Dr. Jessica Roda in the Association for Jewish Studies: From French Guiana to Hasidic Montreal

The following text appeared originally in the Fall 2018 Issue of AJS Perspectives, the magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies. AJS’s 50th Anniversary Issue focused on New Vistas in Jewish Studies, in which Dr. Jessica Roda’s work was published. The journal in its entirety can be found here.

From French Guiana to Hasidic Montreal

By Dr. Jessica Roda

As an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist specializing in Sephardic/Arab-Jewish and ultra-Orthodox contemporary Jewish life, my research interests focus on music, kinship, and sexuality, as well as interreligious dialogue and international cultural policies. As I was educated in both Europe and North America, my experiences in both continents have led me to acquire expertise in different schools of thought. I started my training with anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and linguists influenced by the heritage of the French structuralist school at the “Langues, Musiques et Société” laboratory at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris (CNRS). While pursuing my PhD at both Sorbonne University and University of Montreal, I attended seminars in anthropology, ethnomusicology, and sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and CNRS. In Montreal, I discovered post-colonial studies, gender studies, intersubjectivity, and the anthropology of music.

In addition to this university background, I was driven by a passion for a culture, a community, and a musical practice. My PhD, obtained in a joint program through Sorbonne University and University of Montreal, focused on the descendants of Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire who settled in France in the twentieth century. I worked for ten years with this community and several artists performing its heritage in France. Then I pursued my journey in the Sephardic world, but this time with the Moroccan Jewish community of Montreal, the city where I settled in 2010. Over the years, living near the neighborhood where Hasidic Jews established themselves, my fascination with their way of life and culture guided me to begin a new journey into a very different, distinct Jewish niche. My fieldwork among Hasidic Jews led me to first meet with people who had left the community, then people at the edges of the community. In time, I was introduced to Hasidic families and became a professor of socio-anthropology, studying religious Jewish women, a majority of whom were Hasidic. One might wonder how and why I became interested in these Jewish communities and why I have started to look at contemporary Jewish lives with an anthropological and ethnomusicological eye. The responses to these questions have to do with a personal journey that I would like to share.

I was born into a family that had experienced migration, open adoption, composite families, war, and displacement during the Spanish Civil War and the Algerian War of Independence. For many years, my parents continued the family preference for a nomadic lifestyle over a sedentary one. With my brother David, the four of us travelled for years through Australia, the Caribbean, Hong Kong, and Venezuela. When I was six, they chose to settle in French Guiana, named “L’enfer Vert” (green hell) because of its hard climate and its past, burdened with a history of slavery and deportation (prison). In French Guiana, Creoles, Amerindians, Bushinengue, Hmong, Europeans, as well as people from China, Lebanon, Brazil, Haiti, Surinam, and Peru were part of my daily experience and would become my closest friends. Different visions of the world were part of my childhood and my discoveries of human beings. These early experiences with Otherness in religion, kinship, migration, language, and culture influenced my development as a person and as a future anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. It aroused in me a deep desire to understand individual and collective negotiation of systems of values and also a need to socialize with people from very different backgrounds. This diversity was also reflected in the music I was surrounded by, all the time and everywhere. At home, at school, in the street, at the conservatory, or at the beach, I had the chance to listen and sometimes perform classical music, reggae, ragga, zouk, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, samba, French songs, carnival music, kaseko, grajé, bossa nova, and many others sounds. Dance and theatre were also part of my youth, until my early twenties.

When I left French Guiana to study musicology at the Sorbonne University in Paris, as well as piano and modern jazz dance at the Conservatory, I started an identity quest that led me to look back at my own heritage and at my Sephardic Jewish origin. At the age of nineteen, while I was in Montreal for an exchange program, Judaism became part of my life. No longer an artifact from the past that my family had not handed down to me and that I tried to document on an intellectual basis, it then became something that I embodied in my everyday life through the discovery of rituals and prayers. 

As this narrative explains, I did not become involved with Jewish Studies at the outset of my academic training. It was the development of my expertise in Jewish life as an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist that progressively led me to be involved in the field. Jewish Studies in the North American sense was not part of the French and the French-Canadian curricula, so it had never been obvious to plunge into such a field of research. Indeed, even if I had the chance to interact with scholars working on Judaism or Jewish music, at research centers specializing in Jewish Studies, and departments of Hebraic Studies issuing diplomas in Hebrew, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, or Judeo-Spanish languages (Inalco), it would have been impossible to imagine it as a separate field of study. Furthermore, departments of Jewish Studies generally had very little room, if any, for Sephardic/Arab-Jewish culture, whether through the social sciences or in the humanities. It was only when I started to develop ties with the English North American academic world, after my PhD, that I started to engage with the field of Jewish Studies, first as a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University with Erica Lehrer and then at McGill University, in its Department of Jewish Studies. 

My involvement in Jewish Studies meets the need of a particular time in which scholars studying non-Western Jews and anthropologists working on Jewish topics have started to find a place within departments of Jewish Studies. After an important period of focus on history, theology, philosophy, and eastern European Jewish life, I can foresee the development of a flourishing field within a Jewish Studies department, notably in North America, both for the study of the non-Western Jewish experience as well as on what it means today to experience Jewishness around the globe, which I am sure will bring new and innovative perspectives for Jewish Studies in the twenty-first century.