REVIEW: Sharon Vance. The Martyrdom of a Moroccan Jewish Saint

The Martyrdom of a Moroccan Jewish Saint (Leiden: Brill, 2011)

By Sharon Vance

Leiden: Brill, 2011

240 pp.

Reviewed by Jessica Marglin, Princeton University

            It is hard to avoid Sol ha-Tzadiqah.  For members of the Moroccan Jewish diaspora, Lalla Solika (as she is also called) occupies a larger-than-life position as a saint, a heroine, and an ideal to be imitated.  As Yaëlle Azagury has put it, “In the collective imagination of Moroccan Jews, the heroic fate of Solika (Sol) Hachuel fascinates like no other historical figure from this community.”[1]  Even casual tourists are drawn to Solika’s story; some guide books to Morocco recommend Sol’s tomb as a worthy stop for the curious visitor,[2] and Jewish tourists are particularly likely to be directed to the Jewish cemetery of Fez where her grave is a star attraction.  For scholars of North African Judaism, then, Sharon Vance’s new book, The Martyrdom of a Moroccan Jewish Saint, is a welcome critical and in-depth look at this mythical figure.

            Vance offers an introduction to the basic outlines of Sol’s story as it is told in European-language, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Spanish texts from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.  Although the historical details surrounding Sol’s story are difficult to pin down, most sources (including some archival sources) agree that Sol was killed in Fez in 1834.  Born in Tangier to Jewish parents, while still a teenager Sol was falsely accused of converting to Islam—or, according to some non-Jewish narratives, did indeed convert.  She subsequently wanted to return to her original faith, for which she was eventually executed at the order of the sultan Mawlāy ‘Abd al-Raḥmān (reigned 1822-1859).  Sol was subsequently venerated as a martyr and a saint by both Jews and Muslims who believed in her powers to cure infertility, illness, and other maladies.

            Yet this short account belies the confusion and contradictions which are rife in the textual evidence about Sol’s history.  One of Vance’s major contributions is to attempt to sort out which texts are more authoritative and which elements of the story ring true historically.  Vance relies primarily upon two accounts by European authors which were reportedly based on interviews with Sol’s family members.  The first, by Eugénio Maria Romero, was published in Spanish in 1837; the lapse of only three years between Sol’s death and Romero’s publication makes this a particularly attractive source.  The second, by M. Rey, was published in French seven years later.  Vance nicely summarizes these texts and their differences, and includes comparisons with many other European texts that have less historical clout, but are nonetheless of great interest for their widely varying interpretations of Sol’s story.

Vance lays out a convincing schema to categorize the different kinds of texts about Sol, dividing them into three major groups: European, Hebrew, and Jewish languages (Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Spanish).  Vance explains how the different kinds of texts reflect the preoccupations of their authors, more than any archetypical truth about Sol.  European accounts “were used to make political arguments in debates that were internal to European politics,” (40).  In this book, and even more so in another article,[3] Vance shows that European authors used Sol’s plight to argue alternatively for religious tolerance, the importance of martyrdom for one’s faith (with explicitly Catholic overtones), and the inherent barbarism of Islam.  The Hebrew texts, on the other hand, subsume “the specifics of events under the general concepts of the sacred historical dynamic of exile and redemption, galut u-ge’ulah,” (81).  Vance nicely draws out the polemical background of these texts, explaining how themes of Jewish-Muslim polemics inform the Hebrew prose and poetry dedicated to retelling Sol’s story.  This traditional rabbinic interpretation of Sol’s death contrasts sharply with the European texts.  The authors writing in Hebrew almost unanimously saw Sol’s story in a tragic, but ultimately positive light—as a martyr for the Jewish faith whose deeds will be rewarded in the world to come and will bring merit to Jews remaining in this world.  The European authors, on the other hand, focus on themes of love, transgression, and the unnecessary tragedy of an innocent girl’s death brought about by the barbarity and intolerance of Islam.

Vance provides a detailed analysis of texts about Sol written in Jewish languages, specifically Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Spanish.  She discusses two Judeo-Arabic poems, one from Morocco and the other from Algeria, as well as a serialized Judeo-Spanish novel published in a Salonican newspaper.  These chapters are in some ways the most fascinating, as they demonstrate how the Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Spanish texts exhibit characteristics of both their Hebrew and European parallels.  For instance, a Moroccan Judeo-Arabic poem demonstrates some characteristics of Hebrew, rabbinic-oriented texts in its emphasis on Sol’s martyrdom as a precursor of redemption and in its use of Biblical verses.  Yet the colloquial language gives the poem “an added poignancy” (169) and the Judeo-Arabic allows for many more Islamic references, such as calling Abraham “Ibrāhīm al-khalīl,” or “the friend of God,” a common epithet used in Islamic literature.  Vance’s analysis of the Judeo-Spanish romanso (serialized novel) published in the Salonican newspaper La Epoka demonstrates how the story transformed in an Ottoman context.  The Salonican version contains a number of European tropes, especially in its (unique) account of Sol’s lover David Salama and his own martyrdom for love.  Perhaps most interesting is La Epoka’s complete avoidance of the mention of Islam.  Not once does the story explicitly describe Sol as having converted to Islam; rather, the text explains that she converted to the “Marokina religion,” (196).  Vance explains this very delicate approach as stemming from Ottoman Jews’ desire to maintain positive relations with the state, as well as their genuine gratitude for the acceptance of Sephardic refugees into the Ottoman Empire and the nineteenth-century reforms abolishing the dhimma.

Vance has also done teachers and students a great service by translating four Hebrew poems recounting Sol’s story into accurate and readable English.  Vance admits that “no translation can do justice to these qinot in their original Hebrew, where each word and phrase is part of a complex web of biblical source text as well as multiple layers of rabbinic commentary and liturgical intertexts,” (120).  Nonetheless, her extensive footnotes to the translations and her detailed commentary following the poems make the texts accessible in much of their richness to students without a sufficient command of Hebrew.  My only regret is that Vance did not provide such translations for the two Judeo-Arabic poems she analyzes in Chapter Five, which are possibly even more valuable as tools for teaching the history of Jews in North Africa.

Vance’s historical chapter is extremely useful, especially for readers unfamiliar with the basic contours of nineteenth-century Moroccan Jewish history.  However, readers would have benefited from more contextualization concerning the authors of the texts which Vance analyzed.  Even if Vance was unable to find information about all the authors, it would have helped readers better understand the texts to have Vance speculate about the authors’ backgrounds and motives in writing the versions of Sol’s story that they did.  In another article, Vance helpfully discusses Romero’s political and ideological leanings based on the little information she was able to find about him;[4] such information would have been welcome in the book as well.  Additionally, Vance’s discussion of why European consuls did not step forward to protect Sol could be misleading for readers unfamiliar with nineteenth-century Moroccan history.  Vance asks why Europeans failed to save Sol from what she deems wrongful execution, and in the course of her answer addresses the rise of consular protection (which granted some Jews extraterritoriality and exemption from taxes) and foreigners’ increasing interventions with the Moroccan government on behalf of Jews.  Nonetheless, Vance does not adequately stress the fact that foreigners did not consistently intervene on behalf of Jews until later in the century; nor does she sufficiently emphasize the extent to which protection was limited to a tiny minority of Moroccans in 1834.  Vance’s treatment of Europeans’ passivity in the face of Sol’s execution seems more informed by the late-nineteenth-century context which caused later authors—and even some European consular officials themselves—to ask why foreigners did not do more to save the Jewish martyr.

Vance has done much to bring Sol ha-Tzadiqah out of the realm of myth and into that of scholarship.  In so doing, she has demonstrated that Sol’s story is important not just as a popular folktale, but as a window onto Jewish-Muslim relations, gender dynamics in North African Jewish communities, and, more broadly, the history of Jews in North Africa.


[1] Yaëlle Azagury, “Sol Hachuel in the Collective Memory and Folktales of Moroccan Jews,” in Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, ed. Emily Benichou Gottreich and Daniel J. Schroeter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 191.

[2] See, e.g., Daniel Jacobs, ed., The Rough Guide to Morocco (London: Rough Guides, 2010), 229.

[3] Sharon Vance, “Sol Hachuel, ‘Heroine of the Nineteenth Century’: Gender, The Jewish Question, and Colonial Discourse,” in Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, ed. Emily Benichou Gottreich and Daniel J. Schroeter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

[4] ibid., 202-3.

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