Homelands and Diasporas

Perspectives on Jewish Culture in the Mediterranean

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Dario Miccoli, Marcella Simoni, Giorgia Foscarini
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge Scholars Publishing
    , May
     2018.
     230 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781527507838.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The essays in this book are a festschrift to honor Emanuela Trevisan Semi for her contributions to the field of Jewish Studies, and particularly for her work on Jewish diasporic communities around the Mediterranean region, Africa, and India. Trevisan Semi is Professor of Modern Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Ca' Foscari University in Venice. She has published  monographs, nearly as many edited volumes, more than 80 articles, many reviews, and several encyclopedia entries. Her research and publications have focused attention on memory, ethnicity, and marginalized communities both in Israeli society and outside Israel, as for example her writings on the Karaïtes and Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and on the Jews of Morocco and the Moroccan diaspora.

As the title of the collection indicates, the essays in this book are organized around two tropes—homelands and diasporas—in order to frame Jewish experience in these regions. Homelands and diasporas work together as a socio-anthropological trope to describe the variety of Jewish experiences, and to reflect on Jewish identity in the 21st century. For the authors of these essays, the term homeland operates either as a physical territory or an imagined place. As for diaspora, it is taken to mean the plural experience of Jewishness across the world—as for example, how Jewish communities express their traditions and develop customs in contact with other Jewish communities, distant and not so distant; how they communicate and exchange ideas in contact with other religions and ethnicities; and how these practices have been affected when the State of Israel appeared on the world scene. The contention being that the presence of the State of Israel has altered the idea of diaspora itself and how diaspora Jews process their own Jewishness, both when they live outside Israel and when they live in Israel. The essays by Dario Miccoli, Ilan Greilsammer, and Marcella Simoni characterize the latter approach. 

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is a collection of nine essays by scholars who have worked with or have been influenced by Trevisan Semi. The second part is made up of the testimonies of people who recount professional and personal encounters with her. The third part is a bibliographical appendix that lists her publications from 1970 to the present.

The first of the nine essays in the first part is by Tudor Parfitt. It describes the position of Jews in West Africa during the 16th century, focusing particularly on Senegal. Parfitt points out that Trevisan Semi has contributed important works on Jewish life on the African continent. The second essay, by Shalva Weil, reviews her working relationship with Trevisan Semi. Weil has written an engaging essay on the Beta Ethiopians who resettled in Israel and Europe. In this essay, Weil examines the methodology and influence of Jacques Faitlovich, one of the first scholars to examine the Beta Israel in Ethiopia. Gathering information in the archives and in interviews with individuals, she relates in vivid detail the life of one of Faitlovitch's disciples, Eremias Essayas. The third essay by Yolande Cohen and Nourreddine Harrami, describes a synagogue in Meknès and examines Jewish life in the mellah, in both colonial and contemporary Morocco. These three essays are followed by others that look into cultural institutions and practices that memorialize Jewish life in communities both inside and outside of Israel. Giorgia Foscarini's essay, for example, examines the case of the Polish cultural center—Grodzka Gate—its memorialization of Jewish presence in Poland, and what the Grodszka project says about efforts to promote liberal culture in Polish society. In his essay on the novels of Haim Sabato—an Israeli rabbi who was born in Cairo in the 1950s—Miccoli examines the way Sabato portrays the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. In another essay, Greilsammer looks into the practice and contradictions of the Israeli notions of religion and secularism in present day Israel. Simoni's essay, "Playing with History: Toys in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s," is an informative and fascinating reflection on the construction of Israeli national identity. Her argument focuses on the role played by the "museum," by exhibits and material objects more specifically, in the formation of national identity. The last two essays are by Uri Ben-Eliezer and Oren Yiftachel. The first proposes a theory for talking about warfare between Israelis and Palestinians. The final essay explores the rhetoric used by Israeli authorities to frame land claims in Bedouin communities. Yiftachel proposes a conceptual scheme to analyze the impact of urban planning on Russian-speaking immigrants, the Mizrahims, and Arabs in the Beer Sheva region. Finally, the collection as a whole could have benefited from a more developed Introduction exposing the thoughts and writings of Trevisan Semi.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aimée Israel-Pelletier is Professor of French in the Deparment of Modern Languages at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Date of Review: 
March 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dario Miccoli is Lecturer in Modern Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He is the author of Histories of the Jews of Egypt: An Imagined Bourgeoisie, 1880s-1950s (2015) and La letteratura israeliana mizrahi (2016). He is also the editor of Memory and Ethnicity: Ethnic Museums in Israel and the Diaspora (with Emanuela Trevisan Semi and Tudor Parfitt; 2013) and Contemporary Sephardic and Mizrahi Literature: A Diaspora (2017).

Marcella Simoni is Lecturer in History and Institutions of Asia at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. She has published two books on health and welfare during the British Mandate in Palestine: A Healthy Nation: Zionist Health Policies in British Palestine, 1930-1939 (2010) and At the Margins of Conflict. Social Perspectives on Arab and Jews in British Palestine 1922-1948 (2010). With Arturo Marzano, she edited Roma e Gerusalemme. Israele nella vita politica italiana (2010) and Quaranta anni dopo. Confini, limiti e barriere in Israele e Palestina, 1967-2007 (2007). 

Giorgia Foscarini is a doctoral candidate in Asian and African Studies at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Université Paris Nanterre. She works on memory and identity in contemporary Israel, and has published on ultra-Orthodox women’s education in Israel.

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