As a dozen 20-something Parisians sipped wine and complimented each other on their outlandish costumes, my study abroad host mom Bella Cohen Clougher smiled and chatted along. An 83-year-old social butterfly and polylinguist, she could work any room, including the post-Megillah reading Purim festivities at Moishe House (a meeting space for young Jews) in République.
Bella was born to a Sephardic family in Tangiers, Morocco that spoke Haketía (a dialect of Judaeo-Spanish) and Spanish in the home, while speaking French and Arabic outside the house. In her 80s, after a career as an English and Spanish teacher in Paris, she dedicated herself to learning Hebrew. As children, her brother had a Hebrew tutor; she did not because she was a girl. When I chanted my chapter of the Megillah that night in 2020, she diligently followed along. Always teaching and always learning — that’s Bella.
A couple days after Purim, we learned that I needed to return home to the U.S. immediately due to COVID-19. My eyes filled with tears as I realized I wouldn’t eat more of Bella’s delicious cookie rings, celebrate Passover with her, and, most importantly, listen to her fascinating stories. But as usual, Bella knew exactly the right thing to do. She handed me a gift and said, “For the next time you chant.” I tore open the wrapping paper to reveal a beautiful silver yad (Torah pointer). “It’s from Tangiers,” she explained. “I saw it in a Judaica shop many years ago in Paris and had to have it. Who can say if it’s the one my father and his father used in our synagogue, but who can say that isn’t? It’s yours now.”
It was the perfect goodbye present. Just as the yad guides the chanter of the Hebrew text, Bella was my guide during my one and a half semesters in Paris. She always pointed me in the right direction — in the case of her expert Metro tips, quite literally. I was also continually inspired by her Sephardic cultural activism. While abroad, I spent much of my time studying Yiddish at the Paris Yiddish Center. Bella encouraged my passion for Yiddish while teaching me about her own Sephardic customs.
While we originate from distinct Jewish cultures and communities, we bonded over our love of Jewish history and our shared passion for building a vibrant and inclusive Jewish future. I was thrilled to catch up with Bella recently over email to learn more about her life growing up Jewish in Morocco and then France and her commitment to championing Jewish languages and Sephardic culture.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning: What was it like to grow up Jewish in Tangiers?
When I was born in 1938 and while growing up, Tangiers was an international city where you could meet people speaking different languages on the streets, unique among most countries in the world at that time. The most frequent were French or Spanish, and some Moroccan Arabic outside the European part of the city. Where were the Jews in that city? They were mixed with any and all parts of Tangiers’ society and at the same time, they always could keep their place as a specific Moroccan community.
For us children — I must say that I went to a French school and not a Jewish school — there was no difference between us and our schoolmates, who could be French, Spanish, Moroccan, or any other citizenship. I cannot remember any word or attitude that could qualify either pro- or anti-Jewish, although we all were aware of our specific identity.
To give an example, on Yom Kippur, anybody arriving in Tangiers would think he was in a Jewish country. Most of the shops, stores, and banks were closed; café terraces were empty. Some men wearing tallits walked in the mostly deserted streets. On Purim, you could see the servants carrying sweets and pastries from house to house as gifts.
Being Jewish was “normal.” Everybody was familiar with and respected other people’s religious festivities, like Spanish Catholic processions or Muslim feasts, etc. At home, my family kept the Jewish social and religious traditions.
I remember arriving in France completely overwhelmed, and that was only for a study abroad where I had ample resources and support. How would you describe your experience of immigrating to France?
I came to France not as an immigrant, but as a student, since at that time, in 1957, there was no university for literary studies in Morocco. Therefore, I came to France to continue my studies after graduating from a French high school in Morocco, and moreover I had a scholarship given by the new Moroccan government. My name is COHEN! This gives an idea of how there was no discrimination.
I was happy to come to France. I felt very lonely in Lyon when I arrived. My only consolation was that I spoke the language, but everything was different! Our life in Tangiers was closer to the Spanish way of life.
It took me a long time to be able to look for any Jewish connection and I did not find Sephardic contacts. An Ashkenazi synagogue was quite an unknown world to me!
As a young Jewish woman in Paris last year, I was able to visit the amazing Museum of Jewish Art and History and participate in Jewish communities of young people. What was being a young Jewish woman in mid-20th century France like for you?
As I told you, I had very little connection with the Jewish community in Lyon at that time. But living in France, I experienced antisemitism for the first time. I discovered that it was difficult to find a student room to rent from a family when your name was Cohen and you came from a foreign country, Morocco. I remember a nice conversation with a landlady who almost agreed to rent a room to me. As soon as I told my name, she suddenly remembered another girl or a boy whom she expected to give an answer.
This was 1957 and in spite of the years having passed, there were scars and memories from the war in the air.
It was so wonderful to meet your children and grandchildren and hear their childhood memories of you and your late Irish Catholic, American husband. What are some of your favorite memories of being a mother in a multicultural family?
Since I grew up in a multilingual family, raising one was easy for me. And multicultural, yes, we always were a Jewish family keeping Jewish holidays, of course, [while] also having a Christmas tree. I was careful to give the children names that could fit in all three languages — French, Spanish, and English, no translation!
As a passionate student of Yiddish, I was inspired by your commitment to Judeo-Spanish and its dialects, including Haketía and Ladino, as well as Sephardic culture in general. Can you talk about the work you’ve done with Judeo-Spanish and Sephardic culture, and what it means to you?
I discovered Ladino in Paris, attending the workshops of Haïm Vidal Sephiha. He was the founder and first professor to teach Judeo-Spanish in France and contributed to the rebirth of the language. Ladino is quite different from my dialect of Judeo-Spanish, Haketía, from Northern Morocco (Tangiers, Tetuan, Larache…). Judeo-Spanish languages are based on Spanish that was maintained by Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. These populations around the world carefully treasured their Spanish language and accepted the addition of words and expressions from their adopted countries and languages (Turkish, Arabic) and Hebrew.
I attended lectures and was an active member of Moroccan associations like France-Mabatt to preserve the language and the traditions of Tangiers; I contributed to some articles about Haketía as well.
I can say that my first language is a mixture of Spanish and Haketía. When I’m with a person from Morocco, I cannot help but address that person in Haketía — it’s like a reflex. I must say that what we spoke at home was more “real Spanish” than Haketía. Speaking Spanish meant that you were educated. We only spoke Haketía to tell jokes, Joha stories, and with the servants or the cook, who would come to the house occasionally to help my mother.
Bella, you have incredible wisdom and a unique perspective due to your wealth of life experiences. I’m wondering, do you have any advice for young Jewish people like myself?
I would say that the best value in life is to be natural, to be true to yourself. To be confident and never ashamed of what you are.