News & Views from Ivri-NASAWI

Week of January 15, 2000
###  Moment Magazine Profiles Tunisia as "...Jewish backwater..."  ###

From time to time the Jewish media takes a stab at representing the Sephardic or Middle Eastern Jewish experience.  Often the result is disappointing, as the individuals and communities portrayed appear to us through an exoticized lens. In the case of Suzanne F. Singer's article about Jews in Tunisia, in the December 1999 issue of Moment magazine, her first sentence immediately tells the reader that her subjects will be orientalized: "You could say Tunisia is a Jewish backwater," she begins. True, there are fewer than 3,000 Jews remaining in Tunisia, and many of them live on Djerba, where the community has long lived in a venerable tradition; on the island of Djerba, the rhythms of life are at variance with the hurly-burly pace of western republics.  True to form, Singer's article does not avoid cliché: here, photos depict Tunisian Jews in Arab clothing, their synagogues are of Oriental design, and the throngs in the street are part of a religious pilgrimage.  There is nothing wrong with any of this, except that it is all presented out of its cultural context.  All of Tunisian Jewish life is represented here from a folkloric perspective.  No intellectuals are interviewed for the story; the implication is that there are no Tunisian Jewish intellectuals Singer can talk to.

Early on in her report, she notes that "Tunisia's most prominent and prosperous Jewish community" lived in Kairouan in the Middle Ages.  She quickly adds that this golden age ended in 1057 when "invading Arabs" destroyed the Jewish community; she then states that Jews didn't "feel safe to return" until more than 800 years later "when Tunisia became a French colony in 1881."  As Claude Memmi notes, however, "There was a presence of Jews in Tunisia for more than 2,000 years and many came from Spain to escape the Inquisition."  Suzanna Singer's brief history of Tunisia over the past two or three centuries completely elides its rich cultural and intellectual achievements.  At one time, for a population of not more than 100,000 people, the Jewish community had 180 Jewish newspapers.  Among great Tunisian Jewish intellectuals of this century are, of course, author Albert Memmi ("Portrait of a Jew" and the novel "Pilar of Salt") and historian Claude Tapia.   In point of fact, many Tunisian Jews who became successful in academia, politics, business and media did not leave Tunisia until after 1956, when they emigrated mostly to France and Israel, with some coming to Canada and the U.S.  In Israel, Mathilda Guez was a Knesset member for nearly 20 years and an intimate of Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan; in France among many prominent Tunisians today is Dominique Strauss Kahn, who until very recently served as the country's Minister of Finance.

Whether intentionally or as a result of a kind of educated ignorance of Sephardi/Mizrahi experience, Singer's article is imbalanced and partial, as she manages only to present Tunisian Jews as relics of another time, in which Oriental Jews wore djellabiah, spoke Arabic, prayed all day, and had nothing to contribute to the secular world.  If you'd like to dissent, you can find Moment in your local library; if you'd like to write a letter as a counterweight to this disinformation, send it to MOMENT-Editor, 4710 41st Street NW, Washington, DC 20016, or  via email: .  For more information about the Tunisian Jewish experience, visit the website maintained by Jaco Halfon,

###  Travelling Jewish Theater Hosts Benefit for Victor Perera Feb. 9  ###

San Francisco's venerable drama/comedy venue, currently in production with "Kabbalah Tango" starring Albert Greenberg and Corey Fischer, will donate an evening performance in honor of author Victor Perera.  "Kabbalah Tango" is a play about two eccentric wanderers which "partners light with dark, the feminine face of God with patriarchal tradition, and Ladino music with doo-wop in variations on the theme of separation."  A cofounder of Ivri-NASAWI and the author of "The Cross and the Pear Tree, A Sephardic Journey" (UC Press), Victor Perera suffered an unexpected stroke in July 1998 which has left him unable to continue his writing.  Last fall, the SF Bay Area chapter of Ivri-NASAWI, with leadership from Dr. Myra Lappin, organized a benefit concert and silent auction for Perera   which has raised over $8,000 so far.  The Isabel Allende Foundation contributed generously to that benefit, and is donating $1,000 toward the Kabbalah Tango evening at the Travelling Jewish Theater. Wed., Feb. 9, 2000.  Tickets $72 and $36 (students, limited).  Call (415) 338-1706 for information.  Our goal is to reach a total of $18,000 by February 28, 2000.

###  New Play Dramatizes Argentine Human Rights Atrocities and the Struggle for Freedom  ###

New York's Asa Productions has organized "Oigo" or "I Hear," a musical dramatization of Argentina's "Dirty War" during which thousands were "disappeared" or tortured.  The play uses poetry, sign language and South American folk music in this full-length production, written by Adina L. Ruskin.  Previews for the six-week run begin February 29 at the John Houseman Theatre Studio, at 450 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, in New York City.  Tickets are $16.50 and reservations can be made by calling (212) 721-7486.

"Oigo" is the story of a deaf songwriter, Isabella, in Argentina in the 1970s, who is shot for writing a song about freedom of expression.  Her spirit returns to introduce six characters; a Jewish journalist, a Catholic teacher, a therapist, and some Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo through whom we learn the very human stories of the Argentine people struggling to survive the repression.  The play is unique in several ways. Isabella is represented by two actors: a woman who is deaf, and her alter-ego, played by the male singer/guitarist, Gérard Edery.  The play is completely bilingual, done in American Sign Language and English and through the singer/guitarist we hear the passionate music that emanates from Isabella's soul.  The original songs/music by Gérard Edery and lyrics by Adina L. Ruskin are in Spanish and English.  "I Hear" is not a musical, but a play with live music.  Edery is celebrated for his work in Sephardic music, both with his own ensemble and with the recently-formed group Sons of Sepharad.  Born in Casablanca and raised in Paris and New York City of Argentine, Moroccan, and Jewish heritage, it is thanks to Edery's rich, multicultural background that he has such an enormous range of classical and folk music at his fingertips.  Adina L. Ruskin, meanwhile, is an actress, teacher, and playwright.  She was born in New York City of French, Argentine, Russian, and Jewish heritage.

###  Evening on Jews and Latinos in Los Angeles Ignores Sephardic Presence ###

Speaking at the Workmen's Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., on Wed., Jan. 12, UCLA graduate Brett Weil gave a well-prepared and often interesting presentation of the interaction between Jews, Chicanos and Latinos in Los Angeles over the past few decades, yet largely absent from the evening was inclusion of Spanish/Ladino-speaking Jewry in the city, and an examination of the deeply significant links between Jews and Hispanic culture over the centuries.  Indeed, often when Jews and Latinos are discussed in American culture, it is through the lens of Eastern European garment workers and union organizers, who also championed Latino/Hispanic labor rights in the first half of the 20th century.  Brett Weil's review of Jews in Chicano literature completely by-passed the growing body of non-fiction and literature about Latinos/Hispanics with Jewish ancestry.

It is nearly impossible to discuss Jews and Latinos coherently without bringing into context the more than 1,000 years Jews lived on the Iberian Peninsula, and the fact that Sephardim have maintained a linguistic and cultural connection to this history for more than 500 years.  In the United States, it seems that there are essentially three Jewish narratives today: 1) the "immigration narrative" which is almost completely about Eastern Europeans (as in Irving Howe's tome, "World of Our Fathers") 2) the "Holocaust narrative" (which invariably leaves out the stories of Greek, Tunisian and other Sephardic Jews who perished) and 3) the "assimilation/shtick" narrative, which includes the popular culture of films by Woody Allen et al, self-deprecating Jewish stand-up comics, and prosperous Jewish men who change their names and marry trophy wives. American Jewish culture has amnesia when it comes to contemplating the meaning of the Spanish edict of Expulsion and the Inquisition.  This meant the destruction of a great Jewish civilization and the exile of the Muslim culture of the Moors; the persecution of all cultures and ideas in the New World which didn't conform to the Catholic Church. Inquisition laws remained on the books into the 1800s and led to the annihilation of millions of native inhabitants, along with the forced conversions of Jews.  And the spirit of the Inquisition endured throughout even the 20th century, eerily informing the repressive regimes in Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico and elsewhere.  It is indeed my contention that the ghost of the Inquisition was behind Argentina's "Dirty War" and Chile's dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

There are many lenses through which to view the Jewish/Latino/Hispanic/Chicano debate; these lenses are infrequently used, however.  It may be high time to create a Chair for Jewish/Latino Studies at interested universities.  If you are an educator, writer or philanthropist and would like to participate in this process, please contact us at Ivri-NASAWI.

###  New Short Fiction Prize for Works in Ladino Seeks Entries ###
Rachel Amado Bortnik informs us of the Koleksion Neve Shalom (publication series of new books in Ladino)  which has announced the Europa-Israel Short Fiction Prize in the Judeo-Spanish language.  Contest rules are as follows:

  • The stories must be written in Judeo-Spanish, 15-20 pages in length, on European A4 or standard, 8.5 x 11 in. pages, 60 lines, font size 10-12.
  • The works must be original, and previously unpublished.
  • Send four copies.  The first page must have the title and thematic statement.
  • Co-authored works are accepted.
  • Entries must be received by 21 March, 2000, and must be sent by certified mail to:  Ediciones Capitelum, c/Carcaixent, 14, 28a, 46007 Valencia, Espanya.
  • Only one prize will be awarded, resulting in the publication of the work as part of the Koleksion Neveh Shalom, by summer, 2000.  The jury may suggest the publication of additional entries.
  • The jury will consist of two outstanding persons of Sephardic culture, as well as the directors of Koleksion Neveh Shalom and Ediciones Capitelum.
  • The jury may choose not to award the prize.
  • The prize will be announced on 25 April 2000 and will be publicized in the major Sephardic communication media, press, radio, TV and Internet.
  •  Non-winning entries will be destroyed.
  •  Participation in this competition assumes the acceptance of the above rules.

  • ###  First New Ladino/Judezmo Textbook for University Level Instruction  ###

    Zachary M. Baker of Stanford University Libraries informs us of the recent publication of David M. Bunis' "Lashon g'udezmo:  mavo li-leshonam shel ha-Yehudim ha-Sefaradim ba-imperyah ha-Ot'manit" [English title-page:  "Judezmo:  an introduction to the language of the Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire"].  Jerusalem:  The Magnes Press, 1999.  Approx. 575 pp.  ISBN 965-493-024-2  "This is the first Ladino/Judezmo textbook that I'm aware of that is intended for university-level instruction," writes Baker.  "Lashon g'udezmo" contains 24 lessons, plus readings, Judezmo-Hebrew and Hebrew-Judezmo glossaries, an index, and an extensive bibliography.  The author is a professor in the Department of Romance Languages, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Among his notable publications is the book "A Lexicon of the Hebrew and Aramaic Elements in Modern Judezmo" [Hebrew title-page:  "Yesodot ha-`Ivriyim veha-Aramiyim ba-Sefaradit-ha-Yehudit ha-hadashah" (G'udezmo)] (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press; Misgav Yerushalayim, 1993).  Notes Baker, "I hope that the author will be encouraged to publish an English (or French) edition of this important book."  You can email Baker at .

    ###  Briefs from the December Sephardi/Mizrahi Caucus at Stanford  ###

    The American Jewish Studies Association's annual Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies Caucus, held at Stanford on Dec. 20, 1999, reports back through Dr. Aviva Ben-Ur the following briefs: Dr. Aron Rodrigue, a historian at Stanford and a contributing editor to Ivri-NASAWI, noted: "The real problem that we face is the neglect of the history and culture of the Jews in the lands of Islam. We need to make distinctions within the broadly defined fields of Sephardi studies."  Rodrigue also noted a dearth of graduate students as a cause of concern for the future.  "The challenge ahead is not only to integrate, but to see if the narratives about Jewish culture, thought, history, look different when looked at from what has been defined as 'marginal.'"  Noted Janet Heineck, Middle East Cataloger and Jewish Studies Selector at the University of Washington Libraries,  the UW system has a newly-established "'Yiddish-Ladino Matching Fund' which is a shared effort between several academic units and the Libraries to fund acquisitions in support of Sephardi as well as Ashkenazi studies."  For more info, email Aviva Ben-Ur, at .

    ###  Upcoming International Anthology Seeks Jewish Fabulist Fiction  ###

    Invisible Cities Press of Montpelier, Vermont seeks short stories for an international anthology of Jewish fabulist fiction.  Fable.  Fantasy.  Myth. Magical realism. Sephardi/Mizrahi-themed work encouraged.  For guidelines, send SASE to D. Jaffe, Editor, 57 Broadlawn Park, Apt. 26A, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.  E-mail: .

    ###  Jewish, Muslim Composers Featured in Spanish "Crossroads" Concert Feb. 12  ###

    Save the date for Bay Area member Judith Berlowitz's Spain: Crossroads of World Music concert at Holy Names College, Oakland, Sat., Feb. 12, 2000.  Sponsored by the Music Department, the Spanish Studies Program, and the Program in Integrative Studies Across Cultures (ISAC) at Holy Names, the concert begins at 8 pm and will be preceded at 7:30 pm by a lecture-demonstration on Spanish music by Judith Berlowitz.  This evening includes music by Jewish and Muslim composers and covers all periods; it is also the exciting feature debut of Ensemble Alhama.  For further info., please contact the Music Department at HNC at (510) 436-1330, or Prof. Berlowitz at (510) 436-1144. Email: .

    ###  The Levantine Project Will Promote Sephardi/Mizrahi By-Lines  ###

    Ivri-NASAWI is in pre-production on a new syndication project which will promote the by-lines of those writing from a Sephardi or Middle Eastern Jewish vantage point. The Levantine Project will offer regular columns and special feature articles on a syndication basis to more than 300 Jewish publications in the U.S. and Canada, and to more than 200 other publications in those countries. The Levantine Project also welcomes Arab and other Middle Eastern contributors writing about culture, politics and arts, who promote a pluralistic world view. For more info,write .

    ###  New Members Join Ivri-NASAWI  ###

    A warm welcome to professional and lay members who have joined Ivri-NASAWI in January, among them writer Daniel Jaffe, lawyer Deborah Katler, professor Jutta Schamp, activist Jack Salem, Steven S. Gold, sculptor Oded Halahmy, artist Ellen Benjoya Skotheim and writer Lital Levy.

    ###  Ad Hoc Committee Meets January 17 for Strategic Planning  ###

    Activists in Los Angeles will come together on Monday, Jan. 17, 11-2 pm, for lunch and a meeting to prepare the groundwork for Ivri-NASAWI's national all-day strategic planning retreat slate for Sunday, Feb. 6, 10 am to 6 pm.  1417 Second St, Santa Monica. For directions, call Susan Chatman, at (310) 990-6031. To RSVP, email .

    This edition of I-N's Biweekly News & Views prepared by Jordan Elgrably.

    ###  About Ivri-NASAWI  ###

    Founded in 1996 by Jordan Elgrably, Victor Perera, Ammiel Alcalay and Ruth Behar, I-N, New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers International, is both an association linking together a wide range of Sephardi/Mizrahi creative professionals and an advocacy organization promoting these cultures in the mainstream and non-Jewish communities.  Ivri-NASAWI includes a lay membership of Jewish and non-Jewish members who support the natural pluralism of the Mediterranan, North Africa and the Middle East.

    Copies of the Nov/Dec 1999 issue of NASAWI News are available with membership, or you can order individual copies @ $4.95 + .55 postage, or receive a 40% discount with the order of 10 or more plus priority postage.

    You can become a sponsor of a valuable cultural program, receive a tax-deduction, and make a difference.  Among upcoming collaborative projects are:

    *National Sephardi Literary Contest 2000*
    *Open Tent Middle East Film Fest Series LA*
    *Mimouna Festival, LA*
    *Sephardic Arts Festival 2000 LA *
    *Reading Series 2000, Bay Area*
    *Levantine Project Encounter Groups, NY*
    *Purchase of recorders/camcorders for Sephardi stories project (ESS)*
    *Levantine Project syndication launch*
    *Middle East Arts Festival*
    Please contact us for further details.
    [home] [org] [news] [calendar] [membership] [links] [open tent] [past] [nslc]