Did You Know?

by Sharon Bially on November 16, 2010

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You may have noticed that last week’s installment of Veronica’s Nap includes a description of the Sephardic Jewish population that Veronica’s husband, Didier, is part of, whose members have emigrated to France from its former colonies, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

Chances are, you’ve never heard more than a passing reference – at most – to this group, nicknamed, loosely, “les pieds noirs” (“black feet”).

And chances are you never realized that France, with its reputation of being, well, not so friendly in this regard, had any Jewish citizens to speak of.

Correct?

If so, I’m disconnecting the Internet, unplugging the phone and writing my entire next novel TODAY.

  • Fact: France has the third largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel and the good ole U.S. of A.
  • Fact:  The overwhelming majority of this 500,000-strong community is currently made up of Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians whose customs and views were influenced, above all, by the Muslim Arab neighbors they lived with peacefully for centuries.
  • Fact: They currently dominate a number of high-profile French industries like film and fashion.
  • Fact: Before their arrival, France had a large, influential population of Ashkinaz Jews (those of Eastern European descent), most of whom – need I say it? – were lost to deportations during World War II.
  • Fact: Painfully few Americans know any of this.

Honestly, this last point dismays me.

The political dynamic alone, which is the topic of a doctoral dissertation not a blog post, deserves the world’s undivided attention.  I’m no academic, so suffice it to say that the tensions between France’s immense (approximately 5 – 6 million) Muslim population and its Jews often look a lot like a replay of events in the Middle East.

Then there’s the rich history and culture of both the pied noir community – which celebrates weddings, for example, Arab-style, complete with a henna ceremony, ululating and a four-day party – and of the tiny group of remaining Ashkinaz, which includes a few last deportation survivors I know personally whose astounding stories have yet to be told.

Overall, American Jews are fairly politically engaged, socially aware and fascinated by our own history and demographics. Yet – just as many Americans understand little about those who live beyond our borders – we know little about Judaism overseas.

I hope that Veronica’s Nap will bring a glimmer of awareness.  Perhaps spark some curiosity and lead to further exploration.  And I dream of having the chance one day to write the other stories – stories of fiery Arab-Jewish conflicts in… Paris…and of those survivors I mentioned – that I just can’t get out of my mind.

Did YOU know?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rima November 16, 2010 at 8:47 am

Sharon -

This is fascinating. I actually knew some of it myself; my mother’s family, for the most part, are Muslims who live in Paris. The Sephardic Jewish culture from North Africa is absolutely fascinating and, as you point out, little known.

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