Sephardic Wom­en’s Voic­es: Out of North Africa

  • Review
By – July 17, 2018

Appeal­ing to those inter­est­ed in issues of exile, migra­tion, mar­gin­al­i­ty, iden­ti­ty, and mem­o­ry, Nina Licht­en­stein shares and expli­cates the sel­dom-heard sto­ries of Sephardic women writ­ers who left their native lands for France and Israel in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing them with­in the larg­er his­to­ry of the era, includ­ing the found­ing of the state of Israel. Her source mate­ri­als con­sist of eye­wit­ness accounts, mem­oir, sec­ondary aca­d­e­m­ic sources, and translations.

Licht­en­stein uses these per­son­al accounts as a jump­ing-off point to address a range of issues, from the his­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary clas­si­fi­ca­tion of nar­ra­tive, to the famil­ial and per­son­al con­sid­er­a­tions brought to light in the nar­ra­tives them­selves. She presents her con­tent clear­ly and expres­sive­ly, though the sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty of the mate­r­i­al she’s work­ing with can at times detract from the content.

In the first chap­ters, Licht­en­stein pro­vides cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal back­ground. Draw­ing from the works of Hélène Cixous, Wal­ter Ben­jamin, and Yosef Hay­im Yerushal­mi, she explains that her book fus­es togeth­er mod­ern his­to­ri­og­ra­phy” with the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence.” She pro­vides a his­tor­i­cal overview of Jews in the Maghreb from the Roman con­quest of Judea to the present, end­ing the first chap­ter by plac­ing Jew­ish women with­in this nar­ra­tive. She con­cludes Part I by dis­cussing the place of Jews in colo­nial Maghreb, includ­ing their social and cul­tur­al changes, loss of reli­gious and cul­tur­al mem­o­ry, and the effects of nation­al­ist move­ments in the region.

In sub­se­quent chap­ters, Licht­en­stein dis­cuss­es issues relat­ed to the com­po­si­tion of nar­ra­tive and the place of Sephardic women in post­colo­nial dis­course, draw­ing from cul­tur­al, lit­er­ary, and his­tor­i­cal themes. She dis­cuss­es migra­tion, the repres­sion of iden­ti­ty, the eclipse of per­son­al nar­ra­tive, Jew­ish nar­ra­tive, and how these themes make their way into post­colo­nial dis­course. In the six accounts she inter­prets, she adds her own valu­able and sen­si­tive insights about the lives and expe­ri­ences of the authors.

One point of cri­tique is that Licht­en­stein could have cho­sen to either focus more on his­to­ry, or on the lives of the Sephardic women them­selves. Nev­er­the­less, she has done impor­tant work in shed­ding light on lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry that has had too lit­tle exposure.

Rachael Rose serves as a review­er for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She also works as a lan­guage Instruc­tor at the Berlitz Lan­guage Cen­ter in Oden­ton, teach­ing Hebrew. On the side, she also tutors ele­men­tary school math and science.

Discussion Questions