Transcending parochialism

Daughters of Sarah: Anthology of Jewish Women Writing in French (Holmes and Meier, $20) broadens the scope of mainstream French literary studies. The editors, Eva Martin Sartori and Madeleine Cottenet-Hage, delve into an eclectic collection of material, some of which they translate into English for the first time. Excerpts from essays, letters, plays, novels, poetry, autobiographies and philosophical works from the nineteenth century to the present include such familiar names as Hélène Cixous and Irène Nemirovsky.

Preceded by a concise and useful introduction on the history of Jews (and Jewish women) in France, this volume examines the preoccupation with Emancipation (the granting of full citizenship rights to Jews in the eighteenth century), which is tightly and often uneasily connected to assimilation; the specific contours of French anti-Semitism; the profound impact of the Holocaust for thousands of Jews deported under the Vichy government; and the burden of French colonialism in Algeria, to give just a few examples.

The editors describe a French Jewish literature by women “more intimate, more visceral” than writings by men. These texts are unified by common themes — sexuality, family dynamics, the right of a woman to choose her husband, her place in the community, self-hate and anti-Semitism — that illuminate French women’s desire to master their identity in different, even contradictory ways. While Julienne Bloch (1833 – 1868) urges Jewish women to play a central role in Jewish life, Simone Weil (1909 – 1943), who eventually converted to Catholicism, strives to prove to the French government during World War II how meaningless the word “Jewish” is to her.

Writings on the Holocaust include Liliane Atlan’s poignant play based on the story of a school principal in the Warsaw ghetto who voluntarily accompanied a group of Jewish children to the gas chamber while telling them stories; Anna Langfus’s nihilistic musing on the solipsistic nature of grief, when she returned from concentration camps; Sarah Kofman’s complex meditation on identity as she reflects on the Christian “mother” who raised her during the war. To these authors, art is an urgent, transformative experience, a last resort against death.

Also powerful is writing that transcends parochialism, what one author, Régine Robin, calls “folklorization.” Hélène Cixous, the feminist essayist and playwright, both reclaims and subverts her Jewishness and femaleness. In revisiting her life in Algeria in the early forties, she is the outcast, the other, the Juifemme (or Jew-woman), as she puts it eloquently, whose father has lost the right to practice as a doctor during the Vichy period. Yet at the same time, when confronted by a Muslim shoeshine boy about to clean her shoes, she becomes aware of her power as a woman and an accomplice to the French colonization.

Other writers are no less satisfying: Irène Némirovsky delves masterfully into the psychology of a self-hating Jew from the French bourgeoisie. Michèle Sarde’s dexterous play with the ironies of destiny is reminiscent of Greek tragedies — a young woman finds out she is a Jew who was raised by Christians during the war, while her lover is the son of a Nazi collaborator. Annie Cohen, a Sephardic Jew from North Africa, weaves her preoccupation with origins and roots into her poetry. While eliciting the lost world of her Egyptian origins and reveling in polyglossalia ( Judeo-Spanish, Arabic and French), Paula Jacques goes beyond quaintness to invent a jubilant language. While some choices here are more felicitous than others, none have lost their freshness or their appeal for a contemporary audience.

Yaëlle Azagoury writes about French and Francophone literature and is at work on a memoir about her life in Morocco.