5: Essay excerpt, Jacqueline Kahanoff’s “Israel: Ambivalent Levantine,” 1959.
Jacqueline Kahanoff was an Israeli writer who theorized the social model of Levantinism. Born and raised in Cairo, she lived in the United States and France before settling in Israel in the 1950s, and she wrote only in English and French, although much of her work was translated into Hebrew and published in Israeli newspapers and journals. Levantinism, as described here, understands Israel and Israeli culture as part of the broader region of the Levant, and posits the pluralism of Levantine culture as a positive value rather than a denigrated quality. Here, she describes what she sees as the possible contributions of Levantinism to Israeli culture.
Orly Castel-Bloom, whose parents were born in Cairo and who grew up speaking French in her home, is an example of the cultural plurality of Levantinism. Her incorporation of Arabic and of characters whose origins are in the Middle East puts emphasis on the presence of Levantine culture within the homogenizing realm of a largely Ashkenazi, or European-dominated, Israeli culture. Like Kahanoff, Castel-Bloom foregrounds the plurality of Israeli culture and attempts to, in Kahanoff’s words, “reconcile its two main component groupings into one dynamic, creative unity.”
Suggested Activity: Ask students to identify elements in the excerpts from “Ummi Fi Shurl” that represent the East and those that represent the West. Make a list of these items. Are there any items on the lists that overlap? Which ones? How does the story integrate the “Eastern” and “Western” elements? Are there items that are not integrated or that are in conflict? Does the story correspond to Kahanoff’s understanding of Levantinism? If so, how?
Source: Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Israel: Ambivalent Levantine,” in Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, eds. Deborah A. Starr and Sasson Somekh (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 200.