Benbassa, Esther

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ADDRESSES: Office—Secretariat, The Sorbonne, Stair I, 3rd Floor, Office H 617, 1 rue Victor Cousin 75230, Paris cedex 05, France.

CAREER: École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sorbonne, Paris, France, professor of modern Jewish history.


Cuisine judéo-espagnole: recettes et traditions, Editions du Scribe (Paris, France), 1984.

(Editor) Haïm Nahoum, Un grand rabbin sépharade en politique: 1892–1923, Presses du CNRS (Paris, France), 1990, translation by Miriam Kochan published as Haim Nahum: A Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Politics, 1892–1923 ("Judaic Studies" series), University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1995.

(Editor, with Aron Rodrigue) Gabriel Arié, Une vie judéo-espagnole à l'Est: autobiographie, journal et correspondance, Cerf (Paris, France), 1992, translation by Jane Marie Todd published as A Sephardi Life in Southeastern Europe: The Autobiography and Journal of Gabriel Arié, 1863–1939, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1998.

(With Aron Rodrigue) Juifs des Balkans: espaces judéo-ibériques, XIVe-XXe siècles, La Découverte (Paris, France), 1993, expanded and published as The Jews of the Balkans: The Judeo-Spanish Community, Fifteenth to Twentieth Centuries ("Jewish Communities of the Modern World" series), Blackwell (Cambridge, MA), 1995, revised edition published as Sephardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community, Fourteenth-Twentieth Centuries ("Jewish Communities in the Modern World" series), University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999, revised edition published as Histoire des Juifs sépharades: de Tolède à Salonique, Seuil (Paris, France), 2002.

Une diaspora sépharade en transition: Istanbul, XIXe-XXe siècle, Cerf (Paris, France), 1993.

Le judaisme Ottoman entre occidentalisation et sionisme 1908–1920 (revised dissertation), Zalman Shazar Center, 1996.

(Editor) M'moires juives d'Espagne et du Portugal, Publisud (Paris, France), 1996.

(Editor) Transmission et passages en monde juif, Publisud (Paris, France), 1997.

(With Jean-Christophe Attias) Dictionnaire de civilisation juive: auteurs, oeuvres, notions, Larousse-Bordas (Paris, France), 1997.

Histoire des juifs de France, Editions du Seuil (Paris, France), 1997, translation by M.B. DeBevoise published as The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1999.

(With Jean-Christophe Attias) Israël imaginaire, Flammarion (Paris, France), 1998, second revised edition published as Israël, la terre et le sacré, Flammarion (Paris, France), 2001, translation by Susan Emanuel published as Israel, the Impossible Land ("Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture" series), Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2003.

(With Jean-Christophe Attias) Les Juifs, ont-ils un avenir?, Lattès (Paris, France), 2001, translation by Patrick Camiller published as The Jews and Their Future: A Conversation on Judaism and Jewish Identities, Zed Books (New York, NY), 2004.

(With Jean-Christophe Attias) Le Juif et l'autre, Le Reliè (Gordes, France), 2002, translation by G.M. Goshgarian published as The Jew and the Other, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 2004.

SIDELIGHTS: Esther Benbassa is a specialist in the history of Balkan Jewry, Zionism and Israel, and the Jews in France. Many of her books have been translated and published in English, including The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present. In this volume, Benbassa studies the evolution of French Jewry from Roman times to the present, covering more than sixteen centuries. She organizes her text both chronologically and geographically, and in each section, she details the significance of demography, culture, immigration, and the organization of the community. Irwin Wall reviewed The Jews of France in Judaism, noting that "the strength of Benbassa's book is that it demonstrates that the Jews of France were of very great importance to world Jewry even in the Middle Ages. They enjoyed a period of cultural brilliance in the Carolingian empire of the eighth century, and again in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, centered on the prosperous trade of the Champagne region."

The first section of the book covers the years before 1789, the year of the Great Revolution, during which time scarcely 40,000 Jews resided in France. Benbassa notes that in the thirteenth century the Talmud was publicly burned in France and Jewish people expelled from the country, with many resettling in Alsace, the Rhineland, and Poland. The population that remained was small, but it began to grow in the late sixteenth century when thousands of "New Christians," or Marranos, from Portugal established communities near Bordeaux. They were initially accepted as Christians, but by the eighteenth century they had reestablished themselves as Jews, both in identity and practice. With the annexation of Alsace in 1648, the Jewish presence grew. France was the first European country to emancipate its Jewish citizens, which was accomplished in two stages in 1790 and 1791. By the year 2000, French Jews numbered about 600,000, slightly more than one percent of the French population. This is the third-largest Jewish community of the Diaspora, with the United States and Russia being first and second, respectively.

Ruth F. Necheles-Jansyn commented in History: Review of New Books that in discussing the French Revolution, Benbassa "refutes the common assertion that the emancipation of French Jews led to their dejudaization and the breakdown of communal solidarity; she insists that integration into French society differs significantly from assimilation elsewhere." She reminds us that France was more than Paris, and that Jewish life outside the capital is an important part of the history.

Wall further wrote that "the emancipation is the central event in Benbassa's story, and she makes several important points about the way it occurred. "One of Benbassa's central insights," Wall continued, "is that unlike Germany, where the Jews were integrated socially and culturally well before they were emancipated (in 1870), the Jews of France were emancipated before they were integrated into French society. As a consequence, the pressure to reform and 'modernize' Jewish practice, which obsessed German Jews as a way of achieving acceptance in the eyes of gentiles, was absent in France where integration was possible without this transformation."

Benbassa continues her history through the Dreyfus Affair and the twentieth century, including the World War II years. Ann Sapir Abulafia said in English Historical Review that she does so "in a straightforward and sensitive manner. All in all, this is an interesting, objective account with a refreshing appreciation of the many ambiguities of religious and cultural identity."

Benbassa and Jean-Christophe Attias, also a professor at the Sorbonne, collaborated on Israel, the Impossible Land, a volume called a "very well-written book about ideas" by History: Review of New Books critic James E. Saver. The authors first study medieval thought and early Zionism, then consider modern and contemporary Jewish thought. Journal of Religion reviewer Tracie B. Guy wrote that "the treatment of modern Jewish interactions with the land as symbol and the land as reality are equally nuanced. The second half of the book considers modern and contemporary Jewish thought through a look at the changing understandings of the land." Saver concluded, "I have not encountered any other book that focuses on the ideas of the Holy Land over the past 3,000 years with such depth of scholarship."



Booklist, January 1, 2004, George Cohen, review of The Jews and Their Future: A Conversation on Judaism and Jewish Identities, p. 794.

English Historical Review, February, 1994, Lionel Kochan, review of Un grand rabbin sépharade en politique: 1892–1923, p. 234; February, 2001, Anna Sapir Abulafia, review of The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, p. 160.

History: Review of New Books, winter, 2000, Ruth F. Necheles-Jansyn, review of The Jews of France, p. 76; summer, 2003, James E. Saver, review of Israel, the Impossible Land, p. 172.

Journal of Religion, October, 2003, Tracie B. Guy, review of Israel, the Impossible Land, p. 672.

Judaism, winter, 2001, Irwin Wall, review of The Jews of France, p. 117.

Library Journal, October 1, 1999, James A. Overbeck, review of The Jews of France, p. 107.

New Republic, February 28, 2000, review of The Jews of France, p. 37.

Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1999, review of The Jews of France, p. 59.