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  • Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas: An Interdisciplinary Approach ed. by Margalit Bejarano and Edna Aizenberg
  • Sandra McGee Deutsch (bio)
Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Edited by Margalit Bejarano and Edna Aizenberg. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012. xxii + 252 pp.

The vast majority of studies on Jews in the United States, Canada, and Latin America focus on Ashkenazim. While some aspects of Sephardic history in the Americas are well covered in the literature, particularly the colonial period, Sephardic life since 1900 has received relatively little attention. Few works on Sephardic Latin Americans in contemporary times have appeared in English, and most of the existing writings in Spanish and Portuguese treat single countries or communities.

Encompassing the Americas in the last hundred years, Margalit Bejarano’s and Edna Aizenberg’s collection helps address these gaps. Another appealing feature is that it spans the disciplines of history, literature, sociology, and musicology. Latin America is the focus, with three articles on the general region, two on Argentina, and two on Mexico. There also are three chapters on the United States and one on Canada.

The first section, “Sephardim in the Americas: Community and Culture,” offers context. Bejarano describes the waves of Sephardic immigration to Latin America and the formation of Sephardic communities divided by class and place of origin. Eventually the Sephardim joined the middle class in immigrant societies and the white upper-middle class in societies with a large Indian or mestizo population. Jane Gerber provides a historical overview of Sephardic groups in the United States, pointing out that, among other factors, the cohesion and strong rabbinical leadership of Syrians distinguished them from Judeo-Spanish speakers. Reminiscent of relations between German and Eastern European Jews, she finds that long-established Sephardim looked down upon and tried to uplift more recent “backward” arrivals in the early 1900s. In her discussion of Sephardic Latin American literature, Aizenberg notes its optimistic “myth of belonging” to Iberian culture, as well as the sense of exclusion and fear that reflect the impact of the Inquisition and the dictatorships of the 1960s–1980s (32). Ashkenazic authors in the region have drawn from these ideas, and thus Jewish Latin American writings as a whole can be read through a Sephardic gaze. [End Page 439]

The next section is entitled “Ideological Divergence: Zionism, Religion, and Transnationalism.” According to Raanan Rein and Mollie Lewis Nouwen, Israel, published by Moroccan Jews in Argentina in the first half of the twentieth century, reported on Ashkenazim and Sephardim and sought out both as readers and contributors. The periodical further attempted to unite these groups by encouraging Sephardim to join Ashkenazim in Zionism, indicating that Argentines sometimes used this movement to invigorate local Jewish communities rather than spur migration to Palestine. Susana Brauner Rodgers analyzes religious practice among Jewish Argentines of Damascene and Aleppan descent, tracing the rise of rabbinical power since the 1950s, which particularly affected the more observant Aleppans. Israeli and U.S. ultra-Orthodox rabbis, often Ashkenazic, influenced these currents. Liz Hamui Halabe finds similar patterns among Mexican Sephardim, with divisions between Damascenes and Aleppans and tensions between Aleppan secular and religious leaders. Henry Green explores the migration of Sephardim from Latin America, France, Israel, and the northern United States to Miami, beginning in the 1960s, and their multiple identities. In an overlapping essay, Bejarano traces the movement of Jews from Turkey to Cuba to Miami. She describes how they have negotiated their bourgeois, Jewish, and Cuban identities, the latter of which was accentuated by their traumatic departure from Cuba. Both Green and Bejarano underline Sephardic influence among the larger Latino population.

The last section treats “Culture in Transition: Language, Literature, and Music.” Monique Balbuena demonstrates how Judeo-Spanish, seemingly in danger of extinction, is undergoing renewal in Latin America; several entertainers not only perform traditional songs but set new Ladino poems, some with gendered content, to music. Author Juan Gelman, of Ashkenazic heritage, has utilized this language “without a State behind it” to represent his exile and alienation from Argentina (182). Gender is at the heart of Yael Halevi-Wise’s examination of the Mexican feminist Rosa Nissan’s use of Mexican slang, Judeo-Spanish...


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