Adafina Brings Alive Childhood Memories from Tangier

15 April, 2022 • Yaëlle Azagury

Yaëlle Azagury

There is a Moroccan saying: “A Sabbath without adafina is like a Sultan without his kingdom” (Sebt bla skhina fhal sultan bla m’dina)

Adafina looms large in Sephardic cooking and cultural imagination. Dating back to medieval Spain, this flavorful dish is a one-pot meal which Sephardic Jews traditionally enjoy on the Sabbath. In medieval Toledo, it was made with chickpeas, eggs, and meat. The adafina of my childhood in Tangier, Morocco also included potatoes and sweet potatoes, both of which, having arrived to Europe after the discovery of the New World, were later additions to the original recipe.

Jews are prohibited to cook on the Sabbath, so adafina is prepared the day before and slowly simmers overnight, allowing the ingredients to release their juices.   Contemporary Sephardic cooks use an electric hot plate, but in the medieval period, the dish cooked for hours in the coals in earthen pit ovens.  Hence its name, adafina, which, like other Spanish words, comes from the Arabic.  It is rooted on the verb “d’fen,” meaning “to bury.” Variations on the name include dafina, d’fina, skhina, and in the Ottoman Empire, it is known as hamin.

An intrinsic part of medieval Iberian culture, adafina is mentioned in such literary works as El Libro de Buen Amor (1330) by Juan Ruiz, and La Lozana Andaluza (1528) by Francisco Delicado. Food anthroplogists consider adafina the first iteration of the olla podrida, itself the predecessor of cocido. Cocido, however, contains pork and sausages, both of which are non-kosher ingredients. The latter were presumably added to the original dish during the Inquisition by conversos seeking to prove they were true Catholics.

Adafina is a well-traveled food and, chameleon-like, has hosted many influences. Just as it is an integral part of the Iberian heritage, so, too, it is deeply enmeshed in Maghribi culture. The Moroccan dictum captures with characteristic humor the dish’s repute. In likening adafina to a worthy kingdom, it brings to light the closely-knit relationship of Jews and Muslims in Morocco. It also highlights the Moroccan Jewish experience as one of relative comfort, revealing that poking a little fun at the Other was acceptable. And it stresses that adafina was a desirable dish known and prized by Muslims as well. In Tangier, food was frequently — especially on holidays — exchanged between the two communities. The mutual sharing of delicacies, common in Morocco, oiled the machinery of Jews and Muslims living side-by-side, in harmony, albeit separately.

My memories of our family’s adafina in Tangier are richly textured. I am instantly transported to a time when, on a Friday afternoon after school, I timorously entered the spacious and charming yellow kitchen in our 1950’s villa. This was not a child’s domain, for I knew it was the locus of elaborate and arcane concoctions, a laboratory of sorts. My mother and our cook, paying little heed to me, busied themselves to ready before sundown the meals of the Sabbath — one for that night and another for the next day.  I watched the eggs for the adafina boil with the peels of red onions — a mysterious process that darkened the eggs, and whose other purpose was to distinguish them from the plain hard-boiled eggs of mourning. That color or colorcito had to be verified by the exacting cooks in my family. I also gazed at the preparation of caramel, that liquid gold to be poured on the Sabbath dish to further enhance the desired shade. Mesmerized, I observed the precise alchemy by which the bubbling water and the sugar produced a darker liquid, amber-looking and sweet-smelling. The broth became a heavenly nectar.

Other fragrances, too, slowly filled the air: pepper, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, mace — a spice I have otherwise seldom encountered — and the marvelous, heady scent of clover.  I learned that some families used different seasonings, cinnamon for instance. For my mother, however, cinnamon was on the other side of the line between civilization and barbarism. In fact, there are infinite variations of adafina from house to house. Competition among cooks was fierce, tasters and critics demanding. Our adafina delighted in that it included tuetano (marrow bone), which my father served me on a piece of bread, and rulo de carne molida, a cross between stuffing and a meat roll with nutmeg and marjoram.

Finally, at four or five in the afternoon, prior to sunset, the cooking ceremonial ended, and the stew was placed on an old electric plate that lay on a granite countertop adjacent to our Arthur Martin stove. It was to regally sit on its altar all night, simmering, the scent floating in our house through the next day. Occasionally, it released a slightly nauseating odor, that of an overdone dish cooking on a hot plate. By nightfall, the Sabbath begun, and my mother and I waited for my father’s return from synagogue. The house had grown silent after the maids left, the atmosphere slightly dull, except for the occasional excitement in the kitchen later, when the hot plate malfunctioned — a frequent mishap. I recall how my mother, alerted by a burning smell, often rushed into our kitchen, discovering that the liquid from the adafina had evaporated. “Por Dios! Casi se quema la casa!” (The house has nearly burned down!), she would exclaim in the chanting intonation of the Spanish-speaking Jews of northern Morocco. But invariably, adding a little water to the stew, or operating some other transformation I did not comprehend, she miraculously rendered it more flavorful, thus reversing the fates. In my mind, then, in keeping with its etymology of something to “cover” or “bury,” of something perhaps illicit, adafina summons the thought of a slightly dangerous activity. But it is also synonymous with the possibility of adaptability, amendment, and redemption.

My recollections of adafina, carry me evidently to the moment of consumption — the culminating point of the Sabbath lunch, one which was often anti-climactic. Most of the time, it was just my father, my mother, and myself — I was an only child— and my parents not being chatty, opportunities for musings and reflection were plentiful. I credit adafina with helping me to decode the textures of their relationship, to grasp their secrets and worries, and thus to interpret in other settings the emotional temperature of a room, to read undercurrents of joy, sadness concealment, or discontent. The Sabbath was a quiet day in which I wasn’t allowed to do much, other than eat and observe.  It seemed long and dark — the color of adafina.

In truth, while growing up I disliked adafina — or rather, I convinced myself that I did. I found it heavy and indigestible. In my initiation from child to adult, it became a stake, a learning tool, a rite of passage. I viewed adafina as an icon of what I ought to relinquish, an antiquated food, somber and stodgy. I believed all our efforts as Jews with a Western education were to be geared at becoming “modern,” a process which inevitably dictated culinary changes.

Today, from my home in Connecticut my adolescent foolishness is exposed. Memory, like falling in love, is a process of Stendhalian crystallization. Just as the boughs of a tree glitter from icy accretions after a snowfall, so, too, with time we embellish the object we regret, adorning it with magical qualities.  And yet…Adafina, with its kaleidoscope of flavors, trained my palate, taught me to taste, parse, and discern. It also taught me that even a simple dish made primarily with eggs and potatoes could, in the right clothing, sparkle.

There is a beautiful Talmudic parable that today resonates powerfully with my feelings:

“Caesar [the Greek Emperor Hadrian] said to Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania:  How is it that the Sabbath meal smells so appealing? He said, we have a certain spice called Shabbat that we put in it. Let me have some, he requested. [Joshua replied,] For those who observe Shabbat, it works, for those who don’t, it doesn’t.” (Sabbath, 119a)

Adafina is not only a meal. It is a credo, a system of beliefs. It is the emblem of a microcosm, of a place, of the people who cooked it, of my mother and of my father, of our friends, of the person I was then, of a reassuring weekly return, of regulated time, of the cocoon we lose when we become adults and take on responsibilities, of my Mediterranean world. Adafina, the one I now make for my children, is redolent of a vanished universe — that of my own childhood, which will never return.

adafinadafinafood and memoryMoroccan foodSephardic JewsTangier

Yaëlle Azagury

Yaëlle Azagury is a writer and a scholar who writes frequently about Moroccan Jews. She is at work on an English edition of an Algerian novel from the early 20th century.

The Story of Jewish Salonica

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Historian Prof. Sarah Abrevaya Stein follows the Sephardi Levy family of Salonica from the end of the 19th century through the city’s transformation into present-day Greek Thessaloniki.

By YAËLLE AZAGURY   AUGUST 4, 2020 12:09

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In her book, Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century, noted historian Prof. Sarah Abrevaya Stein follows the Sephardi Levy family of Salonica from the end of the 19th century, while it was under Ottoman rule, through the city’s transformation into present-day Greek Thessaloniki. Through her exacting investigation of a rich family archive—consisting of hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials, letters, medical certificates, passports, and photographs – she reconstructs the little-known story of Jewish Salonica, a once-thriving Sephardi community in the Balkans, and its immersion in the fate of European Jewry.

I was born in a place which, although at the other end of the Mediterranean, was very much like it: Tangier in Morocco. Both Salonica and Tangier were multi-ethnic and multi-religious cities whose societies were open, unprejudiced, and often economically prosperous. Together with several other port cities in that region, they embodied a distinct brand of Sephardi cosmopolitanism that has gone all but unnoticed in Jewish historiography.

Salonica has a rich and fascinating history. Situated on the northwest coast of the Aegean Sea, at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, it was well placed to thrive as a port city. Salonica’s prosperity was further spurred in the 15th century by the arrival of Jews expelled by the Inquisition from medieval Iberia (Sepharad) in 1492, who brought with them established trade networks. My own ancestor, an esteemed Iberian rabbi by the name of Daniel Toledano, traveled eastward to Salonica before turning west and settling in Fez, Morocco. These exiled Jews, often of a refined education and culture, spoke Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish). In the 19th century especially, Salonica was an important publishing and printing center for texts in Judeo-Spanish and Hebrew.

This work is an intriguing and necessary addition to the field of Sephardi studies, recently experiencing a substantial renaissance, with the insights of a new wave of historians like Stein herself, who teaches at the University of California in Los Angeles. Following in the wake of Mark Mazower’s pioneering work on the history of Salonica, Stein’s research on Jewish Salonica is part of a broader reframing of North African and Middle Eastern history. Mazower described Salonica’s transition from a multi-ethnic Ottoman society to a backwater renamed Thessaloniki after Greece captured it during the Balkan wars in 1912. Stein espouses this story from the Jewish perspective, but also seeks to cast a more intimate light at the city once dubbed “the Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Salonica had a considerable Jewish population of between 60,000 and 100,000, half the city’s residents in the 19th century. The city counted no fewer than 50 synagogues. Jews coexisted with Muslims, Greek Orthodox and other Christians as well as Dönme (the descendants of the self-proclaimed Jewish prophet Shabtai Zvi). These Jews were an integral part of the city’s labor force as stevedores and workers in the city’s tobacco factories. They also formed a middle-class of shop-owners, of teachers in the city’s schools, and finally of editors, printers, and writers in the city’s most popular newspapers.

Sa’adi Levy, the patriarch of the family in Stein’s story, modernized a derelict printing press which his ancestor had brought in 1731 from Amsterdam, where the family had fled from the Iberian Peninsula, joining another important Sephardic center of Spanish exiles. He published Salonica’s most successful fin-de-siècle newspapers, the Ladino-language la Epoka and the French-language Le Journal de Salonique. The family also issued a dizzying array of other secular and religious writings and were soon established as part of the cultural elite of the city.

Levy’s newspapers covered the competing claims of Zionism, socialism, and the form of Ottoman nationalism known as Ottomanism. However Levy himself remained staunchly committed to the Sephardic legacy and language of his forebears (muestro Espanyol, as Ladino was also known). Sa’adi Lévy’s son Sam was also deeply immersed in the intellectual controversies of his time. In 1919 he even proposed a plan to the League of Nations in which he sought Jewish self-governance for his native city, whereby it would become a free and neutral city-state, neither Zionist nor Greek. In the momentous aftermath of World War I, Palestine was not readily embraced by Sephardi Jews in the Levant and North Africa as a viable destination.

The Levys counted journalists, teachers, and high-rank administrators among their family. Sa’adi’s son David, known honorifically as Daout Effendi, was a high-level official with tremendous power in the Ottoman hierarchy. Wishing to discuss the future of Ottoman Palestine, Theodor Herzl turned to him for an audience at the Sublime Porte. Daout was a patriot who bemoaned the end of Ottoman Salonica. Like a great many Salonican Jews, he feared Greek rule, and the nationalism that came with it. The Levys were also merchants, who built up a textile trade with Manchester in England that linked with other Sephardim around the Mediterranean in cities like Tangier. Sa’adi’s daughter Fortunée and her husband Ascher Salem established themselves as the Manchester branch of the Levy family.

Stein paints a skillful, if sometimes fragmented, picture of Sa’adi Levi, and his numerous offspring from the late 19th century to the present. She is a relentless researcher and follows their fates in eight different languages across three different continents – an astonishing feat. Their lives, like myriad others from that part of the world, have usually remained voiceless and undocumented.

As though to settle a point in the Ashkenazi-Sephardi cultural wars, Stein claims that Sephardi history is not fundamentally different from Ashkenazi history, though its encounter with modernity surely came in a different guise. While Central and Eastern European Jewry experienced a profound transformation under the impulse of the Jewish Enlightenment as Haskala, emancipation, secularization, and an enormous out-migration to Western Europe and the Americas, the Sephardic world underwent its own, different mutation when the Alliance Israelite Universelle made its appearance in North Africa and the Levant.

This bourgeois, reform-oriented Franco-Jewish philanthropic organization educated thousands of children from Morocco to Iran and provided them with a secular French education with a smattering of Jewish learning. Loyalty to French culture became the cornerstone of Jewish education from Tetouan to Teheran. Other common characteristics, observes Stein, were: “an embrace of innovative politics, emigration, measured assimilation.” Stein similarly challenges traditional perceptions of Sephardi societies as predominantly patriarchal. She observes shrewdly that progressive Sephardi families (much like Ashkenazi ones) oftentimes were more open-minded with their daughters than with their sons and did not hesitate to expose them to novel ideas. They believed that women would lack the will to stray, unlike the men. Some of the wives and daughters are strangely absent, but other women are richly visible. One example is Saa’di’s daughter Rachel Carmona. An excellent student at the Alliance school, she continued her training at the Alliance’s Ecole Normale Israelite in Paris. As an Alliance teacher, she traveled with her husband, a fellow teacher, to the organization’s schools in its vast network across the Balkans, the Levant, and North Africa. She taught in Ruschuk, Bulgaria – home to an important Sephardic community and the birthplace of the writer and Nobel laureate Elias Canetti – and in Tetouan, Morocco.

Stein describes a society which was both mercantile and intellectual, equally engaged in commerce of commodities and ideas. The two strands were often enmeshed in Mediterranean Sephardi societies, particularly those of several coastal cities which served as its cultural and commercial outposts, including Livorno, Alexandria, and Tangier.

The congruities between Salonica and Tangier indeed struck me, despite different timelines. Tangier Jewry only began its growth in the early 20thcentury, and its population never exceeded 15,000, about one third of the overall population.

Jews, however, were highly visible. Up until the 1950s, there were 22 synagogues in the city. I was born well after the pinnacle of Jewish Tangier, when it had lost its past luster and become a seedy backwater (today it is experiencing a renaissance, though nearly all its Jews have left), but my childhood in the 1970s was punctuated by nostalgic calls from older relatives lamenting the days when, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the city came to a complete halt.

As in Salonica, too, Tangerian Jews played a significant part in initiating a Jewish and non-Jewish press in Morocco. Figures such as Pinhas Assayag and Abraham Pimienta from Tangier played a major role, as did Levi Cohen, owner and publisher of the French-language weekly Le Réveil du Maroc, founded in Tangier in 1883. In the years following the start of the French protectorate in 1912, the Jewish press grew even more vibrant.

Likewise, Jews were facilitators, intermediaries, dragomans, skilled artisans, traders and moneychangers: commerce was central to the city’s life. My own family counts rabbinical and legal scholars, merchants, high-level administrators (one of them, Yahya Zagury, rather like Daout Effendi, organized the legal status of the Jewish community within the French protectorate in Morocco).

This role intensified with European penetration in the latter part of the 19th century. Many acted as trade representatives well into the last century in exchange for foreign protection. My maternal grandfather obtained a Dutch passport, though he never set foot in the Netherlands, just as some of the Levys in Salonica had earned Portuguese citizenship (this would later prove crucial in saving several of the latter from the Nazis).

What was the secret of this success?

In the early years of the 20th century, a long tradition of commingling in the confines of Tangier’s medina or old city laid the foundation for a close-knit economy among the three communities. A few wealthy bank-owning Jewish families such as the Abensurs, Benchimols, Hassans, Nahons or Parientes enjoyed personal and business connections with the local Muslim administration and the European diplomats living in Tangier.

Bolstered by free trade, commerce flourished further as Tangier gained in 1925 its much-vaunted International Zone status. Merchants who traded in commodities of all kind prospered. My grandfather, Aaron Cohen, and his brother Jacob were engaged in the wholesale import/export business. But they also made their money in a bustling real estate market as Tangier’s population grew rapidly in the 1930s and expanded beyond the walls of the old city. They bought land to develop new residential areas and built lodgings and cinemas to satisfy the tastes of a Westernizing elite. My mother recalls long afternoons watching the latest American features at the family-owned movie theaters, the Lux, the Goya and the Alcazar.

Tangier’s prosperity continued after World War II, as Europe lacked basic products of all sorts, and the international city was able to provide plenty. The city’s free-wheeling ways are recounted endlessly in tales of espionage, and accounts of its cosmopolitan, if old-fangled elegance abound. As in Salonica, cosmopolitanism bred a specific religious mindset. It was orthodox but never rigid. One of the Levy descendants euphemistically termed it in French “pas fanatique” (not fanatical). My Tangerian relatives could have said the same. This period lasted until Morocco regained its independence in 1956, well before I was born.

The fate of each city’s Jews diverged, however. 98% of Salonica’s Jewish population was eradicated in the Holocaust, a calamitous distinction in Sephardic history. Nonetheless, Tangier had a narrow escape. In breach of the city’s international status, General Francisco Franco’s Spanish troops captured it in June 1940, the same day the German army marched into Paris. Had Franco entered the war on the side of his Fascist allies, I shudder at what could have happened.

Stein’s book paves the way for future studies on such cosmopolitan cities as Salonica or Tangier. Both epitomized what should aptly be viewed as “the Sephardi model,” one that’s not easily replicated anywhere else.

Confined in an academic framework, the book has the weaknesses of its virtues. Although it is to be praised for its faithful historical rendering, I wish Stein had kindled more of the Levys’ human warmth. A richer portrait of Rachel Carmona, for instance, would have been welcome. There are still human gaps in the story begging to be filled. But Stein is a historian, after all, not a novelist.

This shortcoming fades in the last part of the book: the chapter on Vital Hasson, a monstrous character who helped the Nazis in the extermination of Salonican Jewry and was tried after the war for his crimes, is the most affecting. Stein recounts the devastation he wrought in his wake. But perhaps this is both a strength and a flaw, as though Jewish history only becomes more richly inhabited when linked to the Holocaust. Equal narrative potency is needed elsewhere in the book when confronting the quandaries of Sephardi history.

What Sephardi story is told in Stein’s book?

Is this a tale of the greatness and decline of one Sephardi family? Or the unfortunate story of the demise of the entire Sephardi legacy? Where is that Sephardi heritage to be found today? And how did that heritage take root in its new homes: did it adapt, mutate, or stay the same?

One of the photographs in the book portrays the Salem family at the grave of Fortunée Salem in Manchester in the 1930s. Stein notes a meaningful and poignant detail: a bouquet of flowers – a practice from their new British world – rests on the grave, instead of the traditional stones. Something was lost in that passage, but what is it? The answer, not a simple one assuredly, is missing from the book and I regretted Stein’s reluctance to engage with the question.

I don’t presume to have the answer either, but I think it is a question worth exploring. When I visit my father’s grave amidst the tall cypresses and the colorful bougainvillea in Tangier’s Jewish cemetery, I still notice the discreet little rocks scattered here and there. Tangier’s Jewish history is now finished. The stones are hence double symbols of absence – of the deceased and of a defunct community. But I refuse to view them as fossils. Perhaps those pebbles, real and metaphoric, still exist elsewhere, vestiges of these vanished worlds. Perhaps they have even become flowers in their new settings today. ■ The writer writes about Sephardi culture and is currently working on a book about Sephardi women writers

Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century
Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
337 pages; $18.69
Yaëlle Azagury

The Moroccan Exception in the Arab World



King Mohammed VI is carrying out a wide-ranging effort to revive his country’s Jewish heritage.


By Yaëlle Azagury and Anouar Majid
Ms. Azagury is a writer. Mr. Majid is the editor of Tingis magazine.

April 9, 2019






Moroccan and Israeli Jews celebrating Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, at a synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Marrakesh in 2017.CreditCreditFadel Senna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

TANGIER, Morocco — On a recent balmy spring afternoon, a group of Muslim Moroccan students visited Rabbi Akiba, a jewelbox of a synagogue down an arched passageway in the Siaghine area of Tangier. Constructed in the mid-19th century, the synagogue underwent a meticulous renovation and recently reopened as a museum.

The students peered at the polished marble floors from the women’s balcony and examined a threadbare, hand-drawn map of the synagogues in the neighborhood. The tour of Rabbi Akiba is just one of many ways that Muslim students in Morocco are learning about their country’s Jewish heritage.

While Judaism in the Middle East and North Africa often evokes images of hostility, in Morocco, where we were born and raised, in Jewish (Ms. Azagury) and Muslim (Mr. Majid) families, that picture isn’t quite accurate. Our country boasts a rich history of Jewish-Muslim cohabitation, and in the past several years, the kingdom has taken significant steps to strengthen it.

The 2011 Constitution acknowledges that Morocco’s identity has been “nourished and enriched” in part by “Hebraic” components. Around that same time, King Mohammed VI embarked on a wide-ranging rehabilitation project that reflects his “special interest” in the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Moroccan Jewish community.

More than 160 Jewish cemeteries with thousands of gravestones have been uncovered, cleaned up and inventoried with funding from the kingdom. In addition to synagogues, former Jewish schools have been renovated with the king’s support. The original names of the Jewish neighborhoods where many of these synagogues have stood for centuries have also been reinstated. In 2013, Abdelilah Benkirane, then the prime minister of Morocco’s Islamist-led government, read a message by the king at the reopening of the newly restored Slat al Fassiyine synagogue in Fez in which he pledged to protect the Jewish community.

Other houses of worship, like the splendid 19th-century Nahon synagogue in Tangier, are now museums. The Ettedgui synagogue in Casablanca and the adjacent El Mellah Jewish Museum, founded in 1997 by Moroccan Jews who believe in a shared future between Jews and Muslims, were restored and rededicated by the king in 2016. El Mellah is the only comprehensive Jewish museum in the Arab world. There are plans for three more in Morocco.

The overtures extend to Morocco’s educational system and intellectual community. Last fall, King Mohammed ordered Holocaust studiesincluded in the high school curriculum. Around the same time, Zhor Rehihil, the Muslim director of El Mellah, started a weekly radio show about Jewish culture featuring Jews speaking in the Moroccan Arab vernacular, darija. Ms. Rehihil told us that the goal of the show, in which Moroccan Jews reminisce about their childhoods in villages around the country, is to familiarize them to a Muslim audience that often associates Jews with foreigners.

In November, the Council of Moroccan Communities Abroad and the Jewish community in the country invited Moroccan Jewish journalists, academics and community leaders residing abroad to Marrakesh for a weeklong conference highlighting the “respect of Jews for Islam and the respect of Muslims for Judaism.”

Much still remains to be done, but these are promising developments. The question is, why now?

With a mere 2,500 Jews left in the kingdom, compared with some 240,000 in the 1940s, this endeavor may indeed appear purely symbolic, or even designed to bolster Morocco’s image in the world. It will not bring Moroccan Jews back in any great numbers. But the kingdom’s embrace of Jewish heritage is a strong reminder of the Jews’ rightful place in Morocco’s history, despite some strained chapters.

In the 20th century, European colonialism, the creation of Israel and the emergence of Arab nationalism, imbued with elements of anti-Semitism, divided the Jewish and Muslim communities and set them on different paths. Fearing violence and persecution, Jews left the kingdom for Israel and elsewhere. But the Moroccan Jewish diasporain Canada, France, Israel and Venezuela have retained strong ties with their old homeland, often helping to fund renovations.

In the popular imagination, Jews and Muslims are seen as locked in an eternal struggle, but this wasn’t always so. From Morocco to Iran, Jews have lived in Muslim lands for centuries, with the two communities developing complex linguistic, cultural and commercial ties. Their coexistence was far from perfect, but as the historian Michel Abitbol and others have shown, Jews fared significantly better in Arab lands than their brethren in the shtetls of Central and Eastern Europe. From the Middle Ages throughout the Early Modern period, Sephardic Jews often prospered as merchants, translators, administrators and agents for the sultan.

Nowadays, the global media — which tends to dwell on what separates, rather than unites, Jews and Muslims — and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism on the internet has left Morocco’s youth largely unaware that a sizable Jewish community lived among them only 60 or 70 years ago. As the Moroccan anthropologist Aomar Boum has argued, Muslims have only “memories of absence” of their Jewish neighbors. Morocco’s gestures of openness help remind its citizens, and the world, that the country’s Jewish history matters and is worth honoring.

Yaëlle Azagury writes frequently about Moroccan Jews in the diaspora. Anouar Majid is the author of several books on Islam and the West and the editor of Tingis magazine.

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“Flawlessness by Ines” — The Hidden Bruises

Yaëlle Azagury


I go back every year with my family to visit my mother in Tangier, Morocco. This is where I grew up and where I lived until age 18. But my feelings and emotions about the place and my past have changed, readjusting, moving, shifting like tectonic plates at various stages of my life.

I had a comfortable, albeit isolated, bourgeois childhood. I went to a French lycée, in the company of other Jewish and some Muslim children. With no siblings and a vanishing Jewish community to afford a sense of belonging, it was a solitary childhood. My father was very strict, so I seldom ventured outside my protected cocoon. I had friends who came from diverse backgrounds, Muslims and Christians, French and Spaniards. But Jews and Muslims have a complex shared history in Morocco, so I was inclined to gaze at Muslim society at a distance, like a bizarre continent where I had landed by some accident of history.

When I left for France, and later for the United States, my original narrative was obscured by another one. This new one answered to nostalgia. Nostalgia is an intoxicating emotion. It constructs reassuring tales for everyone, which serve as anchors when we venture at high sea, faraway from home. We’ve all experienced its siren song, in some form or another: the scents and tastes of our childhood, the words and songs of our lullabies, the deep textures of our emotions, the sweet embrace of our parents. I was no different from anyone else, and I knew too well it was a gloss over reality. I painted it in sunny shades that concealed the larger context. It was not the real Morocco either, but one I had carefully stored in a pretty box with a perfect bow.

So when I went back this past August, I knew this could no longer satisfy me. Serendipity came to the rescue, when I became reacquainted with Khadija at a friend’s house in the Marshan neighborhood of Tangier. We had both attended the same public school—the French Lycée Régnault. And although she is a few years younger, and is Muslim, we could exchange a great many tales of the surprisingly intellectual universe of our hometown, both in school and beyond. We talked about Tangier. Like New Yorkers, Tanjawouas love to revel in the pluralism and diversity of their town. Tangier is a unique place in Morocco. Situated on two water expanses— the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean—it has been exposed to many foreign influences throughout its long history, and has been shaped by that diversity. Ideas of all kinds have flourished on its soil. Khadija and I discussed what an exciting time this was for our native city, as the Arab Spring reignited its vitality, long dormant in the aftermath of the colonial powers’ retreat in the late 1950s.

A vivacious redhead with sparkly, dark eyes, Khadija is a journalist and editor of the online magazine Enti (which is the feminine “you” in Arabic), a lifestyle publication she recently launched. Dressed in Western garb, her thoughtfulness is leavened with a kind of lightness. Likewise, Enti is full of lighthearted articles on food, fashion, shopping advice, trends; a version of Elle, though it lacks the feminist edge of the French publication’s early days. But there is an earnest social consciousness to the magazine which reflects Khadija’s genuine desire to usher in change.

She spoke eloquently about her hopes, but also about her disappointments, as the vast democratizing movement which engulfed North Africa and the Middle East has come to naught almost everywhere, except in Tunisia. Morocco had made some great progress too, under the king’s guidance, though some outcomes were still mitigated.

She explained that women’s rights have been a special focus of King Mohammed VI, who ascended the Alawite throne in 1999 amidst great hope. In 2004, the monarch crafted a wide-ranging reform of the Muddawana, the family legal code. Changes, among others, included raising the legal age of marriage to 18, divorce provisions (with the right granted to women to be petitioners) and limitations to polygamy (authorized only if there is an objective justification for it, if the first wife consents, if the man is financially able to support both families, and if both relationships are equal).

Tongue in cheek, she told me how wives often found out about a husband’s other marriages on the day of his funeral, when the second wife suddenly turned up among the mourners to pay her last respects to the deceased. So she approves the reforms of the king, whom she respectfully refers to as Sa Majesté, as most Moroccans do, though a lot of work still remains to be done. There are the thorny laws of inheritance, for example, which, following Islamic law, afford very little of the deceased’s patrimony to his wife or daughters, privileging male heirs instead.

And there is domestic violence, a taboo. Khadija urged me to watch a video she had produced recently; it had won several international prizes, and has been shared more than six million times. Naturally I was intrigued, and soon riveted. Brief, but striking, the clip is called “Flawlessness by Ines” and can be found on YouTube. It shows a bubbly young blogger cheerfully teaching the viewer how to remove her makeup. With all the appearance of a breezy tutorial for young women, the video gradually takes an unexpected and chilling turn. As the woman cleans the traces of make-up on her face, bruises slowly appear. The beauty lesson suddenly morphs into stark social denunciation, and the clip ends with an alarming statistic: “6 out of 10 women are victims of domestic violence in Morocco,” and a final call to action: “ Do not cover this abuse: unmask it.”

The video was a response to a sequence in Sabbahiyat, the television show aired on channel 2M of Moroccan national television, in 2016, teaching women how to mask traces of domestic abuses using make-up, which drew a worldwide outcry.

I was shaken to the core, like Sleeping Beauty awakening from decades of sleep. I realized how little I knew about my old country. What did I understand about Moroccan society, about the everyday struggles of its people, about its political parties, gender inequality, or the battles of its women, or the discrepancies between salaries and the cost of living? As a Jew, whose community was slowly falling into extinction by the inexorable propulsion of history, I’d had my own fights to tend to. But now, I was embarrassed by my ignorance.

There had been an imaginary wall separating me from women like Khadija. Historian Susan Miller has called the symbolic separation which isolated (and preserved) Jews from the larger Muslim world, an “imaginary mellah” (a mellah is a Jewish ghetto, in Arabic), since there was no real mellah in Tangier, which there was in other parts of Morocco. Now, that wall seemed irrelevant to me. Perhaps because I had left and come back, perhaps because it was time to look at things differently. Not as a Jew lamenting the vanishing of my own people in this land that was ours too, nor through the fallacious lenses of nostalgia, but as a Moroccan concerned about her fellow Muslims, my kin after all.

I became attuned to myriad new voices. Khadija, my Virgil, skillfully guided me through the maze. She explained how she decided to make the Flawlessness video because it was time to have “frank discussions” on the matter, to raise consciousness about the issue. It had been particularly challenging to find someone to perform in it. She pointed out how domestic abuse often remained undetected especially among Moroccan women of the upper middle class. Fearing social reprobation, these women recoil from going to the police, perhaps more than those with lesser social status with nothing to lose. Khadija is herself in the middle of a divorce, though she shied from the subject. She is also vocal about the rampant street harassment in Morocco.

That’s when my own memories rushed in: the irksome and numerous times when I was unable to stroll undisturbed in the streets of Tangier as a teenager. Being groped, followed, or whistled at is still a daily plague for a woman in Morocco.

The situation is so volatile, explains Khadija, it can easily take an unexpected turn, as on a Friday, which is the holy day of prayer for Muslims, when she was walking in the streets of Tangier in a miniskirt, and took notice of a group of men in white djellabas coming out of a nearby mosque. Fearful of being chided, perhaps even insulted, for her attire, she attempted to change course, but could not. She was enormously relieved when they barely took notice of her, though it took some time for her heart to stop pounding. She later explained she had been ashamed of having thought ill of the religious men, more open-minded than she had reckoned.

More disturbing, during my trip back this past August, a young teenage girl on a bus in Casablanca was not so fortunate. She was sexually assaulted by a gang of young men in front of impassive passengers, while the vehicle continued to roll as though nothing had happened. The rape, which some in Morocco called “deserved” because the young woman was “scantily clad,” drew an outcry in social media, but nothing was done to punish the perpetrators of the crime.

Stunned by these facts, I started paying attention in ways I never had before. I discussed this further with my friend Mounia, a journalist at the radio station Medi-1 in Tangier. She attributes the sharp rise in the number of women wearing the Islamic veil or hijab precisely to street harassment: “Currently, women in Morocco wear it less because of heightened religious awareness, but rather because nobody will bother them in this guise.” Another reason commonly heard is the need to find a husband. If a man sees a woman with a headscarf, he thinks she is “serious,” “honest,” and “modest.”

One more brushstroke filled the picture when I ran into my old classmate Awatif. Awatif and I had gone to school together some 30 years ago. I vividly remember her long dark braids, frequently tugged by mischievous little boys during “recreation,” recess, in the schoolyard of our lycée. We renewed our acquaintance in the lobby of the apartment building where we both reside, on the site of my childhood house. So when I noticed pearls of sweat under Awatif’s hijab, I boldly asked her if she wasn’t too warm under her heavy religious headscarf. The question was treacherous. Debating the headscarf was the last thing I wished to do. But it was obvious I was really asking was why she was wearing that burdensome gear at all.

As soon as my words came out of my mouth, however, I regretted my audacity, hastening to add that I utterly understood and respected her traditional choice. To my surprise, Awatif looked me in the eyes, and said she was indeed uncomfortable. She did not enjoy wearing the head-covering scarf one bit. “So why do you consent to it?” I pressed her, this time encouraged by her reply. She demurred, and the answer, like the moisture on her forehead, seemed to vanish.

Alongside the modesty exemplified by Awatif, I was surprised to observe that many people wore minimal bikinis at a private pool club I visited with my children. How could the country accommodate such extremes?

In her now-classic childhood tale of growing up in her family’s harem in Fez in the 1940s, the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi speaks of the “harem within.” Retracing her budding feminism in the constricting confines of the harem, she observed two competing camps among the women. On the one hand, the traditionalist co-wives: these were the ones who had internalized the harem, who held it “within,” and carried it everywhere, unable to imagine their lives outside of the status quo imposed, according to Mernissi, by male domination rather than by the Koran. On the other, the modernist ones, like Mernissi’s mother, who, though not well educated, dreamed of a different world where women would no longer be men’s captives. For Mernissi, who went on to have a brilliant career as a prominent scholar and writer in the United States, the progressive camp did not derive its views from exogenous influences. The desire for equality and equal rights, she contended, was not solely a product of Western presence in Morocco during the colonization. Rather, it drew its strength from Islamic texts themselves which were much more inclined towards gender equality than often fathomed—and obscured—by Westerners. I pondered that perhaps Awatif had not freed herself from “the harem within.”

When we spoke on the phone last fall, Khadija gave me one last thing to reflect on. In her view, women’s rights in Morocco are profoundly dependent on a shift in mentalities. “When I tell my daughter she is man’s equal, I also have to instruct her brother in the same spirit. This occurs primarily through education. Mothers ought to educate their children equally,” she explains, adding further: “Change does not happen overnight.” Hence Khadija favors “more debate,” on the subject, but adds in French this should occur en douceur, meaning “organically,” lest the country’s stability be jeopardized.

Recalling my training as a political scientist, I was aware that the distinction between “reform” and ”revolution” is a tricky, slippery subject masking an array of marked political choices. Khadija, who was educated in a French lycée, comes from a privileged social background. Would a housemaid feel the same? Partisans of reform are typically more conservative than radical revolutionaries. Yet, considering the failures of the Arab Spring in places where it had taken a revolutionary turn, perhaps she was onto something. Furthermore, I also knew Morocco was a more traditional society than other Middle Eastern countries—for instance, deeply attached to its monarchy.

In a recent article published in The New York Times, the British journalist Shereen El-Feki shared a similar assessment. El-Feki registered some positive change across the Muslim world, especially regarding rape laws and sanctions, which have become significantly stricter. But “passing the laws and applying them are two different things,” explains El-Feki, “in large part because the judges, the police, and other officials in charge of enforcing these laws are often conservative themselves.”

The more I listened, the more I realized the many intricacies I faced. Some will accuse me of having gone too far: what gave me license, as a Jew, now having lived in America for decades, to speak up for Muslim women in Morocco? Many more will accuse me of cultural appropriation, though in the latter case it is the majority who tries to speak for an oppressed minority. But this doesn’t apply in my case, since in Morocco I represent the minority. We begin to see how complicated this can be. Others still, finding me sympathetic to the cause of tradition, will contend I have not gone far enough.

The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas believed that understanding the “otherness” of another person should start with a consideration of the face (le visage). Failing to do so results in a breakdown of communication. In this story, that has been my sole intention: to see precisely the face of the Other, my other, but also any other. An “Other” who, to me, and to my community, had remained distant for centuries. Not distant in the way Eastern European Jews remained severed from the larger Christian world in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, because in the Mediterranean world Jews and Muslims were in constant contact with each other. But distant enough to have ignored each other’s struggles. In the many faces of the women I spoke to, and in their stories of suffering they shared with me, this “other” suddenly ceased to be so. She had become my sister.

Yaëlle Azagury is a journalist and a critic who writes, among other topics, about French and Sephardic cultures. She is a previous contributor to Lilith.

La Belle Juive

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by Yaëlle Azagury

“There is in the phrase ‘a beautiful Jewess’ a very special sexual signification, one quite different from that contained in the words ‘beautiful Rumanian’, ‘beautiful Greek’, or ‘beautiful American’, for example. This phrase carries an aura of rape and massacre. The ‘beautiful Jewess’ is she whom the Cossacks under the czar dragged by her hair through the streets of the burning village.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Jew and Anti-Semite (1965)

As a keen museumgoer, I have spent countless hours looking at paintings of beautiful Jewish women. In my own imagination’s gallery, there is a special place for Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, Veronese’s Rebecca at the Well, Delacroix’s Jewish Wedding in Morocco, Henri Regnault’s Salomé, and Ingres’s Baronne de Rothschild. The list could be much longer, with portraits of Ruth, Esther, Sarah, and a dozen more. Yet until recently I had not realized that the motif of the beautiful Jewess—the belle Juive as it is called in French, where it appears most frequently—is a recurrent and evolving trope in Western literature and the visual arts.

Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes

My curiosity was rekindled recently when I read the novel Compass by Mathias Enard, which won the 2015 Prix Goncourt in France. Narrated by an erudite and sickly musicologist, Franz Ritter, this book is an exquisite ode to the Orient. Not Orient as in Asia, but rather the exoticism that intellectual historian Edward Saïd in 1978 labeled “Orientalism.” He traced its origins to the long period of colonization that start-ed with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 and ended roughly in the middle of the 20th century. Europe dominated North Africa and the Middle East, and from its position of power defined “the Orient” as a reverse image to the West.

In Compass, the narrator, a connoisseur of Islamic culture who is tracing the influence of Oriental music and literature in the West, becomes spellbound by a French Jewish woman of Sephardic descent who herself is a specialist in these cultures. Sarah is an elusive, exotic figure, with brains, too; she is able to navigate Eastern and Western cultures with equal ease—a shrewd mediator between worlds. Was she a belle Juive, the idealized object of a certain type of fantasy? And was a belle Juive a mere object of desire, or could she be a subject, too? As a Moroccan-born Jewish woman living in the Western world for decades myself, I thought the image of this exoticized creature was worth exploring. It could even be a way of probing my own identity as a go-between, both Eastern and Western, neither exclusively one nor the other. The search became personal. So I started to dig.

Created by non-Jewish men, the belle Juive is an expression of the most sincere philo-Semitism, and a violent anti-Semitism too. But it also resonates with male fears of the feminine, with an additional dose of further exoticizing women from a group—Jews—already viewed as exotic and “other.”

Is the belle Juive a gauge of the fantasies, anxieties and neurosis of the societies we live in? And what are the social uses of this fictitious image? How can we tell the belle Juive apart from the actual lives of Jewish women? And what do Jewish women themselves have to say on the subject?

Ingres's Baronne de Rothschild

Hagar, Sarah, Rebecca, Ruth, Esther, Judith, Salomé: the Christian world’s portrayal of this long procession of beautiful biblical women continues from medieval Christian mystery plays through the effervescence of the Enlightenment. But the Jewishness of these figures has often been obscured or erased. Viewed compassionately, they stand in stark contrast to the Jewish men who were singled out as direct objects of anti-Judaism. Pitiable Jewish women also appeared in scenes of the Passion, weeping for Christ, or in portrayals of the Massacre of the Innocents, begging King Herod’s soldiers to spare the lives of Jewish children. This Jewess is a figure akin to the Virgin Mary, close to the Church. She betrays the ambiguity of Christianity towards Jews, who are viewed both as precursors of the Christian religion and as the murderers of Jesus.

I realized that in the 17th century, French classical theater further transformed these Jewesses into exemplars of piety, virtue, and morality, their beauty more classical than “Oriental.” For instance, Racine’s Esther (1689), drained of all her sensuality, is more a Christian than a Jewish character, a legitimate spouse rather than the first wife in the King’s harem.

At the end of the 18th century, France became the first Western country to offer Jews the rights of full citizens, so Jews became more visible in French society. The leitmotif of the belle Juive doesn’t solidify in France until the first part of the 19th century, perhaps its emergence tied to the newly granted emancipation of Jews.

Simultaneously, the vogue for Orientalism came with the colonial enterprise in Europe throughout the 19th century. The belle Juive thus is marked by both Jewish emancipation and Orientalist fantasies.

And then there was 19th-century Romanticism, which constructed a wall between the Jew—always defined as male—and the Jewess, prompting Chateaubriand to declare, in 1825, in his Essays on English Literature: “Jewesses have escaped from the curse of their race. None of them were to be found in the crowd that insulted the Son of Man…. The reflection of some beautiful ray will have rested on the forehead of the Jewesses.” And at the end of the 19th century, the writer Paul Bourget quipped: “I hate Jews because they crucified Christ. I adore Jewesses because they wept for him.” The Jewish woman’s appeal doesn’t, however, reside in her intrinsic qualities. Rather she fascinates because she is more susceptible to conversion and assimilation.

Henri Regnault's Salomé

Between 1820 and 1830, the image of the belle Juive takes root in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), and she gets even more complex. The frequent use of the term “belle Juive,” used for the first time in this English novel, is the label for Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York. The Jew and his daughter reflect a distinctive philo-Semitic turn. Rebecca is endowed with multiple moral qualities matched by her physical graces. But there’s a change. The restrained beauty of Helen of Troy or Diana that characterized earlier Jewesses is replaced for the first time by a carnal seductiveness, described in great detail. She is an “Oriental houri,” a “beautiful flower of Palestine,” the “bride of Song of Songs,” “a beautiful Jewish magician.” This new iteration of the belle Juive spread like wildfire to France later that year, when the novel was translated into French. In Germany, too, the proliferation of salons, in which wealthy Jewish families mingled with nobility, turns out to have paved the way for the stereotype. The Berlin Jewish salonnières in particular—among them Dorothea Schlegel Mendelsohn and Rahel Levin Varnhagen—were highly prized not only for their wealth and cultivation, but also for their beauty. They satisfied a romantic enthusiasm for the exotic and the sensual, and this infatuation often led to their being seen by Christian men as desirable marriage partners.

Portrayals of beautiful Jewesses in art and literature especially began to multiply after the French invasion of Algiers in 1830. Confronted with local Jewish women, the archetype became richer and more specific. La belle Juive now was primarily associated with the “Oriental” woman. Anchoring one of the great fantasies of the 19th century, the Orientalist cliché crystallized.

This exoticized female “other” is depicted as submissive, passive and lascivious. Amidst the long list of such beauties—Turks, Egyptians, Greeks, Moors, Armenians, Abyssinians, and Copts—the Jewess is the most unsettling of all, the high-est expression of exoticism. Doubly prized, for being both Oriental and biblical, she embodies the Other. She is ardently sought by 19th-century Western travelers, consumed with a desire “to see” what is hidden “behind the veil” as much as what lies “behind the ghetto,” Eastern or Western. Her particular beauty, ancient and primeval, is often described as perfect. Such descriptions can sound a dissonant note too. Balzac penned a passage referring to his work’s belle Juive as being “white as snow” with “eyes like velvet, black lashes like rats’ tails…” This Jewess is both familiar and foreign, even threatening.

If the belle Juive helped Western men imagine the Oriental Other, it also unlocked the dangers of a different Other too, one closer to home: women. La belle Juive was another way of revisiting acceptable representations of the feminine. Portrayals of womanhood in the 19th century typically oscillated between the image of the Madonna and that of a corrupting seductress. As the gentler first half of the 19th century hardened into more overt anti-Semitism, la belle Juive became conflated with the image of the femme fatale. Literary critic Sander Gilman focuses on this as the Escher-like image of the Jewish woman. Is she primarily a woman, or primarily a Jew? The Jewess was seen as threatening because she was Jewish, but also because she was a woman, with voracious desires and uncommon ambitions.

I found this nowhere better illustrated than in the mythologizing surrounding the Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). La Divine Sarah reinvented herself as a carefully constructed public icon, allowing her stage roles to reflect her own life. Acting as Salomé, she cast herself as sexual seductress, as dangerous as she is tempting. In the role of the tubercular Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, she also conjured up anti-Semitic images of diseased (male) Jews whose yellow skin tones are marks of degeneracy, the signs of a corrupting modernizer. As she played up the image of her aggressive and transgressive sexuality, she was viewed as “mannish.” Fin-de-siècle anxiety about “modern woman” thus became intertwined with a corresponding image of the lesbian as a crypto-male. Matching the emancipated Jewish actress to the destructive biblical Jewess, Bernhardt steered the stereo-type of the belle Juive in a new direction: the modern Jewess.

Sarah Bernhardt

By 1900, la belle Juive was no longer a passive, submissive figure. Earlier on, she had embodied both East and West, exclusively neither one nor the other. She had always been an exotic creature haunting the boundaries. Now, as other sorts of marginalities emerged—along with the new paths of women’s emancipation—la belle Juive probed more spaces in the periphery.

Other changes occurred too: beauty standards were drastically upended after World War I, with the emergence of a more androgynous look. So la belle Juive became less about the physical beauty of the Jewess, and more about her ideals. The 20th-century Jewess emanates from real figures, modern-izers and true revolutionaries like Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxembourg, aiming with messianic fervor to transform the whole world. La belle Juive has become a free agent, a fighter and a liberator, a harbinger of the future woman. She decidedly threatened the Fascist ideologies in the making.

In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, and with the increased affluence of American Jews and their integration into political, economic, and cultural elites, the steady diminution of anti-Semitism might have led one to predict the demise of la belle Juive. Instead, she has transmuted once again, though this time almost entirely as a product of anxieties within the Jewish community itself. Cultural anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell suggests that Jewish men in the postwar years were caught between two competing pressures: on one hand, to achieve success and admittance in the larger culture, on the other, to resist assimilation into that culture by remaining loyal to their origins. Such conflicts led Jewish men, Prell hypothesizes, to invent the cliché of the Jewish American Princess whose body is at once “exceptionally passive and highly adorned.” Lacking in sexual desire, she abundantly lavishes self-beautification. The JAP doesn’t sweat, doesn’t work, doesn’t tend to the needs of anyone else. Though her body is a surface to decorate, she is, unlike the older belle Juive, “desexualized and de-eroticized.” Her portrayal as self-absorbed is purported to explain why Jewish men feel powerless and dominated, unable to see Jewish women as objects of sexual desire.

American pop culture has mirrored the morphing image of the belle Juive in different guises, alerting us to its still insidious prevalence in our culture. In the 1990s, the television show The Nanny toyed with the image of a Jewish woman—Fran Fine—who plays the nanny to a WASP family: not quite a JAP though she may aspire to be one, she is loud and garish, more of a gaudy “Orientalist” caricature.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The 2017 Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel provides new directions, spurred by new anxieties in the age of Trump. Set in the 1950s, it is the story of Miriam (Midge) Maisel. Initially, we see her life as picture-perfect: she is married to a Jewish man, has two lovely children in a palatial Upper West Side apartment, in the same building where her parents live. She doesn’t work, doesn’t sweat, and gets out of bed before her husband awakens to put on make-up and slip back between her well-pressed sheets to pretend, when her husband arises, that she has just opened her eyes. Her glossy lifestyle takes a hit, however, when her spouse cheats on her. But Midge is quick-witted and whip-smart (she was a Russian major at Bryn Mawr), and finds an outlet for her bile as a stand-up comedian in a downtown comedy club. Her style is brash: some cringe, others laugh. She ruffles a few feathers, digs deep into her wounds to expose truths no one ever talks about, tramples conventions and crosses boundaries, even getting arrested for it a few times. She is a recovering-JAP-turned-Sarah Bernhardt, a heroine for our times, a feminist provocateur when feminism is once again on guard.

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

And then there is Wonder Woman—the 2017 DC Films’ movie starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot. A superhero, an Amazon, she’s more righteous than the acid-tongued Mrs. Maisel. But her credentials as a belle Juive are unmistakable: she is the modern legatee to Rebecca of York. With words, fists, super powers, and above all, a mysterious self-confidence, Wonder Woman causes men around her to say phrases like “I am both frightened…and aroused.” We are back in the encounter of perplexed 19th-century Orientalists with belles Juives. Though her role is not explicitly Jewish, Gal Gadot has skillfully meshed her screen persona with real life. Her conspicuous Israeli accent roots her in her Jewishness—a fact that led Arab nations like Lebanon to ban the movie.

It turns out that the image of la belle Juive has embodied and represented profound changes in society, including its darkest preoccupations, sometimes facilitating change, sometimes obstructing it. The image is a dangerous distortion of reality. It may be time for a Jewish woman to reject the label of belle Juive with its troubling implications, and simply call herself Jew.

Yaëlle Azagury is a journalist and a critic who writes, among other topics, about French and Sephardic cultures. Her work has appeared in Lilith previously.

Farewell, Aleppo, By Claudette Sutton

Farewell, Aleppo

My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home
By Claudette E. Sutton

Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury 

Santa Fe, NM : Terra Nova Books, 2014  ISBN 978-1938288401

In the aftermath of President Obama’s historic Cairo speech to the Arab world in 2009, the writer André Aciman wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times which pointed at one notable absence in Obama’s careful retracing of the region’s geopolitical complexities: “For all the president’s talk of “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” and “shared principles of justice and progress,” Aciman wrote, “neither he nor anyone around him, and certainly no one in the audience, bothered to notice one small detail missing from the speech: he forgot me.[…] or for that matter, about any of the other 800,000 or so Jews born in the Middle East who fled the Arab and Muslim world or who were summarily expelled for being Jewish in the 20th century.”

Claudette Sutton’s Farewell Aleppo, an earnest narrative about her family’s exile and odyssey from Aleppo, Syria via Shanghai to the United States in the 1950s and 60s strives to rectify this invisibility, in line with other narratives of Jewish exile from Arab lands, such as Aciman’s Out of Egypt, or Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. At a time when the question of Syrian refugees has provoked widespread outrage, there has been little mention outside academic circles about the Jewish exodus from that region of the world in the 1950s. In the interest of historical exactitude, recounting the trials and later the dislocation of the Syrian community—one of the oldest in the Middle East—enables us to document its nomadic history before it vanished in the midst of 20th-century political turmoil.

The American-born Sutton, editor and publisher of Tumbleweeds, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, publication for families, has pieced together the compelling trajectory of her grandparents, Selim and Adele Sutton, and their sons, Saleh, Elie, Meir (or Mike, the author’s father), Ralph, Joe, Morris and Edgar, and daughter Margo. Like many Middle Eastern Jews in that period, the Suttons were textile traders, importers of fabrics from Europe and neighboring countries. The reader follows them on a long exodus from Aleppo in the 1930s to Mersin, Turkey, and later to Shanghai in the 40s, Beirut, Israel, and finally the United States. This was a typical path for Jewish communities in the Middle East, as they sought to expand their economic viability, and gradually prepared to abandon their homelands in response to growing Arab nationalism and rising anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.

Rescuing her grandfather’s culture and way of life from obscurity is a worthy endeavor, but Sutton takes us most revealingly on a journey of self-discovery that is primarily her own. Here, she gradually comes to terms with her ancestry, which had never previously been central to her life: “I signed up for a course at my family’s synagogue to learn about my own background,” she admits candidly as she uncovers knowledge that any educated student of the region assuredly has. The reader should not expect groundbreaking research. (There are even some inaccuracies: the word consuegra is not Judeo-Spanish for mother-in-law, but a Spanish term used by one mother-in-law to describe the other; and Theodor Herzl wasn’t Swiss but Austrian).

Most of the facts related by Sutton are well-known: Aleppo was one of the oldest centers of Jewish life, and a renowned locus of Jewish learning by 1300: “This is the city mentioned in the Biblical legend of the prophet Abraham, where a Jewish community lived and thrived since Roman times.” So far-reaching was its fame that it became home to the most authoritative manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Most notably investigated by the journalist Matti Friedman in a 2012 book, the story of the Aleppo Codex is shrouded in myth and secrecy: it is said for instance that if the manuscript disappeared from the synagogue where it was preserved, the Jewish community would cease to exist. As it happened, Aleppo’s ‘crowning glory’, as it was also known, vanished under mysterious circumstances after an Arab mob in 1947 stormed the site where it was preserved, and it reappeared ten years later at the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem with dozens of pages missing.

Regrettably however, Jewish life in Aleppo in the 1930s and 1940s is painted in brushstrokes that are too broad, so the details provided appear by turns too general and pedestrian, or too distant to engage the author emotionally in ways other than as ethnological curiosities. Mercifully, the narration improves in the second half of the book, with the account of the brothers Saleh’s and Mike’s lives in Shanghai. The slow disintegration of French and British colonial rule in the Middle East, the shifts brought by World War II, and a more precarious environment for Jews, led Selim Sutton to “export his sons” to Shanghai, where they could join his brother Joe’s textile business, shipping handmade linens from the Far East to markets in New York. Sutton movingly describes the boys’ journey on their own from Port Said in Egypt to Shanghai, and her account of life in the expatriate community of 1940s Shanghai is vivid and intriguing. Mike’s resourcefulness also makes for a delightful tale. As the export business came to a halt because of the war, the author’s father reinvented his trade to survive. Instead of exporting textiles, he began speculating successfully in sewing needles, in short supply because of wartime demands for steel.

Far from home, exile gradually starts corroding the brothers’ identities in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Saleh contracts tuberculosis, which will eventually kill him. Mike’s faith, he tells his daughter, “just wore off.” He abandons kashrut. In the intimate observations of these immaterial shifts, the narrative starts charting more compelling paths. But expatriation comes with other intractable issues too. There is, for instance, the question of papers. As the Syrian government began tightening its grip on the Jewish community in retaliation to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, those who had already left, like Mike, then newly arrived in the United States, were unable to renew their passports: “Without a valid passport, he could not extend his work visa, and as a Jew, he could not renew his Syrian passport or return home. In a nutshell, he was stateless.”

And when Selim Sutton, who had remained in Syria, is diagnosed with a brain tumor, he is only allowed a visa to Beirut, Lebanon, for treatment. Later he traveled illegally to Israel, where he died alone, and is buried in a cemetery outside of Tel-Aviv.

Sutton’s narrative, especially in its second half, effectively enumerates the many quandaries of dislocation.  Her evocation of the little-known odyssey of Syrian Jews from Aleppo to America via Shanghai in the second half of the twentieth century is urgent and compelling. But the subject aches for a more poetic treatment, like that of Lagnado’s poignant meditation on loss, also centered on the figure of her father, or Aciman’s rich evocation of his family’s complex characters in the waning moments of Egyptian Jewry. By contrast, Sutton’s account remains somewhat flat, her settings never sufficiently evoked, her voice disconnected from the accents of her subjects.  And I wonder if therein lies precisely one of the most perverse effects of exile. As a descendant of those who left their homes, their cultures, and their countries behind, she did not experience this loss firsthand. She is visiting the culture of her forebears, but she has lost touch with it. The story she tells is as much the symptom as it is the remedy for that privation.




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