Fulbright fellow to study Jewish culture in Morocco

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When Samantha Lief, then a student at Mills College in Oakland, saw the film "Blacks and Jews" at the Jewish Film Festival two years ago, she realized something was missing in her life — her Jewish identity.

In the panel discussion after the film, one speaker remarked that many American Jews try to overcome anxieties about being Jewish by fighting for other oppressed groups.

"The statement struck a chord deep within me because this was exactly what I was doing," said Lief, whose anxiety stemmed from growing up in a non-religious family. "How can I fight intolerance in the world before regenerating a personal, cultural and national identity that I can be proud of? This starts by honestly facing my anxieties the only way I know — intellectually."

Lief, 24, will have a chance to do exactly that this fall. Recently named a Fulbright fellow, the Oakland resident is embarking on a 10-month trip to Morocco to study the country's French-language Jewish literature and communities.

Lief received her grant from the Fulbright Student Program, which is one of the grants offered by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. The program is administered by the U.S. Information Agency and funded by the federal government and other sources.

She applied to study in Morocco because of multiple interests in comparative literature, French, Arabic and religious studies — along with a renewed curiosity in Judaism. Jews have lived in the North African country for more than 2,000 years.

"I have always loved French, but I also wanted to take Arabic and learn more about Judaism," said Lief, who grew up in Minnesota and graduated in May with a degree in French and comparative literature. "After I had done some research, it was clear that Morocco was the place for me."

Lief, who was set to leave for Morocco's capital of Rabat yesterday, is one of about 2,000 American citizens who will study abroad on a Fulbright scholarship in the 1999-2000 academic year.

Fluent in French, Lief will audit classes in literature and Arabic at the Université Mohammed V. She is hoping to live with one of the capital's some 400 Jewish families.

But the bulk of Lief's research will not be in university classrooms. Instead, she plans on visiting Jewish cemeteries, libraries, synagogues and the old mellahs or Jewish quarters. She has a contact list of Jewish cultural centers and families in eight Moroccan cities.

One reason Lief chose to study in Morocco is that the nation contains a mix of cultures. Eleven different languages are spoken in Morocco, and Jews, Christians and Muslims live there in peace. Although her background is in literature, a large part of Lief's research will be a sociological study of how Jews and Arabs interact.

"In Morocco there are Jews, Arabs and Berbers and there is peace between them," she said.

Although she found several modern Moroccan Jewish writers while researching her thesis on French-language literature, only one of them was a novelist — Edmond Amrane El Maleh. He is a journalist who spends most of his time writing for French newspapers in Paris, but his novels gave Lief an insight into modern Jewish life in Morocco.

"El Maleh is an interpreter, historian and witness of this vanishing community," Lief said. "This literature is especially worth studying."

Lief is also hoping to identify a stronger female presence in Moroccan Jewish literature by interviewing Moroccan scholars as well as women in the public bathhouses, a place where feminine oral history has been passed on for generations. She only knew of two Moroccan Jewish female writers when she wrote her thesis last year, but she has found four more women writers since she won the Fulbright grant.

Lief plans to return to the Bay Area next year and to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature.