“She would rather be a Gaon than a Gaul” Jacqueline Shohet
Kahanoff’s Affirmation of Arab Jewish Identity in Jacob’s Ladder
If she is known at all in the United States, Egyptian Jewish writer Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff is recognized for her ground-breaking cycle of essays, “A Generation of Levantines” published in Israel in the late 1950s. In these essays Kahanoff defined and celebrated Levantinism as “a potentially successful crossbreed of two or more cultures ... characteristic of the Middle Eastern people” (“Ambivalent,” 198). Hoping to counter Israel’s marginalization and denigration of its Arab Jews, Kahanoff argued that Levantinism offers “a workable alternative” to the hegemonic colonialism, orientalism, and racism governing Israeli politics.
Recently, Kahanoff has been both praised and blamed for her formulation and promulgation of Levantine identity. On the one hand, Ktsiaa Alon celebrates her for depicting “multiculturalism in all its glory,” and Ammiel Alcalay uses her as a key figure in his arguments for a native Arab Jewish identity in opposition to the “modern myth of the Jew as pariah, outsider, and wanderer” and the “postmodern myth of the Jews as ‘other’” (1). On the other hand, Kahanoff’s very postulation of a Middle Eastern “space in which the Jew was native, not a stranger” (Alcalay 1) has been seen as authorizing Israeli Jewish colonialism vis-à-vis Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Gil Z. Hochberg, for example, claims that Kahanoff’s essays elide the Arabic language and thus her Arab identity, enabling her to become “a colonizing Israeli” despite her initial position in Israel as a “colonized Arab-Jew” (240); Deborah Starr and Sasson Somekh, even while making Kahanoff’s essays and short fiction available in English for the first time, in their important volume Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, fault her for a “disconnect from Arab culture” (xxv), and dismiss much of her work as reflecting “an innocence, nostalgia, and touch of the exotic” (xix).
The work Starr and Somekh single out as the most naïve is, I argue here, Kahanoff’s bravest and most profound—her 1951 autobiographical novel Jacob’s Ladder, written in English and published simultaneously in the U.S. and England. And the Arabic language Hochberg sees as elided in Kahanoff’s work is in fact foregrounded in this explicitly anti-colonial text. Devoted to telling “our own story, in our own words” (“Culture,” 118), Jacob’s Ladder appeared well before the memoirs and novels produced by a later generation of Egyptian Jews. These narratives are colored by their writers’ experiences of exile as a result of Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism in an Egypt transformed by the creation of Israel in 1948 and the Free Officers’ Revolution in Egypt in 1952. Focusing on the years following World War II, they generally support what Ella Shohat has termed the “master narrative of universal Jewish victimization” (215). Jacob’s Ladder, on the contrary, offers an intimate, “sociologically honest,” look at Egypt between the two world wars, when the Jewish community flourished. In it, we see the full expression of “Levantinism,” as well as a critique of Jewish Israeli attitudes to Christian and Muslim Palestinians.
Indeed, what Jacob’s Ladder seems to propose is that authentic Jewish identity lies not in identification with European but with Arab culture—or, at the very least, through a marriage of the two cultures. Early in the novel, the narrator describes a wedding presided over by Egypt’s distinguished Chief Rabbi, Chaim Nahum Effendi, in which:
two fragments of Judaism are brought together, the Padovas, rich with the culture of Europe, and the Gaons, in whom we see our Jewish tradition in all its strength and purity. (130)
The metaphor of the wedding of two cultures, unifying various strands of Judaism, and affirming the integrity of Arab Jewishness, runs throughout the novel.
Born in 1917 into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Cairo, Jacqueline Kahanoff was educated at the French Mission Laïque School in Cairo. Her primary language was French, though she acquired “an excellent command of English from her early exposure to the language at the hands of her British nanny and governess” (Starr and Somekh, xiv). From an early age, she chafed against the limitations of her family’s “minority framework”; as a high school student, she was drawn to Marxism, aligning herself with Egyptian nationalism and striving “towards something universal” (“Childhood in Egypt,” 11). In 1940, at the age of 22, she married and left Egypt for the U.S., “the gate to freedom,” hoping to be able to write “from afar” about the Egypt she both “loved and hated” (“Europe,” 112). Kahanoff lived in the U.S. for ten years, earning a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University and studying at the New School. Although she had published a few sketches while an adolescent in Egypt, “it was in America that [she] received encouragement” (“Culture,” 117), winning second prize in a short story contest sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and earning a fellowship from Houghton Mifflin to complete Jacob’s Ladder. In 1954, after a few years in Paris, she moved to Israel, where she became known for her nonfiction essays. Throughout her career, Kahanoff wrote in English, having her works translated into Hebrew for publication in Israel. She died of cancer in Israel in 1979, where, according to Starr and Somekh, she continues to be considered an important public intellectual (xii-xiii).
Many writers about Egyptian Jewish society in the twentieth century have noted the complex identities of Jews living in Cairo and Alexandria in the first half of the twentieth century, when the opposition was not the contemporary Zionist-inflected binarism of “Jew” and “Arab” but that between “European” (“foreign,” “Western,” and “modern”) and “Egyptian”—“native,” “Eastern,” and “traditional.” Jacques Hassoun, an Egyptian Jew who immigrated to France in 1954, insists that “the Jews of Egypt should not be indexed with a singular definite article” (172), noting that they had
To cope with the contradictions of belonging to two worlds. Caught in this duality, they appeared to exclaim, like Abdallah al-Yahudi, the beggar of Tatwig Street in Alexandria: “See my galabia, I am Egyptian! See my jacket, I am European!” (169)
Among Egyptian Jewish writers writing in English, Andre Aciman, Gini Alhadeff, Lucette Lagnado, Jean Naggar, Colette Rossant, and I myself have all explored the ways in which Jews in Egypt saw themselves as both European and Arab. Jean Naggar, who grew up in one of Cairo’s wealthiest Jewish families and thought of herself as Italian, nevertheless maintains that the “language that meant home,” “what most defined my childhood self,” was Arabic (366-367). Similarly, Lucette Lagnado, in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, records her father’s heartbreaking lament, “‘Ragaouna Masr’—Take us back to Cairo” (163), as their ship leaves Alexandria in 1963. Later, resisting a New York Ashkenazi social worker’s efforts to have him conform to Western norms, Lagnado’s father proudly affirms, “We are Arab, madame” (207). Yet for Lagnado’s mother, “To compare someone to an Arab peasant was her most searing put-down” (228-229).
Liliane S. Damond’s The Lost World of the Egyptian Jews: First Person Accounts from Egypt’s Jewish Community in the Twentieth Century offers numerous examples of these divergent and at times conflicting Egyptian Jewish identities. One woman, whose family of Greek descent lived in Alexandria, recalls, “In Egypt, we considered ourselves European. At home we all spoke French, sometimes English, but no Arabic. . . . There was no great need to speak Arabic” (65). In contrast, a woman with Syrian ancestors reports, “We always spoke Arabic at home” (260); “We lived like sisters and brothers with our Muslim neighbors” (263).
Most recently, Andre Aciman’s novel Harvard Square explores in detail the conflicted identity of a young Egyptian Jewish graduate student in the United States. Yet what Aciman’s novel does not reveal—and what none of the other Egyptian Jewish American works offer either—is the historical grounding for the conflicted identities they portray.
For a full portrait of what Kahanoff called “one of the most complex
and interesting” (“Culture,” 118) Jewish communities in the world, we
must turn to Jacob’s Ladder. Kahanoff puts the issue of
European versus Arab identity for the Jews of Egypt at the very center
of her novel, taking us deeply into the consciousness of a sensitive
child, Rachel Gaon, following her from the age of five to the age of
fifteen, from 1919 to 1929. Like Kahanoff’s parents, the Chemlas and
the Shohets, Rachel’s mother, Alice Smadja, is the daughter of a Jewish
merchant from Tunis; her father, David Gaon, is the son of a Jewish
merchant from Baghdad. The Smadjas and the Gaons are typical of the
many Jewish families who, in the latter half of the nineteenth century
and the early part of the twentieth century, moved to Egypt from various
places in the Ottoman Empire seeking economic opportunity and—in some
cases—greater political freedom.
While both sides of young Rachel’s family are Arabic-speaking Jews, Kahanoff draws sharp distinctions between the Tunisian and Baghdadi branches of the family, using a number of variables to mark their differences: skin color, manners, dress, language, reading, relation to religion, political allegiances, and connection to the surrounding culture. And she demonstrates how colonialism has caused the rupture in Jewish identity that hurts and confuses Rachel. The blue-eyed, fair-haired, and fair-skinned Tunisian Smadjas, living in Cairo’s elegant European downtown, are an emotional, not particularly observant clan, descended from two brothers, Nathan and Joseph, who “had climbed out unaided from the squalor of the Tunisian mellah” (24-25). In contrast, the dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired Gaons, severe and restrained in their adherence to Jewish tradition, live on a “narrow lane” in an older Cairo neighborhood, a place steeped in “timelessness,” where “grave voices” exchange greetings of peace in Arabic, and where no woman—Jewish or Muslim—walks out in public without being draped in a full-length robe and head covering (3).
Rachel’s maternal grandmother, Hnina, is descended from Italian Jews who settled in Tunis. Her grandfather Nathan (referred to by the Italian endearment, “Nonino”), is a “florid” (22), affable man, a department store owner who enjoys an easy camaraderie with everyone he meets, and who discards olive pits in the Chinese vases on the dining room sideboard. Nathan’s twelve-year-old daughter Sandra is ashamed of her father:
When she married and had her own home, she would not allow people to do such things, nor to yell from one room to another. Throwing herself on her bed, she began to read a French novel, longing for the elegant world it described. (29-30)
Alice, Rachel’s mother, is Nathan’s oldest daughter. She, too, is “intoxicated by French culture” (“Culture,” 123), returning from a visit to Paris with a “case of books” (113), and often represented as avidly reading Proust.
While Nathan and his brother Joseph are illiterate, Alice and Sandra are the product of colonial French schools that shaped the values and aspirations of so many North Africans seeking admission into the middle classes of their countries. And although that education causes his daughters to be ashamed of him, Nathan—whose memory of the hara remains vivid—supports their new refinements: “Why shouldn’t our children live like educated people?” he asks. “Did we give our girls a good schooling for them to live like Hara Jews?” (211).
Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jew born in 1920, has given us unforgettable images of what he has termed the “terrors of the ghetto” (94) in Tunis, images that help us to understand why Nathan Smadja and his daughters would want to distance themselves from it. In his autobiographical novel The Pillar of Salt, Memmi writes of the hara’s “offensive stink,” “foul fluids,” and “mountains of garbage where the sunlight hatched swarms of green and black flies” (20). More importantly, he details the devastating social consequences of coming from the hara. Thus his fictional persona, Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche, explains why he has dropped his Hebrew middle name:
In this country, Mridakh is as obstinately revealing as if one shouted out: “I’m a Jew!” More precisely: “My home is in the ghetto,” “my legal status is native African,” “I come from an Oriental background,” “I’m poor.” But I had learned to reject these four classifications. (94).
Memmi’s protagonist disavows his “native” self not because of persecution by Muslims, but in the context of a French colonial society that has taught him to be ashamed of his origins. Similarly, Nathan Smadja rejects these four classifications—ghetto, native, Oriental, poor—and works to give his daughters and grandchildren in Cairo the advantages he did not have in Tunis.
Chief among those advantages is the speaking of French rather than Arabic. Tunisia became a French colony in 1881, and by 1896 all education in Tunisia was conducted in French. But even before that, in 1878 and 1882 the Alliance Israélite Universelle had established its first schools in Tunis for boys and girls, respectively. The Alliance Israélite Universelle, founded in Paris in 1860, had taken upon itself the task of promoting “the emancipation and the moral progress of Jews” around the world. As Keith Walters puts it, the AIU “used rhetoric not unlike that of the French colonial government when they commented on anything outside the West” (265). Tunisian Jews—particularly women—took readily to the education provided by the AIU, finding in the acquisition of French what Pierre Bourdieu has defined as symbolic, cultural, and even economic capital (Walters, 271). Speaking French became one of the quickest ways out of the hara of the mind.
In contrast to the Smadjas, Rachel’s paternal grandparents, Jacob and Hattouna Gaon, continue to be proud speakers of “solemn Baghdad Arabic, with its mixture of ancient Persian words” (5). They dress in traditional Arab robes—Jacob in white cotton and Hattouna in gray silk—and husband and wife are never seen in the same room together. In the Gaon home, people eat with their hands, dipping “round flat wheel[s] of warm whole-wheat bread,” into bowls and scooping out the food (66). Struck by the severe grace and purity of her grandparents’ home and garden, Rachel thinks of Jacob and Hattouna as a “king” and “queen” (63). Writing about her own paternal grandparents in a later essay, Kahanoff recalls they “were the only people I knew who were in total harmony with themselves, inwardly and outwardly, who accepted themselves as they were and did not want to be other than they were” (“Childhood,” 4).
Indeed, as Joel Beinin (2004) writes in his “Foreword” to Nessim Rejwan’s The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland, “Nowhere were Jews more deeply rooted and culturally assimilated than in the Tigris-Euphrates valley,” where they lived for centuries in “profound . . . symbiosis” with their neighbors (xi). Rejwan’s memoir, with its celebration of Jewish life in Baghdad, stands in sharp opposition to Memmi’s recollections of life in Tunis. Calling early twentieth-century Baghdad a “Jewish city,” Rejwan insists that in Baghdad, “the Jew-Arab opposition we constantly encounter today was never used either in writing or in daily discourse” (7), and he demonstrates his thorough integration into the larger community’s life even while maintaining his Jewishness.
The Gaon sons—Moses, David, and Samuel—also speak French, having been educated at the AIU school established in Baghdad in 1864. But because, as Beinin points out, “the Jewish communities in Baghdad rejected the Alliance’s policy of adopting French as the sole language of instruction” (xiii), they do not give up their first language, Arabic. Rachel’s father, David, having mastered the dialects of village chiefs throughout Egypt to whom he sells the imported textiles of the House of Gaon, remains more comfortable in Arabic than in French. Thus he worries about his ability to communicate with his daughter: “A native tongue was like a home, he thought sadly, and his Semitic heart lived in exile, unable to find the fitting French expression” (12).
Unlike the Smadjas, recently emerged from the hara and ashamed of their origins, the Gaons proudly look back to a long tradition of success in Baghdad, to a golden age when the Jews thrived under the caliphate. Their name, ‘Gaon’, which means “excellency” in Hebrew, is “the title accorded to the Jewish spiritual leaders and scholars who headed Talmudic academies that flourished . . . from the 7th to the 13th century in Babylonia and Palestine” (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "gaon", accessed June 26, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/topic/gaon). When she is twelve, Rachel learns from her father that
The name “Gaon” was handed down from those who had founded in Baghdad the university to which Jews from all over the Diaspora came to receive instruction; thus they, the Gaons, had helped to preserve the unity of Israel. (349)
Rachel contrasts the rich history of her father’s family with the French history inculcated by her teachers: “At school, she had been taught to say, ‘Nos ancêtres les Gaulois,’ and had had doubts about her ancestors because they were not Gauls” (349). Now she knows that “she would rather be a Gaon than a Gaul” (349). But this knowledge—like Frantz Fanon’s ability to break his identification with “the civilizing colonizer” after also having constantly recited “our ancestors the Gauls” (126)—is hard-won.
Not surprisingly, the marriage between David Gaon and Alice Smadja is replete with tensions—tensions that begin even before the wedding. In vain Alice tries to keep herself from thinking about “the cultured young architect with whom she had been so nearly in love”; ruefully, she recalls that she had been “too shy, too proud, to wangle invitations to balls where she would have met him” (51). David, “handsome, generous, and kind,” reminds her of “Arabian Nights’ merchants,” while she would have preferred “princes of the Contes de Perrault” variety (51). In their daughter Rachel, Alice recognizes that David has given her “something as fine as Hattouna’s Eastern brocades”; still, she wants to fashion the child “into a model of Parisian elegance” (51) with European language and European manners. Although David insists that his own mother, Hattouna, without any formal education, has “manners, the only kind that matter” (116), Alice ignores him. “It’s that French literature which poisons our lives” (207), David remarks bitterly at one point.
When Rachel is five, her parents spend several months in England, where Alice feels “clumsy and unsure” (85) of herself, believing that people are laughing at her. She hires an English nurse, and later an English governess, so that Rachel will never experience the same humiliation. Since the British are ruling Egypt and setting the standards for high culture, a French education is insufficient; Alice wants her daughter to have “the best advantages,” so that she can “defend [herself] in the modern world” (116). David protests, fearing the entire family will be subject to “the contemptuous eyes of a stranger” (113), but Alice prevails. Their daughter, as if in illustration of Bourdieu’s concept of embodied cultural capital, will learn to “speak English without a trace of an English accent, without Arabic words creeping in” (170).
To Alice’s chagrin, and to the reader’s amused delight, the nurse Alice hires is Irish rather than English, and understandably less strict in enforcing British superiority than Alice might wish. When Miss O’Brien, Nanny, first arrives, she faithfully follows Alice’s instructions and the advice of the other nurses, keeping Rachel away from “all that smacked of native life” (167), covering her face with a veil and making sure everything she touches is disinfected. For Rachel, who wants to “roam about, to talk to people” (165), “to see things in their real colours,” and to breathe “even the bad smell of animal droppings” (164), Nanny’s restrictions feel “like punishments” (165).
To her credit, Miss O’Brien recognizes the cruelty of the regime she is responsible for enforcing, and she tries to temper her employer’s orders, though she succeeds only in alienating Alice, preparing the way for her replacement by the very proper, very strict, and truly cruel English governess, Miss Nutting. Under Nanny’s tutelage—and even more so under Miss Nutting—Rachel comes to see the world as divided into “pink” and “brown” people. The “pink” people who speak English are allied against the “brown,” among whom she counts herself (167). Even as a child, Rachel recognizes that the distinction is not exactly about skin color, though she still uses it as a signifier for the contrasts she sees in her society:
Nonino and Aunt Renee’s skin were fairer than Nanny’s but it wasn’t the same thing, they must be brown inside, and she loved brown people, not the pink and pale ones. (167)
The “pink and pale ones” are the “governesses, British soldiers and policemen, neither man nor woman, but authority, discipline, jails, barracks, all that civilized the life out of people and turned them into joyless, well-behaved automatons” (359). Refusing to be ashamed of her brown, native self, Rachel imagines “huge counter-crusades, during which her world invaded” the pink one, and “utterly destroyed it” (359).
Rachel’s healing antidote to the pink people who want to rule her and other Egyptians comes in the form of Amina, the Syrian Christian wet nurse Alice hires for her son Daniel, born when Rachel is seven. In Amina’s generous brown breasts and regal bearing, Rachel finds the maternal warmth and self-acceptance her own mother has failed to provide. Drawn to Amina’s “splendid abundance” (182), Rachel sits at her feet in quiet “adoration” (183). Amina, she decides, is “like the Arab women, like the rose and the jasmin” (184) that flower in her Gaon grandparents’ garden. Amina becomes for Rachel a symbol of Egypt as nurturing mother—“‘um al-duniya, the ‘mother of the world’” (Ghosh 1992, 80)—capable of absorbing and reconciling all differences.
Given Rachel’s identification with “brown” rather than “pink” people, with Egypt rather than with the occupying British, with Amina rather than with Alice, it is not surprising that her first Passover—the Jewish celebration of the ancient Hebrews’ departure from Egypt—provokes a crisis of identity. Passover figures prominently in the memoirs and fictions of other Egyptian Jews. Jean Naggar recalls that as a privileged child in Egypt, she viewed the Haggadah as a “fairy tale” that “held no actual relevance” (49) for her. Still, she pointedly uses the ancient Hebrews’ trials in Egypt as a symbol for what happens to her own family during the Tripartite Invasion. In contrast, in Out of Egypt, on the eve of his family’s reluctant departure from Alexandria in 1967, fourteen-year-old Andre Aciman refuses to read aloud from the Haggadah. When an aunt asks him, “What kind of Jews are we?” he answers bluntly: “The kind who don’t celebrate leaving Egypt when it’s the last thing they want to do” (333). Similarly, Lucette Lagnado—even while branding Nasser as a “modern-day pharaoh” (259)—admits that “no matter how loudly we sang” during her exiled family’s Passover Seder in Brooklyn, “our holiday had become not a celebration of the Exodus from Egypt but the inverse—a longing to return to the place we were supposedly glad to have left” (263). It is only Kahanoff who makes the deeper connection, refusing to separate Jewish from Egyptian suffering.
For Rachel, who celebrates her first Passover when she is eight at the home of her paternal grandparents, the holiday grants her entrance into both the past and the present of her Egyptian Jewish identity, creating a link between them. As she learns biblical history from her father in the days before the holiday, she marvels that “she, and so many in her family, bore the names of their ancestors, and were here, in this same Egypt where some of these events had occurred” (231). Rachel lives the Passover story “not as a tale of long ago, but as a miracle which was happening to her here, now” (236).
Kahanoff sets Rachel’s first Passover at a time when Ramadan, Easter, and the Jewish holiday coincide. The Jewish festival is part of a citywide, even national celebration, a symbol of the possibilities of a unified, multiethnic, and multi-religious ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’:
In mosque, church, synagogue and home, each lived his own religious passion, but in the streets, people lived in a common frenzy, by which Egypt welded their diversity into a unity peculiar to itself. (235)
Feeling as if she “could burst from the wonder which flowed through her city” (235), Rachel mingles with the colorfully dressed crowds thronging the streets; she revels in the decorated market stalls “bent under the weight of holiday foods” and filling the air with the aromas of “roasting meat, frying cakes, fruit, spices, and bread fresh from the ovens” (234). In this way, Kahanoff makes of Rachel’s first Passover a feast of union rather than of separation, not so much about departure as about arrival. Yet the child Rachel cannot ignore the message of the Haggadah, and—after her ecstatic identification with life in Misr—she is profoundly “shaken by the violence of the Passover ritual” (238). She suffers with the Egyptian firstborn smitten by God’s wrath and begs her father to answer her agonized question: “Is it wrong that I should love Egypt as my country?” (239).
In her very last published piece, “Welcome, Sadat,” Kahanoff again highlights the Passover story, which she wrote about throughout her career, claiming that in her earlier representations, she had failed fully to reveal the “anxiety, and even the terror” she had experienced in childhood (239):
Most people summon up the “Exodus from Egypt” once a year; I bore it within me every day of the year, riddled with doubts concerning the Lord’s grace and love. Why should innocent fellahin have to pay such a heavy price for the Hebrews to be set free, while it was certainly in the Lord’s power to demand of Pharaoh to listen to Moses and let the Hebrews go. It seemed to me that the matter was not only cruel but a huge waste. Ever since that first Seder I always made sure not to take part in the saying of the “Ten Plagues,” and when the time came to read out loud Dayenu I would pray silently, “Enough, that’s really enough! If only such things would never happen again!” (“Welcome,” 240)
Viewing Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel as the fulfillment of a dream, “that this time, in our own time, the end [of the Haggadah] would be different,” Kahanoff celebrates the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and imagines that now “everything can start... anew” (242).
The conclusion of Jacob’s Ladder also represents a new beginning, embodied in a “huge Seder” (422) that unites the Gaons and the Smadjas for the first time in the home of Rachel’s parents. In the days before the gathering, Alice, who has never hosted a Seder, turns to Ahmed, the Gaons’ longtime servant, for guidance. Because Alice is so flustered, fifteen-year-old Rachel works beside Ahmed and learns “from the old Moslem all that she as a Jewish woman needed to know” (424). The Seder is a great success, resembling “a wedding feast, with its wine, its flowers, its promise of a life to come” (426).
But the groundwork for this wedding feast, the true marriage of David and Alice, the Gaon and Smadja ways of viewing the world, had been laid earlier in the novel, during Rachel’s bout with diphtheria. Wracked by fever and close to death, Rachel is anxiously watched over by her parents. To “help her to fight for her life” (335), David ventures in his halting French to tell his daughter the story of his family’s journey by caravan across the desert from Baghdad. “You are also in our caravan,” David tells Rachel, “and one day you, too, must help to guide it and to protect it from all dangers as your grandfather did” (337). Immensely moved by her father’s narrative, Rachel is calmed, and at last able to sleep, her fever broken. In the hours that follow, Alice keeps vigil beside her daughter, also deeply moved by her husband’s story, which she has never heard before. She recognizes that David, “more than the doctor,” has saved their daughter’s life, and she acknowledges the child as “his”:
She felt something released in her as all the memories of her own childhood, so carefully locked away, flooded over her in a great rush, giving her back not the feeling of cramped, over-burdened days, but a sense of pride and richness in a duty well performed. (342)
The internalized shame of the hara has given way, suddenly, to pride in her own history, her own Arab Jewish identity. When Rachel wakes, Alice, “as if impelled to recapture her own past” (342), begins to tell stories of her own childhood, singing an old Tunisian lullaby in Arabic to her daughter, translating it for her and remarking that she “didn’t even know” (343) she remembered it. Rachel begs her to sing it again, saying she prefers it to the French lullaby she heard in infancy.
Again, Alice is touched: “I was always a little afraid that you wouldn’t be interested in my life,” she confesses, and “might even stop loving me. I never thought you’d care about such things” (343). And then, in a moment of unguarded truthfulness, of complete self-acceptance, she calls Rachel “benti”, the Arabic endearment for “daughter”: “It was the first time that she heard the word benti cross her mother’s lips,” Rachel realizes, and she, too, is “deeply moved” (343). Now that she understands the “hardships of her mother’s childhood,” Rachel understands why her mother had turned her over to a British nanny and governess; instead of resenting her, she feels a “protective tenderness” (343). When her uncle brings her four little dolls from Palestine—“two Jewish Kibboutzniks, a man and a woman with little Russian blouses embroidered at the collar, and two Arab ones” (349)—she marries the Arab man to the Jewish woman and the Jewish man to the Arab woman. Her uncle calls her an “incorrigible dreamer” (349), but this is the dream, of a unified Arab-Jewish identity, unashamed and proud, that undergirds Jacob’s Ladder, and that makes it a stepping stone to a brighter vision than the ones that cloud our twenty-first century imaginations.
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* Joyce Zonana is professor emerita of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile's Journey, and a frequent contributor to the blog Feminism and Religion, where she has also written about Jacqueline Kahanoff. Her scholarly essays have appeared in such journals as Signs, Meridians, Hudson Review, Victorian Poetry, and Journal of Narrative Technique. Her essay "And she loved brown people": A version of Jacqueline Kahanoff’s Affirmation of Arab Jewish Identity in Jacob’s Ladder first appeared in Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in America, Vol. 13 of the Casden Review (2016), ed. Saba Soomekh.