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Reviewed by:
  • Our Lives Are But Stories: Narratives of Tunisian-Israeli Women
  • Rahel Wasserfall (bio)
Esther Schely-Newman Our Lives Are But Stories: Narratives of Tunisian-Israeli Women Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002

Our Lives Are But Stories is the biography of a generation of Jewish Tunisian women whose central life event was emigration to Israel in the 1950s. It tells the stories of an older generation of Tunisian-Israeli women though the eyes of one of their daughters. The book is organized according to the usual categories of "traditional" women's life-events; childhood, marriage, motherhood, immigration, and grandmotherhood. The author, folklorist-anthropologist Esther Schely-Newman, is the daughter of Fortuna, whose life story unfolds throughout the book.

We learn about the women's social background, the tribulations of their lives lived in the shadow of emigration and resettlement in Israel, and their relations with their husbands and children in a patrilineal society. Schely-Newman's women belong to a generation of women from the Magrehb who emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, but theirs is a story of success. The author tells positive stories of their lives. Weaknesses and criticisms are erased from the discourse, and stories of bickering, hatred, and other human failures that certainly were a part of life in a small village are not included. Schely-Newman chooses instead to highlight the cohesion, the women's friendships, and their coping with life's hardships.

The author's theoretical interest is in "oral discourse"—pieces of information that women choose to craft, elevating them to "stories" in which lie wider meanings—to be decoded by the listener. Only those oral utterances that will be crafted and reflected upon and will yield wider values and interests become "oral discourse." As these are women's interests, the book focuses on the [End Page 274] private sphere, the family, and in so doing reinforces the images that we have of the older generation of mizrahi women.

The stories told in this book were chosen, we are told, because they were marked by the informants. The author uses real names of people and places, arguing that "these data are not mine but belong to the narrators, who want to be heard, and ... representing their experiences requires giving voice to each individual woman within the interaction exactly as it occurred" (p. 11). In being so transparent about her informants, Schely-Newman pushes the envelope of what has been done in qualitative methodology. She yields to her informants' presentation of self, though she is aware that by doing so, only the positive images and strengths are coming through.

How much is the position of the author a consequence of her own status vis à vis her informants? She is not only a "halfie," sharing one part of her identity with the people she studied; she is blood related to them. This enables her to gain access to intimate knowledge; to understand the context in which sentences are uttered; to move seamlessly from one language to another; to pick up cues and to weave together stories that she has known since childhood. She is a typical insider, but she is also a trained folklorist-anthropologist, studying oral discourse. She carefully amasses her data and exposes her raw material. Through her meticulous methodology of recording each oral discourse, she puts space between herself and her informants, as if to prove to herself and her readers that her presentation of the data is not a "loaded" construct, that she did not have an agenda apart from the stories themselves, that her prior knowledge does not stand in the way of her presenting "reality as it is."

The problematic nature of data presentation as itself an interpretation of reality is not on Schely-Newman's agenda. She has a very unproblematic approach to "what reality is": reality is what has been recorded. She works very hard to demonstrate that despite her status as an insider, a blood relation, her presentation of "their" data is not an interpretive construct but reflects the way these women want their lives to be remembered. As in any anthropological encounter, the author had to make choices. She chose to highlight what...


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pp. 274-275
Launched on MUSE
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