- The Martyrdom of a Moroccan Jewish Saint by Sharon Vance
As much recent scholarship demonstrates, the Jewish Mediterranean of the nineteenth century was a crucible of competing national interests, shifting religious commitments, interpenetrating languages and alternative projects of modernity. Readers interested in detailed portraits of how these lively historical dynamics found concrete expression in the region as a whole might take little notice of a book entitled The Martyrdom of a Moroccan Jewish Saint. This would be a mistake. Far from being a parochial study of the written narratives produced and circulated after the execution of a Moroccan Jewish damsel in 1834, Sharon Vance’s book situates both the event itself and its ensuing hagiographic representations in the layered historical contexts in which they emerged.
Vance is a folklorist by training, and the subject of her book (and of the dissertation on which it is based) is situated squarely in the folkloric realms of lore and ritual. What Vance adds to previous scholarship, however, and to the study of Moroccan Jewish saint veneration more generally, is a committed historical approach that moves beyond the search for universal narrative motifs, transcendent psychological functions, or evidence of a typically North African mentality. The result is a sensitive account that illuminates this Moroccan case by way of its political, textual and expressive contexts. At the same time, Vance uses the case itself to introduce those contexts, and to some extent their gendered implications, to the uninitiated reader.
Sol Hatchuel, or “Lalla Solika,” as she is frequently known, was constituted a martyr and saint in the posthumous narratives that recreated her life and death. Only the broad sweep of the incident itself is shared across the myriad accounts that followed it. Sol appears to have been a beautiful young Jewish woman from Tangier who, after allegedly converting to Islam, was sentenced to death by the Moroccan state for remaining true to her Jewish faith. Versions of the story vary in their portrayal of the actual occurrence or validity of Sol’s conversion, as well as the factors that might have motivated her apostasy, alternatively attributed to hostility between Sol and her mother as a push factor and to the romantic entreaties of a Muslim neighbor as a pull factor. Likewise, while all the versions converge on Sol’s martyrdom, some have the heroine [End Page 160] facing her execution in stoic silence, while in others she approaches the sentence with oratory zeal. The enshrinement of her tomb in Fez and its emergence as a pilgrimage site bolstered her status as the most prominent female saint in a Moroccan Jewish hagiographic universe populated overwhelmingly by men.
As the title of Chapter One suggests, Vance’s approach emphasizes “The Many Lives of Sol Hatchuel.” The variations upon her narrative reflect particular eschatological, polemical and political projects, each in turn linked with particular kinds of authors (rabbinic, diplomatic, literary), and with particular languages (French, Spanish, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic), genres (liturgical, poetic, journalistic) and national-imperial contexts (Moroccan, Ottoman, European). In its survey of this contextual variety, Vance’s book exemplifies rigorous documentary scholarship. The extensive footnotes are among the book’s significant offerings, pointing readers to the most relevant source materials and current historiographic scholarship.
Vance does a more than satisfactory job of tracing how a Jewish heroine’s execution could become so extensively mythologized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She points to broad historical patterns, including the incidence of religious conversion across Judaism and Islam, the continued prominence of rabbinic-biblical interpretive practices in Moroccan-Jewish poetics, the embedded and tenuous position of Jews in nineteenth-century Moroccan society, the ambivalent treatment of Jews by the Moroccan state, and the competing agents of modernity across the Muslim Mediterranean. Concentrating on a selection of narratives organized by language, genre and provenance, the central chapters of the book develop convincing observations.
Early European accounts, written in French and English, exemplified orientalist tendencies in their patronizing portraits of weak Jewish communities and their failure to save one of their own. As the protégé system took hold in...