Tunisian Piano, Medals and Magic Spells: Treasures Recount Glory of Jews From Arab Countries
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
on the exit papers and suitcases of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
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.
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.
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.
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.”