Intimate Portraits

"Our Lives are but Stories: Narratives of Tunisian-Israeli Women" by Esther Schely-Newman, Wayne State University Press, 230 pages, $24.50.

When I finished reading Esther Schely-Newman's book about the life stories of Israeli women of Tunisian background and other stories they told, I was filled with envy. Her ability, as a folklore anthropologist, to expose her cultural roots through the use of professional tools, is something most of us lack. When we read a book like this one, which, in this specific case, deals directly with a way of life that was part of a collective past to which the author belongs, we are aware not only of the content itself, but also of a personal sense of having missed the opportunity to become deeply familiar with our own roots. Possibly one reason why this research astonishes me is the fact that the professional tools at my disposal are those of a historian studying Western culture and not those of an anthropologist studying North African culture.

Much has been written in the past few decades about collective memory and the varying ways in which the same narrative can be represented. In most cases, research on the narrative - at least, among historians like myself - focuses on stories included in official contexts such as textbooks, newspapers or state or consular documents. In addition, such narratives invariably contain something that goes beyond hard facts: further information, ostensibly marginal, that sheds a different light on the same affair, a choice of words that changes everything, an alteration of the order of presenting an idea that gives added weight to subjects that were previously concealed.

Throughout the 20th century, we have admittedly witnessed the granting of scholarly legitimization to the use of increasingly more sources, some of which are personal conversations such as the ones in Schely-Newman's book. Even if research presenting the past from the perspective of women is now more accepted, studies describing the past through personal stories recounted directly by women are not yet a common phenomenon.

Esther Schely-Newman's fascinating book approaches the narrative in terms of its primordial form - focusing on the almost personal and yet very collective stories of a group of Tunisian-born women who immigrated to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s. Relying on dozens of interviews, the book concentrates on the stories of four women.

Fortuna, born in 1917 and the author's mother, was born in Sfax, Tunisia's second largest city. She grew up with an aunt and uncle who had no children and, at age 24, married Noru, a Tunisian Jew with French citizenship. She moved to Israel in 1949, settling in Gilat, a moshav (cooperative agricultural community) in the southern part of the country.

Galia, who arrived in Gilat that same year, was born in 1924 in Gabes, not far from the island of Djerba. That region was penetrated by French colonialism at a later period and to a lesser degree than other parts of Tunisia. After her mother died, Galia grew up in the spacious home of her grandparents, who arranged for her marriage, at age 14, to an orphaned cousin.

Bia, Fortuna and Galia's neighbor in the moshav since 1955, was born in 1932 in the largest coastal city of Sousse, which was an important crossroads. As a young girl, she was forced to work to help support her family and to build up her dowry.

Odette, born in 1925 in the capital, Tunis, also helped her family financially. When she immigrated to Israel in 1955, she chose to reside in Aminadav, a moshav near Jerusalem, as part of her effort to realize the Zionist ideal of settling the Holy Land.

Biographical backbones

All the women interviewed for this book, and not just the four principal "protagonists," helped form a collective biography stretching from childhood to the very revealing chapter at the end, "Everyone's Grandmother." The place of girls and women in Tunisian-Jewish society is the backbone of the biographies. From the start, Schely-Newman explains that the birth of a female is less joyous than the birth of a male - for economic reasons: The son will support his parents in the future, whereas his sister will deplete the family budget through the dowry that will have to be paid when she weds.

With an opening like that, it should come as no surprise that the lives of the daughters - and these were women who were raised during the second quarter of the 20th century - were not simple. As young girls, they grew up under the constant vigilance of women who taught them how to look after the house, but who concealed from them the facts of life. When they entered puberty and were astonished to discover bloodstains on their underwear, they were initially told that, from now on, they must never let a man touch them. They were given no explanation for this and only later were informed that the blood was a clear sign of their fertility. As teenagers, it was made very clear to them that a woman's fortune and fate hinged on finding a husband, in most cases, through a match arranged by the family.

Although their subsequent way of life resembled that of previous generations of Tunisian-Jewish women - as housewives and mothers - these women did manage, in the context of their life roles, to channel their domestic energy into other areas as well, such as the decision to immigrate to Israel; the internalization of a Western orientation as expressed in encouraging their children, including their daughters, to study and pursue a career; and even the creation of a complex balance of power with their husbands, who did allow them a certain measure of independence.

Nonetheless, when these women in their later years describe their lives, they dare to talk frankly about the defects in their conjugal relationships, about husbands who, in their youth, tyrannize their wives and who, in their old age, become subservient to them.

Ostensibly, this book could be read as a collection of popular gossip stories or as a collection of folk legends. We are all intrigued by stories, of which some are nothing but folk legends, such as the one about the woman who shot her husband, thinking he was a prowler roaming outside their home (this story is repeated in various contexts, with the action taking place in different places, but never in the narrator's place of residence). Or the story about the young boy who becomes sick and whose illness exposes his mother's weakening religious faith, or about the woman who, only in old age, confesses to her having been in love with a man who was much higher than she was on the social ladder (in the end, she marries an ardent suitor who does not interest her at all).

Schely-Newman skillfully handles this difficult raw material: She places the "juicy" stories within a scholarly context. Her research is based on the study of a variety of areas: on analyses from the social field, on the interpretation of modern gender roles, on explanations that touch on the intergenerational gap (between narrator and listener), on the differences between life in Tunisia and in Israel, on the transition to a modern lifestyle and, of course, on the unique language of Tunisian Jews, which combines Arabic, French and the language of liturgy in its original Tunisian form, together with the Hebrew of daily life in Israel, which the women acquired following their arrival here.

Personal involvement

What remain open, despite Schely-Newman's impressive scholarly integrity, are several questions relating to the manner in which anthropologists should position themselves vis-�-vis the subjects of their research. It is only natural for anthropologists to become involved to a lesser or greater degree, during the course of their research, in the community they are studying. However, in this particular instance, the question of personal involvement takes on even greater importance, because the researcher is the daughter of one of the first women interviewed and was also the neighbor of another, during her childhood, of two other women interviewed for the book.

Granted, as we can judge from the excerpts from the conversations that appear in "Our Lives are but Stories," it is clear that only a member of their own community could have reached such a profound level of understanding of the narrators - and not just from the standpoint of their complex language. (The quotes in English faithfully reflect the original in which the narrative was recounted, and at times one sentence is the product of a blend of languages.)

This issue carries even greater weight at the contextual level. Schely-Newman, who grew up in the Tunisian-Jewish community in Israel, experienced firsthand - even if only as a small child - the social absorption processes and the substantive changes to which the women she interviewed were exposed. As a member of that community, she was regarded by her interviewees as "one of us": In this research study, which extended over many years, they spoke frankly about the most effective ways of hunting a husband (when she was still unmarried) and explained to her how a woman could make herself attractive in her husband's eyes after childbirth (when she interviewed them while pregnant). It is doubtful whether she would have been exposed to the stories about the fate a husband would bring her and about the fable about the vagina as thick honey that opens flexibly when necessary and returns to its original shape afterward, had she not been perceived as someone whose personal life was intertwined with that of the interviewees' own community.

Even if it were obvious that, without this communal involvement, any anthropologist would have found it very difficult to probe such deep strata of the lives of the interviewees, we can still not ignore a substantive ethical problem: Where is the demarcation line separating a research study from personal life in the course of the interview itself and how is that line maintained in the research study? Since the most extreme personal exposure is provided by Odette, the only one among the four principal interviewees who did not know Schely-Newman as a child, the position of the participating anthropologist could be interpreted in two different ways.

According to the first and less flattering approach, the subject to whom the interviewer was less committed was the one who could be more openly exposed and whose words could be presented without any embellishments. According to the second approach, fairness allowed the interviewer not to favor those she knew and to choose the stories on the basis of their strength and substance, and the most impressive story in this context was provided by someone whom she did not know.

The degree of the researcher's commitment to the subjects of her study is not just related to the private context of this particular anthropologist. Throughout the book, it is obvious that the women reached the point where they could be completely frank with her. However, if we could attribute the personal exposure of their ignorance of the sexual world to the playful willingness of grandmothers, it is amazing to discover the extent of their openness in intimate stories - some of which are only alluded to - that are told about their love lives. The climax of these revelations is reached in the final chapter where they are ostensibly talking about things as elderly women, as people who continue to willingly cook and babysit for their families although they are actually recounting, with greater honesty, the earlier stages in their lives. Here, even though Schely-Newman explains to her readers that, in order to arrive at these details, she had to express the readiness to expose herself (even if only partially), we must still ask ourselves to what extent are anthropologists committed to their profession and to what extent are they committed to the subjects of their research.

Perhaps the ability to present things in such a frank manner is partially attributable to the fact that the book was published in English. Thus, the academic commitment to publishing research in the lingua franca of academia also provided the opening for greater precision, in the knowledge that the women themselves and those in their immediate surroundings would not be adversely affected by the study's publication. Nevertheless, since we are members of a society that prides itself on its transformation from a melting-pot to a multicultural society, it would have been a good idea to enable us to read and teach such studies in our own language, the language of "natives."

Dr. Na'ama Sheffi teaches communications at Sapir Academic College.