Jacqueline Kahanoff - Eretz Israel Museum

Jacqueline Kahanoff
The Levant as a Parable

“A typical Levantine in that I appreciate equally what I inherited from my 0riental origins and what is now mine of Western culture, I find in this cross-fertilization, called disparagingly in Israel Levantinization, an enrichment and not an impoverishment. It is from this vantage point that I wish to try to define the complex interrelated malady of both Israel’s Sephardic (Jews of oriental/Middle Eastern origin) and Ashkenazi (East European) communities”.[1]
In the late 19th century, in the wake of the economic prosperity that British colonialism had brought to Egypt, waves of immigrants poured in from numerous countries, such as Iraq, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and North Africa. Among the immigrants were Jews who settled primarily in Cairo and Alexandria; they soon embraced French culture, imparted by the Alliance school operated by the Alliance Israélite Universelle. In the early 1920s, a vibrant cultural mosaic was created in Egypt’s big cities, against the background of the songs of Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash and Leila Mourad, as well as western cadences, which included the rumba and tango.[MT1] Muslims, Christians and Jews enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Levant.

This was the milieu of Jacqueline Kahanoff, later to become a writer, essayist, literary scholar, feminist – and a Levantine by her own definition – who grew up in the Cairo of those days. Her mother was Yvone Chemla, of Tunisian extraction, and her father, Yosef Shohet, a descendant of a traditional Iraqi family. Jacqueline’s mother was a [MT2] woman of culture, and an ardent reader of French literature, mainly of Marcel Proust. As a child Jacqueline spoke English with her governess, Arabic with the servants, and French with her teachers and friends at school. Despite her education and desire to become independent, her parents opposed her wish to study medicine and chose for her the traditional role of women in a patriarchal society: wife and mother.

Instead of studying medicine, Jacqueline married a medical student, Izzy Margoliash, in 1939. A year later the couple immigrated to the United States, and lived in Chicago. The marriage was not a success and following the couple’s divorce Jacqueline moved to New York, where she studied literature and journalism at Columbia University. This is when she began writing short stories.

She did not feel at home in New York and returned to Cairo in 1946. However, three years later she left Egypt, this time for good, leaving for Paris with her sister Josette. Her first and only novel, Jacob’s Ladder, was published in London in 1951. Autobiographical elements are apparent in the novel. The novel was hailed a success in Great Britain and in the United States and won the Houghton Mifflin fellowship. In Paris she married Alexander, (Shura) Kahanoff, an acoustical engineer. The couple immigrated to Israel in 1954, living at first in the Beersheba Absorption Center, and later moving to the Yad Eliyahu neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Several years later they divorced. Jacqueline continued living in the same modest apartment at 11 Amishav Street, Tel Aviv, until her untimely death at the age of 62, of cancer, in October 1979.

The orientalist and journalist Nissim Rejwan introduced Jacqueline Kahanoff to poet and translator Aharon Amir, who served as the editor of the literary journal Keshet (1958-1977). The journal supported cultural equality between Jews, Arabs, Muslims and Christians living in the Middle East. Kahanoff began publishing her essays on this platform. She wrote in English and Amir translated her essays into Hebrew.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, born in Egypt, daughter of a family originating in Iran and Tunisia, regarded the ancient and deep connection between Jews and Arabs as a vital foundation for Israel’s negotiations with its neighbors, an element which might help in resolving the conflict; “But on the measure that it [Israel] does not fear its own Levantinization, it may pave the way for some kind of future peace, wherein many people can cooperate – if not always actively, at least more tolerantly of their differences. Israel ‘wins’ if it becomes the model of a well-integrated Levantine country, which refuses neither side its inheritance in creating its own values.”[2]

Thus, Kahanoff challenges the concept of the ‘Levantine’ which later acquired a pejorative connotation in Hebrew, depicting a person’s whose education is superficial and whose manners are merely external; one with no real culture or spiritual stability. She aspired to regard Levantinism in a cultural context which negates dichotomies and coalesces different cultural traditions.

Jacqueline Kahanoff served and still serves as a source of inspiration for intellectual discourse – in the academic world, in literature and in art – which deals with the Levantine option as a component of Israeli cultural identity: the[MT3] Levant, as a parable of a cultural mosaic that aspires to achieve moderation and tolerance.

About the exhibition

The main axis of the exhibition offers a view of Jacqueline Kahanoff’s life within the broader contexts in which she grew up, lived, and created (Egypt, the United States, France and Israel). Contemporary Israeli artworks displayed in the exhibition envelop her story. These works maintain a dialogue between East and West, reflect gender tension, and express the multitude of voices of a so complex local identity, thus offering a modern interpretation of the Levant notion.