Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas, An Interdisciplinary Approach
Edited By Margalit Bejarano and Edna Aizenberg
New York: Syracuse University Press, 2012. 252 pages.
Reviewed by Regina Igel
The naming, by the editors, of the introduction to this valuable collection of essays as "A Mosaic of Diverse Identities" is very appropriate for the gathering of articles focusing on different geographic areas and periods of time in the history of the Sephardim in the Americas. The introductory text incorporates a brief history of the origins of their displacements and enlists a few authors and quotations regarding the range of the term "Sephardim." Among scholars dedicated to clarifying it, there are the ones who back the term as a way of defining exclusively those who hold Iberian elements in their ancestry, while others expand the designation to those who descend from Ladino-speaking people, while another one grasps the term as meaning that all those who cannot trace their origins among the Ashkenazim belong to the Sephardic world. The editors' stance follows Joseph Papo's view, according to which Sephardim are "all those Jews whose religious rituals, liturgy and Hebrew pronunciation bear the imprint of a common non-Ashkenazi tradition and who consider themselves to be part of the Sephardi world" (p. xvi). Therefore, throughout the book "Sephardim" should be understood as a term embracing "the Sephardic and Portuguese Jews who settled in America during the colonial era, the descendants of Iberian Jews who preserved the Judeo-Spanish language and identity, as well as the Arabic-speaking Jews from the Middle East and North Africa" (p. xvi).
Emerging from a colloquium held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the summer of 2005, the eighteen pieces that comprise this volume are divided into three sections: 1. Sephardim in the Americas: Community and Culture; 2. Ideological Divergence: Zionism, Religion, and Transnationalism; 3. Culture in Transition: Language, Literature, and Music. All of them are of equally high quality and because of their authors' deep knowledge and range of research, they fill in the paucity of Sephardic studies in the English language.
The first article "Sephardim in the Americas: Community and Culture" by Margalit Bejarano, is an attempt to solve the "puzzle of subethnic fragments." Dividing her study into two political periods, 'Before' and 'After' the independence of the Hispanic and Portuguese countries, Bejarano covers historical and social events that had an impact on the immigration of Sephardim in South and Central American Spanish-speaking countries, the Caribbean islands, and Brazil, besides the problematic settlement of the Crypto-Jews in these and other areas. The interlude free of persecutions enjoyed by Portuguese Jews settled in Brazil's northeastern region during the Dutch period and the lives of Spanish Jewry in the Spanish regions of the New World are compared to the later problems of adaptation expereinced by the Sephardim originating from Muslim countries, and Jews from Rhodes, Bulgaria, the Balkan countries, Italy, and Palestine. The conclusions suggest that on trying to perpetuate their ethnicity and habits, each group of Sephardim responded to internal and external factors. For example, the author compares Syrian Jews and their propensity to an unbending observance of Jewish laws to a rather tolerant practice of the same by Ladino speakers, both settled in the New World. This was due, probably, to the fact that Ladino speakers were more at ease in countries that shared their past in terms of language, habits, and even some aspects of the culinary.
Other essays in the same division refer to Sephardic writers in South and Central America, as "Nuevos mundos halló Colón, or What's Different about Sephardic Literatures in the Americas?" by Edna Aizenberg. Problems of Acculturation and Communal Preservation, are disclosed in "Sephardic and Syrian Immigration to America," by Jane Gerber.
The second part of the collection amasses studies on Sephardim in Argentina, Mexico, and the United States. In "Cultural Zionism as a Contact Zone," Raanan Rein and Mollie Lewis Nouwen relate how "Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews Bridge the Gap on the Pages of the Argentine Newspaper Israel." Founded by Moroccan Jews and Spanish speakers, in 1917, the newspaper held the ambiguous distinction of breeding in its Jewish readership the idea of forgetting Palestine (then), and staying in Argentina, cultivating their Jewish identity in the New World. It was a peculiar form of Zionism, sort of in reverse, intended to create a Zionist identity in the Diaspora, where one could stay put where one's feet were (Argentina), but still dreaming of a home in the Middle East (which, at the time, was as plausible as spending a vacation on the moon). The authors examine how the newspaper performed a role in connecting the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic communities at the same time as it informed them on how to do the same in relation to the Argentinean society as a whole, bonding and integrating with it, but without losing their Jewishness. The article on Israel instigates reflections on Zionism as part of the Argentinean scenario in the beginning of the last century, and on relations between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, which might be extended to Latin America in general.
Still in Part 2, other articles of equal interest are "Syrian Jews in Buenos Aires," by Susana Brauner, covering the years 1953-1990 in the study of Jews from Syria who are caught between two options, a "religious revival" or a "return to Biblical sources." Also on religious topics is "Religious Movements in Mexican Sephardim," by Liz Hamui Halabe, who starts her examination of Jewish immigrants from the Porfiriato period (1876-1910), concluding it with an analysis of the third and fourth generations of Sephardic Jews, during 1970-2000. In the United States, a diverse community of Sephardim is the focus of Henry A. Green, in "Transnational Identity and Miami Sephardim," where the trajectory of Cuban Sephardim is examined according to their demographic profile, their multicultural traditions, and the process of "hispanization," a phenomenon interesting per se, in American soil. The same city in the southern United States is also Margalit Bejarano's concern in the essay "From Turkey to the United States," focusing on Cuban Jews who left the island after 1959, or the year of Castro's revolution. Many Jews originally from Turkey had found a haven in Cuba and, if not for the abrupt awakening, they would have remained there. Their predecessors had experienced similar jolts first in Spain, then in Turkey, before landing in the Caribbean island. Spanish and Ladino were part of the glue that held the new arrivals in Miami together, along with the common memories they shared, from Spain, Turkey, and Cuba.
The third part of this anthology refers to "Culture and Transition," focusing on Language, Literature and Music. Monique Balbuena's essay, "Ladino in Latin America," contrasts "an old language in the New World". The concept of Ladino as "essentially a language of exile" (p. 175) is pursued in the article through several dimensions of its preservation. Some of these means are literature and music, besides its practice among small groups of Ladino speakers, at home, in social gatherings and in cultural associations, including some universities. The revival of Ladino, in Balbuena's perspective, does not have the repercussions (nor the number of speakers) that Yiddish has, but yet, efforts are visible everywhere the speakers of the language are active. Authors from Brazil (Moacyr Scliar), Argentina (Juan Gelman), among others, are quoted on their efforts to bring about the mere existence of Ladino as part of the strong cultural ancestry of the Sephardic Jews; musicians and composers also from Brazil (Fortuna) and Argentina (Monica Monasterio and Dina Rot) are also examined along with works by artists living in the United States like Flory Jagoda, from Bosnia, and those living in Israel, such as Matilda Koén Sarano and Margalit Matitiahu. The author concludes her essay by defining Ladino as "an exilic discourse." Her well grounded essay also informs us about more recent efforts to revitalize the Sephardic community, such as the unexpected invitation from Spain to the descendants of the expelled Jews to return to their ancestral cradle.
Another means of reviving the language is through movies, as Yael Halevi-Wise explores in the essay "A Taste of Sepharad from the Mexican Suburbs," by examining the movies Novia que te vea (1992) and Hisho que te Nazca (1996), focusing also on Rosa Nissan`s fictional autobiography. Among other topics, equally relevant to the study of Ladino, Halevi-Wise clarifies the quid pro quo raised when the film was introduced to the Mexican and international viewers, informing how the autobiography was distorted in the screenplay and, thus, how Ladino and other expressions of Sephardic life in Mexico were not faithfully executed in the movie.
The essay "The Role of Music in the Quebec Sephardic Community," by Judith R. Cohen, includes a brief historical context on the Sephardim in that Canadian state, their origins, social organization and the practice of music, after which a multilayered examination of the role of music in the revival of Sephardic habits, by Canadians of Sephardic origin is performed. Though emphasizing those of Moroccan origin, the author includes studies of Turkish, Salonikan, and other heritages as well.
This volume is highly recommended to all who want to have an extended vision of the Sephardim in the Americas, along with an excellent measure of knowledge about their new and old habits, their efforts to continue with Ladino and many other activities related to a common past, but of pluralistic practices. The diversity of essays (many of them complemented by numerical tables on statistics, tendencies and trends) enlighten us on several dimensions of the Sephardic communities which, like those of the Ashkenazim, thrive in their sundry efforts not to be diluted in the hegemonic society where they live. On the contrary, by emphasizing and insisting in keeping their backgrounds alive, they enrich present-day communities and, most probably, future ones too. This will depend on those who follow after.
Regina Igel is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and director of the program in Portuguese studies, at the University of Maryland, College Park.