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Where is Jewish France? Jewish Communities and Identities in Twentieth-Century France and North Africa

Mon, December 16, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Hilton Bayfront San Diego, Aqua Salon AB

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


This panel examines the plurality of Jewish communities in twentieth-century France and the Francophone world, and explores the significance of Jewish diversity to French and Jewish identity(ies) in the metropole and beyond. Taking inspiration from scholars, most notably Nancy Green, who questioned whether France has a single Jewry or multiple Jewries, the four presentations in this session assess how Jews interacted with and reshaped their own versions of Frenchness and Jewishness within a variety of historical contexts.

This session’s papers merge historical and literary approaches to analyze how migration, violence, and colonialism influenced French Jewish history and its many Jewish communities over the course of the twentieth century. Zvi Kaplan examines the engagement of French Jews with early twentieth-century anticlericalism, focusing specifically on how Jews were impacted by the 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and State. Kaplan argues that whereas this law marked a sea change for most of France, the Republic’s Jewish communities largely continued to operate as they had before, with consistories adapting new names but maintaining similar roles. Both Robin Buller and Nick Underwood will present case studies concerning Jewish immigrant communities in Paris and the particular spaces that they constructed. Buller, on the one hand, will examine the history of Ottoman Sephardim who settled in the city during the interwar years. Using memoirs, periodicals, and Jewish communal documents, she considers the significance that one café, Le Bosphore, had to the community’s collective identity and everyday life, arguing that their practices and affiliations were simultaneously deeply engrained in and separate from France and French Jewish culture. Underwood, on the other hand, will write about Farlag Oyfsnay, a postwar Yiddish publishing house based in Paris that both served and was operated by Jewish immigrants, survivors, and returnees. Analyzing the institution’s wide-ranging literary output, Underwood complicates the common narrative that it was a unilaterally communist press, and reveals how its books were employed as a means to connect the Yiddish-speaking Jews in France and the world after the Holocaust. Alma Heckman’s presentation, by way of contrast, brings the panel across the Mediterranean to Vichy-era Morocco, and explores the ways in which the Holocaust’s racism and violence impacted Jews living in a French colonial setting. Her analysis centers on how Vichy antisemitism fractured Moroccan Jewish identity—which was previously heavily aligned with France and French culture—into numerous new political affiliations, namely communism and Zionism. By incorporating a colonial framework to this panel, Heckman’s paper gives new meaning to the plural form of French Jewish communities, and underscores the twentieth-century transformations of French Jewries beyond continental Europe.

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