Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Sephardic Women's Voices: Out of North Africa

Oct. 5, 2017

Editor's note: HBI recently caught up with 2010 Scholar-in-Residence Nina B. Lichtenstein, who earlier this year published "Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa," a project she started at HBI.

HBI: How did you become interested in the topic of Jewish writers from North Africa?

Nina LichtensteinNBL: When I was in graduate school working toward a master's and then a doctorate in French, a large part of our reading was literature by writers from the former French colonies, such as the Caribbean, West Africa, and North Africa. I had a bachelor's in Jewish Studies and French, and anything from the intersection of these two disciplines interested me. Knowing that North Africa, especially Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, had been the home to a large Jewish population — nearly 500,000 at its peak and now mostly gone — I was intrigued to find voices that captured this rupture. But there were no Jewish voices on our reading lists, except one or two male writers such as Albert Memmi, and so, my project revealed itself, asking to be developed.

HBI: Why women writers, specifically?

NBL: Women writers bring a different sensibility to their writing than men, and often one that observes and responds to a gendered experience of, say, trauma, as it is lived by a family or a community. We know that, historically, these experiences have been underrepresented if not invisible. I was eager to find them and put them in the forefront of a study about a unique moment in Jewish history.

HBI: There has been a burgeoning of Sephardic Studies in recent years, for example as seen by the growing numbers of sessions on the theme at the AJS and MLA. How has this affected your work and research?

NBL: In the early days of my research, in the late '90s, it was a lonely job. I was the only one at my university pursuing anything Sephardic, although the University of Connecticut had a Jewish Studies program, (I was one of their first majors) it focused on Ashkenazi history and culture. I recall speaking with a Moroccan sociologist and scholar in France who had doubts my project was going to fly, but he was the beginning of a network of engaging Sephardic writers and scholars that I slowly developed, and which eventually sprouted in the U.S. as well. This is not to say there were not important senior scholars here who had already paved the way — such as Norman Stillman, Jane Gerber and Aaron Rodrigue — but as far as a network for junior scholars who were entering the field, it took time. Now, the AJS has a separate caucus for Sephardic and Mizrahi studies as well as a large number of panels and sections dedicated to this rich and heterogeneous sub-genre within Jewish studies. It has been fun to be part of and observe this growth.

HBI: Your book, "Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa" (Gaon Books 2017), is divided into two parts: the first is rich in historical and theoretical references, and the second is a literary and thematic study of specific texts by the women writers. What reader(s) did you have in mind when you wrote this book?

NBL: The book went through several phases. When it started out as my dissertation, it was my thesis-advisors and the academic community I imagined as readers. I knew revisions were necessary in order to publish it as a book and coming to the HBI as a scholar in residence in 2010 marked the beginning of that renewed energy and work. It took time and thought to reimagine the reader I envisioned. When the small, independent press, Gaon Books, finally published the book in January 2017, I was excited to have shaped it into a more accessible text.

Since then, readers who are not academics or scholars, but lay-people interested in Jewish history and culture, have told me they enjoyed its "readability," which I take as a great compliment. My litmus test was when a dear friend, Dr. Calvin Mass, who at 95 years old, read the manuscript and called me up from his nursing home the week after I had dropped it off and asked me over for lunch "so we could discuss the work." He grew up as an Ashkenazi Jew in Hartford, Connectic, in the 1930s, and had very little exposure to anything diverse within Jewish culture. But he was educated and curious.

HBI: What are some challenges, if any, you have faced with this project?

NBL: During the long research-phase, I had three young children and a husband who worked all the time, so travelling to France or North Africa was not possible. That felt compromising to me, but I found other ways to develop the content of the project. Aside from the seemingly endless revisions and the often-painstaking rounds of editing, the biggest challenge for me is always to "just sit down and do the work." That means writing for some time, every day — except on Shabbat — uninterrupted by all the usual attention grabbers readily at our fingertips.

HBI: Tell us about how your relationship to the HBI began?

NBL: In spring 2010, I came to HBI as a SIR, and I vividly recall walking through the doors of the Women's Studies Research Center feeling like I had come home. The warm and welcoming environment created by the supportive staff and all the folks who work and are affiliated with the Center was a game-changer for me. It was the first time in my academic life I didn't get a blank stare when asked about my work. Jews and gender and fresh ideas, well, it was a match made in heaven.

While there as SIR, I applied for and won the HBI translation award that led to the translation from French of Chochana Boukhobza's novel, "For the Love of the Father." When my time as SIR ended I was welcomed to stay on as a Research Associate — a relationship that continues today. I have also been a member of the Academic Advisory Committee since 2011 and enjoy being a part of evaluating some of the annual research award applications as they relate to my field.

HBI: In what way is the translation project unique?

NBL: Throughout my scholarship, one of my primary goals has been to share stories of Sephardic/Mizrahi communities from Islamic lands, and especially its women. Among them, the Francophone writers — and there are many — are not generally known within the Anglophone world, as many if not most of their works are yet to be translated. Chochana Boukhobza — who is born in Tunisia — and whose work figures in my book, is a prolific Sephardic woman writer in France who has written with great rawness about the uprooting of North Africa's Jews. This moment in history and its repercussions on a familial level is portrayed with sensitivity in the translated novel. I love that the novel is made available for free from the Brandeis Institutional Repository.

HBI: What’s next for you in terms of projects?

NBL: I have a couple of projects on the docket; both relating to Jews and gender in their own ways. The first is a novel inspired by a true story about a Norwegian non-Jewish woman who falls in love and has a child with a Norwegian Jew in 1933. She only reveals this part of her secret past to her family when she is on her deathbed 55 years later. Shifting between time periods the story explores how one woman's secret affects not only her life but that of future generations. The second project is a collection of first-person essays by women converts to Judaism, tentatively titled, " Funny, You Don't Look Jewish." I run a blog and a Facebook group by the same name, and I seek well-written stories that celebrate the diversity of converts to Judaism. Between these two projects I have my work cut out for me, and feel invigorated by the beginning of the fall season and cooler weather.

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She holds a PhD in French and is a 2010 HBI Scholar in Residence, winner of an HBI Translation prize, member of the HBI Academic Advisory Committee and an HBI Research Associate. Nina is a recent empty nesterr and now lives in Brunswick, Maine. She recently published "Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa."