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Ashkenazi, Leon


ASHKENAZI, LEON (1922–1996), French-Israeli educator and rabbi. Son of the last Great Rabbi of Algeria, Leon Ashkenazi once defined himself as "a son of Algeria, of Jewish denomination" and envisioned the course of own life, from Oran and Algiers to Paris and then Israel, as emblematic of the Jewish people's identity struggle and destiny. Raised in Oran in the specific cultural context of Algerian Jewry, where the Arab, Sephardi-Jewish, and French cultural worlds blended (Algerian Jews being largely assimilated and recognized as French citizens since the 1870 Crémieux Decree), Ashkenazi joined the Jewish Eclaireurs Israelites de France boy scout movement when it joined the Resistance against the Vichy government and the German presence in North Africa. The discriminatory laws promulgated by the Vichy regime, and the distressing fact that most of these laws remained in force for a while even after Algeria was liberated by Allied forces, and that Algerian Jewry did not immediately regain French citizenship, left Ashkenazi deeply affected, uncertain whether he could best define himself as "a Jew from Algeria and of French culture" or "a French Jew of Algerian culture." Mobilized in the French Foreign Legion, Ashkenazi was wounded near Strasbourg. After the war, he married the daughter of Holocaust victims and took part in the creation of the Ecole d'Orsay educational center devoted to the training of future Jewish teachers and to the spiritual rebirth of the French Jewish community. He was influenced by the teachings of Jacob *Gordin, who urged Ashkenazi to stay at Orsay and teach Judaism. Ashkenazi was appointed director of the school in 1949 and presided over the Union of France's Jewish Students (uejf). This period deeply affected Ashkenazi's perception of Jewish identity: as a leader of Jewish youth and student movements, he was closely connected with the mainly Ashkenazi Jewry of France and became aware of the national, and not merely religious, dimension of the Jewish people, which eventually led him to adopt Zionist views. Besides, Gordin's teaching as well as his academic studies (ethnology and anthropology) led Ashkenazi to consider a new kind of relationship between Judaism and Western thought that can be defined as Modern Orthodox. His first visits to the State of Israel confirmed his conviction that Jews formed a national group and that their return to their Hebrew identity constituted a revolutionary change. In 1968, he immigrated to Israel, where he took part in the creation of several educational bodies, some of them for new immigrants, in the spirit of religious Zionism. In his Israeli years, he continued to be involved in Jewish education in France and in interreligious dialogue.

One of the most influential spiritual leaders of French and French-speaking Jewry, "Manitou" (his nickname from the boy scout period) personified, to a certain extent, the evolution of this community from a merely religious group of individuals to a community strongly linked to Zionism and the State of Israel.


L. Ashkenazi and M. Goldman, La parole et l' écrit: Penser la tradition juive aujourd'hui (2000); idem, Penser la vie juive aujourd'hui (2005); M. Koginsky, Un Hébreu d'origine juive (1998).

[Dror Franck Sullaper (2nd ed.)]

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