According to Moroccan-born Israeli anthropologist and author André Levy, “In my eyes, anthropology, more than any other discipline in the social sciences, aspires to be present in life itself, in order to make sense of it and to give it meaning. It attempts to understand human action from an immediate closeness of which there is no comparison in the social sciences.”

This quote is taken from the beginning of Levy’s new book “Return to Casablanca: Jews, Muslims and an Israeli Anthropologist” and encases the methodology of anthropology according to Levy.

Levy, a visiting scholar for the 2015 to 2016 school year at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, is a senior lecturer in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He received his doctorate in Anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has focused his research on the decreasing Jewish presence in modern Casablanca. His anthropological fieldwork focuses on Jewish-Muslim relationships in Morocco. 

A field study itself, Levy’s recent book “Return to Casablanca” authentically captures the Moroccan-Jewish way of life among their Muslim neighbors. Combining his skills as an anthropologist and his background as a Moroccan, Levy’s “Return to Casablanca” blends ethnographic research with the nostalgia of a man returning home. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies hosted an event to feature the launch of Levy’s book. David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and visiting professor in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, introduced the event’s speakers, Roy Mittelman, director of the Jewish Studies program at City College of New York, and Levy himself. 

A longtime friend of Levy’s,  with expertise in Jewish communities, Mittelman introduced “Return to Casablanca” as a premier work in its field and presented his favorite elements of the book as an anthropologist. He focused on the theme of nostalgia and the idea of the “Other,” drawing from his own time in Morocco performing photo-ethnographic fieldwork. Mittelman explained that the book’s encounter with the “Other” was similar to his own personal encounters. He further explained how difficult it is to try to break through the circle from the outside.

In a follow-up interview with the Justice, Mittelman shared more regarding his own fieldwork and time spent in Morocco. While Levy’s connection to Morocco is more straightforward, Mittelman’s love for the country is equally as strong. 

“What drew me to Morocco originally was seeing a way of being Jewish that was very different than what I had seen before. It was a form of living a life that seems so a part of — not compartmentalized — the way I am used to celebrating my Jewish identity here in the states. It seemed to be so inexorably related to daily life that I thought it was very, very beautiful,” said Mittelman.  

Mittelman’s own photo-ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco stands in conversation with Levy’s. “I am really, really, intensely interested in how Jews and Muslims get along with each other, how they look at each other in a mostly Muslim environment. I think it’s really fascinating to look at that relationship, so I try to spend some time trying to tease out how Muslims see Jews and how Jews see Muslims,” Mittelman explained. 

The crowd that gathered for Levy’s book launch spoke languages from Hebrew to Arabic to English, all laughing among themselves as jokes were tossed around the room, drawing from the humor of each language. Levy’s work combines a familiarity with all of these and, in doing so, strikes a chord with not only his fellow anthropologists but also his readers.

Visibly humbled by his reception by the audience and his peers, Levy took to the podium to impart one last story. According to Levy, his book is a personal voyage of sorts, one in constant motion, and, just as his voyage has no clear end itself, his written work similarly lacks conclusion. That being said, Levy shared with his audience what would have been the conclusion to “Return to Casablanca.” Today, Levy wears a ring given to him by his mother following his late father’s passing, but in his youth, he was incapable of wearing it, as it riddled him with feelings of claustrophobia. When Levy was five years old, he and his family moved from Morocco to Israel, where Levy’s father struggled immensely to find work and stability. During his postdoctoral research at Harvard University, Levy once more experienced a time of uncertainty, until his hire at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, Israel, for which his family relocated once more. This final move closed this transient cycle for Levy and is what allows him to wear his father’s ring with pride. Concluding on that personal note, Levy thanked his audience, who rose and applauded the author. 

Copies of “Return to Casablanca” were made freely available to all those in attendance, and Levy signed copies after the event. 

“Return to Casablanca” is a highly personal work for Levy, as made evident by his brief discussion of his personal history. In an interview with the Justice, Levy further explained his motivations for pursuing fieldwork in Morocco. “The fact that I was born there, [and] left early — I was eager to confirm the memories that I wasn’t sure if they were at all true or not — if they were just the imagination of a five year old kid or whether they were concrete and real memories — this on the one hand. On the other hand, it was the intellectual interest that it so happened that the most important development in anthropology took place in Morocco under the influence of one of the greatest anthropologists of the 20th century, Clifford Geertz.”

After meeting Geertz, Levy was inspired to try to understand Morocco in different ways. “He [Geertz]  was, kind of, a complete stranger to Moroccan society, while I was a stranger in a way, because most of my life I was out of Morocco. But on the other hand, even when I was out of Morocco, I grew up in a neighborhood that was composed of Moroccan immigrants to Israel. I had this ongoing complicated relationship with Morocco which made me a sort of insider, but not really, and I wanted to compare it to Clifford Geertz, Paul Rabinow [and] Kevin Dwyer — all of these important anthropologists that did their fieldwork in Morocco between the 1960s and the 1980s,” Levy explained. 

According to Levy, it took a year and a half to physically write the book and 15 to 20 years to conduct his research and anthropological fieldwork.

As a quasi-outsider, Levy possesses a unique perspective regarding the Moroccan-Jewish experience, and given such, he recognizes the subjectivity of his fieldwork outright in the title of his book “Return to Casablanca: Jews, Muslims, and an Israeli Anthropologist.” When he was asked if the results of his fieldwork would have differed had he approached his research from the Muslim-Arabic perspective, Levy shared his wisdom on authenticity versus objectivity. 

“Knowledge is positioning-dependent. That is, knowledge is not objectively free-floating in the air. Knowledge is mediated by the person who perceives it, and the positioning of the person, therefore, will influence what kind of information, what kind of understanding you have,” Levy said. “It’s better to do a work that positions yourself in your product so that people understand why you understand things in this way, and therefore, that is why I am involved in the book. I am imbricated in the text, and people can understand me understanding other people,” he added. 

— Brianna Majsiak contributed reporting.