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Jews and Jewish Identity in Latin America: Historical, Cultural, and Literary Perspectives.

Jews and Jewish Identity in Latin America: Historical, Cultural, and Literary Perspectives. Edited by Margalit Bejarano, Yaron Harel, Marta F. Topel, and Margalit Yosifon. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2017. xiv + 411 pp.

From the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, Jewish migrants sought refuge from persecution in the Russian and Ottoman Empires. While many of them chose the United States, others sought religious freedom and economic security in Latin America, which was experiencing rapid growth and political stability. These migrants--both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews--settled in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba. By mid-century, immigrants and their descendants grew to a population of more than half a million in the region, with Buenos Aires possessing one of the largest communities in the Americas, second only to New York City. Over time, Latin American Jews made significant contributions to the economic, cultural, and political life of their adopted homelands, yet they also faced outbursts of anti-Semitism and lingering questions of faith and identity. Since the second half of the twentieth century, communities across the region have experienced a decline in numbers despite experiencing a revival in religious practice. Whereas Latin America once offered promise for their ancestors, contemporary Jews have migrated to Israel and the United States due to political violence, turmoil, and repeated economic crises. These recent developments have challenged notions of Jewishness and Latin American belonging, whose once firm boundaries are now in great flux.

Jews and Jewish Identities in Latin America addresses this rich past and shifting present through a collection of twenty essays by historians, anthropologists, cultural studies scholars, and sociologists. The volume's Latin American and Israeli contributors collectively examine how Zionism, globalization, and migration have shaped notions of identity from the nineteenth century to the present. Their studies also show how Latin American Jews have diverged in their responses to material and cultural forces, adapting their beliefs and sense of belonging according to their varying needs and circumstances. While past monographs have focused on the Latin American nation state as the boundary of identity, the contributors instead seek to draw upon comparative and transnational approaches, arguing that the construction of identity was neither uniform nor geographically restricted. In doing so, they break new ground and offer a template for future studies.

This is a strong collection of essays. Margalit Bejarano's "Changing Identities in a Transnational Diaspora" offers insightful observations on the waves of Jewish migrants to Miami following the 1959 Cuban Revolution. She argues that one cannot speak of a monolithic Latin Jewish community in the city due to the different push factors, the varying connections with the homeland, and the adaptation strategies of each group. Susana Brauner's essay on Syrian and Moroccan Jewish communities addresses a gap in studies of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa in Argentina. Her granular examination of the differences between Damascene, Aleppan, and Moroccan communities, from their faith to economic strategies, clearly shows what has been missed by an exclusive focus on Ashkenazi Jews. Her essay should also inspire additional research on the relationship between Arabic-speaking Jews and non-Jews in Argentina, particularly following the establishment of Israel. Monica Grin's essay on anti-racist struggle and the fraught alliance between Jewish and Brazilian social movements not only illustrates the limits of solidarity in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also offers conclusions that echo the experience in Jewish-black solidarity during the civil rights movement in the United States. Finally, Meir Chazan's essay on cultural diplomacy and early Brazilian -Israeli relations explores the little-known attempts by Sao Paolo's Dror (youth) movement to build a kibbutz in Israel's Negev desert. The author convincingly shows the multi-directional movement of people and ideas across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and how this shaped identities.

There are several issues with this volume that bear mentioning. The first is coverage. Of the twenty essays, half are related to Jewish communities in Brazil. While this is the logical result of the volume's origins as a conference in Sao Paolo, it means that little coverage is given to other regions of Latin America save for the Southern Cone (predominately Argentina but also Uruguay). Indeed, examinations of Jewish life in the Caribbean Basin and Mexico are absent, save for Bejarano's essay on transnational communities in Miami and San Diego. This gives the volume a lopsided feeling, with the result being a lost opportunity to examine lesser-known communities in Central America, Peru, and Puerto Rico.

The second issue is the application of the increasingly popular transnational approach. As mentioned, this volume seeks to move studies of Latin America's Jewish diaspora away from the nation-state and toward a more global framework. However, except for Yossi Goldstein's work on globalization and cross-border educational models in South America, the volume places Latin American Jewish communities within a trans-Atlantic context by examining their relationship with the United States and Israel. While this approach provides valuable insights, the volume largely misses an opportunity to place itself within a growing trend that seeks to examine the flow of people and ideas across Latin America itself. Studies are still needed, for instance, on the mobilization of Jewish anti-fascists in the Caribbean basin during the interwar period and transnational Jewish solidarity networks during the era of state terror regimes.

Nevertheless, this volume is an important addition to Latin American and Jewish studies. It should prove useful to scholars who specialize in migration, identity, and culture.

James H. Shrader

Rowan University

James H. Shrader is a visiting assistant professor of History at Rowan University. His research interests include social movements, political violence, and transnational revolutions in Cold War Latin America.
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Author:Shrader, James H.
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2019
Words:931
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