Alcalay and Faur would see many of their books published only to be vilified by the Ashkenazic Jewish world, both religious and academic. The literary critic Robert Alter, for example, saw it as his personal mission to slam the work of Faur and any attempts by like-minded academics to bring the values of post-modernism into the Jewish field of study. In a scathing review of Golden Doves in the The New Republic magazine, Alter dismissed Faur’s work as bizarre and foolhardy. In later years Alter would have a role in the suppression of Alcalay’s work as well.
The Jewish establishment effectively barred the door to Alcalay and Faur’s work, thus depriving Jewish students an opportunity to partake of the riches of the Sephardi world. In place of these seminal and deserving works, most students read the immensely popular but ultimately reductive survey of Jane Gerber, an Ashkenazi Arabist, The Jews of Spain which has served as the main text for study of Sephardim for the past two decades. Indeed, the field is still controlled by Ashkenazim, who have been very circumspect about the way in which they deal with Sephardim. They acknowledge the glories of the Sephardi past, but they retain the view that Sephardim failed to bring their culture into modernity. Moreover, Sephardi history serves to confirm theories of Muslim antisemitism that fit well into the Zionist model and continued to frame the intellectual world of the modern Jewish academic. Ultimately the scholarly consensus follows the line of Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? in that it examines the Arab world to find the reasons for its unrelenting inferiority. The Jews of that world are not spared.
The publication of The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature is thus a major event in the Jewish world. Ilan Stavans is a Mexican Ashkenazi who has written many books and articles on aspects of Jewish culture and civilization in the literate context of publications like The New York Review of Books and The Forward. He has presented a polyglot Jewish culture that serves as a parallel variant of Faur and Alcalay. Stavans has also edited a number of anthologies of Latin-American Jewish writings and has become a major spokesperson for the promotion of Hispano-Jewish culture in the West.
It was with mixed feelings that I approached the book when I heard of its imminent publication, largely because it is another indication that Sephardic studies is still in the hands of Ashkenazim. Yet Stavans’s achievement, while imperfect, must be recognized. The high points of Sephardi letters, from Jabès to Albert Cohen to Canetti to Yehuda Burla, Albert Memmi, and A.B. Yehoshua are all in evidence. Stavans evinces a concern with and sensitivity to many of the cultural issues that Alcalay has raised in his work, and the Sephardic writers he presents are all polyglot and cosmopolitan rather than parochial and obscurantist. Still, the book fails to uncover fully the passion and the creativity that is a crucial part of the Sephardic cultural experience.
The elevated tone of the book is set by the first selection from Grace Aguilar. In Aguilar’s Sephardic humanism we discover a model of Jewish identity that is completely different from the shtetl-mongering of her Ashkenazi peers. Aguilar was raised within a culture of religious humanism that permitted expression of liberal human values in a religious context. She did not regard liberal humanism and religion as opposites, as was the case among anti-reform, or ambivalent, Ashkenazim. Whereas Ashkenazic thinkers from Mendelssohn to Ahad Ha’am struggled to find avenues to develop and articulate their Judaism in ways that would allow for the adoption of modern secular values, 19th-century European Sephardi letters, in the wake of David Nieto’s rabbinical achievements in the 18th century, produced intellectual luminaries like Sabato Morais, Moses Angel, and Elijah Benamozegh, who developed their work in the same crucible as did the prolific Aguilar.
Aguilar’s synthesis of Judaism and humanism is also on display in the works of Yehuda Burla, the only Sephardic writer to have entered the Israeli literary pantheon alongside Agnon and Bialik. Burla railed mightily against Ashkenazi Zionist racism to little or no avail. His relative and contemporary, the great Sephardi statesman Elie Eliachar, thought Burla a sellout. Yet Burla, along with the obscure yet brilliant writer Yitzhak Shami and the scholar A.S. Yahuda, laid down the template for the modern Sephardic man of letters. In league with Arab modernists like Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz, Burla and Shami (the latter sadly missing from Stavans’ collection) inspected the social and cultural world of a Levantine universe that was in the throes of rapid and often tumultuous changes.
From Burla, Stavans takes us into an extended and somewhat labored foray into the European Sephardi experience. While hitting the high marks of Albert Cohen—a francophone Sephardi novelist whose best work captures the ambivalent center of the transitional world of Ottoman Sephardim who were finding a new world and a new culture in France and the rest of Western Europe—and continuing with the richness of Elias and Veza Canetti, both of whom reflect the austerity of a Balkan Sephardi world at the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as Edmond Jabès and the Italian humanist Primo Levi, Stavans abruptly shifts perspective and loads up the heart of his anthology with a very strong sense of European-ness that occasionally serves to obscure the polyglot portrait of Sephardic culture that the best of these Sephardic writers strove to maintain.
The Sephardi Intellectual
by Jordan Elgrably
That the title of this commentary has often been perceived as an oxymoron is the place where we need to begin—with the myth actively propagated for at least a hundred years by Ashkenazi political and academic leaders in Israel and the United States.
More than fifty years ago, my father and three of his brothers—Moroccan Jews living in France—went to fight for the newly independent state of Israel. Although my father then spoke fluent French, English, German and Hebrew, along with some Yiddish, Spanish, and Italian, Polish-born fighters—also recent immigrants to Israel—insisted on addressing him pidgin Hebrew as though he were incapable of understanding them, and among themselves they called him a “shvartze.” For them, as well as most Ashkenazi Israelis, to be North African or Middle Eastern meant being culturally backward and unenlightened.
None of the Elgrably brothers settled in Eretz Israel. The hundreds of thousands of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who did, however, have had to endure more than five decades of prejudice rooted in a twisted mythology nurtured by European Jews who taught their children that their poor cousins had lived in the backwaters of civilization for so long that they now needed to be returned to Judaism and democracy through rigorous indoctrination. In fact, Western Jewry’s contempt for Eastern Jews dates to well before the foundation of Israel; the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French missionary program founded in the mid-19th century, essentially viewed all Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews as in desperate need of Western education.
As scholar David Shasha shows in his accompanying review of The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, many Ashkenazim have been blissfully ignorant of a great tradition of Sephardic intellectual and literary achievement, published in Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Ladino, Greek, Farsi, Turkish, and other languages over several centuries—not to mention more than 200 years of Sephardic writing in English (see Diane Matza’s anthology, Sephardic American Voices, Two Hundred Years of a Literary Legacy: Brandeis 1996).
Like David Shasha, I grew up in the United States, the son of Sephardi immigrants, and received a Eurocentric and Jewish education that elided the authors who comprise the Sephardic literary tradition. While Shasha found his way to many of them through the teachings of Rabbi José Faur, in Brooklyn, I had to spend a decade living in France and Spain in order to discover writers like Edouard Roditi, Albert Cohen, Edmond Jabès, Elias Canetti, Hélène Cixous, and Jacques Derrida; and it wasn’t until I became familiar with the critical work of Ammiel Alcalay in the early ‘90s that I began to learn about the many Mizrahi writers in Israel, who were writing in Arabic and Hebrew.
Thus, for last decade, I’ve been engaged in a process of excavation—one that scholars such as Ammiel Alcalay, Ella Shohat, and Victor Perera began more than a decade before me. I struggled to find the three-dimensional representations of Sephardi and Mizrahi experience that would allow me to form a fully textured self-identity. Until recently, we have been taught to see ourselves as shadowy figures on the margins of Jewish society—the relics of a colorful history, excellent for classroom review but absolutely irrelevant today. Along with David Shasha, I found myself becoming willy-nilly an activist on behalf of Sephardic culture, and as a result I co-founded Ivri-NASAWI, the New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists and Writers International, in 1996. Along with Alcalay, Shohat, Perera, Shasha, and the anthropologist Ruth Behar, I spent the better part of five years organizing and presenting Sephardi/Mizrahi cultural programming wherever Jewish institutions were willing to give us a forum. As I began to see that the cultural and literary output of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews was inextricably a part of the larger Levantine experience—one that includes non-Jewish Arab, Persian, North African, Spanish, Greek and Turkish cultural creatives—I went on to co-found the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles in 2001.
Today, with the growing visibility of an international literature in which Western readers recognize the intrinsic value of non-Western voices—think of Naguib Mafouz, Hanan al-Shaykh, Orhan Pamuk and dozens of other writers—it is possible at last to be a Sephardi intellectual within the larger, organic context of the Levantine tradition. As such, I see our literary identity as Arab-Jewish writers functioning as a kind of bridge between the Levantine east and the Eurocentric west. To be sure, all writers reject simplistic labels, and just as the Bellows, Malamuds, and Roths were both American and Jewish writers, so are we as Sephardic writers both Jewish and Levantine—Arab Jews with a rich tradition that began with Al-Andalus in the Middle Ages and continues to this day, in Israel and the Middle East as well as in Diaspora.