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Persecution & Belonging Memory & Identity

Jewish Women in Latin America

Born in Mexico, raised in the Unites States and now working on my doctorate in Israel, I was excited to read several recent books by the prolific Marjorie Agosin, whose work highlights the writing of Jewish women with roots in Latin America. These pieces discuss the boundaries of national and cultural identities, the meanings of exile and home, persecution, belonging, dual identities, postmodern exploration of “alterity,” or otherness, and the ultimate search for inner peace.

Agosin reconstructs the wanderings and travails of her family in Always from Somewhere Else (The Feminist Press). In the search for her father’s origins, Agosin explores her grandparent’s life story. Abraham (a tailor) and Raquel (a cigarette-maker) began their journey at the beginning of the 20th century when they fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia for Istanbul, crossing the Carpathian Mountains on foot. From Istanbul, they moved with their children to France (where Agosin’s father, Moises, was born) before sailing to Chile in 1922. In Chile they settled in the small town of Quillota, where they were the only Jewish family.

Despite their attempts to assimilate (Agosin’s grandfather gave up speaking Russian and attending synagogue and her grandmother would only light the Sabbath candles after all the windows in the house had been covered with wrapping paper or after the curtains were drawn), Agosin’s father was always considered an outsider, a stranger in his own homeland. Excluded from the private schools of the upper and middle classes, Moises went to the public school, and eventually left Quillota in 1951 to study medicine at the National Institutes of Health at Bethesda, Maryland.

In 1955, the family returned to Santiago de Chile. However, even as a university doctor in Santiago, Moises continued to encounter anti Semitism and isolation. In 1968, widespread student protests and slanderous newspaper articles obliged him to close his prestigious research labs and he was forced into exile by Pinochet’s dictatorship. In 1971, Moises moved his family to Athens, Georgia and vowed never to return to Chile.

Agosin provides the reader with insight not only into Jewish life in Chile but in the Diaspora as a whole. Her intricate and vivid family history reflects the lives of so many Jews of that generation destined to be labeled as refugees and always treated like outsiders.

In Miriam’s Daughters (Sherman Asher), Agosin brings together 29 Latin American Jewish women poets in a bilingual compilation all about the search for identity and belonging. This edition begins with Agosin’s forward in which she reflects on the “Babel of whispers, songs, prayers, and languages” she experienced growing up in Chile. Agosin also reflects on Miriam as an extraordinary woman of the Bible, and a symbol of all Jewish women who have journeyed and struggled.

This compilation consists of four sections: Genealogies, Illuminations, Textures of Memory, and Jerusalem. The first section deals with an exploration of the meanings of origin and ancestry, as well as the complex lineage of Jews throughout history. The second section is dedicated to the mystical splendors of Judaism and Jewish ritual, primarily the Kabbalah, the Zohar, and to those figures from Jewish history, myth, and legend (Anne Frank, Ruth, Lilith, the Golem). The third section explores the experiences of the twentieth century and the post-Holocaust memory, and the last section ends with a song dedicated to Jerusalem.

The poets featured in this anthology are women from all over Latin America, hailing from Uruguay, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and Argentina. The original Spanish and Portuguese poems are printed with English translations on the facing pages, and evaluate the concepts of exile, migration, and the importance of remembering the past. This poetry reminds us that the strong voices of Jewish women transcend national and religious boundaries, and the anthology is a wonderful resource for readers interested in multiculturalism, Jewish studies, Latin American literature, or contemporary poetry.

Passion, Memory and Identity: Twentieth-Century Latin American Jewish Women (University of New Mexico Press) is another anthology compiled by Agosin that brings together women writers from all over Latin America. These essays attempt to define and link the Jewish cultural experiences of Jewish Latin American women writers to the different countries in which they lived. The main theme is the role of memory in relation to history, identity and national cohesiveness. The writers explore their feelings of being uprooted and displaced, which is seen as part of the collective Jewish experience. The majority of these writers are second-and third-generation daughters of Sephardic or Ashkenazi immigrants who write candidly about their complex identities as Jews in predominantly Catholic countries, and the inner struggles that this entails for each of them.

Paulette Kershenovich is a doctoral candidate in the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her dissertation is on women in the Syrian Jewish communities of Mexico.