This dissertation examines a large corpus of auto/biographical literature, films, and performances by the last generation of Jews who grew up in Morocco and Tunisia before decolonization and subsequent migrations to France and Canada. Considering both well-known cultural figures in the Francophone cultural world (Gad Elmaleh, Elie Kakou, Gisèle Halimi, Colette Fellous) alongside “amateur” writers (Albert Nacacche, Georges Cohen, Bob Oré Abitbol), I argue that all these works are bound together by narrative themes and structures. Having idealized French language and culture as a colonized, but privileged, minority in North Africa, Jewish writers now living in France and Canada look back on their cities of origin as true homelands. Their writings destabilize common notions of fiction and non-fiction, literature and history, constituting a hybrid genre that aspires to capture the collective experience of coming of age at the end of empire. The dissertation itself at the intersection of post-colonial critiques of the nation, diaspora studies, and the recent revolutions in Jewish studies that focus on the Jews of the Islamic world.
I specifically explore the question of how Jews’ relations with their non-Jewish neighbors (European Christians as well as North African Muslims) are in life-writing through everyday interactions concerning language, consumption, cooking, eating, music, and holidays. Drawing attention to the complex interdependencies created by spatial and economic conditions, writers also insist on the salience of Jewishness as a primary mode of identification in a North African context structured by ethno-religious divisions. Moving from memories of the 1940s and 1950s to the more recent past, I highlight the works of Tunisian Jewish women returning to the site of their interrupted childhoods and adolescences during the Ben Ali years. Finding a radically different landscape where the Jewish and European past have all but disappeared, they attempt to renew the chain of tradition through writing. Finally, the dissertation examines the transmission of Maghrebi Jewish identity in a new polycentric diaspora of life-writing, where North Africa functions as sacred memorial space with connections to France, Canada, and Israel.