time immemorial, it was quite simply because they were the ideal victims because of their attitude of resignation, submission, and their aversion to combat.” On the topic of patriotism, a widely diffused propaganda pamphlet for the Resistance framed these issues in a tell- ing paradox: “To obey is to betray, to disobey is to serve.”

There are other predicaments too, more inextricable than wartime ones, and ever relevant in our times, also burdened with similar issues. Take the problem of refugees. Kaminsky recounts his own scarring story when as a 5-year-old child, he and his family were expelled from Marseilles upon arrival from Argentina and forced to take refuge for two years in Turkey, in hopes of obtaining permits to immigrate to France. Adding to the Kafkaesque documentation saga, his young sister, born in Turkey, was refused both Argentinian and Turkish nationality, thereby putting her in legal limbo, unable to go anywhere. “It was then,” he says, “that I really understood the signification of the word “papers,” those indispensable documents that allow you to move legally from one state to another […] Without papers, one is condemned to immobility.” Who are we without documentation? Is our identity to be conflated with our “papers”?

Often cogent, his beliefs border nonetheless on a vexing libertarianism, as when he observes, regarding the student unrest in Mexico in 1968, which ended in a bloodbath carried out by the police, and the subsequent forced exodus of hundreds of people, “We were going to open wide the gates of Europe and freedom for them.” Perhaps, in their radical quest for the free circulation of documents, the Snowdens and Assanges of our times are his spiritual heirs.

HIS CONVICTIONS are tinged with a kind of earnestness, as when he seeks refuge for a senior official of the FLN at the well-appointed apartment of his Jewish friend Philippe, who was in favor of Algeria remaining French (presumably, the two got along famously). But there is also a fundamental moral probity. Seeking to incite the French government to open negotiations with the FLN for Algerian independence, he had resolved to inundate France with forged banknotes to destabilize the economy, because, ever a pacifist, he considered it “an excellent way of applying pressure without getting caught up in a spiral of violence.” The bills were never put into circulation thanks to the Evian agreements, which granted Algeria its independence, so he destroyed the forged money, much to the dismay of some of his co-workers whose greed had been aroused by the flawless 100-franc fakes.

A well-known story in Plato’s Republic known as the parable of the ring of Gyges is about a ring conferring unlimited powers on its wearer, the shepherd Gyges, making him invisible and hence impossible to apprehend. Given the choice, contends Plato’s narrator, someone in his position will choose to act according to their own interests, to the detriment of others, and do evil.

Kaminsky’s faultless forgeries are arguably his own ring of Gyges, granting him prodigious power while allowing him to remain unnoticed. Yet given the option to spread havoc thanks to his exceptional capacities, this tall, lanky man with a high forehead, an intense gaze and the beard of a prophet remained against all odds unblemished, and on the right side of history.

“I didn’t change the world,” he says humbly, “but the world did not change me.”

It is surely a lesson for humanity. 

Yaëlle Azagury is a frequent contributor to The Report. Her reviews and essays have also appeared in Lilith, The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post

 Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life
Sarah Kaminsky DoppelHouse Press 253 pages; $15.23


How did American artists respond to the horror of WWI?

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By Yaëlle Azagury August 19

With its use of modern warfare from trenches to submarines, World War I claimed millions of lives and drastically changed the geopolitical structure. But the war also rocked Western culture, from altering the status of women to sparking new artistic movements such as Dada and surrealism. America, which suffered relatively fewer casualties than Europe, was regarded as somewhat impervious to these seismic shifts in the artistic realm. The beginning of a distinctive American art severed from Europe is usually dated to or around World War II, roughly with the rise of Abstraction.


David M. Lubin, a professor of art history at Wake Forest University and a curator of a forthcoming exhibition on World War I and American art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, seeks to upend this narrative. “Grand Illusions” comes in the wake of a reappraisal of the Great War’s effect on American culture.

Lubin’s book is an ambitious albeit unequal undertaking that investigates the variety of American art — pacifist and bellicose alike — from the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 to the rise of the Third Reich in 1933. An eloquent writer who came of age during the Vietnam conflict, Lubin juggles a formidable array of visual media in this knowledgeable study. He rescues photographs, posters, paintings, sculptures and films from oblivion to reenergize the debate and offer a new, if revisionist, perspective perhaps more fashionable in cultural studies departments than among museum curators. Delving deeply into popular and highbrow culture, he often draws inspired connections, situating artworks in a crucible of fresh references, and his readings, which may be irritating to the political conservative or the more classic-minded, are intellectually provocative.

Pleasantly surprising, for instance, is his rethinking of George Bellows, who patriotically adhered to the Bryce Committee report on German atrocities and allowed his old-fashioned realism to yield to phantasmagoric war scenes. Or Lubin’s reassessment of John Singer Sargent’s late, remarkably modern work, such as “Gassed” (1919), a large painting depicting a dozen or so soldiers who have been blinded by poison gas.

Also aptly reconsidered is Horace Pippin, a forgotten self-taught painter and a soldier in the 369th Battalion, consisting of African Americans. His naive style provides an arresting contrast to the grimness of war. Lubin’s reclaiming of Claggett Wilson, one of the eight illustrators of the American Expeditionary Forces charged with documenting the war for posterity, is equally felicitous. Although the work of the “AEF Eight” was more reportorial than artistic, Wilson’s modernist style was an exception, transmuting the unfamiliarity of war into new aesthetic forms.

Despite hinting that Wilson’s work was erased from the annals due to a mishap and Pippin’s on account of his ethnicity, Lubin fails, nonetheless, to consider broader issues that a work of this scope should have warranted: Why are some works retained by history and others blotted out? What are the ideological assumptions behind aesthetic canons, especially ones dismissing American art of the time? Brief references notwithstanding, his study is also missing a sociological map of the artistic milieu.

Instead, his focus is oftentimes squandered on overwrought exegesis, and his interpretive frenzy frequently substitutes rigor for mere stylistic cleverness, even fallacy. His reading of Childe Hassam’s patriotic flag paintings is conspicuously strained. For example, he views “The Flag, Fifth Avenue” (1918) as “ ‘flagging,’ so to speak . . . deflated, dispirited, limp,” proof of America’s fatigue with the war while also a sign of the artist’s “phallic deflation.” His understanding of Greta Garbo’s famous 1928 photograph by Edward Steichen — in an otherwise compelling chapter about masks as the face of postwar mourning — is too speculative and conflicts with current findings showing 1920s America fortified by providential exceptionalism rather than disheartened. And his apprehension of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal — “Fountain” (1917) — as an antiwar outcry on the grounds that it flushed out patriotic illusions is outlandish, even by Dada standards.

While attempting for art what Paul Fussell notoriously did for Anglo-centered literature in “The Great War and Modern Memory” (1975), Lubin ultimately lacks the latter’s exacting lucidity. Looking at artworks solely as pro-war or antiwar “images,” he delivers a disparate collection of essays while failing to conclude whether, indeed, a cohesive national style emerged in the aftermath of the war.

Yaëlle Azagury’s writings about art and literature have appeared in Lilith, the Jerusalem Post and the New York Times Book Review.


American Art and the First World War

By David M. Lubin

Oxford. 366 pp. $39.95

A New Trend in Israeli Fiction: Diversity

Yaëlle Azagury

A New Trend in Israeli Fiction: Diversity

Two books — one a novel, another a collection of short stories––underscore a new trend in Israeli writing, which seeks to give a voice to Sephardim and Mizrahim, ethnic groups often underestimated or whitewashed in Israeli history, culture and society.

9781250078162In The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) her best-selling and award-winning family saga about the Ermosa family, Israeli journalist Sarit Yishai-Levi sheds a welcome light on the Sephardi community established in Jerusalem (via Salonika, then part of the Turkish Empire), shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, well before the advent of 19th-century political Zionism.

This historical novel chronicles four generations of Ermosa women from 1920s Turkish Palestine to 1980s Israel: Mercada, her daughter-in-law Rosa, Rosa’s three daughters, Rachelika, Becky and Luna—the “beauty queen of Jerusalem”—and, finally, Luna’s daughter Gabriella. Through the travails of the nascent Jewish State, a relentless curse afflicts them all: none of the Ermosa women will be loved by her husband.

The novel’s semi-ethnographic chronicling of the mores and manners, idiosyncrasies and superstitions of a distinctive community uses narrative colorfully punctuated with Judeo-Spanish expressions such as “pishcado y limon” (literally “fish and lemon”) to avert evil eye, or “wai de mi sola” (take pity on me).

There are some fascinating historical and sociological tidbits here, such as how Jews in Turkish Palestine were ruthlessly enlisted by Turks to fight for the Central Powers in World War I, or how under Mandate Palestine the English were disliked by the Jews more than the Arabs, or the community’s aversion to intermarriage with Ashkenazim, which was viewed as a social demotion. The historical documentation thins out as the novel progresses through the soap-opera-like hatred between Luna and her scapegoat, her mother Rosa. The original premise — the curse on the Ermosa women, which was unleashed by Luna’s great-grandfather because of his secret love for an “Ashkenazia” — becomes increasingly nonsensical when the reader arrives at Gabriella’s story.

best-place-us-coverThe Best Place on Earth (Random House, $26), is a fine first collection of short stories by Ayelet Tsabari, winner of last year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Tsabari succeeds in engaging with her heritage as a Yemeni Jew in Israel where Sarit Yishai-Levi seems to be using hers as little more than a means to exoticize the narrative. Tsabari’s writing is openly yet delicately militant, speaking about the invisibility of Mizrahim (the so-called “Oriental Jews”) and Sephardim (Jews of Spanish origin) in Israeli society, against the established Ashkenazim.

In “Say It Again, Say Something Else,” a story of friendship between Lana from Bielorussia and Lily, a Canadian girl whose family is from Yemen, Lily articulates an ostensible incongruity: “In Canada people sometimes thought my mom was an Arab. Was she? Well, no, but my grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews.”

Tsabari delves further into politics in the story “The Poets in the Kitchen Window,” playing social class against ethnic background. Teenage Uri muses about being a pilot — which gives him elite status in the Israeli army: “He knew there weren’t many Mizrahi pilots out there — he wasn’t sure why.” Uri’s true dream is to be a poet, though that seems unattainable too: “The poetry they taught at school, the books he found in the school library, were mostly written by old Ashkenazi men. He had never heard of a Yemeni or Iraqi poet, or any Mizrahi poet for that matter.” His universe suddenly opens up when his sister gives him a book by Rony Somekh, an Israeli poet born in Baghdad.

The characters here are mostly young or youngish, many free-spirited, bohemian nonconformists. The stories have drugs, and a lot of casual sex in bathrooms and parking lots, as well as some spiced-up romantic clichés. “Tikkun,” the opening short story, is about two ex-lovers whose sexual re-encounter takes place after they closely miss a bomb explosion in a café.

“Invisible,” about Rosalynn, an illegal Filipina in Israel who takes care of an old Yemeni woman, expresses dislocation most poignantly. Working in Israel to support her daughter in the Philippines, Rosalynn suddenly takes notice of her change: “She couldn’t pinpoint when Israel had started to feel a bit like home, when she figured out the way of the seasons, when the conversations on the streets were no longer gibberish…Some nights, like tonight, delighting in the cool air, tipsy after an evening among friends, she felt guilty, wondering…if by staying in Israel she had chosen her own life over her daughter’s.”

Tsabari excels at encapsulating the immigrant experience in general, as an existential condition, the push-and-pull, the wrenching equilibrium between looking back and being present, a universal longing for home(s) past or new, for finding “the best place on earth.”


Yaëlle Azagury’s essays and reviews have appeared in the Jerusalem Post,
The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

Choosing which language to live in

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Yaëlle Azagury

Choosing Which Language to Live In

Roiled by her culture’s hidden messages of colonialism, patriotism, alienation and intimacy, a Moroccan Jew comes to terms  in Connecticut.

azagury“I feel closer to an Arab from Morocco than to a Jew from Brooklyn or Boston.”

My mother is a Moroccan Jew, born and bred in Tangier, where she also spent most of her life. Her words rang clear as I asked her to leave Morocco for the United States, where I have lived for 18 years. Although she no longer has any relatives in Morocco, I doubted she would ever settle in the manicured and uneventful Connecticut suburb where I live with my family.

Being Sephardi means something powerful to my mother: a kinship of spirit rooted in the Mediterranean, a shared grammar of tastes, flavors, sounds and idioms, a vocabulary of cultural and regional affinities threaded together bit by bit through the centuries. For her it is a complex closeness with Arab and Spanish cultures. It is less so for me.

I used to envy her the emotional clarity about her identity I lack. Morocco is her country. I, on the other hand, left when I was 18 to study in France, and I never came back. She grew up in a thriving Jewish community in the 1940s, I in a waning one in the 1970s. I felt in exile before I had even left. It was a time when almost all Jews had left their homes in Arab countries for France, Spain or Venezuela, incited by subtle economic pressures to depart.

For years, I looked towards France, where I went to pursue my literary studies. My touchstone references were Voltaire, Hugo, Baudelaire. I wrote a dissertation on Marcel Proust and became a French teacher, effortlessly passing for French. Although I am a descendant of the well-regarded Toledano family (Rabbi Daniel Toledano was a sage who lived in Fez in the 16th-century after his family was expelled from Spain in 1492), I viewed my Castilian ancestry as a distant origin, an appendix to myself. Even though colonial times were long bygone, I, a native of Tangier, was a pure product of French education, and my alienation ran so deep that I looked at my non-Gallic being with wariness. From Albert Memmi’s brilliant analysis of the colonized self, I knew that “Portrait of the Colonized,” c’est moi!

Like Memmi — a Jew of Tunisian origins — I spoke multiple languages, but this was no mere useful multilingualism. It was confusing and alienating. Each language came with a price. It was a Mephistophelian bargain. French — the tongue of thought and flight — ranked high on the list. By contrast, Arabic was low, the locus of backwardness and deficiency. We did not speak it at home, though I later learned it at school in its “high” form — “Fusha,” or classical Arabic — versus the “Darija” spoken by most Moroccans. Instead, at home we used Spanish, but that too came with strings attached. There was “high” Spanish, with its soft Castilian inflections, and our own hybrid form, Haketia, which was the vernacular of Moroccan Jews from the North, and a byproduct of another exile, 1492. Preserved through the centuries like a jar of marmalade, it consists of Old Spanish, with accretions from Hebrew and Arabic.

As a result, by the age of 18 I had created a tacit hierarchy of languages, with unspoken labels assigned to each such as “high” and “low,” “pure” and “impure.” Like Jekyll and Hyde, I took on different personalities depending on which language I spoke. It was a disastrous split in personality. If one considers Sephardism as an intrinsic form of expatriation, then exile made up the very structures of my psyche from birth, so I was bereft of a mother tongue from the outset.

Language is a condition of national identity. But in my case, a single reality took on multiple translations as through a distorting mirror. One object came burdened with manifold designations. It was like being in Plato’s cave, tirelessly groping for reality’s true essence. No definition was fixed, and unity irretrievably lost.

Was colonialism to blame? Partly, but hold the vagaries of history responsible too, with its victors and victims, and the special status of Tangier as a cosmopolitan center and as an international zone until Morocco became independent in 1956. This had made me, and other Moroccan Jews of my generation, the last links in an evanescent community, a chronological error in time and space.

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As a result, I forsook Sepharad.

My guardedness against things Sephardi was flagrantly exposed during my wedding to an American Jew in Tangier in 2005, the first Jewish nuptials there in 25 years. We had a traditional Sephardi ceremony called in Northern Morocco “noche de Berberisca.” The place was the garden of the house where I grew up, with its cornucopia of gladioli, hibiscus trees, plumbago and bougainvilleas. My parents’ home — now razed and in its stead an unremarkable building of disharmonious proportions — was located in what was then known as the Parc Brooks, an area of Tangier developed by my grandfather in the 1950s.

Our wedding took place on a balmy June night, the air was bursting with the fragrances of early summer, jasmine and lemon trees intermingling with a flower I knew by its evocative Spanish name, dama de noche (lady of the night), or night jasmine, because it smells only from dusk to dawn.

As required by tradition, I wore an elaborate eight-piece costume, the “traje de Berberisca,” all deep velvets and embroidered gold threads, whose origin can be traced back to medieval Spain. My mother had been collecting the parts for over 50 years, painstakingly assembling ancient rags of dazzling fabric found in dusty bazaars. It is a splendid gown (mine was deep amethyst), with a symbolic meaning for each of its parts, and donning it should have made me content, connected to my past, conversant with history. Instead, I was ill at ease and self-conscious in it, an impostor. Feeling exoticized, I wore it grudgingly.

I was having a destination wedding in my own land.

When the moment came for me to come down from the room where I had been expertly dressed in my cumbersome attire by the woman responsible for preparing brides, my uncles came to escort me. They sang the Shojanet Ba Sade, the bridal hymn also chanted in the Sephardi rite on Simhat Torah to honor the Torah as metaphorical bride. Instead of pacing slowly with the procession, I rushed down. I just wanted to get it over with.

Then, a peculiar and unorthodox thing happened.

As I walked out into the gardens, our Muslim friends broke into song in Arabic, reciting the verses used in Muslim weddings: Slah u Slam ‘aalik ha rasul Allah, Illah ya Sidna Mohammed, Allah maa ja el ‘Aali (May prayer and peace be sent to you from God. Our lord Sidna Mohammed has arrived from the heavens). This moment provided an instant of unusual intensity, because it belonged perhaps to another era, the time of convivencia between Jews and Muslims in the old 14th-century Sepharad, a reenacted and updated hour of harmony between rival religions. But, alas, I missed the point, just like Fabrice del Dongo in the fog of the Napoleonic wars.

My thoughts were turned instead towards the civil ceremony my husband and I had enacted a month prior in New York — primarily to get our paperwork in order, since I was in possession of a Moroccan passport. A Justice of the Peace came to our apartment and married us in a swift, purposeful ceremony. He was of Irish descent, and the intricacies of my heritage were lost on him, which was of no consequence to me then. The ceremony was clean, and simple, and from that moment on I had felt the binding vow that proclaimed us husband and wife.

I have now been married for over 10 years, and I look back at our Berberisca night with lingering regret, because I failed to embrace a meaningful tradition. I had just been a spectator all along.

Change, in the form of reappraisal, came to me slowly and unannounced. In America, I encountered small alienations daily. I often felt “Jewishness” — predominantly Ashkenazi — was a different planet. Language, yet again, offered me ample opportunities for loss of meaning and misunderstanding. For example, the final words of the Kiddush, the blessing of the wine on the Sabbath, are pronounced: bore peri haguefen with an “é” sound by Sephardim, but haguofen by Ashkenazim, a remnant of Yiddish, which Sephardim do not speak. A difference in a single letter encapsulated diverging universes. I wasn’t going to “snoga,” my Judeo-Spanish for synagogue, but to “shul,” the word in Yiddish unfamiliar to me. In America, there is meager collective imagination left to Sephardism, often ignored — or simply terra incognita, and thus viewed as lesser, simply a foil to the Ashkenazi experience. The rites, traditions and melodies were so different, I felt once again lost. I still could not find my place.

A decisive blow came last year, however, when I read in the Forward that a new law in Spain granted citizenship to those of proven Sephardi lineage. The reporter, an American Jew of Sephardi ancestry, had travelled back to Spain in search of his family’s roots. He concluded his somewhat erratic travelogue with strange advice, proclaiming it useless to look back at our past, because it is only our present actions and our future that matter. I was baffled: is rediscovering and reappraising our past, our roots and our history, a disregard for our future? It seemed rather the opposite: our past propels us forward because it enriches and densifies who we are.

So I started reading about Sephardi culture. Ammiel Alcalay’s book After Jews and Arabs, published in 1990, provided illuminating background, with material often disregarded by history, or dismissed by Israeli wariness for things Sephardi. I became fascinated by the world of the Levant this book described, of a Jewish and Arab symbiosis so implausible today, of Jewish and Muslim poets versed in Spanish, Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Portuguese, Dutch and Greek. I drew parallels to the Mitteleuropa of the early 20th century with its Babelism and vibrant intellectual life. I read Judeo-Spanish Romances, and found rich literary forms that differed from the Western canons. I’m still unsure how I will make all this a part of my American life, or how I’ll transmit it to my American children, but I’m now intrigued by aspects of a culture I had never fully seen as my own. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir about womanhood, one is not born, but rather becomes Sephardi. At least, in my case, it has been so.

Tellingly, the final transformation occurred as I was also becoming more American. Language was once again the vessel holding my crisis. But it now took on a redemptive power. English, which I acquired late in my twenties, was slowly growing to be mine. It became my language of intimacy and affection with my husband and children. I began writing in English. Words came without the burden of history or power dynamics between nations, or generations. They were a clean slate — my own — like a reset button. English was neutral, equitable, open-minded. No high and low, no pitting of heart and brain against each other. In English, I can look back at my roots with a composed heart.

Through English, I felt I had conquered the New World, where I could be whomever I chose. It was the great equalizer and the artful revealer of my own origins, and it was liberating. I was no longer anxious about who I was. I even acquired a U.S. passport. Ironically, becoming more American had allowed me to become more Sephardi.


Yaëlle Azagury is a book and art critic. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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IMG_3211Walid Raad’s exhibition at MOMA is unsettling, subversive and highly sophisticated. Toying with audience expectations, the Lebanese visual artist who was born in 1967 and lives in New York City, uses the wretched history of his war-torn country as his subject of choice. Steer clear of this impressive show however if you are expecting, like often for the Middle East, raw photojournalism, first-hand accounts from victims and reportage, complacent political correctness or an overall exoticizing of the war experience in the Levant.

Raad is far too shrewd to settle for the glib pitfalls of art with an agenda, artworks as political avatars who seek to activate straightforward outrage. He grapples with his subject obliquely, filtering his vision through a deadpan sense of humor. His art is an alteration of the real, rather than its conveyance at face value, mimesis subsumed rather than merely bestowed to an audience.


Like Alice through the rabbit hole, the viewer soon realizes she has stepped into an idiosyncratic reality, where things fall short of traditional ways. Take for instance the first multi-media montages on display: These are photographic enlargements of scaffolding with fragments of sculpted objects, interspersed with Raad’s cryptic drawings (white pages with a few sibylline words) whose goal is to point at an elusive meaning ever failing to materialize. The caption-which we take as curator’s explanations- tell the story of “Islamic” (sic) objects shipped from the Abu Dhabi museum on Saadiyat Island to the Louvre in Paris. We learn they underwent a peculiar transformation upon transportation –“it looks like they were discolored or revealed an older paint when they got there”-, and zany explanations involving art experts from both the French and the Arab side and the theories they proposed follow, much to our bewilderment.

Raad is a master at instilling doubt in the mind of the viewer as to the veracity of his narrative, relentlessly piling on clues to further mystify us, while citing the work of “the Atlas Group”, an organization handling data about the Middle East. Moving deeper into this unconventional exhibition, we realize the Atlas Group functions as what is known in literature as “a reality effect”-an object considered true in reality whose mention warrants the authenticity of the narrative. It becomes clearer however that the Atlas Group is a falsification concocted by Raad, as are the captions (allegedly the museum’s, but actually Raad’s fabrications) supporting each art piece throughout the exhibit.

Though ubiquitous in the rest of the exhibit, the subject of the war is touched upon tangentially, as if to deflate its emotional charge. Take for instance a series on photographs of car engines-all of which remained intact after car bombings. Or another display of six enlarged photographs of bombing devices, which Raad succeeds in making esthetically alluring despite their sinister properties. Or yet another series of photographs of the bombardment of Beyrouth by Israeli planes, black and white prints with unlikely splashes of pink, turquoise, and powder blue in their midst, eerily reminiscent of Monet or Turner, as though the mud of war suddenly turned into gold. Raad does not spare either his irony or dark sense of humor: In that same series too, Israeli soldiers are seen relaxing next to war tanks, in a quasi bucolic, even idyllic scene. In another montage, figures from the Lebanese political scene are grafted into a horticultural display of plants, rare species of sorts with their erudite Latin names.


Many may find irritating, even offensive Raad’s use of parody on a subject as serious as the war, or his deliberate mystification of the viewer. To what effect is he confounding us?

The first montage discussed above may be for instance a critique of the carelessness and neglect often witnessed in public institutions in the Arab world-Waad was banned from entering the United Arab Emirates for criticizing work conditions at Saadiyat Island’s Abu Dhabi museum-, and his work, as the MOMA website proposes in somewhat imprecise fashion, may be “dedicated to exploring the veracity of photographs and video documents in the public realm, the role of memory within discourses of conflict, and the construction of histories of art in the Arab world.”

Because simplistic explanations are to Art as pointless as biographical keys are to literature, Raad’s puzzles thwart reductive narratives of victors and victims. His inventiveness brings to mind the verve and vitality of Jorge Luis Borges whose literary hoaxes famously disoriented the reader.

Another conspicuous influence is the German writer W.G. Sebald also concerned with the memory of disaster, and how to tackle it through labyrinthine fabrications. In his novel Austerlitz, his often monotonous, even anonymous prose speaks about the Kindertransport of Jewish children to England during World War II with detached coolness, but to higher effect than prim sentimentality, logorrhea or pathos. Tellingly, Sebald inserted drawings within his writing as a means of creating a prose distanced from emotions, almost technical.

Raad’s back and forth between text and picture serves a similar purpose. And his playfulness and fictions are supreme barricades against his country’s calamitous history. For understatement and ellipsis are often our quintessential defenses against tragedy.