Blanche Ben­da­han; Yaëlle Aza­gury and Frances Mali­no, trans. 

  • Review
By – May 6, 2024

Writ­ten in 1930 by a thir­ty-sev­en-year-old French Moroc­can poet, this com­ing-of-age nov­el fol­lows a young woman, Mazal­tob (“good for­tune” in Hebrew), who is torn between tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty. The author ded­i­cat­ed her nov­el to all young women whose free­dom is elusive.”

Recent­ly redis­cov­ered, the award-win­ning Mazal­tob draws on four dif­fer­ent lan­guages and cul­tures — Judeo-Span­ish, French, Ara­bic, and Hebrew — and is now con­sid­ered a fore­run­ner of both mod­ern Sephardic fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture and post­colo­nial literature. 

Blanche Ben­da­han was born in Spain to a Catholic moth­er who died in child­birth, adopt­ed as an infant by her Jew­ish father, and raised by her French step­moth­er. She spent her ear­ly life in France and attend­ed French schools. Yet her nov­el reflects the cul­ture of her father, who came from the tiny Moroc­can town of Tetouan. The town con­tained a Jew­ish quar­ter that was pop­u­lat­ed by Sephardic Jews who fled Spain dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion. In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, this Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was still mired in medieval tra­di­tions, espe­cial­ly where the rights and roles of women were concerned. 

Mazal­tob seems to pos­sess qual­i­ties that would promise her a good life in the mod­ern world — she’s excep­tion­al­ly beau­ti­ful, tal­ent­ed, and intel­li­gent, and she has a good fam­i­ly. But unlike her peers, she wants to be more than a wife and moth­er. She writes poet­ry, reads French nov­els, and yearns for a more expan­sive intel­lec­tu­al life as well as a hus­band who shares her sophis­ti­cat­ed interests. 

Lat­er, how­ev­er, she is betrothed to a man from a good Jew­ish fam­i­ly” whom she has nev­er met. He has roots in Tetouan and lives in Argenti­na. When he trav­els to Tetouan for the mar­riage, he finds that despite his cos­mopoli­tan back­ground, he is total­ly unsuit­ed to Tetouan’s cul­ture. He is attract­ed to the beau­ti­ful Mazal­tob, but she is not attract­ed to him. Their cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al inter­ests and Jew­ish val­ues couldn’t be more different.

To reveal more of the plot would be to rob read­ers of its sur­pris­es and plea­sures. And there are many. Mazal­tob is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly astute, high­light­ing clash­es — of tra­di­tions and of val­ues — that are incred­i­bly mod­ern. The his­to­ry of this lit­tle-known cor­ner of the Jew­ish world where the Sephardim view them­selves as aris­to­crats” is fas­ci­nat­ing and moving. 

Ben­da­han was ahead of her time as a fem­i­nist yet of the moment as a nov­el­ist. She had one foot in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Euro­pean cul­ture and anoth­er in the rit­u­als and rhythms of ancient Sephardic Jewry. 

Eleanor Foa is an author, jour­nal­ist, and cor­po­rate writer. Her mem­oir MIXED MES­SAGES: Reflec­tions on an Ital­ian Jew­ish Fam­i­ly and Exile comes out in Novem­ber 2019. Her work appears in nation­al news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and web­sites. She is the author of Whith­er Thou Goest and In Good Com­pa­ny, Pres­i­dent of Eleanor Foa Asso­ciates (eleanor​foa​.com), past pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of Jour­nal­ists and Authors, and received lit­er­ary res­i­den­cies at Yad­do and the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts.

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