Writer Jacqueline Kahanoff was born in 1917 to a French-speaking Jewish family in Cairo, and came of age intellectually in New York City and Paris.
When she settled in Israel in 1954, she brought vast cultural experience with her. She also brought an opinion, unpopular with Israel’s ruling elite, that the culture of Jews from the Eastern Mediterranean region – known as the Levant – should be celebrated alongside those from Europe.
“This is the voice of an immigrant writer who is interested in the effects of immigration and cultural integration,” said Deborah Starr, associate professor of modern Arabic and Hebrew Literature and Film in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. “This is very relevant today.”
Starr, who co-edited Mongrels or Marvels (2011), the only edition of Kahanoff’s work in the original English, will lend her own voice to a discussion following a screening of the documentary film “Levantine” (2019), Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. at Cornell Cinema.
The film’s director, Rafael Balalu, also will attend the discussion. “Levantine” is an installment of “The Hebrews,” a series of documentary films about prominent Jewish and Israeli writers.
Starr appears in the film, adding cultural perspective and personal history to Kahanoff’s story.
“She was an Egyptian Jew,” Starr said. “Her father’s family had come from Baghdad, her mother’s family had come from Tunisia. Her father was Arabic-speaking, and her mother was Francophone.”
Kahanoff grew up speaking French at home, but learned English from her British governess. Later, while living in New York City during World War II, she earned a journalism degree from Columbia University, and published short stories and a novel.
“English was the language in which she found her voice,” Starr said.
English also was the language she used, when she and her husband moved to Israel in 1954, to write about her experiences as an Arab Jew. She advocated to make a place in the new Israeli nation for Arab Jewish – or Mizrahi – culture.
“This was a moment of great transition and anxiety,” Starr said. “There were growing pains during the first decade of Israel with two mass migrations – the influx of Jews from Arab and Islamic countries, and the exodus of the Palestinian population.”
Israel’s leaders, largely from Europe, worried about the cultural impact of Arab Jews. They feared “Levantinization,” the idea that Arab Jews would muddy Israeli culture, Starr said.
“Kahanoff takes this idea and turns it around,” said Starr. “She celebrates that kind of hybridization.”
Although Kahanoff wrote in English, her essays were published in Hebrew translation for Israeli readers. She made a large impact during her lifetime, but she slid into obscurity after her death in 1979.
Kahanoff’s work has recently been rediscovered by a new generation of writers, Starr said, “particularly writers who were themselves Jews from Arab and Islamic countries or second-generation immigrants to Israel who were searching for their own identity and found real resonance in her voice.”
The screening is sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Jewish Studies Program, in the College of Arts and Sciences, with the generous support of the Hope and Eli Hurwitz Fund.
Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.