Book Review | The Many Layers of Jewish Identity

By | Jul 19, 2023
The Shamama Case book cover

The Shamama Case: Contesting Citizenship Across the Modern Mediterranean
By Jessica M. Marglin
Princeton, 384 pp.

Forsaking one’s native country for another place can create an odd mix of new and old identities. Sometime in the 1890s, my grandfather Yoel Nysan Tziganski disembarked in New York City, never to return to the land of his birth, Russia. By 1905 he was a working tailor, married, and had a newborn American son, my father. Early on, my grandfather changed his name to Louis Siegel (the family name of a relative). Roughly a century later, when my father died a few weeks shy of 99, I confirmed that Louis had made another significant change.

My father’s voluminous albums of family photos (most showing my mother in front of Europe’s and America’s great sights) fell to me for, the polite word nowadays, “curation.” Among the photos and slides of my relatives, I came across Grandpa Louis’s naturalization document, which stated that he was born in Russia in 1880 and became an American citizen in 1940. My father always suspected that his father had been born earlier, though, and recently a genealogist nailed down the year of his birth for me: 1875. That means he delayed becoming a citizen until he was 65, 20 years before his death.

I never thought to question my father about why Louis took almost half a century to become a citizen of the country where he and his wife had raised four children. I now assume that my father, a teacher who traveled to Europe in the 1930s and returned in uniform in the 1940s, urged his parents to nail down their status in the United States at a time when Jews across the pond were facing the loss of theirs. As for how Louis saw himself, things were even more complicated. The town where he was born was ruled by Russia at the time but had earlier been (and would later be again) in Poland. In America, the Landsmanshaft of the town where he settled, which saw to community issues, burials and other matters for fellow immigrants, conducted its business in Louis’s native Yiddish, so for some organizational purposes I believe he remained Tziganski. In the synagogue, he was still Yoel Nysan ben Moshe. Grandpa’s national identity was a many-layered thing.

What prompts my reflection on this hardly atypical bit of immigrant Jewish family history is reading Jessica Marglin’s study of a late-19th-century court case in Italy. The case concerned the contested will of a man who, unlike my grandfather, was fabulously rich but, like my forebears, made the crossing to a new country while never quite fully shedding the influence of the old one. Marglin finds in the wonderfully named court case Shamama v. Shamama wise insights into the nature of citizenship and the differences between the acquisition of rights, the acknowledgment of a nation’s laws and a sense of belonging to a country.

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Even if it packed no socio-historical payoff, the tale of the litigation among the Shamamas on its own would still be worth the retelling. It possesses the elements of a made-for-tabloid courtroom saga or a Mizrahi Bleak House, a cautionary tale of exhausting litigation. The case, which lasted ten and a half years before finally being settled, began after Nissim Shamama, a Tunisian-born Jew, wrote a will in his home in Livorno, Italy, and then died there not long after, in 1873. His main purpose was to leave the largest part of his very large estate to his beloved grandniece ‘Aziza, whom Nissim, having failed to produce children with any of his three wives, adored as a father would a daughter. Nissim had made a fortune in his native Tunisia, where he was leader of the Jewish community, Tunisia’s top tax collector and director of finance, as well as the owner of much property. He served the Tunisian prime minister, who served the Bey of Tunis, who served the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. In his time, tax collecting could make a man rich, and rich he was. Author Marglin informs us that around the time of Shamama’s death, the average estate of the richest one-tenth of one percent in Paris (where Shamama had spent much of the 1860s) was 4.6 million francs. When Shamama’s property was inventoried after his death, it was appraised at more than 27 million francs. His financial orbit was somewhere between the very, very rich and the Rothschilds.

A taxpayer revolt had led him to forsake his native Tunisia for France. Later, the Franco-Prussian War and the bloodshed close to home in the Paris Commune had induced him to leave France for Livorno. His will departed from Jewish custom by leaving only small bequests to his closest male relations, most notably his nephew Momo (short for Solomon). Momo had not only succeeded Nissim as receiver of revenues in Tunis but had also lived lavishly on the government’s credit, assuming that his ability to repay was assured by the inheritance coming his way when Nissim died. So, when the will that favored ‘Aziza came to light, not only did Momo and some other stiffed male kinsmen challenge it; the Tunisian government did, too.

The case of Shamama v. Shamama thus pitted Momo and company, backed by the Tunisians, against ‘Aziza, her husband and her young son Nissim Jr. The questions that occupied the Italian courts were: Was the will valid? By what legal system should that question be answered? Applying Italian law would likely uphold a will written in Livorno. Applying Tunisian law would not merely pay off Momo’s debts but, since Tunisia let the Jewish community manage its own family law, would mean handling the matter under Jewish law and would likely favor Momo and the other offended male heirs. And lurking behind that question was an equally complex one: In terms of national identity, what was Nissim Shamama?

The land of his birth was Tunisia, in Nissim’s day a far-flung Ottoman province that enjoyed substantial autonomy from Istanbul. By the time the litigation was over, Tunisia was a French “protectorate” (the French using “protection” in a way that Tony Soprano would have recognized). Shamama could not read or write Arabic and had pointedly fled Tunisia to evade his angry, overtaxed countrymen. He wrote and spoke Judaeo-Arabic and had grown up and made his fortune under the Islamic dhimma system, by which Jews and Christians in Muslim lands were ostensibly protected minorities, left to manage their own social affairs but of a plainly secondary status to Muslims. As an adult, Nissim Shamama had wangled a decree of Italian citizenship and, for a price, a title of nobility (he was made a count) from the king of the young Italian nation-state. But he had failed to register his newly acquired nationality within the requisite six months. ‘Aziza’s lawyers said that he had left Tunisia with no intent of ever returning and was therefore not a Tunisian (although his past indulgence in polygamy in search of a fertile mate certainly bespoke his roots on the southern shore of the Mediterranean). Momo’s lawyers responded that Tunisia did not recognize the loss of Tunisian nationality; if you entered life a Tunisian, that’s how you ended it, too.

Italy’s greatest scholar of international law argued for one side. His son-in-law, his successor as chaired professor of the subject in Rome, argued for the other. As it happened, Nissim had been as sloppy with Jewish rules as he had been with the king’s grant of “Italian-ness,” failing to get the required rabbinical approval for his unorthodox will. So both sides also retained Jewish legal scholars. Tunisian rabbis backed Tunisia. Rabbis recruited from Jerusalem supported ‘Aziza.

Citizenship and nationality were more fluid concepts than we think of today.

By the time it was all settled (in ‘Aziza’s favor), lawyers from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East had contributed briefs—in the original trial and two appellate trials—and all had billed, and billed handsomely, for their services. By the end, nearly all the claimants had sold their rights to shares of the estate to an unscrupulous German banker whose past usurious loans to Tunisia (negotiated with Shamama himself back in the day) had helped create the fiscal crisis that led to the increased taxes that led to the taxpayer revolt that led Nissim Shamama to relocate to the north side of the Mediterranean to begin with.
Along the way, Italian jurists pondered questions that go to the heart of the concept of “belonging” that Marglin’s book explores. Did the autonomy they were granted over their social affairs amount to “rights” for the Jews of Tunisia? Was the Jews’ status in Tunisia significantly less worthy of judicial respect than, say, the status of Jews in Prussia? Did Shamama’s claim (unsupported and questionable) of descent from Sephardic Jews who had fled the Iberian peninsula for Livorno, and then sailed off to Tunisia to make their way, lend substance to his acquired, if not properly filed, citizenship in Italy? Was halacha the law of the Jews just as Italian law was the law of Italy? One jurist wrote of Jews as a nation (self-described as such in the phrase “Am Yisrael”) without a state, which was just how Italians had seen themselves before their recent unification.

The idea that the law of the land they left behind can follow immigrants to their new homeland may seem absurd today. But in the late 19th century, as the European powers nibbled away at the provinces of the improvident Ottoman Empire, it was familiar in certain contexts. The Ottomans conceded a right of “extraterritoriality” to European subjects living in Ottoman domains. An Italian in Tunis enjoyed the protection of the Italian consul there: It protected him from the Tunisian courts in case of trouble and assured him safe exit out of Tunisia if that was needed. In 1860, France, having invaded Algiers 30 years earlier, granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews: A Jew from Algiers could accordingly do business in Tunis protected by the French consul in a way that an ordinary Tunisian Jew, protected by no foreign power, could not. Citizenship and nationality were more fluid concepts than we think of today, passports did not enjoy their present-day importance and authority, and, as the author observes, citizenship didn’t come with many of the benefits we associate with today’s welfare state until after World War I.

Marglin also raises the unanswerable question of how Nissim Shamama thought of himself. A noble Italian immigrant from Tunisia? A Tunisian on the lam? A stateless Jew? We will never know the answer. Nor will I ever know why my Grandpa Louis, his roots having taken hold early in American soil, spent a biblical 40-years-plus neglecting to claim the legal status that guaranteed the rights he enjoyed here, citizenship in the United States of America. Although he was not a talkative man, I suspect his story would have taken some time to tell.

Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary correspondent. 

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