Tunisian Piano, Medals and Magic Spells: Treasures Recount Glory of Jews From Arab Countries

Artifacts now on display at a Tel Aviv museum tell the story of flourishing communities in Arab countries and Iran, who sought refuge in Israel in its early years

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Guests pose for a family photo at a wedding at Magen Avraham synagogue, Beirut, Lebanon, 1936.
Guests pose for a family photo at a wedding at Magen Avraham synagogue, Beirut, Lebanon, 1936.Credit: The Oster Visual Documentation Center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Edouard Mizrahi
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum until July 31 is a weighty one, “Leaving, Never to Return,” about the immigration to Israel of the Jews from Arab countries and Iran. So what’s a simple piano, adorned with a pair of simple pewter candlesticks, doing there?

The explanation is both fascinating and tragic: The piano belonged to Habiba Msika, a Jewish actress and singer who in the 20th century was considered one of the greatest Tunisian artists, adored by Muslims and Jews alike.

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A bridal protection charm from Iran, early 20th century, from the Gross Family Collection.Credit: Hadar Saifan

Msika was born in 1903 to a poor family in Tunis’ Jewish quarter. An orphan at an early age, she went to live with her aunt. She developed her singing talent at Jewish weddings and later as an actress in the new Arab theater.

“There were singers with better voices who were more beautiful, but the secret of her success lay in her exceptional personality and her ability to create a warm connection with the audience,” wrote Prof. Yaron Tsur, an expert on the history of the Jews in the Islamic world.

Bracelet from Djerba, Tunisia, early 20th century, from the Gat Family Collection.Credit: Hadar Saifan

That exceptional personality included multiple romances, unusual at the time, with Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Msika was also unusual in her feminism. She demanded, and received, a higher salary than male actors and singers, as well as leading roles, including a “masculine” role (the biblical Joseph), which unleashed a scandal. Her career soared and she also performed in Berlin, Nice, Paris and Monte Carlo – but everything ended tragically at its peak.

In 1930, shortly before she married a young non-Jewish Frenchman, she was murdered by an older Jewish man who was in love with her. When she didn’t respond to his advances (and according to a different version, when she ended the affair with him), he set her on fire in her home and committed suicide.

Guests pose for a photo at Fawzi Abu Rish's bar mitzvah, Damascus, Syria, early 20th century.Credit: The Oster Visual Documentation Center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Avraham (Fawzi) and Fanny Mizrahi

She lived only one more day, even though she was rescued from the fire by her neighbor, Rachel Tubiana. The Msika family invited Tubiana to choose a souvenir from the items the star had left behind. She chose the piano. In 1952, when her family immigrated to Israel, the piano came too.

'Preparing the exhibition was a journey through time to places where my forefathers grew up, to the countries where Jews lived and created'

The curator of the exhibition, Dana Avrish, was born in 1979 and is a third-generation descendant of Iranian, Lebanese and Syrian Jews. She knew this piano from her visits to her friends Yoel and Rinat Shetrog, who live in the community of Lapid, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, along the Green Line. Yoel, a professional photographer, is Tubiana’s grandson.

Avrish and the Shetrogs would listen to the songs of Corinne Allal, the Israeli singer who was born in 1955 and immigrated to Israel from Tunisia at age 8. The Shetrog girls would play that old piano in their living room. Recently, when Avrish did the research for the new exhibition, the family agreed to lend it as one of the exhibits.

Shetrog provided the exhibition with another item that sheds light on Tunisia’s Jewish community: medals won by his grandfather Yehoshua Shetrog for his famous fig arak. Shetrog was a mohel (a ritual circumciser), a shohet (a ritual slaughterer) and a rabbi. His students included Yehuda Meir Getz, the Western Wall rabbi who died in 1995.

Yehoshua Shetrog was also a winemaker and the owner of a café where his arak was served. The medals show that he won competitions in Milan, Barcelona, Paris and London. In 1956 he immigrated to Israel with his family.

Triumph and tragedy

The piano and the medals are evidence of the flourishing, ancient Jewish community in Tunisia, a country that won independence in 1956. The exhibition also tells the other side of the story about the Jews who for thousands of years lived in Arab lands and Iran – the persecution, pogroms and anti-Semitism that reached a peak when Israel was established in 1948, leading to the exodus of about a million such Jews, the Mizrahim.

Bridal jewelry from Tiznit, Morocco, 1914, from the Gross Family Collection.Credit: Hadar Saifan

“Along with their strong roots and an attachment to the cultures of the Islamic countries in which they lived, the Jews throughout the generations, especially in modern times, also experienced hardships that uprooted them from their homes and turned many of them into refugees,” Avrish says. She says that their aliyah to Israel was a painful departure that reverberates to this day.

Only in 2014 did their story receive official expression: the legislation that sets November 30 as the commemoration day for the expulsion of the Jews from the Islamic world. The name of the exhibition, “Leaving, Never to Return,” was inspired by the stamp on the exit papers and suitcases of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Curator Dana Avrish poses for a photo at Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, April 4, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Via both sacred and everyday items – including photos, documents, newspaper clippings and video – the exhibition describes the life of the Jewish communities in 10 countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

“Preparing the exhibition was a journey through time to places where my forefathers grew up, to the countries where Jews lived and created,” Avrish says. “Their descendants today account for over half of Israel’s population.”

Her family connection to the Mizrahi communities helped her considerably. Her grandmother Latifa (Adina) Abu Rish, the daughter of Yitzhak and Rachel Cohen Kishik, was married at 19 to a Damascus man 42 years her senior. After their wedding they lived in Beirut. In 1943 she immigrated to Israel and married Moshe Abu Rish.

Bridal anklets from Tunis, Tunisia, circa 1920, from the Gross Family Collection.Credit: Hadar Saifan

One of his sons, Yaakov, is Avrish’s father. From him she heard the amazing story of Shulamit Cohen Kishik, a relative who was an Israeli spy in Lebanon and died two years ago at 100.

Msika was unusual in her feminism. She demanded, and received, a higher salary than male actors and singers, as well as leading roles, including a “masculine” role, which unleashed a scandal

Dina, Avrish’s Persian maternal grandmother, got married in the city of Hamadan to a widower with three children. The two brought another six children into the world, and in the '50s immigrated to Israel.

The exhibition includes a late-19th-century book that contains formulas for protection against the evil eye, replete with diagrams, tables and illustrations of souls and angels.

“For most of the Jews in Iran, magic was part of their lifestyle,” Avrish says. Along with the book, amulets to protect the bride, mother and newborn are on display.

The lovely photographs, meanwhile, were collected from sources including the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem and small museums of Jewish communities: for Babylonian Jews and Libyan Jews in Or Yehuda, for Yemenite Jews in Netanya and for the Jews of Aden in Tel Aviv. Avrish also received personal items and collected fascinating stories from people all over the country.

The Rassek family poses for a photo at their home in Hamadan, Iran, 1927.Credit: The Oster Visual Documentation Center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Moshe Rassek

She also was able to get to know some of the small, still-existing communities from up close; in 1998 she spent two years in Morocco. “I was exposed firsthand to the stories, the ceremonies and the cult of holy men and the hilulot that are unique to the Moroccan community,” she said, referring to the celebrations on the death anniversaries of righteous men and women.

“All these materialized before my eyes in various aspects of everyday life: in the work of the silversmiths, and in the clothing, fabrics, jewelry and amulets.” Some are on display at the exhibition.

The cult of color

Meanwhile, color is evident in almost every item. For example, there are bags for 19th-century prayer shawls and tefillin from Tangiers, Morocco. They’re made of embroidered silk velvet with gold metal threads, amid fringes interwoven with threads of gold and silver.

Another beautiful item originating in Morocco in 1914 is a bracelet for a bride, made of silver, precious stones, enamel and coins. And don’t forget its three impressively large hamsas.

Avrish began her love affair with the Algerian community by chance, when she visited Paris and met Nurit Cohen, a Jewish native of Algeria. “After a short conversation she invited me to a Shabbat meal,” Avrish says. She got to know the Libyan Jewish community thanks to her sister’s mother-in-law, who invited her to a special ceremony at Moshav Hatzav near the coastal city of Ashdod.

"The Great Dress" from the late 19th century, Rabat, Morocco, from the Eretz Israel Museum collection.Credit: Hadar Saifan

“For the ceremony every year the family prepares a mixture of different types of roasted and ground wheat and spices, sugar and various dried fruits mixed with oil – a lucky charm for fertility, abundance and blessing,” Avrish says.

Egypt is also well represented in the exhibition. An Omega pocket watch from 1936 has a unique story. In Egypt there were Jewish sports associations whose members competed in local and international competitions even after the establishment of Israel. In 1936 Yitzhak Koli won the Egyptian lightweight boxing championship. An inscription in French on the back of the watch given him by the Maccabi sports association attests to that.

Every community has unique aspects, but what unites them all is the Jewish faith and tradition. At the exhibition, a documentation of the history of the communities can be seen in a display of prayer shawls.

Avrish, who also designed the exhibition, explains that the image of the tallit, the prayer shawl, is inspired by an event during the Holocaust at the Italian concentration camp in Jadu, Libya. An officer entered a hut where about 100 people had been crowded into, examined the dusty wooden beams and threatened punishment if the inmates didn’t clean the place.

“The residents of the hut didn’t know what to remove the dust with because they barely had any clothes,” Avrish says. “Then one of the men took out his tallit, took off the fringes and turned it into a dust cloth. And so more than the Jews took care of the tallit, the tallit took care of them.”