Overlooked No More: Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, Writer of Levantine Identity

Jacqueline’s mother didn’t allow Arabic to be spoken at home, and Jacqueline “suffered from living in a country where she didn’t speak its language,” a childhood friend, Diane Jorland, said in an Israeli documentary about Kahanoff.

The upper middle class of Egyptian Jewry, despite their cosmopolitan airs, designated limited roles for women. But Kahanoff had greater aspirations. She wrote in her essay “The Blue Veil of Progress” that “when I was little, I wanted to be like my grandmother, a kind of Jewish queen.” But now, she added, “I want to do things as women do in Europe: be doctors, help the poor, everyone, or maybe be a writer who will find the words, our words, to tell about our lost time.”

Following her mother’s wishes, she married Izzy Margoliash, a Jewish doctor of Russian descent, in 1939. The next year the couple moved to the United States, where he was a resident. But the marriage was short-lived.

After they divorced, Kahanoff enrolled at Columbia University, where she studied journalism and literature. While there, she became romantically involved with the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom she considered her greatest love of her life.

In 1946, she found success when her short story “Such Is Rachel” won second prize in a contest sponsored by The Atlantic. That year, she returned to Egypt. But in 1951, bored with the monotony and stagnation of Egyptian society and concerned about a creeping nationalism and xenophobia toward anything that wasn’t Egyptian, she went back to New York. That year she published her first novel, “Jacob’s Ladder,” a semi-autobiographical depiction of the Jewish elite living in Cairo in the early 20th century.

She then lived briefly with her sister in Paris before marrying Alexander Kahanoff, a businessman, in 1952. They moved to Israel in 1954, living first in a migrant intake center in Be’er Sheva and later in Bat Yam, a working-class city south of Tel-Aviv.

Kahanoff had an ambiguous relationship with Zionism. On one hand, she was drawn to the narrative and the potential of the Jewish people re-establishing their homeland after two millenniums of wandering, with the women, completely liberated, working shoulder to shoulder with men in the fields and on construction grounds. On the other hand, she disliked the Zionists’ dogmatic mind-set. “Mizrahis were expecting a different welcome from their brothers,” she wrote. “They had to adapt to a society they didn’t get a chance to help fashion, one in which they were considered raw material that needed to be polished, to be educated.”

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