A mother’s intuition in 19th-century Tetuan

One unusual mother who encouraged her four daughters to improve their lives and pursue higher education and careers.

Marrakesh (photo credit: Clare Wrigglesworth)
(photo credit: Clare Wrigglesworth)
In 1860, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, created by French Jews seeking to modernize and educate their less fortunate brethren, began to establish educational facilities for Jewish boys living in Oriental communities. Eventually the Parisian directorate decided that girls deserved an education as well, so in 1882 it opened a school in Tetuan, Morocco.
Not all the members of this community were immediately thrilled with this prospect, as the Alliance’s ulterior motive, as well as the school’s long-term repercussions, were unclear to them. Many parents were not willing to allow their daughters to be exposed to Western ideas and/or to be absent from the home for so many hours each day.
Frances Malino, a professor at Wellesley College who researches French Jewry in the modern period, discovered one unusual mother who encouraged her four daughters – Claire, Hassiba, Allégrina and Sol – to improve their lives and pursue higher education as well as careers. (See “Prophets in their own Land? Mothers and Daughters of the Alliance Israélite Universelle,” Nashim 3 (2000).) The eldest daughter was enrolled in the new Alliance school at the age of 12; her stellar performance inspired her teacher to recommend allowing Claire to transfer to Paris, where she could pursue her studies as a scholarship student. Although this meant that Madame Messody Benchimol would be parting from her daughter for four long years, this mother apparently had an understanding of the necessity for change and adaptation.
The community of Tetuan was facing numerous difficulties at this time, and many of its members, particularly men of the younger generation, were opting to emigrate.
Even Claire’s brothers would not remain in the country; their mother calculated that having an educated daughter might be the best path to economic salvation.
Mme. Benchimol had unusual foresight in recognizing her daughter’s talents; prior to the establishment of the Alliance, the options available to her would have been few or nonexistent. Now, however, Claire could graduate with the equivalent of high honors. As a new Alliance teacher, she was sent back to work in her home town, where her mother was patiently awaiting her.
Claire insisted that her parents live with her as long as she was single; this decision was socially acceptable and sensible, especially since she was supporting them. Her mother then sent the three other girls to Paris to study, following in their sister’s footsteps. While Claire seemed to be the most independent of the four, their mother was behind all her daughters’ decisions during and after their studies. She supported them morally while they essentially supported her and her husband financially, before and after the latter’s death.
As a result, Mme. Benchimol had no choice but to move away from Tetuan when her daughters were appointed to schools in other locales. For eight years, she resided with her second daughter in Tangier, Fez and Larache. During this time, she, Hassiba and Sol became ill; Sol, the youngest, died after contracting typhoid.
In 1905, Mme. Benchimol moved to Tripoli, where Claire and her husband, also an Alliance teacher, had been living for five years along with Allégrina, now Claire’s assistant. She helped Claire and her husband care for their family, never dreaming that Claire would die that year in childbirth. Allégrina then took over her sister’s roles, both as director of the school and as a mother to her children.
While Hassiba was in Monastir, her mother visited her for a while, but mainly remained in Tripoli for about 13 years. As her mother’s health declined, Allégrina requested and was granted a transfer to Morocco, which enabled her to move with the family to Mogador, but Mme. Benchimol unfortunately did not survive the year.
This Moroccan mother was concerned with the continuity of tradition as well as enabling her daughters’ adaptation to modernity. Her decisions enabled all four daughters to leap into a new world comprising European culture and values. The Alliance could not have succeeded in educating these girls if their parents – in this case, their mother – had not agreed and supported this path, which would change their lives as well as those of future generations.
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute. She is currently a fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies.