Jews of Algeria
Jews of Algeria
ETHNONYMS: Maghrebi Jews (Arabic maghreb: west), North African Jews, Pieds-Noirs, Sephardic Jews, Sfardim
Identification. The Jews of Algeria are a very diverse cultural group, owing in part to Algeria's turbulent history. They have experienced the several cultures and languages under diverse rulers, beginning with the autochthonous Berbers, and followed by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Turks, and, finally, the French and the Europeans. Today they constitute the most Westernized Jewish community originating from North Africa and are established mostly in France. Small groups have also immigrated to Israel and to North and South America.
Location. The Jews of Algeria have long lived in the central part of North Africa, between Morocco on Algeria's western border and Tunisia on its east. The largest Jewish communities in Algeria were established in the major cities of the Mediterranean coast (Oran, Algiers, Bejaïa, Annaba, Mostaganem), as well as in cities of the hinterland like Tlemcen and Constantine. There were also Jews in the remote southern fringes of the Sahara, in Biskra, Bou-Saada, Djelfa, and in the Mzab, in Ghardaïa. Less than one hundred Jews are left in Algeria today, after their emigration en masse in the early 1960s. Most live in Algiers and in Oran.
History and Cultural Relations
The presence of Jews in Algeria spans from the pre-Roman period to the early 1960s, when Algeria became independent. Before the Roman Empire took over these remote coasts of northern Africa, descendants of Jews who had fled Palestine after the destruction of the first and second temples of Jerusalem had settled among the Berber tribes of central Maghreb, some of whom had converted to Judaism over several centuries. Jews spoke the Berber language, especially in the eastern part of Algeria, in Kabyle lands, and even prayed in Berber, as evidenced in certain Berber versions of liturgical documents such as the Passover Haggadah. During the Arab conquest of Africa in the seventh century, Berbers and Jews fought together against the invaders, an episode recounted at length by the Muslim medieval historian Ibn-Khaldun. According to this author, a Jewish Berber "queen," named Kahina ("the Priestess"), at the end of the seventh century led the autochthonous armies that fiercely resisted the Arabization of the Maghreb. Most Berbers were converted to Islam a few decades later, and the Jews of Algeria started their cultural and linguistic assimilation into the Arab world. They rapidly began developing familiarity with Arabic literature, grammar, and science; in some areas, Jewish communities spoke Judeo-Arabic as their daily language. Despite this deep penetration of the Arabic culture into Jewish habits, the Jews of Algeria remained committed to their religious tradition, and some of their rabbis became widely noted for their Talmudic commentaries and the contacts they had with Palestinian and Babylonian sages. In eastern Algeria, the Karaite dogma (a Jewish sect recognizing only the Bible as their religious canon) had also developed, and had prospered until the early twentieth century. The other major breakthrough in Algerian Jewish history occurred after 1391 when refugees fleeing Catholic Spain arrived en masse into the North African haven. They brought their theological knowledge, their sages, and a more Europeanized Jewish tradition. They were rapidly integrated into the local Jewish leadership. Finally, more European Jews immigrated to Algeria in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coming from Italy. The languages spoken by the Jews in Algeria at that time were—and still are—Berber, Arabic, Spanish (or Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language), Italian, and Hebrew. Most of these communities were subject to the status of dhimmi imposed by the Turks in the sixteenth century on all non-Muslim groups living under Muslim rule. As for the Jews, this status included such restrictions as residential segregation, compulsory clothing stigmas, and posture prohibitions: Jews could not mount horses, carry arms, or be in a posture physically superior to Muslims. The colonization of Algeria by the French, which began in 1830, put an end to this position of inferiority. When, in 1870, Jews were given French citizenship, they began their progressive integration into French language, culture, and social values, principally by their entry into the French school system. This process was completed when most Algerian Jews, not finding their place in the newly independent Algerian nation, left for France, beginning in 1961. A small number among them went to Israel, and to North and South America. Around 150,000 Algerian Jews arrived in France in the early 1960s. This wave of immigration brought significant changes to the French Jewish community.
The emigrants to France following Algerian independence settled in large numbers in Paris and its suburbs, in the major cities of the Mediterranean coast, and in such cities as Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Lyon. Those who came from the Mzab chose the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, which had a strong Jewish community.
Until World War II, Algerian Jews lingered on the lowest layers of the social and economic ladder. Typical Jewish occupations were artisan, jeweler or cobbler, petty merchant, and unskilled worker. Since their integration into the French education system, Algerian Jews began to move upward and to enter new occupations such as public service; some worked in the French postal system, others in the national police. The luckiest among them, children of wealthy traders who were sent to France to study in its universities, began to enter the legal and medical professions. Others enjoyed careers as teachers. The most significant change in the economic position of Algerian Jews after World War II was generated by the entrance of women into the secular education system and into the labor market. Traditionally, women had worked at home, as seamstresses, but in the postwar period nursing and clerical and administrative work became available. By the time of the large emigration to France, in the early 1960s, Algerian Jews had penetrated most sectors of the labor market—except the army and agriculture, where Jewish presence was insignificant. As native French speakers, Jews readily assimilated into the French economic and social system. Algerian Jews are now found in high positions in the French government (in some ministries, in the President's cabinet) and are quite visible also among the academic elite.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Kinship. The traditional kinship system and family organization among Algerian Jews was based on a strong patrilineal and patriarchal pattern. The father headed the family even after the marriage of his children, especially when he had sons. On the surface, wives appeared to be totally subjugated by their husbands, but in reality they had much authority over domestic affairs and the education of children. Professional training was acquired within the family, and occupations were transmitted from father to son—to the eldest son in particular. Fathers encouraged their sons to live in the paternal home after they married. In many small towns, some households consisted of an extended family including the nuclear group of parents and their children, a married son, his spouse, and their children. These patterns changed significantly with the progressive Westernization of the Jews and their integration into the French education system. Emancipation began for women as they received secular education, leading to economic independence. Extended family households shattered as they faced economic difficulties. Fathers slowly lost their authority over the households, and the rule of patrilocal residence began to erode. These developments were particularly marked in large urban communities, among wealthy families who had adopted the French way of life, and after World War II, when Jewish women had almost totally acquired their emancipation and when Jews began to move up the socioeconomic ladder.
Marriage. The traditional marriage system, which existed until about the 1960s, was characterized by the dowry and a strong endogamic rule. These two principles underwent major changes with the Westernization of Algerian Jews and their socioeconomic advancement. As endogamy was not only ethnico-religious but also socioeconomic, wealthy Jews married into wealthy families, and matrimonial selection among the poor was confined to the lowest social categories. In the working-class milieu, the dowry was not required when families had no means to provide it or when parents were eager to expedite their children's marriage, under fear of intermarriage. Also, because potential brides were being educated and entering the labor market, dowries proved to be unnecessary. Similar to other emancipated minorities, Algerian Jewish women, once integrated into French society, tended to postpone marriage until after education and embarking on an occupation. The demographic result of the social emancipation of Algerian Jews was thus a significant decline in fertility rates; another was the increasing rate of intermarriage with Christians (but intermarriage with Muslims remained rare among Algerian Jews).
Religion and Expressive Culture
Yet another result of the emancipation and Westernization of Algerian Jews can be found in religious practices. When families Frenchified their way of life, they tended to relinquish religious observance. The observance of Sabbath prescriptions and dietary laws were the first to be affected by this process. Some nonkosher food items are now tolerated in the daily diet, although they will never be included in a festive meal such as the Sabbath dinner or other ritual-table reunions. Although religious practice has decreased since the mid-twentieth century, some major rituals—such as Yom Kippur—and the great festivals of the Hebrew New Year, the Passover seder, and most rituals of the life cycle continue to be observed. These rituals have resisted the erosion of secularization because they have always required well-attended family reunions. The family is what perpetuates major rituals, and it is strengthened through the celebration of these convivial kin gatherings. One of the most dramatic of family ritual reunions is the wedding celebration. The Middle Eastern characteristic still alive in the celebration is the ceremony of the Henna, named for the vegetal substance that is spread on the hands of the spouses and of their single siblings. The Henna is celebrated a few days before the religious ceremony in the synagogue, which is structured according to the canonic rule of Hebrew law. By contrast, the Henna is not a religious ritual. It is a traditional and popular celebration that includes a banquet of traditional North African delicacies, Middle Eastern folk music, and the exchange of gifts and jewelry between the bride and the groom.
Bahloul, Joëlle (1983). Le culte de la table dressée: Rites et traditions de la table juive algérienne. Paris: A. M. Métailié.
Friedman, Elizabeth (1988). Colonialism and After: An Algerian Jewish Community. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey.
Hirschberg, H. Z. (1974-1981). A History of the Jews in North Africa. 2 vols. Leiden: E. J. Brill.