Cover image for The house of Jacob
The house of Jacob
Courtine-Denamy, Sylvie.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Maison de Jacob. English
Publication Information:
Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xviii, 168 pages : illustrations, map ; 23 cm
Personal Subject:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS135.F89 C6813 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this touching and beautifully written book, Sylvie Courtine-Denamy traces her family's exile after their expulsion in 1492 at the time of Spanish unification. Their journey leads her to the exotic ports of Salonika, Constantinople, Bayonne, and Varna, to the cosmopolitan centers of Vienna and Paris, to America and Israel, and to Auschwitz. As she notes, while place and time separate us from those we love or never knew, something continues to link us. For Courtine-Denamy this "something" is, in part, language the Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) that is still spoken, whether on the banks of the Danube, on the Aegean Sea, or along the quays of the Seine. This powerful and moving history of one woman's family will strike a chord with those who have experienced exile and displacement. Julia Kristeva's foreword, which describes the book as being like a "refreshing spring shower," unearths a political intention in this carefully crafted story. One of the undercurrents in The House of Jacob, she notes, seems to be an implied criticism of the language policies of the State of Israel, in particular the imposition of the "sacred" language of Hebrew as a medium of everyday exchange, of domesticity, and of intimacy. Courtine-Denamy presents Sephardic culture as a counterpoint to the perceived prevalence of Ashkenazi culture in forming Jewish identity."

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In Courtine-Denamy's memoir of her Sephardic Jewish family, she begins with their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and continues through the Holocaust. Courtine-Denamy, the author of Three Women in Dark Times: Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil 0 (2000), was born in Neuilly, France. She traveled through her native country, as well as through Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, the U.S., and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, in chronicling their long history. She writes of how her father was deported to a camp in Turkey in 1943, where he worked building roads. Another relative was sent from Salonika to Auschwitz and murdered there the same year. The author details the customs in the countries in which her family lived, how these customs changed from generation to generation, and how the Jews were tolerated--or abused--leading up to the Holocaust. Courtine-Denamy's powerful prose is\b \b0 a haunting work and a loving tribute to her extended family. --George Cohen Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The author of this intimate history of a Sephardic Jewish family, an associate researcher at Centre des Religions du Livre at France's prestigious Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, was raised by nonobservant parents (as a schoolgirl, she insolently declared to her rabbi-teacher, "At our place we eat ham sandwiches!") who had changed the family surname from the Sephardic Coenca to a more French-sounding Denamy. It was only after their deaths that she took to heart her father's lifelong, if undefined, admonition to his only child: Zakhor (remember). But remember what? Both parents had been stingy with family lore. So she seeks out relatives as far-flung as California and Israel to augment and corroborate the scant stories she has. In Spain, she finds records of an ancestor, Juan Cuenca, a convert to Catholicism who in 1490 was posthumously found guilty by the Inquisition of secretly practicing Judaism. His grandson Joan, acquitted two years later of the same charge, left for Ottoman Turkey when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Like an archeologist trying to resurrect an entire civilization through assorted pottery shards, Denamy uses DNA and imagination to recreate her family's history. Among other things, she discovers the origin of some of the Judeo-Spanish idioms she grew up with. (The book is rife with Judeo-Spanish and includes a glossary of terms, as well as an indispensable family tree.) Readers with a more poetic turn of mind will appreciate Courtine-Denamy's journey as she traces her family from Salonika, Bulgaria and Constantinople to Israel, Austria and France. This slim volume was awarded the Alberto Benveniste Prize for Sephardi Literature in 2002. 1 map. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Profoundly moved by the death of her parents, French academic Courtine-Denamy (Three Women in Dark Times) traces her family's roots back to the Spanish village of Cuenca, where her earliest known ancestors were Sepharadic Jews exiled during the Inquisition. Ranging over three continents, several countries, and a dozen generations, she recounts the fates of various relatives up through her parents as they move through Salonika, Constantinople, Bayonne, Varna, Vienna, Israel, America, Paris, and the Nazi occupation. Courtine-Denamy addresses much of her writing to her ancestors, speaking in the second person throughout much of the book-a technique that adds a degree of animation to the author's dead relatives but often doesn't work as the author must rely on presumption. Oral anecdotes and the author's memories enliven the text, as does the frequent use of expressions in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, all documented in a glossary. As a capsule of history, this is an ambitious undertaking by a woman driven to preserve a culture and, especially, a language that has no home country. Julia Kristeva notes in the foreword that Courtine-Denamy's testimonial to the Judeo-Spanish language is a valuable counterpoint to the overwhelming recognition of Hebrew as the language of the Jews. Suitable for Jewish studies collections.-Janet Sassi, New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.