Andre Elbaz, a professor of French at Carleton University in Ottawa, has just written a book celebrating the oral tradition of Sephardic Jews of Moroccan origin living in Canada. In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Elbaz, who was born in Meknes, indicated that his book, “Tales of the Canadian Sephardim” (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) was written by him in response to an invitation from the Museum of Man in Ottawa.
Elbaz grew up in Morocco, came to maturity in France and there completed his university studies in French literature. “I have been interested in the folk tales of Moroccan Jews ever since I accompanied my father to synagogue as a young boy in Meknes,” he said. “I have vivid recollections of the stories of imagination and wonder that were spun by Jewish men and women.”
Elbaz Jumped at the opportunity to compile an anthology of Sephardic folk tales when he was approached by Canada’s Museum of Man. “That institution has been compiling folk tales of all kinds of Canadian ethnic groups such as the Inuit (Eskimo group) and I thought that the Moroccan Jews in Canada deserved recognition as well.”
The Carleton professor, who has written extensively on French-Jewish themes, explained that after the dissolution of the Moroccan Jewish community (in the wake of Israel’s birth and subsequent Arab pressures) most of the members emigrated to Israel. The second largest group of Moroccan Jews settled in France.
The smallest segment, about 15,000 made its way to Canada. There the French-speaking Sephardim found a congenial foyer in Montreal, Quebec City and two other centers, Ottawa and Toronto.
SURVEY INOLVED A DOUBLE TASK
Elbaz, in executing his survey of Moroccan folk tales was involved in a double task — an audit of an important literary tradition, and, a return to his own roots. The book, which resulted from his research, was written in French but it is the English translation with a stunning series of illustrations that has appeared first.
In his conversation with this correspondent, Elbaz pointed out that the Moroccan Sephardim who came to Canada were under no danger of physical violence in Morocco when they arrived here in the 1960s and 1970s.
“The reason why a substantial number of Moroccan Jews came to Canada is because of two reasons. First, the Canadian Jewish Congress was able to obtain a preferred immigration status for them,” he said.
“Secondly, Moroccan Jews who came to Canada were highly literate in French and since many of them had been associated with the Alliance Israelite Universelle, they were excellent teachers. They were naturally attracted to Franco phone Montreal and became quickly accepted in that city as teachers. An irony: one of the heads of the Protestant School Board of Montreal was a Moroccan Jew.”
Elbaz has no illusions about what life was like for Jews in Morocco. “Unlike the Jews of Iraq who were closely integrated within the Arab population, we Moroccan Jews lived in a separate environment cut off from the Arab population. Our culture was French and we tended to look down upon Arab society. In a sense we lived in a Jewish state-within-a-state.”
That being the case, Elbaz was asked why it was that so many of the stories in his book reflect the imprint of Berber-Arab culture. Elbaz wrote in the introduction to his work that the jnun” — malevolent Moslem spirits — animate many of the stories told by Moroccan Jews.
Says Elbaz: “It is true that we Moroccan Jews lived in an environment that was totally Jewish. But that does not mean that we were sealed off hermetically from the Arabs. We had daily contact with them. We spoke their language. We interacted with them commercially if not socially. Our women went to the ‘suk’ (the market) and encountered the Moroccan Arabs. As a result of all these contacts much of the Moslem folk traditions became assimilated into the Moroccan Jewish consciousness.”
Elbaz discovered this during the many taping sessions he conducted with Sephardic men and women from Morocco during research jaunts to major Canadian cities. In transcribing his data, Elbaz used four languages: French, Spanish, Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic.
PROMINENT ROLE OF WOMEN
In the folk tales which he has assembled (only 80 of some 300 made it into his book), Elbaz pointed out that those told by Jewish men are different from those recounted by Jewish women:
“The reason that women are so prominently represented is because their circumstances made them story tellers. Like many of their Ashkenazic counterparts, the Moroccan Sephardic women were illiterate. Since folklore is part of oral history it was natural for them to become involved in collecting and transmitting these materials.”
“As I went about my task of recording the folk traditions among my Canadian Sephardic respondents I had fascinating and enlightening experiences. The elderly people were the most exciting; they would come alive as they opened up to me with stories and autobiographical details of their lives in Morocco.”
“One of the interesting differences I noted between women’s stories and men’s is that the former often reflected secular influences while the latter mirrored more pious preoccupations. The reason is simple; men went to the synagogue. There they studied and read from the Torah, Midrash and Talmud. The women, on the other hand, stayed home or mingled with the Moslem population, acquiring from that contact stories of a more secular bent.”
Elbaz indicated that the tales of the Moroccan Sephardim which he has collected in Canada show a spirit of triumphalism that was not always in accord with the actual conditions of life for Jews in Morocco. The fictional rendering of Jewish successes via the tales was a natural sublimation to be found among a population often victimized and persecuted by its Arab hosts.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.