What Egypt’s multicultural past teaches us about Israel’s present

Jacqueline Kahanoff’s novel, ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ strips ‘multiculturalism’ of its cold, academic veneer, displaying instead the reality of a Jewish, multicultural lifestyle. But the novel also directs a powerful question toward Israeli society: can the Arabs that live among us today ever live in Israel the same way Jews lived in Egypt?

By Ktsiaa Alon (translated from Hebrew by Shaked Spier)

Several decades after its publication, Jacqueline Kahanoff’s great novel, “Jacob’s Ladder,” has finally been translated into Hebrew. The novel portrays a vivid picture of a Levant of multiculturalism, as Kahanoff called it in her intellectual essays.

After a delay of over 60 years, Jacqueline Kahanoff’s novel “Jacob’s Ladder” was recently published by Gamma (which is under my ownership, K.A.), in cooperation with Yad Ben Zvi publishing house. Kahanoff (1919-1979) is known among Hebrew readers for her book “Me’Mizrah Shemesh,” as well as essays collected and translated by Aharon Amir (originally published in Keshet magazine). Ronit Matalon’s book “The One Facing Us“ contains many passages from Kahanoff’s articles, while the research of Prof. David Ochana, who published the book “Between Two Worlds,” puts together many of her writings. Kahanoff never wrote in Hebrew, which means her greatest novel remains unknown to her readership. The book contains a preface by Eyal Sagi Bizawi and an epilogue by Dr. Yael Shenkar.

In this short article I will address the conditions of visibility that enable the novel’s publication, rather than its content. How does a work of literature reach “its moment?” Reach the right beat, synchronized in time and place? In his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin wrote that “translations that are more than transmissions of subject matter come into being when a work, in the course of its survival, has reached the age of its fame… in them the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding.”

Kahanoff’s work tells the story of a upper-class Jewish family in early 20th century Egypt through the adolescent eyes of Rachel, the oldest daughter. In her intellectual essays, Kahanoff coined the term the “Levant option” – the merging of different cultures. The novel depicts this multiculturalism in all its glory, from the monotony of everyday life to greater ideological struggles. Kahanoff accurately draws the cultural landscape in which the Egyptian Jewish elite of that time lived, leaving no aspect untouched: the everyday life of the extended family, childhood, nannies and Egyptian street life. With eyes wide open and a painful psychological sensitivity, Kahanoff digs deep into the ways colonialism itself seeped into the souls of its subjects. Although the novel was honored with a literary award in the U.S. immediately after its publication, it seems to me that now is truly the work’s moment, in 2014 Israel.

Benjamin turned the capitalist question (when does a book gets translated and published?) upside down, emphasizing the intrinsic spiritual dimension of works of literature: “Will an adequate translator ever be found among the totality of its readers? Or, more pertinently: Does its nature lend itself to translation and, therefore, in view of the significance of this form, call for it?”

“Jacob’s Ladder” was meant to be translated and published at this point of time, in an Israel that faces conflicts between the identities that construct it. It is a society beset by horrifying displays of racism, one that has yet to accept its geopolitical position in the heart of the Middle East.

In her 1966 article on Emmanuel Levinas’ “Four Talmudic Readings“ Kahanoff wrote: “The drama of our existence that now occurs does not concern the Christian-Occident world, but rather the Muslim-Orient [Mizrahi]. It seems that many Jews, including Levinas, ignore the fact that the rebirth of the state of Israel has shocked the Muslim world to the bone. Our conflict with our neighbors – if it didn’t become a quarrel – was mostly conducted with the mediation of western ideologies and terminologies that aren’t suitable for their most deep sensibilities, nor to ours.” Today, the truth behind these powerful words has been revealed.

The novel strips the term “multiculturalism” of its cold, academic veneer, and displays the real-life praxis of a Jewish multicultural lifestyle. The novel, however, can also be seen as one that directs a powerful question toward Israeli society: can the Arabs in Israel ever live the same way Jews did in Egypt?

It seems that Kahanoff gives us the key to answer this question in the book’s title. The word “ladder” comes from the bible. Biblical commentators note that the word’s meaning is closer to that of a ziggurat (an ancient structure that included a terraced step pyramid) than to the contemporary meaning of the word. Jacob’s Ladder refers to a religious construction resembling a ziggurat, which was common in the Near East and symbolized the connection between heaven and earth. Kahanoff herself is a ladder, a ziggurat – a bridge between cultures, worlds, and places. Hopefully we will know to walk safely across these bridges instead of looking away from them.

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Dr. Ktsiaa Alon is a postdoc fellow in J. R. Elyachar Center for Studies in Sepharadi Heritage, Ben Gurion University of the Negev. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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