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Jews at Sea

Panel X-15, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Often, histories of peoples and societies are narrated by the lands to which they are attached. This approach may be arbitrary and is necessarily political. In recent years, scholars have adopted an ‘Oceanic Turn’, proposing to transcend imperial, national, and even regional frames, by flipping from land to sea. Furthermore, the Oceanic Turn in Middle East Studies has not only meant historicizing the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean and those who act upon them, but, also, has reconfigured understandings of geography and society based on maritime mobilities, rather than 20th-century geopolitical assumptions. Most of this excellent scholarship of the modern period (18th c-20th c) even considers nondominant religious and ethnic communities to demonstrate multiple social connectivities, however, Middle Eastern Jewish communities are also a part of this phenomenon. As such, this panel takes a maritime approach to studying Jews of the modern Islamic world, and their history, literature, culture, and economy. The papers examine a variety of Jewish actors, their activities at sea, and their relationships with people on land to focus on how an investigation of the sea, including rivers, brings to light different questions of belonging and affiliation. We interrogate the liminality that being on the sea provides, and what that in-betweenness meant for ritual, law, commerce, morality, labor, leisure, creativity, among many others. All papers take the sea to showcase mobilities that reflect different possibilities. Maritime travel enables the mixing of culture, language, and religion; it also makes the sea a place to hide, a vortex to disappear into or to require an escape, only to re-emerge on the other side with a new identity. Crossing the Indian Ocean from Iraq and Yemen temporarily aided wayward husbands and bachelors in impersonation and identity fraud, but communications exposed them, revealing the illusion. Hebrew literature often reflected the diasporic Jewish fear of the sea as unknown while newer oppositional voices have reclaimed the sea as a space upon which to project and create the self. Moreover, the cognitive mapping of Iraqi Jews based on their commercial and ritual activities along the Tigris and Euphrates connect riparian studies to the Indian Ocean World. Adeni Jews also had to navigate law and order as subjects and agents of empire along the Suez Canal. Together, these papers join and challenge existing conversations about ports, mobilities, diasporas, fiction and imagination, geography, and belonging.
  • Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a Jewish family from the Yemeni port city of Aden, the Messas, parlayed its newfound patronage by the British into a vast mercantile empire that linked that Arabian port to a wide network of satellite communities in Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and the Indian subcontinent. While amassing and expanding their family fortune, the Messa patres familias carefully crafted a distinctive Adeni Jewish identity that was keenly attuned to contemporary ideas governing bourgeois respectability, to colonial constructions of race and class, and to debates over modernity within the wider Jewish world. With the UN vote to partition Palestine in 1947, the British retreat from Aden in 1967, and the intense litigation among the heirs to the family fortune, the “Rothschilds of Arabia and Africa,” as one contemporary writer dubbed them, faded into obscurity. Their balancing act, like other ethnic and religious minority communities in the developing world that had wedded their cause to that of European empires, failed when faced with the rise of ethnic nationalism. Banin Messa (1840-1922) exercised a decisive influence over shaping ideas of how an Adeni Jew ought to comport him or herself in the world and how that distinctive Adeni identity should distinguish them from the multiethnic rabble of the port city, not least among them Jews from Yemen’s interior who streamed into Aden during waves of emigration to Palestine. Using firsthand accounts by Jews from Aden, Jews from Yemen proper who stayed in Aden en route to Palestine, and Arabic sources, I will examine distinctive ideas about Jewish liturgy, music, courtship, language use, and “proper” ways of making a living. In doing so, I hope to add to historian Menashe Anzi’s important work on the habitus of the Jews of Sanaa. Aden’s small Jewish minority struggled, and ultimately failed, to preserve and cement its internal cohesion and accurately predict the fortunes of Aden port, the Suez Canal Zone, and the British Empire as a whole.
  • At the core of the so-called Hebrew master narrative the sea represents a rupture, a break from history. Rather than the prevailing attitude toward the sea in the diaspora as a danger to be avoided, the sea is embraced as a site of new beginnings (with baptismal echoes). Elik, the archetypal protagonist of Moshe Shamir’s canonical novel B’mo Yadav [1951, With his own hands, 1970] “was born of the sea,” free of any taint from the past. While the European Jewish immigrants built their homes in Tel Aviv, the new Hebrew city, with the backs toward the sea, the native-born sabra writers and characters embraced it. The introduction of the paper reads through selected works by David Grossman (Ayin Erekh: Ahavah, 1986 [See under: love, 1989]), Nurit Zarchi (“Madame Bovary from Neve Tzedek,” 1993), and Yehudit Katzir (“Sogrim et hayam,” Closing the sea, 1990) to analyze changing attitudes toward the sea. Grossman gave voice to the sea in his chapter titled Bruno (a fantastical reimagining of the death of the writer Bruno Schulz); Zarchi offers us a different birth story (from Elik’s) in which Madame Bovary emerges from the sea; Katzir presents the sea as a potential yet ultimately failed means of escape from oneself. Each work gestures at ways in which the sea can become a locus of self-expression but stops short of fulfillment. The body of this paper focuses on the work of Efrat Mishori and the ways in which she takes back the sea from Elik and develops its potential beyond the gesturing of Grossman, Zarchi, and Katzir. Her poems reclaim the sea, their very poetics recreating patterns of waves and currents. She builds on and counters the earlier literary images of the sea. Her work serves as a corrective, responding in turn – and out of turn – to the male voice, to the Ashkenazi (European) hegemony, to the heteronormative, to the land-based, land-locked, and land-fixated nature of the poetry and prose that exists before hers.
  • There have been many recent excellent studies examining the Tigris and Euphrates within Ottoman environmental history, as well as part of the expansion of European imperialism in the nineteenth century. These important studies tend to ignore Baghdad's old and growing Jewish community, yet, Ottoman Baghdadi Jews and their commercial and religious activities provide another way to read the rivers and examine the political, economic, and natural world negotiations from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Moreover, the Baghdadi Jewish community had its own effective diaspora in India. Trade and communications linked many different communities in Iraq and India, first, through the rivers, then into the Gulf, and then finally across the Indian Ocean. Through a reading of nineteenth-century Judeo-Arabic newspapers from Iraq and India, Hebrew rabbinical responsa from Baghdad, and commercial archival documents, this paper examines the activities and imaginations of Ottoman Baghdadi Jews as they pertain to the Tigris and Euphrates. I focus specifically on the themes of commerce and ritual, which were both affected by Ottoman modernization schemes (the Tanzimat reforms), and the presence of foreign powers and cultures (imperialism and westernization). I apply two methods of analysis to these themes. First, I explore commerce and ritual as being carried out along real waterways, for example, revealing how maritime trade required new partnerships between humans and between humans and their environment, or how navigating the Euphrates made completing shrine visitation difficult. Second, I examine these themes with cognitive mapping creating imagined geographies. I consider how frequent news reports of commercial steamboats sailing on the Tigris to India could make Baghdad an inland port, as it was necessarily a part of a wider network including Basra, Bandar Abbas, Muscat, Bombay, and Calcutta, among others. Baghdadi Jews in India requested responsa from rabbis in Baghdad for guidance on religious practice, thereby narrowing the distance. Thus, this paper illustrates how the rivers of this Ottoman eastern frontier province were acted upon and imagined by a non-dominant religious community. In turn, I argue that this illustration demonstrates greater flexibility of geographies and modernization.
  • In this lecture, I will compare three cases of husbands who left home, abandoned their wives, and disappeared in India. An affair of this kind is not surprising, and we are familiar with many similar cases at the time. What is surprising in these particular cases is that in all three- another man posed as the husband who went to India. The fraud was eventually discovered in the three cases, and the “imposter” husband was exposed. One case has already been discussed in Bernard Haykel's study of a Muslim from Yemen who traveled to India, and another man impersonated him in the late eighteenth century. In my talk, I would like to compare this case to two cases not previously discussed in the research - one about a Jew in Yemen in the eighteenth century and the other about a Jew in Iraq in the nineteenth century. In all three cases, I will examine the events from the perspective of the local context in Yemen and Iraq and from the framework of the Indian Ocean, as well as the migration of people against the background of political and social transformations. These cases will allow us to examine the place of the ocean as a separating or a connecting force, which enables people to move around and communicate with each other on the one hand or to hide in different places on the other hand. This situation shaped the image of these communities in the modern era. This discussion is interwoven into the “Indian Oceanic Turn” in the research of recent years. In the past two decades, we have witnessed a shift in research on the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Middle East scholars have recently suggested the necessity of examining the developments in the Middle East not only in the Arab Mediterranean but also within the context of the Indian Center, especially from the time of the British involvement. As part of this "turn", my paper will offer a new geographic framework for the Jewish (and Muslim) Diaspora in the Indian Ocean. I will explore the movement of people and languages and the flow of knowledge in these areas that existed between Jewish and Muslim communities along the Indian Ocean.