Overlooked No More: Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, Levantine Identity Writer
Jacqueline’s mother didn’t allow Arabic to be spoken at home, and Jacqueline “suffered from living in a country she didn’t speak her language in,” childhood friend Diane Jorland said in a documentary Israeli on Kahanoff.
The upper middle class of Egyptian Jewry, despite its cosmopolitan airs, assigned limited roles to women. But Kahanoff had bigger aspirations. She wrote in her essay “The Blue Veil of Progress” that “when I was little I wanted to be like my grandmother, a sort of Jewish queen.” But now, she added, “I want to do things like women do in Europe: be a doctor, help the poor, everyone, or maybe be a writer who will find the words, our words, to tell about our wasted time.
In accordance with her mother’s wishes, she married Izzy Margoliash, a Russian-born Jewish physician, in 1939. The following year the couple moved to the United States, where he resided. But the marriage was short-lived.
After their divorce, Kahanoff enrolled at Columbia University, where she studied journalism and literature. There, she had a romantic relationship with the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom she considered the greatest love of her life.
In 1946, she found success when her short story “Such Is Rachel” won second prize in a competition sponsored by The Atlantic. That year, she returned to Egypt. But in 1951, bored by the monotony and stagnation of Egyptian society and concerned with creeping nationalism and xenophobia towards anything non-Egyptian, she returned to New York. That year she published her first novel, “Jacob’s Ladder,” a semi-autobiographical description of the Jewish elite living in Cairo at the turn of the 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 reception center in Beersheba and later in Bat Yam, a working-class town. south of Tel Aviv.
Kahanoff had an ambiguous relationship with Zionism. On the one hand, she was drawn to the story and potential of the Jewish people re-establishing their homeland after two millennia of wandering, with the women, completely liberated, working side by side with the men in the fields and on the building sites. On the other hand, she did not like the dogmatic mindset of the Zionists. “The Mizrahis expected a different reception from their brothers,” she wrote. “They had to adapt to a society that they didn’t have the chance to help shape, a society in which they were considered raw material that needed to be polished, educated.”