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  • Aliyah in the Lives of North African Jewish Widows:Realization of a Dream or Solution to a Problem?
  • Michal Ben Ya'akov (bio)

Widowhood and Migration

In traditional societies, women who had been integrally involved in communal activity and held a measure of status via their husbands were often marginalized almost immediately upon becoming widowed. Though they may have risen to the respected status of matriarch, they were likely to become a burden upon their families or communities, both financially and socially.1 On the other hand, widowhood was effectively a "passport to freedom," a chance for women who had previously been under the jurisdiction of their fathers, brothers, and husbands to be independent, examine their lives, and reevaluate their future.2 The empowerment of a woman who did not "belong" to a man threatened the stability of the community and posed a danger or at least a problem in a patriarchal society.3 Such women had the possibility to develop independent lives, based on their own autonomous economic activity,4 even if this "perceived independence" arose from economic necessity.5 Once widowed, they became legal entities in their own right, able to make their own decisions and manage their own affairs.

This "passport" was valid not only for economic activities, but also for geographical mobility. In traditional Jewish society, that could mean aliyah—literally "ascent," immigration to the Holy Land / Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). For widows instilled with a life-long love of Zion and a spiritual longing, aliyah may have presented not only the fulfillment of personal aspirations, but also an alternative—often the only alternative—to tenuous circumstances [End Page 5] within the family. However, such independence often had a price, which could, most significantly, be lack of family support, either social or financial.

Research on women's migrations has generally shown that a woman's mobility is often defined and limited by her position in her community and family and is usually related to life-cycle events. These studies have emphasized the economic aspects of women's migrations, particularly in the case of single women migrating from less developed areas to those with economic potential.6 Mirjana Morokvaśic broadens the economic issues involved beyond labor markets and opportunities to include "certain categories of women who seem to be more migratory than others (barren, widowed, separated, divorced) and those who, as single, have limited access to resources in the local area and are obliged to leave."7 She concludes:

[B]eside the socially acceptable migration of women who follow or join their husbands, there is also an autonomous migration of women already marginalized in their own society as widows, repudiated or separated. In other words, in the context where there are constraints on the mobility of women, some women who have been marginalized out of an acceptable (for a woman) and recognized status in a given society, may even be under social pressure to leave.8

This article will focus on aliyah by North African Jewish widows in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.9 I will discuss the motivations of the widows who chose to migrate to the Holy Land, often alone, leaving their families and communities behind. Positive motivating factors may have included the realization of dreams, a desire to attain higher levels of spirituality, or fulfillment of vows made at earlier times; negative ones may have been a wish to escape from contentious surroundings, or familial or communal pressure upon the widow. I will address the question of whether these women, as widows, were finally fulfilling their own personal spiritual aspirations by settling in the Holy Land, or if they were, in fact, selected out and encouraged to leave, relieving the family of financial responsibilities and allowing the transfer of authority to younger members of the family. The dramatic changes in the lives of widows in search of a new equilibrium, caused by both widowhood and the decision to migrate, may demonstrate the reformation and redefinition of their status and its boundaries, in their communities, in their families, and, most significantly, in their own eyes. [End Page 6]


Sources pertaining to nineteenth-century aliyah from North Africa in general, and...


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