- Oy, My Buenos Aires: Jewish Immigrants and the Creation of Argentine National Identity by Mollie Lewis Nuowen
This book tackles two areas of study that have received wide attention in the last twenty years: the construction of national identity and the history of Jewish immigration to Argentina. It provides effective summaries of the main events in these historical processes events for readers who are new to the field. Yet, it should also be of great value to those who are already familiar with these events and related research, because it focuses on the significant contribution of Jewish immigrants to the formation of the cultural identify of porteños—the inhabitants of the city of Buenos Aires. This book shows how Jewish immigrants were able to contribute to this identity and be part of the process of building it while maintaining their own cultural difference.
While the text can be a bit repetitive at times, the author makes solid points. It is impressive to note that Nouwen had to learn Yiddish and delve into the porteño slang of the early twentieth century to conduct this research. She also sought the support of fluent translators. There are multiple layers of nuance in the linguistic registers she had to decode to write this book, especially when she relies on humorous materials. She even tried to translate valesko, a mix of porteño Spanish and Yiddish, into English, but I am [End Page 179] not sure the result is comprehensible to a readership not familiar with these linguistic registers. Also, the title is a bit unfortunate because it does not reflect the sophisticated level of scholarship this author offers here.
The time period Nouwen chose to study, the first three decades of the twentieth century, was one of great change for the city of Buenos Aires, with a vast influx of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and other parts of Europe. This book focuses on Ashkenazi Jews who arrived from Central and Eastern Europe. It includes vivid reconstructions of personal experiences that allow the reader a glimpse into the daily life of Argentine Jews at the time. The author builds a cultural map using Yiddish periodicals, literary and humorous magazines, cartoons, plays, police blotters, and personal papers, among other sources. Her analysis of Yiddish plays that focus on the Argentine experience serves as a radiographic image of the daily life and concerns of members of the porteño Jewish community at the time. In fact, the entire book reads like a glossary of Jewish life in Argentina in the early twentieth century.
But this book’s discussions are not limited to Jews but rather aim at recreating the social fabric of the emerging porteño identity in urban spaces like the mixed and overpopulated immigrant dwellings known as conventillos. Looking at the cohabitation of different immigrant groups creates a context for Jewish life of the time. One of the unique ways in which Nouwen brings this coexistence to life is through the senses, as in her description of the mixed smells of asado, cigarettes, and apples in the conventillos. She also looks at the ways food and drink were advertised in periodicals as evidence of cultural bridges built by Jews in the marketplace. She describes the social life of Jews, other immigrants, and criollos at cafés, dance halls, and picnics to show how the three groups crossed paths. She also traces the lives of Jews through crime locations, using police blotters. Finally, she discusses how integration varied by generation and gender.
This book stands out from other publications on immigration and Argentine national identity because of Nouwen’s use of innovative approaches and sources to portray the interaction of Jewish immigrants with criollos and with other immigrants during this vibrant time period. She does an excellent job of glossing Jewish life in Argentina in the early twentieth century. This book is a pleasure to read whether you are an expert...