The Makings of History / Tales From Tangier

Tangier is located at the place where Africa almost touches Europe, at the western entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar.

In 1867, in the city of Oran in Algeria, a Jewish boy was born who aspired to greatness: His name was Solomon Benayoun. One day the boy left his hometown and went to seek his fortune - first in Tangier, Morocco, and later in Paris, where he studied printing. During his free time, he studied French, Spanish and Arabic, and he probably knew Hebrew as well. A successful and intelligent young man with broad horizons, he purchased modern printing equipment and sent it to Tangier where he established what he called the French Printing House on Kadi Street. He also had a photography studio.

Tangier is located at the place where Africa almost touches Europe, at the western entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar. The city has changed hands many times: France, Spain, Great Britain and other great powers competed over it; and at one time it was a "free city." Often throughout history, though not always, Tangier was good to its Jewish community.

Solomon Benayoun

For his part, Benayoun tied his fate to France; he wrote a French-Arabic dictionary "for the use of the French military forces in their contact with the local population." He was a Zionist and a humanist, as well as a member of the Freemasons. Initially, his printing house produced mainly invitations to family celebrations, but Benayoun had bigger ambitions: He dreamed of publishing a Jewish newspaper.

If we rely on the National Library of Israel catalog, in 1917 at the latest, Benayoun started putting out a weekly called La Liberte. It was published in French, but there were two pages in Judeo-Arabic, a dialect written in Hebrew letters. Local Jewish intellectuals published their views in the newspaper, but Benayoun looked further afield and knew how to discover Jewish news from all over the world. This included human-interest stories, at least one of which is worth mentioning now: Its hero was an American rabbi named Simon Glazer.

On January 3, 1922, La Liberte reported that Glazer, an Orthodox rabbi from Kansas City, had a meeting with President Warren G. Harding in the White House, at which the guest made a request: He told the president he wanted to adopt five Jewish children who had been orphaned in a pogrom in Ukraine. He already had five children of his own, he explained, but he only wanted the president's help in acquiring immigration visas for the orphans. Harding acceded to his request.

While readers of The New York Times had seen this story a few months earlier, the impression one gets is that, even if belatedly, the readers of La Liberte knew quite a bit in general about what was happening in the Jewish world. In any event, research about the fate of the five orphans adopted by Glazer could yield an excellent script that would fire the imagination.

Apparently the French government supported Benayoun's weekly, but as is the case with many weekly news magazines in general, it didn't last long; after World War I its difficulties increased. Benayoun died in 1921 and his newspaper stopped appearing the next year. But his place in the history of the Jewish press was preserved thanks to his grandson, Shlomo Dodo, a lawyer from Ashkelon - or to be more exact, thanks to Dodo's own grandson, Ori.

As part of a "roots" project that Ori did in school, he asked his grandfather about the family history. Shlomo remembered his maternal grandfather, though he didn't know much about him. However, a clue was found in the Passover Haggadah that is still in the family, which bears the inscription: "Edited and translated by Solomon Benayoun - in his printing house in Tangier - Price: 5 francs." This Haggadah is printed in Hebrew and Latin letters, and the foreword says: "Unfortunately, today's young people do not know the holy tongue and don't understand the language, and therefore there is a need for them to be able to read the passages from the Haggadah using Spanish letters."

That was the beginning of a journey by Shlomo Dodo, 82, in his grandfather's footsteps. Also a Freemason like Benayoun, he recently completed a book about his family history. He also has collected a number of issues of La Liberte. One discovers when reading them that Solomon Benayoun often published reports that originated in the Land of Israel; indeed, he copied some from Haaretz.

Among other things, La Liberte covered relations between Jews and Arabs. In early 1922, it reported about an Arab entrepreneur from Nazareth who came to Haifa with a manifesto signed by several dozen Arab landlords. They called on the Jews of Haifa to rent homes in Nazareth. La Liberte reported that the Arabs in that city believed that with the arrival of Jewish residents, the value of the houses there would increase, as would the rent.