Overlooked No More: Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, Writer of Levantine Identity

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In the debate over Israel’s place in the Middle East, the Egyptian-born Israeli writer Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff deserves a central place. In her books and essays, she observed the collision of ideas and culture between East and West, and explored how different groups can find symbiosis through a wide prism of humanism.

Kahanoff is best known for her essays celebrating Levantinism, a social model she created “that embraces the idea of a multicultural society and counters the prevailing attitudes and identity politics in the Middle East with the possibility of mutual respect and acceptance,” Deborah Starr and Sasson Somekh wrote in their introduction to “Mongrels or Marvels” (2011), a collection of Kahanoff’s essays that they edited.

Kahanoff’s work touches on the emerging Israeli culture, including the divide between Jews and Arabs. It also explores the ethnic divide between Ashkenazi Jews, immigrants and refugees from Europe, and Mizrahi Jews, immigrants and refugees from predominantly Arab-speaking countries, ranging from Western Asia to North Africa, who were shunned and marginalized by the Ashkenazi elite who founded Israel.

Kahanoff not only points to the myriad problems in this new state; she also offers an original vision of how all these groups can find their place in a modern Middle East.

In one essay, “Ambivalent Levantine,” she sums up her attitude: “A typical Levantine in that I appreciate equally what I inherited from my Oriental origins and what is mine of Western culture. I find in this cross-fertilization, called disparagingly in Israel Levantinization, an enrichment and not an impoverishment.”

Jacqueline Shohet was born on May 18, 1917, in Cairo to Joseph Shohet, a wealthy tradesman who had immigrated from Iraq, and Yvonne (Chemla) Shohet, who was of Tunisian descent. She grew up absorbing a mix of religions, nationalities and cultures and was raised on Jewish tradition and British colonial culture at a French school in the Arab neighborhood where she grew up.

Though Jews were accepted in Egyptian society, they were still placed in a different category. As Kahanoff wrote in her 1977 essay “Between Two Worlds,” “Egyptian-born Jews of my generation felt, for the most part, the same oppressive ambiguity of belonging and non-belonging.”

Jacqueline’s mother didn’t allow Arabic to be spoken at home, and Jacqueline “suffered from living in a country where she didn’t speak its language,” a childhood friend, Diane Jorland, said in an Israeli documentary about Kahanoff.

The upper middle class of Egyptian Jewry, despite their cosmopolitan airs, designated limited roles for women. But Kahanoff had greater aspirations. She wrote in her essay “The Blue Veil of Progress” that “when I was little, I wanted to be like my grandmother, a kind of Jewish queen.” But now, she added, “I want to do things as women do in Europe: be doctors, help the poor, everyone, or maybe be a writer who will find the words, our words, to tell about our lost time.”

Following her mother’s wishes, she married Izzy Margoliash, a Jewish doctor of Russian descent, in 1939. The next year the couple moved to the United States, where he was a resident. But the marriage was short-lived.

After they divorced, Kahanoff enrolled at Columbia University, where she studied journalism and literature. While there, she became romantically involved with the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom she considered the greatest love of her life.

In 1946, she found success when her short story “Such Is Rachel” won second prize in a contest sponsored by The Atlantic. That year, she returned to Egypt. But in 1951, bored with the monotony and stagnation of Egyptian society and concerned about a creeping nationalism and xenophobia toward anything that wasn’t Egyptian, she went back to New York. That year she published her first novel, “Jacob’s Ladder,” a semi-autobiographical depiction of the Jewish elite living in Cairo in the early 20th century.

She then lived briefly with her sister in Paris before marrying Alexander Kahanoff, a businessman, in 1952. They moved to Israel in 1954, living first in a migrant intake center in Be’er Sheva and later in Bat Yam, a working-class city south of Tel Aviv.

Kahanoff had an ambiguous relationship with Zionism. On one hand, she was drawn to the narrative and the potential of the Jewish people re-establishing their homeland after two millenniums of wandering, with the women, completely liberated, working shoulder to shoulder with men in the fields and on construction grounds. On the other hand, she disliked the Zionists’ dogmatic mind-set. “Mizrahis were expecting a different welcome from their brothers,” she wrote. “They had to adapt to a society they didn’t get a chance to help fashion, one in which they were considered raw material that needed to be polished, to be educated.”

After settling in Israel, Kahanoff began publishing essays in magazines, but she was overlooked by the hegemonic mainstream publishing world. She wrote mostly in English and French, and most of her work was translated into Hebrew.

It wasn’t until the famed poet and translator Aharon Amir began publishing her essays in his quarterly literary magazine Keshet that Kahanoff’s writing gained wider attention. Amir was part of the Canaanites, an ideological and cultural group founded in 1939 whose members considered themselves Hebrews, connecting with the ancient land of Israel rather than Judaism. He saw Kahanoff’s cosmopolitism as a breath of fresh air; it was, he wrote, open and original, not yearning to be sanctioned by the establishment or ramming ideology down readers’ throats but offering new possibilities.

Kahanoff soon became a fixture in Israeli’s intellectual milieu — establishing a literary salon in her Bat Yam apartment, hosting a French-language radio show, lecturing at schools and universities, serving as a member of the Israeli Broadcasting Association.

In 1963 Kahanoff edited and wrote the introduction to an anthology, “Modern African Writing,” which presented the emerging voices of contemporary African poetry and prose to an Israeli readership. In 1972 she published a series of articles on contemporary Japanese literature in the literary supplement to the newspaper Davar.

In her work, Kahanoff offers a sensitive description of the relationships between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews, and between Jews and Arabs. But her real strength comes from depicting the possibility of a new space: that of Levantine hybridity. Her response to provincialism and ethnic nationalism in Israel was to formulate an embodied synthesis of cultures.

Kahanoff examined the Jewish-Arab conflict and pointed at the flaws of the pervasive Israeli ideology. Zionist ideology, she wrote, “has not been able to relate itself to the history of this region or to the people who have lived here from earliest antiquity.”

The conflict, she added, was widely analyzed through Western imperial thought without regard to the rupture the founding of Israel caused in the Muslim Arab world. If Jews want peace with their neighbors, she believed, they must lose their “villa in a jungle” school of thought and realize their place in the region.

One reason for Kahanoff’s growing popularity is that she articulated one of the key dimensions of the Mizrahi left movement in Israel. “As a group who comes from Arab countries, and whose members sometimes define themselves as Arab-Jews, they feel particularly apt at making peace and living in symbiosis with Arabs,” the French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz said in an interview.

Kahanoff also wrote about the place of women, decrying Islamic society as patriarchal and Zionist society as chauvinistic and militaristic.

Her first full essay collection in Hebrew, “Mizrah Shemesh” (“From East the Sun”), was published in 1978. In the introduction, Amir presented her as the visionary of the generation of Levantines at its best.

As Kahanoff’s fame grew, she became estranged from her husband. He secured a divorce in rabbinical court, declaring that Kahanoff was a “rebellious woman” who was therefore not entitled to anything.

Soon after, Kahanoff learned that she had breast cancer. For the women’s magazine At, she wrote “Illness Diary,” which chronicled her treatment, her loneliness and her affirmation of life in the face of her deteriorating condition.

Kahanoff died of cancer on Oct. 24, 1979. She was 62. Since then, her work and worldview have gained increasing popularity in Israel and abroad, and her ideas have become central to the growing Mizrahi and feminist discourse in Israel.

In all her essays, Kahanoff looked for a place to call home, where her polyphonic identity would find peace and where the East and the West would have a fertile conversation.

“More than anything, I dream of the day where kids will sit at the shade of a tree, like Kadria and me,” she wrote, referring to her childhood best friend, a Muslim girl, “and will talk about all those big and terrible things that happened before they were born, not in order to forget, but to make reconcile and forgive.”

Eitan Nechin is a writer and online editor of “The Bare Life Review: A Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Literature.”