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Sephardic Arts and Culture: A Dialogue

This month brings the publication of “The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature,” an anthology of fiction, memoir, essays and poetry from 28 writers in 18 countries, edited and introduced by Ilan Stavans. To coincide with its release, the Forward invited Stavans to moderate an electronic discussion with several of the volume’s contributors. Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of “The Road to Fez” (Counterpoint, 2001). She teaches at Lehigh University. Ammiel Alcalay is the author of “After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture” (University of Minnesota Press, 1993) and “Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays, 1982-1999” (City Lights, 1999). He teaches at Queens College. Moris Farhi is the author of, among other novels, “Children of the Rainbow” (Saqi Books, 1999) and the upcoming” Young Turk” (Arcade). He lives in London.

Ilan Stavans: Ammiel, let’s begin, semantically, with the term “Sephardic.”

Ammiel Alcalay: Most Jews came to Spain from what is now Iraq, when the caliphate moved to the west, and they were moving from one Arab culture to another, with some Romance, Celtic and Visigoth under- and overtones. For most of the time, Jews in Spain maintained a tripartite culture: Arabic/Islamic; Hebrew, and Spanish/Romance. You could still see this, for example, up until about 20 years ago, with the old communities in Jerusalem, where older people could still speak Arabic, Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish.

IS: What does one mean when one says “Sephardic,” then?

AA: One emphasizes the Hispanic element, usually at the cost of the Arabic/Islamic elements. When you talk about sensibility, I think it gets dangerously close to the idea that Negroes can sing and dance, or run fast. On the other hand, there is geography and history, which would include language, customs, family structures, aesthetics and so forth. In that case, I would say that one of the crucial historical characteristics in the deeper structure of such a sensibility is the fact that Jews living within Islamic political structures were never negated as a people — that is, Islam recognizes Judaism and the line of prophecy whereas, particularly in some parts of Europe, the existence of the Jew was an affront to Christian doctrine. At the same time, we can’t separate any of this from what the Moroccan Israeli writer Albert Swissa called “the smelting pot” of Israel, in which all the ancient communities of the Levant and the Arab world were faced with profound deracination, a re-education program that came in the form of institutionalized cultural, political and religious racism and intolerance. This altered, and in some cases eradicated, anything that might have once constituted a sensibility.

IS: “The smelting pot”… Ruth, is there a Sephardic sensibility?

Ruth Knafo Setton: Yes, we are Jews with a Mediterranean accent who carry the memory of the sun in our hearts. Enter our houses in the mellah or juderia, and go directly to the soul — the tiled inner courtyard crowded with women and children, which is, like us, hidden, secretive, restless. Dance with us: flamenco guitar and hypnotic desert oud, drums that pound like bare feet running on a beach, nostalgic and mournful yet always with a beat that circles on itself. Look at our family photos: men wearing tasseled fezzes and djellabahs, women with painted icon faces and pointed babouches beneath silver-threaded caftans. Eat with us: bstilla, with its exquisite commingling of sweet and savory, fragrant couscous, salads vivid with color and wit, and flaky orange-scented desserts that tingle your senses with their beauty and then melt on your tongue. After the meal join us in the salon arabe for mint tea or cardamom-spiced coffee, and discuss the destiny of the Jews, the concept of home and identity, and tell Johra stories in Arabic, French, Hebrew, Spanish and English — all in the same sentence. Laugh until you cry. Remember the sun.

IS: These two responses couldn’t be more different: one submitting to the political, the other pointing to the festive. Ammiel emphasizes the Islamic embrace, while Ruth makes reference to exoticism and secretiveness. Musa?

Moris Farhi: I speak as a Turkish Jew whose vision of Sephardic consciousness and sensibility was forged in a country that resurrected itself as a state seeking a place in Europe from the ashes of a formerly powerful Empire. A resurrection that was achieved by embracing simultaneously both secularism and ardent nationalism: a policy that whilst renouncing the Caliphate, which had established the Ottoman Empire as Islam’s theocratic centre, pursued a Turkification programme of a distinctly Muslim hue. As a result, my generation of Turkish Sephardim grew up in an atmosphere of similar intense pride in its Hispanic antecedents and a zeal for transforming Turkey into a liberal, multi-ethnic nation that would surpass in tolerance not only the Ottoman Empire in its heyday but also the golden ages of Al-Andaluz — in effect, a Turkey that would become a light unto all Islam.

In a paradoxical way, Turkey’s secularism enhanced the Islamic influence on her Sephardim. Through the Divan literature these Jews absorbed the Arabic, Persian and Sufi ethos; through the history of their Iberian past and their achievements in the Ottoman Empire (and much of the Mediterranean basin) as refugees from the Inquisition, they preserved a sense of romance, enlightenment and notions of honour and courtesy, of medieval chivalry, that reflected strongly the Judeo-Moorish Iberia. They became not just Sephardic Turks, but also, if it is not too much of an elision, Jewish Muslims.

The effect of this was that we became somewhat elitist and less and less in touch with our fellow Sephardim in the Middle East, most of whom lived in countries where the influences — and cosmopolitanism — of European colonialism still exerted a strong influence in those countries’ consciousness. (The exceptions were the links with the Salonician Jews. Since until 1912 Salonicians were still Ottoman subjects, the Jews of Istanbul maintained close ties with them.) Looking back on that elitism, I can only deplore that parochialism. Another aspect of this elitism was directed at the European Ashkenazim whom we, with typical “Jewish Muslim” pride and ignorance, crassly defamed for succumbing to the Nazis without a fight. Disregarding the fact that the Sephardim of Greece, Romania and German-occupied Bulgarian Thrace had been equally swiftly crushed, we claimed we would certainly have put up a formidable resistance. This perverse attitude and the prevailing disregard for Yiddish as the language of defeat kept us yet further isolated from the Ashkenazim.

So I return to the question, Ilan: Insofar as I am able to determine, yes, there was a unique Sephardic sensibility, a complex of elitism, nobility and bravura which wholly imbued its host’s ethos, together with identification with Islamic art and literature.

IS: Is that sensibility still around, Musa?

MF: It no longer remains — not even in Turkey. The Holocaust, the creation of Israel, and the globalization processes have brought down most of the barriers, if not the self-images and the differences, between the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim. And since sensibilities keep evolving, I imagine a new Sephardic core is emerging. But that would be for the next generation to crystallize.

IS: Ruth, you see a connection between sensibility and memory.

RKS: When I think of Sephardic sensibility, a shared passion and warmth comes to my mind. After years of repression and censorship, our sensibility has been somewhat eroded but I don’t believe that it has been eradicated. Particularly in Israel today, Sephardic/Mizrahi aesthetics, customs, cuisine and music have become prominent in the cultural landscape; and in America, people are growing more aware that there are different, equally authentic ways of being Jewish. This gradual appreciation has opened the gates to Sephardic memory, as if giving permission to Sephardim to reclaim, rediscover, and redefine themselves.

IS: On the Sephardic literary tradition per se, is there such a thing? Emma Lazarus, Yehuda Burla, Albert Cohen, Elias and Veza Canetti, Edouard Roditi, Edmond Jabès, Patrick Modiano, Primo Levi, Albert Memmi, A.B. Yehoshua. Can one talk of Sephardic writers in diverse national and linguistic habitats nurturing one another?

RKS: When I first sent out “The Road to Fez” in manuscript, an editor responded, “You write well. Next time try writing about the real Jews” — a comment that mystified and paralyzed me as a writer for years. Who are the real Jews? When we come down to it, who are the Sephardim? One of the difficulties in defining us is that we come from so many countries, speak so many languages, recall such different histories that it becomes a challenge to find the commonalities in our diversity. My mother’s ancestors escaped the Spanish Inquisition by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco; my father’s family lived in Morocco for centuries before that; I was born in Morocco and raised in America. I suspect that my experience differs from other Sephardic/Mizrahi writers only in the precise places I lived and the languages I use to express myself. Each of us is a multicultural world unto herself.

IS: But is there a shared history?

RKS: A literary tradition implies a thread of continuity that links us across space and time. When I think of a Sephardic literary community, I imagine a world café — on a palm-tree lined street from which we smell the sea — where Levi, Yehoshua, Edmond El Maleh, and others gather to discuss life and literature. Albert Memmi, my first Sephardic mentor, would be there. “The Pillar of Salt” made me realize it wasn’t only possible to write about my people’s history but it was urgent to do so. And next to him are Jabès, Gini Alhadeff, Sami Michael and Erez Bitton. A café with the dead and living, speaking our multiple languages.

MF: What constitutes a Sephardic literary tradition is the omni-presence of an Islamic ethos and aesthetic alongside its Jewish ethos and aesthetic. In some Sephardic writers — I’m one of them — these two sensibilities are so fused that it is almost impossible to gauge the dominant strain or even attempt to sift their origins. (This is true, in my case at least, even when I’ve written about non-Sephardic themes.) In others like Levi, Modiano, et al, who have been nurtured by European traditions rather than those of the Levant, the Islamic influence is akin to a primordial memory; it comes on to the page unconsciously. An interesting aspect for the Sephardic writer is that as they discover other Sephardic writers and read them, they feel less isolated. There is some comfort in the knowledge that one is not the product of an alien world or created in a vacuum, that one belongs to a distinctive tradition. No doubt this need for a familial connection comes from insecurity, but the comfort itself is productive, if not therapeutic. Even Kafka, a modern writer of probably the most extraordinary vision, hankered after belonging somewhere.

AA: In “After Jews and Arabs,” I attempted to remap a cultural tradition centered in the Mediterranean, with a western pole in Spain and an eastern one in Baghdad — this becomes the heritage of Western Europe, whether through Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante or Boccaccio, but it has rich, multi-tiered Arabic and Hebrew presence prior, contemporary to, and after such figures. During the age of empires, up until colonialism and the nation state, one can talk of a tradition: There was a tremendous amount of movement — someone born in Smyrna might end up in Safed, Alexandria or Fez because of business, education, arranged marriage, or profession. Poems circulated very quickly, moving from Morocco to Jerusalem. With the printing press, the nation state, and the dissolution of communal authority, the function of writing changed — there was no longer a community to whom writing was addressed and the Levantine writers who happened to be Jewish found themselves in very similar terrain as other early modernists — people like Laura Papo, Albert Cohen or Yitzhak Shami are great examples of this. In the “smelting pot” of the “Oriental” Jewish ghettos of Israel, Middle Eastern Jews forged a political and cultural identity, naming themselves Mizrahi and inventing a new tradition.

IS: Ruth, the global café where, as you’ve articulated it for us, Sephardic writers congregate, strikes me as a metaphor for home. What is it that unites these authors?

RKS: It’s the question mark at the heart of any narrative and behind each of the words we use. I’ve always felt there’s something very Jewish about Spanish question marks — one inverted and one right side up — that bracket questions in Spanish. It seems to make concrete what is implicit: that the inner mystery is contained, almost protected, with the two question marks.

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