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Rock the Casbah: Algeria’s deep Jewish connection

Don’t expect flights from Tel Aviv to Algiers opening up any time soon - there are no Jewish communities left in the country. But what a glorious Jewish past!
Abdellah Ben Salem Mosque, until 1975 the Great Synagogue of Oran; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas
Abdellah Ben Salem Mosque, until 1975 the Great Synagogue of Oran; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Like many Jews, I like visiting old synagogues, which may or may not still be home to living communities. Prague is nice, Budapest and Krakow too. Been there, done that – I even lived for 18 months in Hungary. Qirmizi Qesebe – the world’s last remaining Jewish town, outside of Israel? In Azerbaijan, in case you didn’t know. Well, I got that t-shirt too, back in 2013. So how about Algeria? Anyone been there? Probably not.

That’s unfortunate.

Algeria has a long — if troubled — Jewish history. Jews flourished in the 19th century. In 1870, the Cremieux decree awarded Jewish Algerians with French citizenship. While the community suffered in the Second World War under the Vichy regime, it was during the subsequent struggle for independence that Jewish life in the new independent country came to an end. Nationalists saw Algerian Jews as “French” and more than 130,000 left the country by 1962, with most taking residence in France.

Today, no Jewish communities exists in Algeria, and just a handful of Jews are thought to remain. The North African country is not part of the Abraham Accords, and indeed remains hostile to them, in particular to the participation of neighboring Morocco. At a time when Moroccan King Mohammed VI has recognized his country’s Jewish community as “a component of the rich Moroccan culture,” the contrast is stark with Algeria. Don’t expect flights from Tel Aviv to Algiers opening up any time soon.

Back in 2014 my friend Nicolas and I (both then living in Luxembourg) began planning a trip to Algeria. Nicolas grew up outside Paris and was interested in exploring his Jewish family roots – his great-great-grandfather left Algiers at the end of the 19th century. For me I was happy to accompany him and have an adventure. Clearly there were reasons why people didn’t go to Algeria and were warned against going there, but I hoped that my British passport would provoke less hostility than a French one. And neither of us had obviously Jewish surnames, which might help. But unfortunately for one reason or another, life got in the way and our plans to Rock the Casbah never came to fruition.

This year, Nicolas decided to take the plunge. He traveled alone to Algeria. Rabbis are not vicars, but vicariously I was able to enjoy the trip too, through his frequent updates and photographs. He spent time in Algeria’s three largest cities: Algiers, Constantine, and Oran, and in each place explored the remnants of the country’s Jewish past.

Algiers

“J’aime toutes les villes, un peu plus Paris,

Mais ce n’est pas comme l’Algérie,

Comme elle est belle … je l’aime à la folie

Où je suis je ne l’oublie pas

Alger Alger, comme je l’aime!”

Singer and musician Lili Boniche, the “Crooner of the Casbah,” penned this beautiful song. Born in Algiers in 1922, it expresses the love felt by many Jews who were forced to leave their native city.

Algiers; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Philosopher Jacques Derrida grew up in Algiers. When he was 11 in 1942, war interrupted his education. Vichy authorities expelled him from his lycée. The young Derrida spent a year secretly skipping school in order to play football and read works by French philosophers like Sartre and Camus, the latter another pied-noir who had grown up in Algiers.

Algiers; PHOTO CREDIt: Nicolas

These days Algiers is a modern, bustling city. For Nicolas it was a small shock that only cash was accepted – no foreign credit cards. After a day spent touring the city, he went to look for the resting-place of his ancestors in the Saint-Eugene cemetery located in the Bologhine district, a beautiful location facing the sea. It is said to be the largest Jewish cemetery in Africa. While Ali and Ahmed, the guardians, warned him that no records existed to locate the tombs before 1942, he finally found his ancestors’ graves.

Saint Eugene Cemetery, Algiers; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Nicolas’ great-great-grandfather Henry Smadja was born in Constantine and moved to Algiers to study and work as a law clerk. Born in 1866, Smadja gained French citizenship through the Cremieux Decree. At the end of the 19th century, he abandoned his law career and travelled with his wife to become a baritone in the Paris Opera, later touring the French colonies. Nicolas was able to find the graves of Henry’s parents, Jacob and Pauline, as well as two of his seven siblings, Martin and Leon Smadja, who stayed in Algiers. Although some gravestones are crumbling and broken, the Jewish Cemetery in Algiers is fairly well-maintained with donations from overseas and is engaged in a slow process of renovation.

Saint Eugene Cemetery, Algiers; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Nicolas grew up in the Colombes suburb of Paris, and picked up Arabic from his neighbors. In one restaurant the locals asked him where he came from, and when he said “Luxembourg”, they called him a “liar” and said he was an Arab. They understood that he could understand what they were saying!

Immigrant Algerians in France had often been hostile to him. Locals in Algiers proved friendly. During his trip, Nicolas was open about his Jewish roots and his quest to locate his ancestors, encountering warmth and generosity. While the Algerians he met may stand firmly for Palestine, that did not mean they were against Israel and Jewish people.

Constantine

“Mais toi mon coeur tu voyages

Vers le rocher sauvage

Qui te fascine

Constantine”

Constantine; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

The next stop was Algeria’s third largest city, Constantine, on the Tunisian side of the country. It’s a mountainous natural fortress away from the coast, and one that has withstood many attempts to conquer it over the years. It reminded Nicolas of his own Luxembourg City. Algeria’s history has always been a fight against any form of domination – including by the Turkish and the French – and indeed over the years Constantine itself has been besieged 82 times.

Constantine; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

With its savagely beautiful terrain, Constantine has also provoked nostalgic yearnings from its former inhabitants, including Enrico Macias, whose song “Constantine” is quoted above. Born Gaston Ghrenassia in 1938, Macias was shocked by the assassination of his father-in-law and musician Cheikh Raymond Leyris in 1961. Gaston and his wife Suzy left Algeria one month later, and until today he has never been permitted to return. One of his first hits in a glittering 60-year musical career was “Adieu mon pays,” which he composed for his beloved Algeria on the boat as he left for France.

Tombstone of Cheikh Raymond Leyris, Constantine; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Nicolas was able to visit the grave of Cheikh Raymond Leyris and his wife and walk in the Jewish cemetery. He found the old synagogue, which is now derelict, opposite a military complex taken over from the French era. On Friday the streets were deserted, and in general the city had a more traditional feel than the capital, Algiers, or Oran, his final destination.

Synagogue in Constantine; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Oran

“Oran, Oran,

Je ne t’oublierai pas,

Moi aussi je pense à toi,

Oran, Oran,

Et toujours on s’aimera.”

Oran; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

The coastal city of Oran lies close to the border with Morocco. It is a hectic city with a strong sea breeze, and a harbor that brought Western culture to its shores, including European dress and shops selling alcohol.

Oran; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

A prominent Jewish musician, Maurice El Medioni, born in 1928, quit Algeria in 1961. One of his most famous songs is “Oran, Oran” (chorus quoted above). After the Allied invasion of Algeria in 1942, he played the hits of the day in bars frequented by US soldiers, from whom he learnt popular American genres such as jazz, rumba, and boogie-woogie. El Medioni discovered the local traditions of rai music, and with both Jews and Muslims, formed a music group which played at both Muslim and Jewish weddings, as well as Café Oran in the Jewish Quarter. The proprietor of this famous venue was Maurice’s uncle, Saoud L’Oranais (exterminated in Sobibor in 1943), and frequented by stars such as Reinette L’Oranaise, who helped preserve Arab-Andalusian music and later introduce it to European audiences.

Oran; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

While no trace of Café Oran exists today, rai music can be heard throughout the city’s streets. Rai, which means “opinion” or “advice” in Algerian Arabic, arose in 1920s Oran. By the 1980s and 90s, it was firmly established as the music of protest. Its lyrics protested poverty, governmental oppression, violence, and religious extremism. In 1994, an exiled rai singer, Cheb Hasni, returned to Algeria to give a concert. Subsequently, he was murdered outside his parental home in the Gambetta area of Oran, allegedly for letting girls kiss him on the cheek during his performance. Nicolas was surprised to visit to the legendary “Disco Maghreb” label and find it undergoing a revival.

Abdellah Ben Salem Mosque, until 1975 the Great Synagogue of Oran; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Few signs of Oran’s Jewish past have survived. While the Grand Synagogue’s façade remains, it has been converted into a mosque. The cemetery is in poor condition, disorganized and overgrown with trees. Unlike those of Algiers and Constantine, it seems there have been few attempts to keep it up, although its guardians were welcoming and helpful.

Abdellah Ben Salem Mosque, until 1975 the Great Synagogue of Oran; PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas

Nicolas returned home safely and is already planning his next visit to Algeria. I hope one day to join him. While this year celebrates 60 years of Algerian independence, it also marks six decades since the Algerian Jewish community were forced to emigrate.

If the welcome Nicolas received was anything to go by, today’s Algerians are open to exploring their history and welcoming to their guests. Let’s hope the country’s tourist industry develops and allows Jews from all around the world to enjoy its unique sights and sounds.

About the Author
Rabbi Alfred grew up in London and read Classics at King's College, Cambridge. After time spent in Budapest playing chess, he studied rabbinics in London and Jerusalem, receiving semicha in 2008. He led communities in Europe (Belgium and Luxembourg) and in Asia (Singapore), and now lives with his family in Jerusalem.
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