In Retrospect: Assessing Ammiel Alcalay's

Contribution to Sephardic Culture

By David Shasha


                books by Ammiel Alcalay mentioned in this essay include

Memories of Our Future,
Selected Essays 1982-1999
(City Lights, 1999)

Keys to the Garden, New Israeli Writing 
(City Lights, 1996)
After Jews & Arabs, Remaking Levantine Culture
(Minnesota 1993)

Ammiel Alcalay reads in

Los Angeles Jan. 29

Los Angeles Feb. 17

San Francisco March 1

see Calendar for details


I recently purchased a copy of the long out-of-print novel by Albert Cohen, Levantine man of letters, called Solal. Albert Cohen was just one of the many writers brought back to consciousness, Sephardic and otherwise, by a scholar whom I was introduced to in 1982 named Ammiel Alcalay. With a recently published collection of essays, Memories of Our Future---essays that span roughly the entire period that I know Ammiel---I felt it important to look back at his work and assess its significance after nearly two decades.

Many of us grew up in a Sephardic world that was in the process of disintegrating. Fewer people who were of the old world had any great impact on the young second generation Americans who, by and large, were ushered into Ashkenazi Jewish modernity. As a member of that generation that was reoriented to the new system and locked out of the old, my own itinerary is both typical and out of the ordinary. I grew up in a place that maintained but faint traces of its past and, indeed, had begun to shut off from the world.

The work of Ammiel Alcalay must be understood as part of a continuum of post-modern Judaism that had been begun by Susan Handelman with her Slayers of Moses. Handelman read deeply in texts that had been ignored or thought trivial by many Jewish thinkers to that point: In the writings of Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, Handelman heard echoes of these ancient Jewish texts. Handelman did not fix her sights on the Bible, that most seminal of documents, but, in the manner of the so-called Post-Structuralists, she turned her attention to the massive interpretive literature of the Jewish Sages, known as Midrash. The Hakhamim developed a massive intellectual culture that not only interpreted the classic writings of the Bible, but were the ones who put those writings in the canonical order that we have them in today.

Until the publication of The Slayers of Moses, Rabbinical study was primarily legal in orientation. In the huge scholarly fallout that took place after the publication of the work, the minimal literature on Rabbinic Midrash, Jewish commentary on Scripture, was brought back to consciousness. Handelman had redrawn the conceptual map of Judaism. By an understanding of the mechanisms, historical and literary, that enabled the Rabbinic project to assert itself, Handelman understood that project to be in the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition. Instead of being cordoned off in some naïve obscurantism, the work of the Jewish Sages was deeply committed to addressing the issues raised by Greek philosophy.

And with the rereading of Plato and Aristotle begun by Heidegger and climaxing in Derrida's Of Grammatology and Dissemination, Handelman created a niche for the Rabbinic reading of Scripture in the overall framework of the new thinking. This reading reasserted that Jewish thought was in a creative battle with Hellenistic thought and provided its students with an alternative epistemology.

Handelman's work was roundly criticized and put into a kind of cordon sanitaire. When I was a graduate student, I used the book liberally and was punished for it. This work was seminal in the sense that it broke Judaism free of its positivist, neo-Wissenschaft approach that had split off academic Jewish study from traditionalism back in the 19th century. Handelman showed that the traditionalist variant of Judaism was not incompatible with academic method. Up until the time the book was published, there was not a book-length study in a Western language on Midrash.

Handelman's advance relied in good part on two important Sephardic authors: Jacques Derrida and Edmond Jabes. The Sephardic connection was not really noted by Handelman but became a crucial part of the work of Jose Faur, a Sephardic professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who had, until that point, been an expert in Talmudics, Maimonides and the Sephardic Rabbinic heritage. Increasingly, throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s Faur turned his attention to the post-modernists with articles on Sephardic textuality and studies of the Italian humanist philosopher Giambattista Vico.

In the course of Handelman's rise, Faur began work on a book called Writing and Graffiti which he hoped would bring his vast erudition in Rabbinics and Jewish thought to bear on the issues raised by The Slayers of Moses. It was upon the publication in 1986 of the work, now titled Golden Doves with Silver Dots, that the interconnections between the post-modern and Sephardic thought was made manifest.

Golden Doves with Silver Dots was not merely a groundbreaking work in a formal sense. Faur, a resident of the Brooklyn Syrian Sephardic community, was a teacher who disseminated his ideas in a real, organic Sephardic community. His trials and tribulations with that community will one day be brought to light; suffice it to say that his combination of academic sophistication with the most exacting religious standards was not accessible to the Sephardim of Brooklyn, a vast and influential community that is probably the largest Sephardic community in the world.

Faur was not able to gather the Sephardim around him. In the midst of the collapse of Sephardic culture, Faur faced the difficulty of an intellectual hierarchy that had been co-opted by the Ashkenazim many years earlier. Internally colonized by outsiders, the Syrians had become nearly inert regarding matters of the mind. Little could be accomplished in an environment that was not equipped to handle the most basic set of ideas. Faur found himself castigated and maligned by many in the community when his orthodoxy was put into question.

This issue of orthodoxy is significant because any assessment of Sephardic intellectualism must ultimately come to grips with the actual status of the Sephardim themselves. The way in which knowledge is disseminated is probably even more important than what it actually says.

The publication of Golden Doves with Silver Dots was a milestone in Jewish letters, but found few Jewish readers. Along with The Slayers of Moses it found itself relegated to curio status and was anathematized by the mainstream of Jewish scholarship. Faur lost both ways: He was rejected as being too intellectual by the community, but was, on the other hand, thought to be too radical by the academics.

A negative assessment of Slayers by David Stern was published in the Bible of Jewish literary study, Prooftexts, along with Handelman's rejoinder. The book would slowly have its impact through the publication of works by Stern, Daniel Boyarin, Steven Fraade and others who would try to right Handelman's wrongs. Ironically, these post-Handelman books were less accessible to the reader and ensured that the whole thing would be a matter for the experts rather than enter into the discourse of general letters. The relationship between Jewish scholarship and the post-modern was fraught with tension and ill-will.

Faur was upbraided by no less than Robert Alter in a review in the New Republic. The very vehemence of the review was underscored by the fact that it appeared, not in an academic journal (which tend to review books years after they are published), but in a mainstream magazine that tends to deal with books of a more accessible nature. What was being done here (and it would have an eerie echo in the case of Ammiel's work) was the Jewish establishment sending out its most authoritative "expert," as well as one of its best known, to nip this deconstruction thing in the bud. Alter had already written a lengthy diatribe against deconstruction for the neo-Conservative monthly Commentary the previous year and established it to be yet more left-wing propaganda meant to destroy the Western World..

Faur's book posed problems for the academic establishment in Judaica. Unlike Handelman, Faur was an acknowledged expert in the texts he was dealing with (meaning that he could read the original languages of the texts and pass muster on expertise in the critical literature in the field) so could not be relegated to non-expert status. Alter could only attribute Faur's orientation to some bizarre virus that had entered his system. That Faur actually saw a kinship between the philosophical currents of post-modernism and the scholasticism of the medieval Sephardic Rabbis, was something not entertainable in the circumstances.

The larger context of this argument was how deconstruction was to be handled by the academic establishment. Alter, speaking for the mainstream, irrevocably turned away from any acceptance of the deconstructionists. This issue brought Jewish academics into the long and somewhat tiresome debates that have buried literary study over the past 25 years. Accusations were hurled and moral positions were set into stone. The larger issue of the post-modern overwhelmed the tiny battle here being waged between scholars of Judaism and the manner in which its agenda would be set.

While all this was going on, Ammiel Alcalay was applying many of the ideas and principles implicit in the post-modern variant of Judaism to a new set of concerns: Sephardic literature and culture. Deeply moved by Faur's attempt to synthesize Maimonidean thought through the seminal figures of David Nieto and Elijah Benamozegh, Alcalay went back to the literary texts of the Sephardic tradition, its poetry and prose, and began to thoroughly re-read them. This re-reading, when coupled with the new methodology, led to a renaissance of Sephardic culture.

Like the manner in which Handelman resurrected Rabbinic Midrash from its deadened Enlightenment context, Ammiel breathed new life into the poetry of Dunash and ibn Gabirol. His original forays into Sephardic literature were limited to the poetry of the so-called "Golden Age." Working in a similar, though, at the time, unrelated, vein to the Hispanist Maria Rosa Menocal, Alcalay tried to redraw the cultural map of medieval Spain. Bringing out of mothballs the seminal ideas of Americo Castro, Alcalay and Menocal refused to segregate Spain yet again. In the footsteps of the avant-garde Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, such a scholarship attempted to refertilize the terrain and allow the hybridization of Spanish culture to reemerge.

Cut off by traditional Hispanists from its Jewish and Muslim antecedents, the literary history of Spain was subject to a process of ethnic cleansing. Looking through the prism afforded by the work of Faur and Handelman on the Jewish side and by the great Edward Said on the Arab side, Alcalay was able to reassert the Jewish role in the cultural splendor of Spain and the Middle East. Here it is vital to understand that in order to do this, Alcalay had to cobble together bits of different sources such as S.D. Goitein's A Mediterranean Society, Hayyim Schirmann's epic anthologies of Hebrew poetry, the economic studies of Charles Issawi, Gershom Scholem's study of medieval Jewish mysticism and Marshall Hodgson's The Venture of Islam. The use of such disparate works in an academic framework reeked of the post-modern. The uses to which Alcalay would put these sources was unusual and unorthodox. Literature would be linked to anthropology and politics to philosophical concerns. The material culture of the Levant in the 11th century would be read within the framework of modern aesthetics and then re-read back into its organic roots in the ancient period. Carthage, Fustat and Istanbul found themselves connected to present-day Fez, Beit Shemesh and Beirut.

In truth, Alcalay was only following the lead of the texts themselves. The crazy panoply of Sephardic culture (and medieval culture as a whole) had created the tradition of the polymath in our heritage. Our Sages were not simply legists and judges, but composed grammars of the sacred tongue, wrote verse, dabbled in polemics, drew up grand philosophical schemata and developed all sorts of scientific and cultural movements. Alcalay's systematic analysis of Sephardic culture was, to the Jewish naysayers, quite unsystematic. Such an approach had more in common with the essays of Borges, Eco's Name of the Rose and Calvino's Invisible Cities than it did with the standard fare of Jewish scholarship which was divided into very specific sub-categories.

After the completion of his dissertation a few years earlier, Alcalay went out to find a home for the book. The product of his many years of research and teaching was finally published in 1993. This search is documented, quite painfully at times, in his Memories of Our Future. The resistance to the book, entitled Re:Orienting/Writing the Mediterranean, was another step in the process inaugurated by The Slayers of Moses. It would not be easy finding academic acceptance for the work.

The very stakes had risen immeasurably: The new work had not only assimilated the post-modern, but had gone beyond it. In the manner of Edward Said's Orientalism, Alcalay sought to strip away, deconstruct, the working scholarly model of Jewish modernity. Denuded and stripped of its multiplicity, the current Jewish model, even in its Handelmanian variant, was too static and removed from the cultural elements that fired its creativity. After centuries of European hegemony, culminating in the rise of modern nationalism and its Jewish variant, Zionism, Sephardic culture was divorced from its natural element.

The book, eventually published as After Jews and Arabs, painstakingly reconstructed a map of Sephardic reality. Weaving in and out between the erosion of the culture in recent times and the splendor of its past, the book sought to tie together the substance of the culture along with the political and historical elements that have led us to where we are. Utilizing the racist ethnographies of Ashkenazi Zionists and the literary texts of the Zionist ideologues, Alcalay understands and explicates the binarisms that have brought us to this point: Setting aside the deep links that tie together the Sephardim and their Middle Eastern origins, Jewish modernity was trying to eliminate the very Diasporic framework that enabled the polyglot culture to be created in the first place.

And Zionism, unfortunately, became a major focus of the book. Unfortunate in the sense that Zionism has shown itself ruthless in protecting its hegemony. There is no way into the Sephardic present, however, without first settling the score with Zionism. It was Zionism that sought to level out the Jewish past, a past that has provided the Sephardim with their heritage. Establishing the essential untenability of life in the Levant over the ages, Zionist partisans were looking to validate their own claim over the land. If it could be shown that Jewish life in an Arab-Muslim context was tenable, a huge piece of Zionist ideology would have to be jettisoned.

Scouring the so-called New Historians in Israeli academia (Benny Morris, Simha Flapan, Tom Segev et. al.), Alcalay sought to reformulate our understanding of Zionism. Taking the experiences of Sephardim in Israel as paradigmatic, Alcalay sought to expose the Ashkenazi deception to the bright light of day. Reading writers such as Yehuda Burla, Edmond Jabes, Jacqueline Kahanoff, Albert Cohen and many others, Alcalay sought to create a new picture of Levantine culture, a picture more in tune with the realities of Sephardic experience rather than the polemicized variant thrown up by the Zionists. With his expertise in all aspects of Sephardic culture and literature and a steady command of the historical evolution into modernity, Alcalay drew a sketch of Sephardic reality that was breathtaking in design and epic in proportion.

But here we had to face, yet again, the difficulties generated by the current state of Judaism and its scholarly construct. Like Faur and Handelman before him, Alcalay found himself excluded from the mainstream of Jewish academia. His work was seen as strident and radical. While the New Historians were questioning the origins of the state of Israel and its dealings with the Palestinians, the internal questions regarding Jewish culture were left unexamined. Controversial as the work of the New Historians was, Alcalay's book was a bombshell that was left untouched. Its formulations were precise, yet the very structure in which it was presented was viewed as haphazard. The scholars, worried about the substance of the argument, tried to invalidate the book by formalistic arguments.

In the time between the publication of Golden Doves with Silver Dots and After Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi hegemony in the Sephardic community increased to the point of almost thorough domination. Sephardic Jews ceased to be interested in their own culture and took on an Ashkenazi understanding of their own history. Right Wing Zionism was de rigeur in the Sephardic community, while the influence of fundamentalist Orthodoxy was on the rise. The antagonists of After Jews and Arabs understood that their job as gatekeepers enabled them to bar the book's entry into the Sephardic mainstream.

Young Sephardic students were being trained in a system that did not provide them with the intellectual tools to read After Jews and Arabs. With the evisceration of the American school system came a drop in the intellectual foundations of its student base. Kids read very little and the act of reading was vital for an understanding of Alcalay's thesis. The standards had dropped and the very mechanisms that would perpetuate Jewish self-understanding assisted in the manner in which the book was disseminated.

In the decade that has passed since the thesis has been put forward, the state of Sephardic culture has gotten immeasurably worse. The older generation, that repository of wisdom and knowledge of the old ways, has by and large passed on. Little work was done to preserve their knowledge and no work was done to document their experiences. After centuries of writing and scholarship, the destruction of Jewish life in the Arab world is a black hole to many, particularly to the Sephardim themselves.

Without the intellectual skills to approach After Jews and Arabs, modern Sephardic students have been cheated of their patrimony. In yet another cruel twist of fate, the religious orthodoxy of the Sephardim has increased and intensified. Alcalay, along with others such as Ella Shohat and Sami Chetrit, dispensed with concern for the formal observance of Jewish ritual and have now found themselves outside the pale of the Sephardic community. The very questions and concerns that animate the current agenda of the mass of Sephardim are rarely addressed in this type of scholarship. And as the concerns of the Sephardim are not dealt with, the works have been ignored by the community.

All discussion regarding religion and its place in the Sephardic community is basically useless: One either accepts the reality or not. An achilles' heel in this type of scholarly work is its lack of focus when it comes to issues of doctrine. To cite one example from the work of the novelist Albert Cohen: In his Solal, the protagonist breaks off from the religious cocoon of his family in Cephalonia, only to assimilate into the café society of Paris and Vienna. This issue, of significant concern to Sephardic Jewish modernity, is ignored in the typical Alcalay analysis: The ruling ethos of After Jews and Arabs is cultural rather than religious. The split between culture and religion, itself a product of Ashkenazic modernity, is one that must be accepted as real. The cultural framework of Alcalay and the others does not accept the reality in the Sephardic trenches.

And here is the most trenchant criticism I have of Alcalay after some two decades: In order to be successful, scholarship must adapt to its circumstances. If the basic idea here is to educate Sephardim to change their errant ways, then the manner of attack is all wrong. Young Sephardim, as I have said, do not have the intellectual skills necessary to read the book. Its style and language are beyond the means of the average student, Sephardic or otherwise. The arguments being made are kept to a very high plane of critical discourse, there is little explanatory matter to help the reader get through some very difficult terrain. There is little sympathy for the conversion principle: This principle, endemic to good pedagogy, is one that assumes that you must prove your argument in as thorough a manner as possible. In the case of After Jews and Arabs there is a sense that the dirty work of explication is beyond the concern of the writer.

I once thought that there was a movement afoot to resurrect the Sephardic tradition. This dream has by and large been shattered by the realities I have described. Sephardic youth are more ignorant and far more reactionary now then they were some 20 years ago. Ashkenazi hold over the community is tighter than ever. A movement that was once bright with hope, has now become a mixed affair. In the wake of its failure in the real world of the Sephardim, the brilliant work of Ammiel Alcalay and his growing progeny, has turned away from the real Sephardic community and from its activist stance, and gone to the more comfortable position of a general coming-together of like minded outsiders who wish to forge a new identity, some amorphous Levantine identity.

The real work, begun years ago, has thus yet to be completed. The very ruptures that Alcalay has expertly sketched for us, are still in the process of fissuring. The reorganization of the Sephardic world, so much a crucial piece of Alcalay's original project, is further away than ever. What is to be done is anyone's guess. Right now, the basic idea is to get the young people educated and to keep plugging away, step by step, at changing the reality that has been created by the Ashkenazim on the ground. In the present context however, it does not seem that the cultural Sephardim will be of any help in making things change. Dealing with the Sephardic community in its current state is a complex issue: It means to struggle through all sorts of hatreds and fundamentalisms. The paradigm expressed in Albert Cohen's Solal, chucking the thing whole, will just not work; there are children out there who are looking for their identity and cannot accept bits and pieces of it.

The work of repairing the Sephardic community is daunting and the resources meager. The work of Ammiel Alcalay has given us a tool, but it is a tool that needs to be used in the context of our communities. We must understand the mentality of our young people and bring them to understand their past. The After Jews and Arabs variant is somewhat bohemian in orientation and discursively obtuse. It is itself a project teaching it. Ammiel Alcalay has given us a piece of scholarship that has challenged us to explore the past yet again. It has not given us a manner in which to break that noose that is around our necks. Getting rid of the noose is a slow, laborious process that takes long and patient argumentation and great perseverance.

After nearly twenty years, it must be acknowledged that Ammiel Alcalay has given the Sephardic community a lot. It is up to us to make more of his work than we have heretofore done. That this must now be done without his assistance is lamentable but true. Ivri-NASAWI

is an educator and writer based in Brooklyn.

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