Polyglot Jew wrestles with identity crisis

 Eloquent article in Lilith magazine by a Sephardi Jew from Spanish-speaking Morocco about her ‘identity crisis’, caused by speaking too many European languages. One detects more than a hint of post-colonial guilt here, yet multilingualism has long been a component of Jewish identity in Arab countries. (Not a few Moroccan Muslims of a certain age and class also speak French – does that make them less Moroccan?)  Yaelle Azagury feels closer to an Arab from Morocco than to a Jew from the US, but it is doubtful whether that closeness would be reciprocated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One Comment

  • Oddly enough, my father spoke Spanish at home growing up, and told us of fondly taking Spanish in a NYC high school during the 40s, but not letting on to the teacher that he was proficient (so he didn't have to work so hard). The game was up when he accidentally used an word (don't recall what it was) from 14th century Castillian (via Turkey and Ladino), that's no longer used in modern Spanish.

    The teacher had a Ph.D. in either Spanish Studies, or the Spanish language, and was suitably impressed.

    Alienation is what you make of it.



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