Tag: Books

Restoring heritage to pretend that Jewish life still exists

Is it better to see the synagogues that Jews have left behind rot, rather than become a corpse all made up for a wake? In his Unherd review of Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews Matti Friedman questions the motives of states without Jews who restore Jewish heritage :

Inside the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo. It has never been opened since its restoration

I remember being in the alleys of downtown Cairo a decade ago and coming to the ruins of a synagogue, one of dozens that once housed the religious life of the thousands of Jews who gave this neighbourhood its name. It is still called The Jewish Quarter, even though by the time I arrived in 2009 the actual Jews who had crowded the alleys up to the 1940s had been hounded out by state persecution and mob violence. As far as I knew, the Jewish population of Cairo’s Jewish Quarter on the day I visited was one: me.

The synagogue was named for the philosopher and physician Maimonides, who led the Jewish community here in the 12th century, when Cairo was the most important Jewish centre in the Middle East. The building was nothing but a roofless shell, but I discovered a work crew laying planks in one of the rooms, up to their knees in fetid water. It turned out that the Egyptian government — the same regime that took possession of much of the property of the 80,000 Jews who’d been forced out of the country two generations earlier — was engaged in a restoration project.

A polite young engineer on the site showed me the location of the stand where the Torah scroll was once read. Another man, in civilian clothes but with some vaguely military authority, told me not to take pictures.

There couldn’t be anything bad about the restoration of a synagogue, could there? It was hard to explain why none of this felt right; why I preferred to see the building left to rot, rather than see it made up like a corpse at a wake. I had the same feeling when I saw other journalists refer seriously to the “Jewish community of Cairo”, quoting a woman who was its “President”.

There was no community, just a regime-approved simulacrum designed to allow everyone to pretend that an ethnic cleansing hadn’t taken place, and that something dead was alive. It was Weekend at Bernie’s. At the time of my visit, the Egyptian Government was trying to get one of its officials elected to a top cultural post at the UN, an effort hindered by this same official’s past support for burning Hebrew books. A synagogue renovation couldn’t hurt his cause! The real Jews were long out of Egypt, but their imaginary avatars were still hard at work serving the narrative needs of others.

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Nostalgia for vanishing Jews masks their ethnic cleansing

Out of Egypt and into New York

Two people are displaced from Egypt, resettling in New York, but their destinies are intertwined. Can one ever cut oneself off from the past, or does it come back to haunt you? These are the themes explored by Jean Naggar in her fascinating new novel, Footprints on the Heart. Review by Lyn Julius in the Times of Israel (Jewish News). 

‘The past is not dead, it is not even past’.

William Faulkner’s aphorism  might sum up Jean Naggar’s novel Footprints on the heart.’

No matter how much her characters try and escape their past, it has a strange habit or catching up with them.

Jamila is an Egyptian peasant girl with sparkling green eyes. She is discovered by a passing American woman, plucked from her humble Nile village and catapulted into the fickle and fast-moving world of New York high-fashion modelling. You could say that her displacement is voluntary, engineered by her American mentor and her own mother, who is prepared to endure the pain of separation in order to give Jamila a better life.

No matter how successful a career Jamila (re-named Jasmine) makes, Egypt still exerts a pull.

The past has left footprints on her heart: a longing to see her brother and village.

Jamila’s destiny intersects with  that of Sol Mizrahi, an Egyptian Jew. For Sol, displacement is involuntary.The family thought they had everything they needed: a comfortable existence, a beautiful house.  His Egyptian Jewish family is brutally expelled by President Nasser after the Suez crisis, like Jean Naggar’s own, as she vividly described in her memoir Sipping from the Nile.   But Sol  never looks back: he founds a family and career in the US. For his mother Eliane, the US is the making of her. A stay-at-home mother becomes a financial whizz as she fulfils her American dream.

However,  exile destroys the pater familias Aldo, as it did so many Egyptian-Jewish men.  There are those who drown and cannot adapt. Exile destroys the Mizrahi marriage.”The expulsion shaped them into puzzle pieces which no longer fit together.’

Naggar hints that America is, at the same time , an emotional desert, where relationships are fleeting and subordinate to the individual’s needs and desires.

The novel makes another important  point. Destiny is not ours ourselves to shape. The characters remain at the mercy of world events  – such as 9/11. It ‘crashes  into the peace of their American lives’. They would never feel safe again. But the message is still optimistic: You can pick yourself up from tragedy – if you don’t drown.

Admittedly, Naggar’s characters enjoy a hefty dose of good fortune. They are blessed with luck, a support network  or  a’fairy godmother’ to pick them up when they are down, reflecting Jean Naggar’s faith in the essential goodness of human nature . She  is a keen observer and  a gifted writer, and  in this  book she manages to conjure two contrasting worlds with skill and style.

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Israeli novel to be marketed in Morocco for first time

It is not the first time that Israeli novels in Arabic translation have been made available in Arab countries: Pictures on the Wall, by Tsionit Fattal Kuperwasser,  was published in Arabic in 2017 and sold in Iraq. But Blue Shirt Girl by Gabriel Ben Simon is the first Israeli novel to be translated into Moroccan-Arabic (under the name El Mughrebi el Akhir – the last Maghrebian)  and marketed in the country. Soly Anidjar reports (with thanks: Michelle):
The jacket of the Moroccan version of the book
A new wind blows over the publishing world with, for the first time, the translation into Moroccan-Arabic of an Israeli novel, which will also be commercialized in Morocco.
Blue Shirt Girl  is a  love story between an immigrant boy from Morocco and a Sabra (an Israeli born in Israel), who  herself is in love with a Holocaust survivor, in the context of the early years of Israel and the great aliyah from Morocco.
Written by Professor Gabriel Ben Simon, and published in 2013 by Yedioth Books, this novel was translated into Arabic and will soon be commercialized in Morocco.  Tel Aviv University, where this academic teaches, announced.
The novel was selected for translation into Arabic by Professor Mohammed Elmedlaoui of Rabat Mohammed V University. Mohammed Elmedlaoui ′′ has been following and studying Ben Simon’s work in literature and theatre for many years “, says Tel Aviv University. Gabriel Ben Simon’s novel was therefore translated by a Moroccan university student, Dr. Ayashi Eladraoui.
′′ This is the first time an Israeli novel has been translated into Arabic in Morocco, ” the university claims. The author was quoted as saying: ′′  I had the feeling of having achieved a dream because, as a  a Moroccan Jew from Sefrou, the fact that  my works are read in my hometown of Sefrou would give me great pride “.
The novelist, who is also a professor at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University, said that during his university career he ‘ had done much studying of  Moroccan culture, which ‘has always had a special place in his heart “, for its characteristic wealth and diversity.
As fortune never comes singly, Gabriel Ben Simon also announced that his play A Moroccan King, produced by Habima National Theatre in Tel Aviv, winner of the Lieber Prize for Classic Jewish Theatre in Tel Aviv, is also scheduled to be staged at the Mohammed V National Theatre in Rabat.
′′ I hope that following the peace agreements, other Israeli writers will soon see their novels translated into Moroccan, ”   Gabriel Ben Simon hoped.

Mizrahim have made Israel what it is today

In this review of Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country, Jack Cohen at Israelseen writes that  the Arabic-speaking Jews are no longer a minority in Israel – and have stamped their hawkish views on Israeli politics:

One significant section of this book is devoted to what Israel was and currently is. When these young Arab-Jews, known as Mizrachim In Israel (Easterners) first arrived in Jewish Palestine they were a small minority. In effect they were used and patronized by the predominantly European Jewish (Ashkenazi) Zionists. But, with the establishment of Israel the Jews in Arab lands were both forced out by the Arabs and with the help of the fledgling Mossad managed to get to Israel (some 800,000; many of the rest moved from N. Africa to France and the USA). With this influx and their large families they soon became a majority. The tipping point came in 1977 when the “riff-raff” as the Ashkenazi ascendency called them, out-voted the Labour Party that had ruled since Independence, and voted in the right-wing Likud Party of PM Menachem Begin. It can be said that they voted against the liberal-socialists who were forever trying to assuage the Arabs and make peace (for example Defense Minister Moshe Dayan gave control of the Temple Mount to the Muslim Wakf in the expectation that they would show gratitude) and voted in the more realistic and hawkish right because they knew the Arabs better than the Ashkenazim. So Israel moved in a different direction than many of the European Zionist founders expected, with their socialist ideals and their sense of entitlement. For those who criticize Israel as a colonialist endeavor you should accept the fact that more than half of Israel’s population (55%) is descended from people who never left the Middle East, and now 74% of its population have been born in the Middle East, and aren’t going anywhere else.

For those who have seen the popular Israeli series Fauda, you may get a taste of what these Arabic-speaking Jews experienced. But, in Fauda the Duvdevan (cherry) unit goes in and out of the Arab West Bank and Gaza, while the Arabic-speaking Jews in this period were expected to live as Arabs in an Arab society for long periods of time, and without all modern means of communication. Their fate was more like that of Eli Cohen, the most famous Israeli spy, who conned the whole of the Syrian power structure for a long time, but was eventually caught and hung (see The Spy on Netflix). Of those Arabic-speakers who joined the fledgling Jewish intelligence service 8 out of 10 did not survive. They were caught out not by their ability to speak Arabic, but often by their lack of knowledge of Muslim religious customs, saying prayers or how to perform the routine ablutions (wudu). But, they learnt by mistakes and that was taken care of in time by expert training.

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More reviews of Spies of No Country


Farewell Naim Kattan, celebrated author from Baghdad

The death in Paris of the celebrated author, literary critic and professor Naim Kattan, was announced by his son Emmanuel on 2 July.

Kattan, aged 92, published 30 books in his second language of French, but is best known for his autobiographical novel, Farewell Babylon.

The book describes Kattan’s childhood as a Baghdad schoolboy at the Alliance Israelite Universelle school, where he excelled in French and Arabic. Reading Law at Baghdad University,  he won a scholarship in 1947 to study at the Sorbonne just before the great exodus of Iraqi Jewry in 1950.  Farewell Babylon captures the foreboding atmosphere of rising nationalism in the 1930s,  relations between the sexes and between Jews and Arabs and  his experience of the Farhud massacre of 1941.

He lived the rest of his life mostly in Quebec and in Ontario, Canada, but spent the last two years in Paris.

See biography here.


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