A Kol Nidre Prayer on the German Warfront in 1870

Even on Yom Kippur, German Jews in the 19th century were ready to sacrifice themselves for their homeland

A Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz, 1870

The Franco-Prussian War broke out in the summer of 1870 and ended about six months later with the defeat of France. The war brought about the unification of the many German states and the establishment of the Second Reich.

These were not the first Jewish soldiers to fight for their country, far from it. Years before, Jews were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian and French armies. Jewish soldiers also took part in the American War of Independence, and the Russian army forcibly took Jewish children from their homes for military service as early as the 1820s, following the Cantonist Decree. In 1870, German Jews saw the war against France as an opportunity to show their gratitude for the equal rights they had been granted not long before. Against this background, about 4,700 Jews joined the German army to fight for their homeland.

On August 19th, 1870, the French Army of the Rhine retreated to the fortresses of the city of Metz and the Prussian army imposed a siege on the city.

One of the Metz fortresses after the war

The German Jews who were among the soldiers maintaining the siege must have hoped that it would end before the Jewish High Holidays. But Rosh Hashanah came, and the siege of Metz remained in place. The Jewish soldiers were allowed to hold prayers, but there were no chaplains to handle the preparations and lead the ceremonies. A young rabbi named Isaac Blumenstein took up the task, arriving at the military camp on September 30, just before Yom Kippur. The prayers were to take place at the First Army headquarters in the village of Sainte-Barbe, about eight kilometers from the battlefield.

The rabbi was offered to hold the Yom Kippur prayers in a local Catholic church. He refused and instead turned his and his neighbor’s personal quarters into a makeshift prayer space. Two candles were placed on a table that substituted as the bimah, and some 60 to 70 soldiers gathered there for the prayer.

Rabbi Blumenstein’s description of the event

Rabbi Blumenstein described the extraordinary event in an article that was published in the press after the holiday. A few days later, a soldier who had been there described it in a letter, adding that some officers and members of the command had also come. The soldier described Rabbi Blumenstein’s stirring sermon and how it even moved some to tears.

The German artist Hermann Junker (who was not Jewish) created two paintings commemorating the Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz in 1870. Not having been present at the event, the artist had to imagine both scenes, although the first painting is based on Rabbi Blumenstein’s description. The caption at the bottom of a postcard featuring the painting describes it as the Kol Nidre prayer on the eve of the Yom Kippur holiday. At prayers the next day, since there was no Torah scroll, Rabbi Blumenstein recited the Torah reading and Haftarah from memory.

Postcard based on Junker’s painting

The second painting documents the Yom Kippur-day prayers being held outdoors in an open field. The painting shows dozens of soldiers, most of them wrapped in their prayer shawls and holding prayer books, gathered around a rock that is being used as a bimah. At the center are three soldiers reading from the Torah scroll. Piles of weapons and even a cannon are shown at the ready. A number of civilians are also included in the picture.

This painting is based on a description written by an anonymous soldier before Yom Kippur that was published in the Jewish press after the holiday. His description noted that 1,174 Jewish soldiers from Silesia and Poznań were planning on attending the prayer. The soldier wrote that, with God’s grace and in the hopes that the French commander — that is, the enemy — would allow it, the prayer would take place in an open field. The soldiers would wear their Pickelhaubes (the typical Prussian spiked helmet) and wrap themselves in their prayer shawls. During the prayer, their non-Jewish comrades would keep watch from a distance to avoid any disruptions. However, things did not go as planned because shortly before the prayer service was to begin, most of the soldiers were called away on a mission.

Yom Kippur prayers in the field

Nevertheless, the painting of the prayer on the battlefield thrilled all who saw it. German Jews viewed it as conclusive proof of their loyalty, notwithstanding their religion and beliefs, to the German people and their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the homeland.

The importance of the German Jews’ military service in the war is also evident in a pamphlet published at the beginning of the war containing a sermon by Rabbi Rahmer of Magdeburg in German, which also included quotes in Hebrew from the scriptures.  The pamphlet is titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”).

The pamphlet was titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”)

In 1871, after the war was over, a memorial book was published for the Jewish soldiers who served in the Prussian army. The book describes the war’s events and includes a long roster of the names of all the Jewish soldiers who fought in it as well as special mention of the 70 or so Jewish soldiers who were awarded the “Iron Cross” for bravery in battle.

Unlike the painting commemorating the more modest service in Rabbi Blumenstein’s private quarters, Junker’s painting of the Yom Kippur prayers in the open field was copied, elaborated and distributed across Germany and beyond. It inspired other paintings of the same event, most of them more elaborate and detailed than Junker’s original, even replacing the natural rock bimah with a proper one as well as a Torah ark. In some of the paintings, non-Jewish soldiers are seen in the surrounding mountains guarding the Jews as they pray in the open field. One picture even shows Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Bismarck, Chief of Staff von Moltke and other high ranking officers in attendance.

The Prussian military leadership at the prayer

Another notable difference between Junker’s original image and the versions it inspired is that most of the later versions were colored, which made it possible to distinguish between the different military uniforms and units. Some of these versions also added poems and prayers in German and Hebrew.

An illustration inspired by Junker’s painting

Junker’s painting also inspired a version that was printed on red cloth and decorated with inscriptions, most notably the verse featured at the top from the book of Malachi (2:10): “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” In other words reflecting the notion that all German soldiers are equal, regardless of their religion.

Cloth banner with the quotation from Malachi

Forty-four years after the Franco Prussian-War, Germany was at war again. Many photographs document German Jewish soldiers praying at different locations on the various Jewish holidays throughout the First World War. But the German Jewish families who still had Junker’s famous picture hanging on their walls must have been happy to see a similar painting from the latest war. In the first year of the Great War, an artist by the name of Pusch painted a picture inspired by Junker’s from 1870. Although it records a different place and time, here too, a large group of Jewish soldiers is portrayed praying for their salvation and the success of their countrymen on the battlefield.

Jewish soldiers praying during the First World War, inspired by Junker’s 1870 painting

Who Are You Calling a “Shluh”?!

In modern-day Israel, the word "shluh" is sometimes used as an offensive term to describe a person of disheveled or messy appearance. The word in fact hails from Morocco, where it referred negatively to a certain ethnic group, and was used disparagingly by city dwellers to describe uncultured village folk...

Members of a local tribe in the Atlas Mountains, 1955. Source: Tropenmuseum

The idea for this article originated several years ago when I asked my grandmother how many languages ​​she spoke. The exact number was hard to pin down since she spoke several Arabic dialects, along with French and Spanish, but I was interested in one in particular—Shluhit in Hebrew, or Shilha in English—or as it was originally called, Tashelhit. Grandmother Ladisia told me that she had learned it in order to communicate with her mother-in-law who only spoke Shilha. The name of the language immediately brought to mind the derogatory word shluh, used in Israel to describe someone of disheveled or messy appearance.

In a previous article, we dealt with the insulting and false characterization applied to residents of the city of Chelm in Poland. In this article we will delve into the story of the Shilha people, and the origins of the offensive term shluh. The word was originally imported from Morocco, where it was often used to malign an entire community, in similar fashion to what happened to the people of Chelm in Poland and also the Ḥourani in Syria.

Jews from the Atlas Mountain region in the early 20th century, Jewish Encyclopedia

Shilha or Tashelhit is just one of several Berber languages spoken in Morocco. The Shilha people (Shluhim in Hebrew), a Berber subgroup, live in the southwest of Morocco, where they are scattered across approximately one thousand villages that are connected through trade relations. This area also had the largest number of Jews in Morocco living in proximity to the Berbers.

The earliest record of Jews and Berbers living in proximity in Morocco dates back to the 3rd century CE, but according to the Jewish oral tradition of southern Morocco, Jews arrived in the area as early as the First Temple period, some 3000 years ago. This tradition apparently is an attempt to dispel the theory that the region’s Jews are descended from Berbers who converted to Judaism sometime in the first centuries of the Common Era. The region’s Jews instead see themselves as descendants of King David’s soldiers, who pursued the Philistines as far as North Africa, according to the local tradition, under the command of David’s general Yoav (Joab) ben Zeruiah.

As a result of the geographical proximity, the Jews and the Shilha developed informal yet close relations. It is thus no coincidence that the local Jews learned to speak Tashelhit. To this day, the Jews who lived in these communities can remember many of the proverbs, songs and customs of their Berber neighbors. The vast majority of these Jews would end up immigrating to Israel in the great immigration wave of the early 1950s, before Morocco gained its independence.

The mostly rural Shilha made a living from agriculture. The Jews, on the other hand, were considered dhimmi according to Islamic Sharia law, meaning a protected class that was barred from owning land. Therefore Jews primarily worked as merchants who would travel in small groups from their village to the surrounding areas, selling their wares and offering services. Some also financed the small farming initiatives of their Berber neighbors by buying them seeds. At harvest time, the Jewish investors were entitled to three quarters of the agricultural yield.

For over forty years, Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Chetrit conducted countless interviews with Moroccan Jews and their Berber neighbors. In an article on the simultaneously intimate yet distant relationship between the two communities, he writes that even after many decades, the Jews’ Shilha neighbors remember dozens of Hebrew expressions, such as prutim (money) and the beverage known as Mahia – a Jewish-Moroccan brandy. During the long period when they lived in proximity to each other, the Jews were commemorated as shrewd merchants in a number of Berber sayings, such as: “Jews in the market are like salt in the dough”.

An outdoor market in Morocco, the Bitmuna Collection


A female member of the Shilha, from southern Morocco. Source: Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

But the Jews and their Shilha neighbors shared more than just economic relations. The Berbers visited the same Jewish gravesites the Jews flocked to during traditional hilulah celebrations commemorating the passing of Jewish holy figures. Jewish healers frequently received their Shilha neighbors who were not afraid to make use of their mystical charms, amulets and potions.

The Jews and Shilha also shared common customs and would dance and sing together at public ceremonies. While the Jews of the region avoided taking part in Berber customs related to the Muslim faith, both groups were well acquainted with each other’s calendars. Besides greeting their Jewish neighbors with the words “happy holiday” (hag sameah) or “easy fast” (tsom kal), the multitude of holidays and festivals created many economic opportunities. Before the Sabbath and ahead of Jewish holidays, the Shilha would sell agricultural products to Jews as well as the reeds needed to build the sukkah, while the Jewish women marketed their seamstress skills to their Muslim neighbors as they prepared for their own festivals.

Cooperation between Jews and Muslims was especially noticeable in the days leading up to the Mimouna celebration. During the Passover holiday, Jews would bring offerings to their Muslim acquaintances; including matzoh, pies, and sometimes a meat stew, and in return, the Muslims brought the Jews milk, butter, honey, eggs and flour, the ingredients necessary for the preparation of the Mimouna delicacies.

Photograph of a young Jewish woman from the Atlas Mountain region on the cover of the newspaper L’Avenir Illustré, with the headline: “Our Research of the Malaḥim,” March 19, 1931. Click here to read the article

So how did a group as diverse and productive as the Shilha come to be associated with a disparaging epithet meaning a disheveled person who cannot be trusted? This offensive term that referred to rural Muslims and Jews alike was brought to Israel by immigrants from Morocco.

In 1931, the French-language Jewish newspaper L’Avenir Illustré (“The Illustrated Future”) published an article by Charles Abehsera of the city of Rabat in its Jeune Israel (“Young Israel”) section. Abehsera wrote about the rural Jewish migrants flooding his city, referring to one of them as a “shluh.” In the article, Abehsera described the individual as an old Jewish man making a living from handouts and tourists who paid him a small sum to take his picture. Another thing that bothered Abehsera was the fact that this “shluh” accepted alms on Shabbat, in violation of Jewish religious law.

Abehsera, a young representative of the Western Moroccan Jews, distanced himself from the “shluh”, whom he viewed as a dirty and undesirable individual who spoke neither Arabic nor French, but only the Berber language. The “Young Israel” section of L’Avenir Illustré was read by the Jewish youth in Morocco who typically received a French education in the Jewish Alliance schools. These young boys and girls spoke French and identified with European Western values more than with traditional Moroccan values​.

Abehsera certainly did not invent the term “shluh,” but he used it to differentiate himself and his community from the newcomers who were moving into the city from the rural areas. Incidentally, the word “Berber” also stems from a pejorative term. The Berbers call themselves “Amaziye’im” (“Imaziye’in” meaning “freemen”). However, the word Berber derives from the ancient Greek word Barbaros (βάρβαρος), which the Greeks used to refer to anyone who did not speak Greek.


“The Tourists in the Mellah of Rabat,” click on the image to read the article

Regardless of the young Abehsera’s views and the desire of many of Morocco’s urban Jews to differentiate themselves from the Berber-speaking Jews, it is important to understand that until the Jews left Morocco, half of the country’s population (Muslim and Jewish) spoke Berber as a first or second language. After Morocco’s independence and the introduction of a state education system, this number dropped to about 30 percent. Most of the Berber-speaking Jews spoke the Tashelhit dialect, and for some (for example the people of Tifnit in the Souss Valley region) Tashelhit was their mother tongue at least until the French occupation. The French protectorate’s road-building efforts connected the villages to the larger cities, which led to the migration of rural populations to urban centers. The slanderous label was an outcome of the city folk’s encounter with the villagers.

The complex relationship between the Jews and their Shilha neighbors is an important part of the story of Moroccan immigration to Israel, just as it is part of Morocco’s history. The two groups not only lived side by side in the same villages for perhaps thousands of years, but also shared beliefs and customs, such as veneration of local saints, folk medicine and a whole repertoire of Berber song, dance, folk tales and sayings. Therefore, the dismissal of Shilha culture and the disdain towards it — which began already in Morocco — serve to undermine a significant element of North African Jewish culture.

Despite the complex and delicate relations that existed between the neighboring populations, the Jews and Berbers have come to embrace their common past. The Jews’ departure from Morocco severely impacted the Berber and Shilha rural economy for years. Before the establishment of formal relations between Israel and Morocco, nostalgia for these bygone relations led to the idealization of Jewish life in the villages and towns in Morocco in the past. Today, with travel to Morocco now possible, Israelis of Moroccan origin can see for themselves the living conditions in the villages and renew the ties forged over the generations between their ancestors and the Amaziye’in.


Thanks to Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Chetrit and Dr. David Guedj for their help in preparing this article.


Further Reading:

Joseph Yossi Chetrit, Intimacy, Cooperation and Ambivalence: Social, Economic and Cultural Interaction between Jews and Berbers in Morocco, European Judaism, Volume 52, No. 2, 2019: pp. 18-30

Joseph Yossi Chetrit, “Judeo-Berber in Morocco” in: Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present, Edited by Benjamin Hary & Sarah Bunin Benor (De Gruyter, 2018)

David Guedj, “‘Jeune Israel’: Multiple Modernities of Jewish Childhood and Youth in Morocco in the First Half of the Twentieth Century”, Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 112, Number 2, 2022, pp. 316-343

דוד גדג’, דיוקנאות, ארץ־ישראל והקהילות היהודיות במרוקו: המסרים החזותיים בעיתון

L’Avenir Illustré

 מרכז יד בן-צבי


The Opera That Survived the Ghetto: The Story of “The Kaiser of Atlantis”

Under a perpetual shadow of death, as train after train was sent to Auschwitz, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien, imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, composed a searing opera satirizing the awful reality in Europe. Both were murdered, but a suitcase filled with Ullmann's works survived to tell the story of the human spirit’s triumph over death


Self-portrait of Peter Kien and a photograph of Viktor Ullmann, source: Wikipedia

In 1943, as the Nazi regime presided over its network of concentration and death camps, as Jews were sent to their deaths on train after train, two prisoners in the Theresienstadt Ghetto secretly composed an opera decrying what was happening in Europe. The two were Viktor Ullmann, a rising Austrian composer of Polish-Jewish origin, and Peter Kien, a promising young painter, poet and playwright. Their opera was never performed in this “model” ghetto, which to cover up its sinister purpose, housed a fully operational theater and a full schedule of productions. The opera’s composers and cast were all murdered eventually, but miraculously the libretto and music survived, and in the 1970s the opera was even produced on stage. How did this miracle happen?

Ghetto currency from the Theresienstadt Ghetto, designed by Peter Kien. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Shturman Family Archive. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel, see here as well.

Sent together to Auschwitz

Viktor Ullmann was born on January 1, 1898 in Teschen (Czech Republic), an area that was then part of to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ulllmann’s parents had converted to Christianity before he was born, enabling his father to pursue a military career. When Viktor was 11 years old, the family moved to Vienna, where he continued his studies in music theory and piano. Viktor was discharged from the army in 1918 after a short period of military service during World War I, and went to study law and musical composition. A year later he left for Prague, where he devoted himself to music. He conducted a choir and worked as a rehearsal pianist. This was how he made a living as he wandered across Europe before returning permanently to Prague in 1933. After the Nazi occupation in 1939, he managed to smuggle two of his children to England on the kindertransport, although both died there at a young age. Ullmann was deported to Theresienstadt in September 1942 along with his third wife and their young son. He was reunited there with his eldest son who had already arrived. Some of Ullmann’s works from this period have been preserved.

Not long after arriving in the ghetto, Ullmann became one of the central figures in the musical scene that developed in Theresienstadt. He wrote music reviews, organized concerts and wrote musical compositions, 16 of which have been preserved and four that have apparently been lost forever. In the ghetto, Ullmann began to integrate Jewish motifs into his music. Some claim his works show a musical identity that combines all his national identities—Jewish, German and Czech. Ullmann kept his musical works and writings in a suitcase which he gave to the ghetto librarian, Professor Emil Utitz, before his deportation to Auschwitz. Utitz, who survived the war, moved to England, and thus saved Ullmann’s works.

Viktor Ullmann in a drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of Jewish-Theatre.com

Peter Kien was born in 1919, coincidentally also on January 1. Kien was born to a Jewish family living in Varnsdorf, on the Czech-German border. The family moved to Brno, now in the Czech Republic, in 1929. His artistic talent was noticeable from a young age. At 14, his paintings were already being displayed at exhibitions. Graduating from high school with honors and special recognition for his talent in painting and writing, he immediately began his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1939, he was expelled due to the Nazi racial laws, after which he began teaching art in the Jewish community. He tried to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine but did not receive the coveted certificate due to a heart condition. In 1940, he married Ilse Stransky, who was four years his senior. His attempt to immigrate with his family to the United States and Turkey also failed.

In December 1941, he was deported to Theresienstadt where he was assigned the job of assistant director of the technical drawing department. Unsatisfied with the technical work, Kien risked his life by stealing office stationary which he used for his art. Most of the paintings he left are painted on both sides of the page. He gave his paintings to Helga Wolfstein, a fellow artist with whom he was having an extramarital affair in the ghetto. Helga kept the suitcase containing the approximately 500 paintings and drawings in the ghetto clinic’s department of infectious diseases, where her mother worked. After the war, she took the suitcase back to her hometown of Brno, where it was confiscated by the communist authorities. The works are now in the memorial museum in Terezin.

Kien and Ullmann were deported together on the transport that left Theresienstadt on October 16 and arrived in Auschwitz two days later.


“The Kaiser of Atlantis”: A timeless protest from the depths of the ghetto

In Theresienstadt, Kien and Ullmann wrote an opera called The Kaiser of Atlantis (or The Emperor of Atlantis). Kien wrote the libretto and Ullmann composed the music. The opera has only one act and just four scenes, but every detail is meaningful and the deeper one looks, the more layers of meaning one finds. The words and music were written on the backs of papers containing prisoner lists and prisoner requests, which were apparently stolen at great personal risk from the ghetto offices. The opera begins with all the singers coming on stage with suitcases. The cry “Hallo! Hallo! Achtung! Achtung!” comes over a loudspeaker, evoking the announcements in the camps, everyone is assigned a role and each person then leaves to go and dress accordingly. In this scene one might recognize the erasure of identity that happened in the camps, the arbitrariness of determining people’s fates based solely on their origin, or perhaps the idea that evil exists in every person. We can only assume that this is exactly the message the opera’s creators were aiming for.

The story is set in an imaginary Atlantis, where Emperor Überall (loosely translated – “Emperor Above-All”, a name that recalls the Nazi anthem “Deutschland über alles”) elects to wage a total war—everyone against everyone. The Angel of Death then decides to go on strike because of humanity’s attempt to usurp his job, decreeing that no one will die. The executions ordered by the emperor fail. A soldier and a young woman fight and wound each other almost to the death, but somehow fall in love at the same time. In the end, all the characters ask for death, even the emperor, who explains to Death itself that people cannot live without it.

Portrait of Ilse Stransky, part of a two sided work by Peter Kien. Courtesy of the Museum of Holocaust Art, Yad Vashem

In the face of the unbearable overcrowding, epidemics of dysentery and typhus, hunger and forced labor, the opera’s sarcastic tone and biting criticism of the tyrant—of any tyrant from any period of time and place – flowed forth effortlessly. The opera ends with the Angel of Death agreeing to end his strike. He slays the emperor first, followed by all the other characters, who die while singing that the name of Death must not be taken in vain. Death prevails, but perhaps the people who asked for death and accepted it proudly and with dignity are also the victors. It is heartbreaking to think that none of the opera’s writers or performers survived. If their final wish was to die with dignity, one can only hope that at least this was granted them.


A creative spark remained even in the darkest gloom

Terezin, the small garrison town designed to house about 7,000 people, was the only ghetto in Central Europe and at its peak housed about 59,000 Jews. The Theresienstadt Ghetto became known as a “model ghetto” because the Nazis used it for the purpose of propaganda. A delegation from the Red Cross was brought there to show how good conditions were for the Jews, and to debunk the rumors of mass extermination. In practice, it was a ghetto that the SS ran like a concentration camp. About 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt, 35,440 of them perished there, and another 88,000 were sent on to the death camps.

Ullmann and Kien decided against all odds to stage this opera in the ghetto, or as Ullmann wrote in one of his surviving letters: “No matter what, we did not sit and cry by the river of Babylon, our pursuit of art is as our desire to live.” That was indeed the case. In the overcrowded conditions of the ghetto, surrounded by hunger, death, disease and forced labor, creativity did not cease for a moment. Nothing stopped the creative desire even in the midst of the darkest gloom.

A shoemaker, drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of Jewish-Theatre.com

Like the story of its creators, the story of the staging of the opera in the ghetto did not end well. Rehearsals began in May 1944, with a limited number of singers and musicians. In August 1944, SS officers present at a rehearsal of the opera announced then and there that it would never be performed. On October 16, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien were sent to Auschwitz. Ullmann was immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is not clear if Kien was sent as well, or whether he died later of an illness.

Yet, sometimes, what seems like the end is not. A copy of the opera, which was never performed in the ghetto, ended up in the hands of British orchestra director Kerry Woodward. At his initiative and encouragement, the opera was staged for the first time in 1975, 31 years after the murder of its creators. Since then it has been performed around the world and continues to warn against tyrants, war and absolute human evil.

The Daring Life and Tragic Death of Tunisia’s Jewish Pop Sensation

Habiba Msika reveled in the pleasures of free love in 1920s Tunis. A rejected paramour ultimately took her life

Habiba Msika, ca. 1920 (Public domain / Colorization and enhancement: MyHeritage)

Tunisian singer and actor Habiba Msika was a legendary figure in Tunis’s 1920s art scene. Msika’s bold nonconformity and tragic fate resonated deeply with her contemporaries, and fascinate me now: I marvel at how she subverted the patriarchy of her time, though violence born of that very misogyny would one day kill her.

The El-Grana marketplace in Tunia, ca. 1900 (Publisher: Lévy & Fils). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Born in 1899 or 1900 to a family of musicians living in Tunis’s hara (or Jewish quarter), Msika began her musical training at a young age. She was instructed by her aunt, Leila Sfez, who had herself been a diva and cabaret owner. Under Sfez’s tutelage, Msika learned classical Andalusian music (Maalouf) and oud. But it was as a cabaret singer, dancer, and actor that she would become something like the Madonna of her time.

A rebellious soul, Msika crossed boundaries in all that she did: she insisted on playing male roles in her theatrical career (sensing they’d give more range to her talent), and is said to have been the first singer in the country to mix dance and song, a practice that electrified her performances. Despite furious attacks from the conservative press, she sang dozens of songs reveling in the pleasures of free love. The song “Ala Srir Ennoum,” which translates to “In My Bed,” is one of them.

The forthright Msika also aligned herself with the emerging Tunisian nationalist movement. She became the main artistic collaborator of the theater director Mohamed Bourguiba, whose brother Habib Bourguiba would become the first president of independent Tunisia in 1957. With Mohamed Bourguiba, Msika adapted classic European plays into Arabic, and developed original theater productions infused with revolutionary sentiment. In one infamous performance of Les Martyrs de la Liberté, Msika appeared onstage wrapped in a Tunisian flag, crying “Vive la liberté!” The French police stormed the second performance, arrested the cast, and censored the play.

Msika in costume, ca. 1930 (Public domain)

Offstage, Msika’s life was just as dramatic. She was often referred to as “l’aimée de tous”, or “Habibat al-Kul” — a play on her first name that translates to “beloved by all”It’s said that she counted princes of Egypt, Iraq, and Tunisia among her lovers. And she presided over a devoted fan club, a group of male admirers called the Asker Ellil (Soldiers of the Night), who sometimes provided her with financial support. Even so, she amassed a personal fortune through her performances, and was able to achieve financial independence.

Tragically, it was from the Asker Ellil that Msika’s murderer emerged. A much older man named Eliyahu Mimouni became obsessed with her and vowed he’d make her his wife. For five years, he tried to woo her with endless gifts, including a villa she refused to set foot in. Finally, after Msika announced that she would marry her long-time partner Raoul Merle, the enraged Mimouni entered her home one night and burned her to death.

She was thirty years old.

This new rendition of “Ala Srir Ennoum” was recently performed in homage to Habiba Msika’s free and defiant spirit:


A version of this article was originally published by Ayin Press, an artist-run publishing platform, production studio, and research collective rooted in Jewish culture and emanating outward. It was part of Ya Ghorbati: Divas in Exile, a multimedia folio created by Laura Elkeslassy, which takes readers on a musical journey across North Africa to rediscover Judeo-Arab divas from the early twentieth century through the 1960s.

In Ya Ghorbati, singer Laura Elkeslassy musically excavates her family’s history in Morocco, France, and Israel, coming face-to-face with forgotten ancestors and reclaiming a lost family name. Developed in collaboration with music director Ira Khonen Temple, this project weaves together the stories of Judeo-Arab divas from the last century with original recordings and new performances of folk and sacred music. Ya Ghorbati looks across time and space to tell a tale of political upheaval, exile, and displacement—ultimately questioning the supposed binary of Arab and Jew. The project was made possible by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by the Brooklyn Arts Council; Rise Up; and the New Jewish Culture Fellowship.

An adapted version of the article appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.


Further Reading:
Bessis, Sophie. Les valeureuses. Tunis: Éditions Elyzad, 2017.

Silver, Christopher. The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar, History Today, 2018.