REVIEW: Bejarano, Margalit and Edna Aizenberg, eds. Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas

Bejarano, Margalit and Edna Aizenberg, eds. Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas, (Syracuse University Press, 2012) hardcover, xxii + 252 pages

Reviewed by Judith L. Goldstein, Vassar College (goldstein@vassar.edu)

contemporary240[1]The essays in Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas provide a comparative perspective in which  “each Sephardic piece” is understood to be “part of a transnational diaspora” (p. xiii). The edited volume, by gathering the regional studies in one place, unites them into something greater, yielding a collectivity that can then be compared further with Sephardi communities in Israel and with other transnational diasporas. Divided into three sections—“Sephardim in the Americas:  Community and Culture,” “Ideological Divergence:  Zionism, Religion, and Transnationalism,” and “Culture in Transition:  Language, Literature, and Music”—the book succeeds in its aim of using a global perspective to “call for a new definition of the boundaries between the different Sephardic groups and new interpretations of their culture” (p.xxii).

The great diversity in terms of places of origin and places of settlement of the Sephardim in the Americas makes it easy to see why thus far they have been largely documented through separate regional studies. “The Sephardic population in the Americas is formed by a large number of small groups, divided according to communities of origin in the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East, and North Africa, and dispersed among English-, Spanish-, Portuguese-, and French-speaking societies” (p. xiii). Or, to begin from the perspective of a city, Buenos Aires, for example, contains four distinctly organized Sephardi groups:  “the Spanish-speaking Moroccans, the various Ladino-speaking Jews, including the Turks, the Greeks, and people from the Balkan countries; the Syrians of Aleppo, together with others whose mother tongue was Arabic, generally from Egypt and Jerusalem and the Syrians of Damascus, together with those coming from Lebanon” (Brauner, p. 90). Reading the essays together lets readers see how the different representations of this diversity—whether academic, or literary; whether from within the community or from outside it—are in conversation with each other

The occasion to review Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas for a journal dedicated to the study of Muslim-Jewish relations foregrounds a particular contribution it makes that may not be considered in other review contexts: that of redrawing, or of enlarging the maps of “Middle Eastern” Jewish migrations. Elsewhere, Israeli author Amnon Shamash introduces readers to his family’s geographies, both imagined and experienced.  Shamash writes of his Aleppan extended family: “Each Jew has his America.  Our America was Mexico.  Like many Jewish families from the Old World, ours was also torn between the land of boundless possibilities and the land of impossible boundaries…Many uncles and aunts, their descendants and descendants’ descendants populate the capital of Mexico today…with the taste of Aleppo in their mouths, the love of Zion on their tongues and both feet planted firmly in the soil of America” (Shamash, Amnon.  My Sister the Bride.  Massada 1979, pp. 25-26). Shamash in Israel thought not only of the past Aleppo of his childhood, but of the present Mexico City of others in his extended family.

Instead of taking the more familiar approach to immigrant studies that focuses mainly on double homes—the country of origin and the country of settlement—the essays in the book remind us that in some cases the place of settlement may be the most recent on a path of migrations that are better seen as having three or more stops. While this remapping is not the main intent of an already very full and interdisciplinary book, it shows the productiveness of the book’s emphasis on transnationality.

When thinking of his family, Shamash considered together Syria, Israel and Mexico. In turn, this book on Sephardim in the Americas reminds us that when we look at “Cuban” Jews in Miami, we may be looking at Jews whose descendants went from Spain to Turkey to Cuba, and then from Cuba came to the United States. Sephardic migrations were not just those of Old World Spanish-speaking Jews to New World countries in which Spanish is the dominant language, but also those of Old World Arabic- and Turkish-speaking Jews who came to the Americas. In the latter case, as some of the authors in the volume show, some Arabic and Turkish-speakers who came from communities in which spoken Ladino had all but disappeared, have been introduced or reintroduced in New World countries to a Ladino past.

All the essays make valuable contributions. Of particular interest to readers of Intertwined Worlds would be those case studies on religious revival among Syrian Jews in Buenos Aires (Susana Brauner), religious movements among Jews from Aleppo, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans in Mexico (Liz Hamui Halabe), and the history of migrations from Turkey to Cuba to Miami of Turkish Jews (Margalit Bejarano). An essay on contemporary literary uses of Ladino shows how different pasts can be creatively layered in the present. In this essay, Monique Balbuena gives the examples of writers, some from Ladino speaking families, and one from a European (Askhenazi) background, whose uses of Ladino serve different symbolic purposes in their writing. In the case of writers such as Clarisse Nicoidski and Margalit Matitiahu who heard Ladino spoken when they were young, the language can be both a mother tongue as well as the words of their mothers. In the example of writer Juan Gelman whose heritage was not Ladino, his “Self-Sephardization” enabled him reposition his personal and national identities. Ladino became the language that best represented his exile from Argentina. Nonetheless, in all cases, the writers’ works contribute to the “afterlife” of Ladino.

The longing expressed in the quote cited earlier from Shamash—“each Jew has his America”– is sometimes buried under the inevitably less poetic academic discourses about identity that fill the book. The discussion about identity is about inclusion in the present while keeping something of the past. It is about how to enter fully into larger national and communal entities while retaining that which makes each community specific. What would it mean to take longing seriously, to see more fully the contours of the imaginations of people living transnationally?  But there is time and opportunity for more analyses, both poetic and academic. Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas is a wonderful addition to the literature and a catalyst for further work.

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