The story behind Habiba Msika’s piano

The exhibition Leaving, without ever returning (on at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum until 31 July) 31 treats with due seriousness the immigration to Israel
of the Jews from Arab countries and Iran. So what’s a simple piano,
adorned with a pair of simple pewter candlesticks,
doing there? Haaretz has the backstory (With thanks: Imre; Yoram)

The explanation is both fascinating and tragic: The piano belonged to
Habiba Msika, a Jewish actress and singer who in the 20th century was
considered one of the greatest Tunisian artists, adored by Muslims and
Jews alike. 

Msika was born in 1903 to a poor family in Tunis’ Jewish quarter. An
orphan at an early age, she went to live with her aunt. She developed
her singing talent at Jewish weddings and later as an actress in the new
Arab theater. 

“There were singers with better voices who were more beautiful, but the
secret of her success lay in her exceptional personality and her ability
to create a warm connection with the audience,” wrote Prof. Yaron Tsur,
an expert on the history of the Jews
in the Islamic world
.

That exceptional personality included multiple romances, unusual at the time, with Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Msika was also unusual in her feminism. She demanded, and received, a
higher salary than male actors and singers, as well as leading roles,
including a “masculine” role (the biblical Joseph), which unleashed a
scandal. Her career soared and she also performed
in Berlin, Nice, Paris and Monte Carlo – but everything ended
tragically at its peak.

In 1930, shortly before she married a young non-Jewish Frenchman, she
was murdered by an older Jewish man who was in love with her. When she
didn’t respond to his advances (and according to a different version,
when she ended the affair with him), he set her
on fire in her home and committed suicide.

 Guests
pose for a photo at Fawzi Abu Rish’s bar mitzvah, Damascus, Syria, early 20th century. 
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center at Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Avraham (Fawzi) and Fanny Mizrahi)

 

She lived only one more day, even though she was rescued from the fire
by her neighbor, Rachel Tubiana. The Msika family invited Tubiana to
choose a souvenir from the items the star had left behind. She chose the
piano. In 1952, when her family immigrated to
Israel, the piano came too.

The curator of the exhibition, Dana Avrish, was born in 1979 and is a third-generation descendant of IranianLebanese and SyrianJews.
She knew this piano from her visits to her friends Yoel and Rinat
Shetrog, who live in the community of Lapid, about halfway between Tel
Aviv
 and Jerusalem, along the Green
Line
. Yoel, a professional photographer, is Tubiana’s grandson.

Avrish and the Shetrogs would listen to the songs
of Corinne Allal
, the Israeli singer who was born in 1955 and
immigrated to Israel from Tunisia at age 8. The Shetrog girls would play
that old piano in their living room. Recently, when Avrish did the
research for the new exhibition, the family agreed
to lend it as one of the exhibits.

 Shetrog provided the exhibition with another item that sheds light on
Tunisia’s Jewish community: medals won by his grandfather Yehoshua
Shetrog for his famous fig arak. Shetrog was an important mohel (a
ritual circumciser), an important shohet (a ritual slaughterer) and a rabbi. His students included Yehuda Meir Getz, the Western
Wall
 rabbi who died in 1995.

Yehoshua Shetrog was also a winemaker and the owner of a café where his
arak was served. The medals show that he won competitions in Milan,
Barcelona, Paris and London. In 1956 he immigrated to Israel with his
family.

The piano and the medals are evidence of the flourishing, ancient Jewish
community in Tunisia, a country that won independence in 1956. The
exhibition also tells the other side of the story about the Jews who for
thousands of years lived in Arab lands and Iran
– the persecution, pogroms and anti-Semitism that reached a peak when
Israel was established in 1948, leading to the exodus of about a million such Jews, the Mizrahim. 

“Along with their strong roots and an attachment to the cultures of the
Islamic countries in which they lived, the Jews throughout the
generations, especially in modern times, also experienced hardships that
uprooted them from their homes and turned many of
them into refugees,” Avrish says. She says that their aliyah to Israel
was a painful departure that reverberates to this day.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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