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Change within Tradition Among Jewish Women in Libya

Change Within Tradition Among Jewish Women In Libya
by Rachel Simon University of Washington Press, 1992, $30,00.

Taking an academic approach, Rachel Simon’s study of Libya’s Jewish population provides a feel for the lives of a markedly different group of Middle Eastern women. Simon’s work spans a period from the late 1800’s to i967, when anti-Jewish riots sparked by the Six-Day War led to the emigration of most of Libya’s Jews and the effective end to a vibrant tradition of Jewish life in that country. Relying in large part on scholarly sources and demographic data, Simon constructs a portrait of the lives of Jewish women amidst the blend of Jewish. Islamic, Christian, Ottoman, Italian and French influences that formed Libyan Jewish culture. Carefully depicting the sharp contrasts between urban and rural life for Libyan women, Simon shows several of the modern Western images of uneducated and heavily oppressed Libyan women to be unfounded.

Sections on Status, Family Life, Public Life, Educational Opportunities and Work display the range of Libyan Jewish women’s experiences; occasional anecdotes on birth or marriage customs reveal much about the texture of everyday life, innovative in some regards, highly traditional in others. “When Libyan Jewish parents did not want to have more daughters,” Simon relates, “they used to call their daughter Yizza (meaning ‘that’s enough’). This practice was common not only during the Ottoman period but also well into the twentieth century. Needless to say, there was no similar custom with regard to boys, whose birth was cherished. Bearing a name that reflected rejection was a constant reminder of women’s lower status.”

Simon points out the painful collision between the modern (including feminist) beliefs held by Italian-influenced or Francophile Libyan Jews and the betrayals of World War II. Enter Zionism, and the appearance of Palestinian/Jewish soldiers serving in the British occupation of Libya. Simon walks us through the rise of a new kind of modern Zionist ethic among Libyan Jews, bringing with it its own innovations in women’s rights; her work concludes, inevitably, with a discussion of these same Libyan Jewish communities in their new Israeli setting.

Rachel Simon’s book is a valuable contribution to the growing body of historical material that tells the long-neglected women’s side of the story. If Simon’s writing is at times dry, it is always informative, and its scholarly texture is occasionally enlivened by anecdote.