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Reviewed by:
  • Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation: A History of Argentine Jewish Women, 1880-1955
  • Mark D. Szuchman
Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation: A History of Argentine Jewish Women, 1880-1955. By Sandra McGee Deutsch (Durham, Duke University Press, 2010) 396 pp. $94.95 cloth $23.95 paper

Deutsch presents a comprehensive view of Jewish women's lives in Argentina, their contribution to the nation's development in its social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions, and the mechanisms that they employed in both crossing cultural boundaries and sustaining traditions. The work's temporal coverage spans from the era of mass European immigration, beginning in the 1880s, to President Juan Perón's fall from power in 1955. Deutsch returns to women, and away from gender, as the historical subject of inquiry by attenuating the focus on domestic spheres and privileging instead the depiction and analysis of power relationships in the public sphere. In this regard, she conceptualizes the environment and interactions under the notion of "border," an intellectual [End Page 323] construct meant to signify the negotiations with boundaries encountered by Jewish women, first as immigrants and then as a cultural and ethnic minority. Rural and urban environments presented highly differentiated conditions to which Jewish women had to respond in forging their development. "Borders"—a term that Deutsch employs with great frequency—appears to signify a more current version of previous attempts to document the mechanisms and strategies by which cultural identities incorporated, adapted, and resisted host societies' norms.

Deutsch studies Jewish women spatially and thematically, dedicating considerable material to their involvement in agricultural cooperatives or colonias, in which around one-quarter of Jewish immigrants lived toward the close of the nineteenth century. There, such challenges as isolation and limited opportunity, which were inherent in these distant rural settings, led to their significant de-population by 1940. The chapter dedicated to daily life in the city of Buenos Aires presents an incomparably more cosmopolitan setting and economically dynamic environment, but without ignoring its dangers. As in the case of immigrants from Europe to New York and other metropolitan areas in the United States, Jews concentrated residentially in Buenos Aires at first, particularly in working-class quarters, though never to the point of forming homogeneous ghettoes. Buenos Aires offered a wide variety of cultural and political venues in which Jewish women participated, including educational and vocational organizations, along with leftist and workers' movements. Although they were precluded from most leadership positions, Jewish women appeared to have made their marks on leftist organizational activities, spurring reading circles, publications, and motivational performances. Themes covered in other chapters include occupational profiles and professional development, prostitution, family environments, responses to nationalist antisemitism, and commitment to sustaining the needy in Argentina and Israel.

The work is not based on a quantitative approach, despite the ten tables presented in the appendix. Quantitative indeterminacy characterizes descriptions throughout each chapter. "Some," "many," "not all," and similarly weak substitutes for clearer boundaries betray multiple—and sometimes frustrating—instances of lost opportunities to depict proportionality: For example, on the power of pimps over prostitutes, "men's power varied" (119); on interacting with available cultural outlets, "Jewish women crisscrossed the cultural divide," and "some women felt secure in their confinement"; on gender belief-systems, "gender norms confined . . . and marginalized many Jewish women" (42); on ethnic identity, "some accepted the racist aspects of the reigning liberal project" (43); and on socioeconomic positions, "Many . . . families could not take care of their daughters and wives," and "large numbers of widows and women forsaken or abused by their husbands were also in need" (49).

Deutsch seems to be committed to mentioning all of the possible alternatives [End Page 324] to the naturally multiple situations that Jewish women faced in everyday contexts. However, despite the diverse nature of human activities, behavioral manifestations seldom escape from distribution along central tendencies. In this regard, Deutsch does not provide much quantitative clarity or a measurable sense of change over time. Of the ten tables, eight present static data for a single year (1914, 1936, or 1960), and only two present data dynamically across time. To be fair, quantitative data on the Jewish population is notoriously difficult to gather, highly inconsistent...


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pp. 323-325
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