by Maxin Fischbein
(AJNews) – For a relatively small Jewish community, Jewish Calgary punches above its weight when it comes to supporting cultural and educational initiatives that enrich the community as a whole. And support of Israel studies initiatives at the University of Calgary is once again in the spotlight due to a generous and visionary endowment by Jenny Belzberg and her late husband Hy Belzberg z”l that has led to the recent appointment of Dr. Angy Cohen as the inaugural Post Doctoral Associate in the Dr. Jenny and Hy Belzberg Israeli Scholar Program at the U of C Faculty of Arts.
An academically accomplished scholar, Cohen is already impressing colleagues and community members with her enthusiasm for sharing her expertise in the Mizrachi experience, thus providing fresh perspectives on important aspects of Israel’s story that do not always receive as much attention as they should.
“Angy is an outstanding scholar and she’s also very enthusiastic and extremely bright and highly motivated. I think she understands very well that her position is not simply to come here and do her own work but also to take part in outreach to the community, and not only the Jewish community, but the community at large.”
– U of C History Professor David Bercuson
Born and raised in Madrid, Spain, Cohen made Aliyah in 2014, having moved to Israel the previous year. Armed with a BA in psychology and an MA in philosophy, she earned a joint PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Universidad Autónoma of Madrid in 2017.
Cohen’s PhD dissertation emanated from her research into the life stories of Moroccan Jews born and raised in the former Spanish protectorate in Northern Morocco. Her comparative study of Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel and those who immigrated to Argentina sheds light upon the divergent ways in which their immigration experiences impacted their memories and their identities.
“This is something that was very close to my heart,” Cohen told Alberta Jewish News.
On her paternal side, Cohen’s family came from Tetouan, the Capital of the Spanish protectorate. Her forebears spoke Spanish for many generations, having originated in the Iberian Peninsula.
“When they arrived in the North of Morocco, which is at the gates of Spain, so to say, they spoke Ladino and then, by the 19th century, since there was already a lot of contact with Spaniards, everybody was speaking Spanish. So, in this sense, it’s a very interesting experience of colonization, because they shared a language with the colonizers and the colonizers represented this place that they originated in.”
Because of this, it was a colonization like no other.
“There is a lot of shared history between Spain and Morocco, not always peaceful, but it is shared nonetheless. Especially, if you go to the South of Spain, the similarities are even stronger and more clear, also for obvious reasons. They’re closer.”
Cohen’s paternal grandparents emigrated from Morocco to Argentina where her father was raised, though he later immigrated to Spain.
“The experience of the Spanish Moroccan Jews is a fascinating story of colonization and it is also a fascinating Jewish story in general. The importance of Moroccan Jews cannot be overstated,” Cohen adds.
Cohen will spend part of her time at the U of C writing the book that flows from her dissertation.
“What I wanted to study was how people were impacted by their experience of immigration, particularly in Israel. I took the Argentinean case as a comparative case,” said Cohen who adds that the aliyah of Moroccan Jews – and Mizrachi Jews in general – to Israel was extremely difficult given systemic discriminatory policies that continue to this day.
It is ironic that Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Argentina had a much more salutary experience which led to a marked difference in how they perceive themselves and their past.
Having become very familiar with the Mizrachi experience in Israel, Cohen turned her attention to the transmission of family narratives among Mizrachi families, specifically from first generation immigrants to second generation immigrants.
“The whole topic of family narratives has always really interested me,” says Cohen. “What is the message that we receive from our parents and from our grandparents? What is the story that we feel connected to?”
While working on that subset of the Mizrachi story, Cohen became a member of Arevot, a Beit Midrash (house of study) open to women of all backgrounds that focuses specifically on the experience of Mizrachi women. That up close and personal experience led her to a new academic horizon.
“I decided to change my project and to start working on an ethnographic work about my Beit Midrash because it had a lot of peculiarities that I felt were extremely relevant for people to know . . . . In this Beit Midrash we only learned Sephardic sources including sources written by Sephardic female Torah scholars and also, in general, Sephardic female intellectuals,” says Cohen.
“Our learning in Arevot is part of our recovery of a tradition that was erased in Israel and is also part of our process of reclaiming social justice in a better Israeli society.”
According to Cohen, learning from Sephardic sources and Sephardic Rabbinic sources provides the women of Arevot with a Halachic and Jewish approach to the problems of the Jewish state.
“While we try to look for a language to tell the experience of Mizrachi women, which is a very, very different experience from that of Mizrachi men, we are in the midst of a process of trying to figure out our place in ritual, our place in society in general.”
While in Israel, Cohen interviewed most of the women in Arevot and she is currently writing the results of this ethnography as an example of Mizrachi feminism.
That microcosm has implications for Jewish women everywhere, Cohen says.
“Last year we were in Montreal and I organized a small learning group for women. The Sephardic women that joined were fascinated with it because they had, for the first time, a Sephardic base to discuss issues that bothered them as Jewish women in the 21st century.”
Key to the Arevot experience is the opportunity for participants to deal with current issues by taking a deep dive into the wisdom of their own traditions, including responsa from Moroccan and North African Rabbis on topics that still resonate today, such as the right of women to learn Torah, rules pertaining to tzniyut (modesty) and the place of women in ritual and liturgy and Judaism as a whole.
“This a very relevant field of thought in which we try to discuss and agree about how to live, how to set boundaries, how to be respectful of each other, how to exercise solidarity, how to be there for others. This is important because most things are decided for us, in our name, without us.”
“When you are exposed to this tremendous wealth of resources, it changes something in you. You don’t want to go back. You just want to learn more and more,” says Cohen, who began a small branch of Arevot in Montreal while she was doing post doctoral work in the Azrieli Institute of Israeli Studies at Concordia University.
Her Arevot Montreal group is currently meeting online and Cohen says she looks forward to Calgary Jewish women joining in the discussions.
“These are relevant sources and relevant discussions regardless of whether you are Sephardic or not,” said Cohen, adding that even Sephardic women do not always have the benefit of studying sources from their own traditions because most Jewish educational institutions are Ashkenazi.
Cohen did not attend Jewish schools and had a fairly secular upbringing, so halachic issues were not front and centre as she was growing up. In her mid-twenties she began to explore her Moroccan roots as part of “. . . a bigger process of looking for my place in the family and in life in general.”
Today, she describes herself as traditionist, a concept Cohen says was coined by Oxford professor and author Yaacov Yadgar.
Following post doctoral stints at both Tel Aviv University and Concordia University, Cohen looks forward to bringing Mizrachi and Sephardic perspectives to the U of C and to the Calgary Jewish community.
“I think Sephardic history has a very different narrative about what it is to be Jewish in a non-Jewish world, about Muslim-Jewish relations, about the place of Jews in the Middle East,” says Cohen.
“The Sephardic experience brings a completely different narrative from the narrative that we are used to reading in textbooks of Jews as being persecuted, always in danger, permanently the other. Sephardim have had a history of persecution and exclusion, but they’ve also had an experience of belonging, of autonomy and participation in the non-Jewish world.”
During her time at the U of C, Angy Cohen will be concentrating on further research and writing, including articles about Arevot as well as other projects relating to Israel. She also hopes to do some teaching beginning in January pertaining to intra-Jewish conflict in Israel, different Mizrachi movements and, overall, providing a Mizrachi window on Israel’s history.
She hopes that she can set the record straight where some misconceptions about Israel are concerned.
“One of the critiques tends to be that Israel is a colonizing entity,” says Cohen, lamenting the common assumption that Israel is a European country in the Middle East.
“That is in no way true, not demographically, not historically. . . . So I think it is important for people to hear a different version. Sephardim were always in the Middle East.”
According to U of C History Professor David Bercuson, Cohen has “hit the ground running.”
Bercuson, who this year marks his 50th anniversary at the U of C, administers the Dr. Jenny and Hy Belzberg Israeli Scholar Program. He turned to three colleagues representing the History, Political Science and Anthropology departments to form the selection committee for the program’s inaugural Post Doctoral Associate. They reviewed applications from some 14 applicants. Remarkably, Angy Cohen was, in Bercuson’s words, their “unanimous first draft choice.”
“Angy is an outstanding scholar,” said Bercuson, lauding Cohen’s publication record, her PhD and the universities she has been at.
“She’s also very enthusiastic and extremely bright and highly motivated. I think she understands very well that her position is not simply to come here and do her own work, which is part of what the Post Doc is all about, but also to take part in outreach to the community, and not only the Jewish community, but the community at large.”
Cohen’s responsibilities include addressing at least two meetings on campus and two meetings off campus to talk about topics in her areas of expertise that would be of interest to the community.
“Certainly in the Jewish community there should be a lot of interest in this question of Mizrachi women. They are a very important element in Israel society,” Bercuson said.
Bercuson describes Cohen as an accomplished academic with a dynamic personality, adding that she and her husband, Jonah Potasznik (who will be teaching at the Calgary Jewish Academy while also serving as Youth Engagement Director and Ritual Assistant at Beth Tzedec Congregation) have been proactive in reaching out to people and letting the community know that they are here.
“They are very willing, obviously, to interrelate with the community and not just the Jewish community. They haven’t been here that long, and I am just so pleased at how this is turning out.”
Cohen’s post doc position is a one year appointment but Bercuson says that there is a possibility of extension.
Cohen’s position, while in many ways a first for the University and the community, is part of a long history of Israeli studies and academic exchange initiatives at the U of C.
Jenny Belzberg and her late husband, Hy, were early supporters of the U of C in general and Israel studies in particular, having funded previous Israel studies academic exchanges and visiting scholar programs, sometimes in partnership with other community philanthropists, including the Kahanoff Foundation.
An endowment gift by the Belzbergs many years ago helped to fund a Canada-Israel Academic Exchange Program that was headquartered in Ottawa. The program arranged for scholars from Israel to come to Canadian universities, including the U of C, and to send scholars from Canada to universities in Israel, Bercuson said.
Later, an Israel Studies Program was established at the U of C with Notre Dame Professor Allan Dowty serving as the first Kahanoff Chair Professor of Israel Studies from 2003–2006. This initiative was funded, in large part, by a grant from the Kahanoff Foundation and was also supported by Jenny and Hy Belzberg.
Subsequently, the decision was made to start a full Israel Studies Program, Bercuson said. Israeli scholar Shlomit Keren was hired as associate professor of history and director of Israel Studies. Professor David Tal served as Kahanoff Chair beginning in 2009. When he moved on, the Kahanoff Foundation wound down the program.
What remained was the original endowment from Jenny and Hy Belzberg. Academics continued to come and go, though there was no permanent program.
Following the passing of her husband Hy, after 68 years of marriage, Jenny Belzberg wanted to do more. After discussions with the University, she made a second generous endowment gift this past January. The combined funds will support post-doctoral associates in Israel studies in perpetuity.
“These things make a difference,” says Jenny Belzberg who has herself made a difference on multiple fronts since the earliest days of the University.
In addition to supporting Israel studies, the Belzbergs have been strong supporters of the U of C library. Hy and his family “were integral in securing Mordechai Richler’s papers for the University of Calgary,” according to the memorial notice published by the U of C following Hy Belzberg’s passing. So valued was his contribution at the U of C, that their flags flew at half-mast when he passed in January 2017.
Jenny served on the U of C Faculty of Social Work Dean’s Advisory Committee and in 2002 she was the recipient of an Honourary Doctorate recognizing her extraordinary contribution to the arts.
“We need to connect the University with the community,” says Jenny Belzberg, who expressed delight in the selection of Angy Cohen as the first Post Doctoral Associate in the Dr. Jenny and Hy Belzberg Israeli Scholar Program.
“She is young and vibrant and the subject matter is relevant today,” said Belzberg who, herself, has been a trailblazer and respected role model for women.
“We have a university here where there is not even a hint of some of this garbage that’s going in some of the Universities in Canada and the United States with regard to Israel. It’s very important to have somebody here like Angy who will be a voice for people who want to know about Israel,” Bercuson said.
“She’s not going to propagandize Israel, but then Israel doesn’t need propaganda in my opinion. It just needs truth. Having somebody who is here on campus as part of the campus community is an important part of what this is all about.”
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Alberta Jewish News.