During the course of my internship at the  Hadassah- Brandeis Institute I have devoted myself to the project examining several sociological and psychological aspects of what we could call Jewish feminine Latin American identity. My goal is to analyze how these three different layers were interconnected and interrelated. I want to check how femininity is influencing Jewishness, how Jewishness is being developed in societies where Christianity is overwhelmingly dominant, how Jewish girls are raised in machista society[1]. Another component of my project is dealing with migration as one of the basic factor influencing the identity of Jewish Latin American women. The triple migratory experience, starting with the boat travel which their parents or grandparents decided to undertake, fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany in the 1930[2] or the harsh economic and social situation in Eastern Europe following the end of World War I. The second migratory experience is taking place in various Latin American countries where European Jews have settled. There, the processes of uprooting, of assimilation or just opposite- processes of preserving Jewish heritage were extremely significant. The third and the last dimension of migration is exile in the United States which was a fate of many Jewish families who fled there following authoritarian takeovers in many Latin American countries. The migration was a factor which has formed the femininity, latinindad[3] and Jewishness of many women from Latin America born in the 1940 and 1950. It was a reason to strengthen, to weaken or to get rid of some aspects of the above mentioned identity-related concepts. To develop them or to subconsciously hide them deeply, immersing in the inner world of thoughts, not allowing their own identity to express freely.

I have spent last few weeks doing initial, exploratory research, trying to find sources which could be useful for my project. At the beginning I was going to focus on the migratory experience of the European Jewish women coming to Latin America since the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the testimonies available are rather the testimonies of common people, without education, without broader perspective on life. Despite the great anthropological value of their testimonies, the concepts of gender roles or migrant identity were for them totally incomprehensible. They focus mainly on daily routines and describe how they were making ends meet. Due to these conditions, I decided to focus on the life stories of Jewish female intellectuals, in some cases daughters or granddaughter of above mentioned European immigrants. For them it is much easier to analyze their own experience in the contexts of belonging, feminism and migration. The main sources of my research were books of Marjorie Agosin: Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America and Uncertain travelers. Conversations with Jewish Women Immigrants to America and of Ruth Behar- An island called home. Ruturning to Jewish Cuba. Each of them is a great reservoir of personal stories which enable the reader to understand how their latinidad, Jewishness and femininity were mingling. The biographies of Behar and Agosin include the triple migratory experience which is the factor I try to analyze in this paper. Both of them have spent childhood in Latin America (Chile and Cuba), both immigrated to the United States, both were brought up by parents who came from the other side of the Atlantic.

At the beginning I did not know what information I would find, what would be available and how could I incorporate that into the main body of my project. One of the major obstacles was the limited time of the research (just five weeks) and the impressive amount of literary sources (which has its advantages and disadvantages; but certainly leaves enough space for further research). Taking this into account, I decided to pick up some of the most interesting aspects of the identity of Jewish Latin American Women from the middle or upper class who share migratory experiences. I would like to present it using examples of Ruth Behar and Marjorie Agosin themselves. I believe that their personal experience will enrich the academic layers of my project. This biographical lens could bring us closer to their reality.

Concerning the theoretical dimension of my project, theories of transculturation and transnationalism could be useful and explanatory. Using them we can examine major cultural changes, the evolution of customs and the creation of a new diasporic experience. I will try to show how gender and migration were included in the processes of forming and defining their identities as women and especially as Jewish women. How some elements of the original European culture of Yiddishland were forgotten, some preserved and some transformed into something totally new, thanks to latino influences. Additionally, using the notion of transnationalism, I will draw basic lines which connect / connected migrating Jewish women, who reside in three symbolic and factual spaces of Europe, Latin America and the United States.

Finally, I decided to include in my project the following aspects of identities of Latin American Jewish Women:

–          self-definition in predominantly Christian societies of Latin America

–          exilic experience of Jewish Latinas who immigrate them  to the  United States

–          the perception of the Jewish community in Latin America.

–          gender in Jewish families in Latin America

–          the role of memory and homeland remembrance for migrating Jewish women

Jews in Latin America. Background information

The first Jewish settlements in the Americas appeared already in the 17th century when groups of marranos (Roth 1940: 239-248), who were hiding their Jewishness since their expulsion from Spain in 1492, started to arrive to Latin America. However, for my research the most significant is the massive immigration of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe (territories of contemporary Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Ukraine etc.) This immigration was motivated mainly by the harsh conditions, in which Eastern European Jews were living defined by economic barriers, lack of legal equality. Rapidly growing families and over overpopulation (due to the lack of family planning imposed by Orthodox Judaism), which led to the growing poverty and dissatisfaction with one`s life status. Another factor which was fostering immigration was undoubtedly a wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire. The fact that around 200 pogroms took place between 1881-1884 (Doyle Klier, Lambroza, 2004: 377), showed the Jews that they life is threatened in every spot of Russian Empire, that only immigration could guarantee peaceful life.

Another wave of Jewish immigration came after fell of the Ottoman Empire. Shortly before or during World War I, many Jews fled from Turkey afraid of being conscribed in the Turkish army or because of the worsening economic situation. Sephardic immigration was earlier, but smaller in number than the Ashkenazi one. Because of that, the history of Turkish and Balkan Jews is rather overshadowed by the Eastern European one. Nonetheless, Latin America became a unique place were two such different Jewish worlds were mixing.

Today around half a million Jews are living in Latin America. The biggest communities reside in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Jewish life is pretty vivid, mostly in the biggest cities. Former colonies of Jewish farmers are almost empty. Nonetheless, the Jewish population is decreasing mainly due to aliyahs to Israel and intermarriage.

Defining herself in Latin American predominantly Catholic society

Latin American societies are fairly homogeneous concerning religious affiliation. Christianity, almost exclusively Roman Catholicism, is the religion with which most Latin Americans identify. Religion is actively present in public life and social discourse. State and Church division is still only a legal concept. Religious minorities are unofficially discriminated and many political leaders are devout Catholics. The situation was even harder in the 1940, `50 and `60. Being Jewish was a challenge, especially in Christian school which many Jewish girls attended, due to the high prestige of the Catholic education.

The situation of girls of course varied, but many of them have experienced discrimination because of their Jewish background. Quite common was bullying, when girls would be accused of killing Jesus. The old, medieval blood libel legend was still present and clearly visible among young generations of Chilean society. Marjorie Agosin clearly remembers being persecuted by her classmates. She describes that experience in “Amigas. Letters of friendship and exile”, which she wrote together with Elma Sepulveda. She recalls: (Agosin, Sepulveda, 2001:13)

They look at you strangely, they spit on you, and they don’t even try to hide their feelings. The most frightening episode was when my classmates made a circle and told me to get in the middle (…) There was nowhere where I could run or hide as I heard them yell: “who has stolen the bread from the oven?!” and the chorus responded, :”the Jewish dog, the Jewish dog”

Marjorie Agosin was deeply traumatized by such incidents. She felt excluded from the Chilean community. She thought that the children just would like to play a new game. Unfortunately it was a game where the loser was known in advance.  She felt different and persecuted did not know the reason why. Being twelve at this time, she would rather focus on exploring the world, making friends etc. Being Jewish and being a migrant she was thrown into the world of anxiety, tension and uncertainty. She was totally unprepared for that.

Another Jewish woman, Veronica de Darer, who spent her childhood in Venezuela, remembers that the religion classes were the most striking moments of separating the Jewish girls.  She says that the Jews would sit on the benches right outside the class during these lessons and do homework. When the religion class was over, the Christian students would pass just across from them, saying “killers of Christ”  (Darer 2002: 34)

A common way of coping with steady persecution was an attempt to become Christian. The young girls, sometimes willingly, sometimes subconsciously were absorbing some Christian habits. Getting rid of their Jewishness, becoming Christian outwardly was for them a way of coming to terms with their own forming identity. Jewish heritage was for them a ballast which they did not want to bear. Quite significantly, some Jewish parents were totally indifferent to the process of losing the connection with Judaism, which their daughters had started. Some believed that becoming less and less religious would make it easier to be accepted in Latin societies. Some were so focused on making ends meet that the internal struggles of their daughters were for them totally unimportant.

Anna Maria Shua, a Jewish Argentinean writer, also from the generation of Ruth Behar and Marjorie Agosin, recalls how great a role Christianity played in her childhood, which stemmed from the influence of attending Christian school:

I am fascinated by the lives of the woman saints, especially those who get tortured a lot, especially the one who are tortured because they refuse to give up their virtue.  That part`s not very clear, where they have this virtue, but I can imagine where (…) (Shua, 2002, 255)

Shua had great difficulty understanding what religion means. One side of her family was atheistic, another pretty observant. Nonetheless, being educated in religious
Catholic school, she was overwhelmed by Christian spirituality. Christianity was more attractive to her than Judaism. She says:

How difficult is to understand our papa, who is so afraid of kabbalat shabat, but who doesn’t seem to mind having us participate, my sister and me, in the catechizing meetings of evangelists in Rivadavia Park across our home. There (…) we sing “There’s forgiveness for the blood of Jesus, /there’s forgiveness for his death on the cross,/there’s forgiveness, there’s forgiveness for everyone,/for the death of Jesus Christ”  (Shua, 2002: 256)

Spoken by a Jewish girl these words sound really strange. They show how easily the heritage is lost.  Pertaining to the theory of transculturation mentioned in the introduction, it could definitely be stated here that education in Christian schools, without any other form of Jewish education, could lead to loss of certain elements of Jewish culture, especially those connected with the religious dimension of life. As an adult, Anna Maria Shua does not feel any connection with Judaism per se.

Admiration of Christian religious practice could lead not only to the temporal, childish interest in the world of other girlfriends, but to the refusal of accepting Judaism. Rosita Kalina de Piszk, who spent her childhood in Costa Rica, remembers that she was participating with her friend in the procession of Holy Week. She was amazed by the wealth of Catholic worship, by angels, virgins, images of Jesus. She was impressed with how different it was from their modest synagogue. She appreciated the fact that within Christianity men and women could equally participate in the worship. It was not possible in the gender divided traditional synagogues attended by Eastern European immigrants. Gender inequality was the final factor which had brought Kalina Rosita de Piszk out of the Jewish religious community. The later development of the Reform movement in Costa Rica has not changed her anti-religious attitude.

Without any doubt, we could state that Christianity played a major role in the identity formation of young Jewish women who lived in Latin America. The fact, that Catholic religious practice and Catholic moral values were all around has lead to the questioning of their Jewishness by analyzed group of women. Childish fascination in most of these cases did not result in conversion, but has lowered the importance of Judaism in their lives and made assimilation more probable.

When latinidad merges with Jewishness. Perception of Jews in Latin America.

Nobody in Argentina or Cuba had any doubt that Jews coming to Latin America belonged to the other world. They were not latinos. They did not speak Spanish, but instead Yiddish or Ladino, they were totally white, and dressed differently. The first encounter (since the end of the 19th century) of new immigrants with local population took place in the newly established colonias, new Jewish settlements, on the grounds   cultivated by nomadic farmers- gauchos. At the beginning, the two groups did not interact at all, but step by step mutual cooperation began. Gauchos were hired by Jews as agricultural workers, who in turn introduced them to the farming methods and taught the Jews the basics of Spanish. On the other hand, European settlers provided gauchos with a more stable life model, without constant moving and brought to Latin America a kind of European technological advancements such as sewing machines.

Mutual interactions of Jews and gauchos have lead to the interesting mixture of latinidad and Jewishness. Quite well known is the concept of the Jewish gaucho (Freidenberg, 2009)– a Jewish immigrant himself or his son who adopted the behavior and the way of dressing of Latin American cowboys. Another layer where being Jewish and being latino were interconnected was a marriage. Due to the fact that a majority of the Jewish immigrants were males, marrying out of the Jewish community was quite common. It led to the development of the new culture, to the neoculturation, which merged Jewish and latino components. However, because of the fact that newly established families were settling in almost exclusively Jewish neighborhoods and the Jewish not the latino tradition prevailed in the process of identity formation. In some cases, non- Jewish women who married Jews were the ones to preserve the Eastern European heritage and to transmit it to their children.

Some Jewish women in Latin America use anthropological terminology to describe their identity. One key term is mestizaje. This notion refers to racial and/or cultural mixing of Amerindians with Europeans; however the meaning of mestizaje is undergoing significant transformation right now. Some Jewish women intellectuals, such as Sonia Guralnik or Veronica de Darer, apply this term to emphasize the development of Jewish- Latino identity. Guralnik claims that it is indivisible, inseparable- exactly as an identity of mestizo, built out of European and Amerindian components. Veronica de Darer explains that as a small girl, she thought that all Venezuelans were Jewish and that all the Jews speak Spanish.

Referring to the mestizaje could be also a way of pertaining to the presence of indigenous people in lives of young Jewish women in the 1950 and `60. Many of them had nannies or housekeepers of Amerindian origin. For some girls their life seemed to be more real, more Latin. Ethel Kosminsky remembers how much she wanted to eat with her nanny Jo- to eat dried salted meat, to eat pepper- she found Ashkenazi food tasteless. In her testimony (Kosminsky, 2002: 59) Kosminsky emphasizes that it was a kind of childish longing for being as everyone around her, meaning majority of Brazilians. She recalls how much she enjoyed talking with her black or indigenous nannies, to listen to their family stories, to become familiar with their customs. At some point she even wanted to turn into an Amerindian girl, to be simple and common, to hide her Jewishness. Kosminsky says that even today she misses Jo a lot. She was her connection to the real, Latin world.

Despite any kind of interrelations, Jews were and still are considered as “the others” in Latin America. First because of their physical appearance. Veronica de Darer, as a child of Germans Jews, spent her childhood in Venezuela, a country with quite a significant indigenous populations. She recalls:

Personally, being a blue-eyed blonde of European appearance, I attracted attention in the multicolor population of mestizos and mulatos. (…) the Venezuelans would call us “musiu” or “musiua”, mispronunciation of French “monsieur” used to refer to the foreigners in Venezuela. I have always felt that for the Venezuelans I was not   “true” Venezuelan. (Darer 2002: 35)

However, we could observe a quite visible difference between the situation of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. One could state that the adaptation and integration processes were a bit easier for Sephardi Jews: Ladino was quite similar to Spanish, their complexion was equally dark as the one of latinos, and the climate was not so much different. Esther Levis Levine, who was born in Cuba, says that she and her Sephardi family felt really good in the island, that they quickly became cubanized. She says that her family has adopted Cuba as a homeland. Turkey was just like any other country. They have not talked about it. The reality was here, in Cuba, and they pretended that they always lived here. Her family was pretty patriotic. (Levine Levis, 2002: 96)

The reaction of the Latin American nations towards the massive Jewish immigration varied. In some places such as Argentina or Chile anti- Semitism was quite common. Sometimes it was inspired by state officials, sometimes by the Catholic Church. In most cases it was not violent. On the other hand, most Cuban Jews claim that they felt fully accepted, not discriminated against. Also interestingly, converting to Judaism or rediscovering Jewish roots is becoming more and more common. Since 1993 and since “the come back of God to Cuba” as Ruth Behars puts it  (Behar 2007)(in this year party members were allowed again to have religious affiliation), Jewish life on the island is reviving, mostly thanks to converts or Jews whose Jewishness was transferred through the paternal line

It is clear that living together, Jews and Latinos, were in a constant process of redefining their identities. Jews as minority were facing the need to adjust to the society as a whole. Many have adopted some Latin customs, or latinized themselves fully such as the family of Esther Levis Levine. At the same time, more traditional Jews struggled to preserve their Eastern European heritage. Jews in Latin American countries needed to decide where they belong, who they are and who they want to be. Latinos, on the other hand, have to learn how to live among people who do not share their cultural experience.

Gender in Latin American Jewish families.

Gender relations are visible within the Jewish community especially when a generation gap is concerned. It was also evident in the 1950 and `60s in Latin America. Parents or/and grandparents still deeply rooted in the traditional, Eastern European value system, were really concerned with preserving gender roles in an unchanged way. This included modesty, obedience, and life limited to the family dimension. Jewish girls in Latin America often accepted that, unaware of any other possible life model. It was especially common during the early immigration of poorer, uneducated Jews. On the other hand, some were struggling with their fathers (and sometimes also with totally non- supportive mothers) for personal freedom. Two of the most important spheres, where Jewish girls were limited by traditional gender roles imposed by traditional mores were education and marriage. We should underline that the generational conflicts were not typical just for the Jewish community in Latin America. New social trends appeared already in the 1920 and `30s in Eastern Europe. In fact, the parents who were trying to impose traditional life models on their children,  were transgressing those models by leaving Europe for Latin America in years past, refusing to “inherit the poverty” of their parents, and refusing  to regress.  Ethel Kosminsky, a sociologist, who spent her childhood in the 1950 in Brazil remembers clearly her conversations with parents about relations between men and women:

“Dad, why can’t I date Eduardo? He is a good guy”. And Dad explained, in his calm voice, “Because, daughter, dating leads to marriage and marriage is difficult thing if the two people don’t share the same culture. And how are the children going to be raised? Will they be Catholic or Jewish? Each one will favor his own religion. It’s like that, it’s part of the human species, each one wants to raise his children in his own way”(Kosminsky 2002:79)

She did not receive any support from her mother, who also believed that intermarriage is a way of leaving the Jewish community. The opinion of others, of neighbors, was also an extremely significant factor. Marrying a goy was something comparable to a betrayal.

Latin America was a place where Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews were thrown into the same melting pot. Two communities, who have been living in separation for many centuries, searched for refuge in the same place. However, they have something in common: the position of women in both communities was equally inferior. Despite the fact that none of the groups questioned others Jewishness, Sephardi- Ashkenazi relations were almost non-existent. A marriage binding members of the two communities together had the status similar to marrying a goy. Los turcos should not marry los polacos.

Now familiar with Latin American culture, Jewish immigrants have started to live in machista society- a society where male and female roles are clearly defined, where the position of women is inferior, and in many cases limited to being an object of sexual satisfaction. Pertaining to the symbolic level, Latin America was a place where Latin American macho was meeting a Jewish schlemiel. But despite, hypersexuality which constitutes the basis of those two concepts, they did not share much. Macho was always supposed to be physically strong, psychologically confident, while schlemiel is rather thought to be clumsy, ham-fisted etc. Concerning female role models, the traditional Jewish model of a modest, maidenly girl faced the image of the Latina who is not afraid to present her sexuality, to seduce, to be proud of her body. In my opinion, these two worlds- the one of schlemiel and modest Jewish women and the one of macho and the sexually liberated latina, were not interrelated, but rather separate. I believe that, the fact that in many cases Jews preferred to interact socially with other Jews, to spend time in predominantly Jewish circles, limited the exchange of gender models with latinos.

Another obstacle in the transmission of gender roles was the lack of female relatives. Marjorie Agosin remembers how envious she was seeing her Christian friends surrounded by godmothers, aunts, female cousins. They were always willing to help, showed the girls how a young lady should behave, gave them femininity guidelines. Referring to the situation of Jewish girls in Latin America, Agosin says:

The destiny of a Jewish girl was to look at the photograph albums full of dead aunts incinerated at Auschwitz or Dachau. Those women were their godmothers. (…)There were no graves on which to place bouquets of violet- colored flowers for themselves. (Agosin 2000:51)

Marjorie Agosin underlines the role of her nanas, house maids who were the ones to show her what it meant to be a Latin woman. She says that her nannies Carmencha, Delfina, and others were always more real, more true than other women she had contact with. Marjorie clearly remembers their smell: the smell of fish, of flour, of smoke. These are the odors of her childhood. She recalls that the nanas taught her the secrets of the female body, and prepared her for becoming a woman. They showed her what it meant to long for love, to long for tenderness. The nanas, separated from their families, gave her a lesson of surviving loneliness, and prepared her for the times of exile.

I believe that we can agree on the statement that migration, leaving familiar environs, strengthened gender awareness. Contact with a new culture always enables broader understandings of our own social context. Nevertheless, typical gender roles for traditional Judaism were still valid in Latin America of the 1950 and `60s. Intermarriage was condemned, and the emancipation of Jewish women was still ahead.

Exile in USA. When a daughter of migrants immigrates herself.

When autocratic regimes rose to power in some Latin American countries, many Jewish families decided to leave. They were losing their homes, their friends, everything that was familiar. They were t losing their newly formed sense of security, and their newly build Jewish communities. Reasons for immigration differed. Ones were living because of the political reasons (such as Marjorie Agosin`s family after the  takeover by Augusto Pinochet in Chile), others found the new economic situations unbearable (such as the family of  Ruth Behar who left Cuba, where even small shops- so typical for new, Jewish immigrants of the island, were nationalized).

In this moment the third migratory experience begins. Jewish girls migrate to new places, mostly to the USA, leaving their homes in Latin America, but becoming also the heirs of the European heritage of their ancestors. In the USA they had to redefine their identity, and had to cope with prejudices and stereotypes. I want to examine here how latinidad, Jewishness and femininity were interwoven in American exile.

Already at the beginning of their stay in United States, Jewish latinas faced a questioning of their Jewishness. For American Jews, mostly of Ashkenazi, European origin, meeting Jews who did not share their historical heritage was shocking. It was a kind of cognitive dissonance. Many Latin Jews claim that in the United States they have not experienced anti- Semitism but rather general hostility towards foreigners. Cuban Jews were the biggest Latin Jewish community who migrated to US, shortly after Revolution of the 1959. Around 90-96% percent of the Jewish population of the island have left. One of the refugees was Ruth Behar who devoted the great part of her life to the investigation of the importance of exile for the Cuban Jews on a personal and communal level.

Latin Jews in the USA always have to confirm their Jewishness. In the understanding of American Jews who in most of the cases know only about American Diaspora and Eretz Israel, arrival of Latin Jews was like finding the lost tribe of Israel. Yet cultural differences were visible. Fortuna Calvo- Roth recalls:

When I arrived in Columbia, Missouri, to study Journalism, my Jewish credentials were met with skepticism: no Yiddish, no gefilte fish, no matzo ball, no kugel…Did Jews really live in Peru. It didn’t sound kosher” (Calvo-Roth 2002: 24)

The experience of Marjorie Agosin is similar. She states that she constantly has to explain herself, to tell her story to other people, to invent herself for others, to invent herself in another language, in another reality. She describes the USA as a country of solitude. Having left Chile, she felt as if she was wearing mismatched shoes- one Chilean and comfortable, another American and pinching.

Some Latin Jews would decide to get rid of their latinidad in order to become a part of American society, to gain this derationalized status. Becoming Americans will require the transformation of habits, learning a new language, changing the role of the family and social interactions. The fact that they do not resemble most of the Latinos physically, would facilitate that. At least they did not have to “whiten” themselves. Nonetheless, Latino Jews, somehow got into the same niche as people of color. One example is Ruth Behar`s mother, who was a clerk at New York University. As Ruth says:

she was neither white nor black in that context, but certainly a bit more black than white. It doesn’t help her that she is white and Jewish because a white Jewish women in America doesn’t usually speak the kind of broken English that Latinas and Latinos speak

The mother of Ruth always felt like the Other. Because of that she was more connected to black women. She herself felt like woman of color.

The migration of Jews out of Cuba was particular. Whole families were leaving at the same time. The chain migration model of the 1920 and `30s, when one member of the family helped bringing other family members after establishing themselves financially, did not apply here. Families in majority of the cases were not divided, although identities were. Many Cubans talk about bridged identity. Identity separated by the Straits of Florida. Identities divided between Havana and Miami. Some call themselves Jubans- judios cubanos, Jewish Cubans, who can not say clearly if they are Jewish or Cuban.

Older generations of Jews who themselves immigrated from Europe in these new circumstances started to consider their stay in Latin America,  as just a temporal stop in their journey to United States, to a new Jewish home. This was also the opinion of the grandmother of Ruth Behar, of “Bobe” as she used to call her in Yiddish. She undervalued the migratory experience of her granddaughter, telling her that moving from Cuba to the United States is just nothing in comparison with her struggle to leave the poverty of shtetels. Despite her grandma’s opinion, Ruth Behar sees her flight from Cuba as an extension of an ancestral Jewish escape from political and religious persecution. According to her immigration is always painful, is always connected with moving towards an unknown future, and towards a new social reality.

Marjorie Agosin inscribing her exile in the US into the global history of Jews refers to the Jews as constant wanderers. She felt that she had lost everything, all her past, all her memories, and the world in which she belonged. Agosin writes:

(…) and perhaps my mother and my grandmother were right, that we Jews should be always prepared to flee, with our bags always packed, ready for an escape.

Only there, in foreign surrounding where the young Jewish women able to experience what  it means to be a migrant, did they realize how privileged the lives they  led in Latin American countries, were as they belonged in most cases to the middle class. In the US, admitting their latinidad, was moving them towards illegal and unwanted Mexican immigrants. Their social status was lowered immediately.

Marjorie Agosin recalls:

(…)but friendship became an exchange of favors, and often abuse of my good will (…)The neighbors thought I was their servant. After all, we were foreigners. They always said: “You`re so lucky to be in this country”, while I thought how unlucky I have been having to leave behind my light, my nanas (…)

It was extremely difficult to establish new social ties. Mostly because of the cultural difference due to American superficiality and latino devotion to friendships and latino tenderness. It was more difficult when they faced direct racism related to latinidad.

Especially traumatic was the plight of the small Jewish children who were separated from their parents, in order to escape dictatorships in Latin America. Esther Levis Levine, originally from Cuba, remembers her horrors from the early 1960s. After leaving Cuba she started to live with foster Jewish American families. Despite their good will, they were totally unaware what does it mean to take care of a Jewish child from Havana. They did not speak Spanish, and thought that the girls are coming from shtetl- like villages, not from a big modern city. The girls were experiencing a great sense of loss; they were torn out of their familiar latinidad, and thrown into the unknown and unfriendly world of the North. Many of them, not knowing English at all, were sent to the same class as mentally- challenged children. Those girls, who in many cases were brilliant in Latin American schools, were labeled as deaf and stupid in the US. Some decided to rebel against this discrimination by not speaking at all. It resulted in even more striking isolation.

Moving to United States was a key moment in the lives of Latin American Jewish women. The migratory experience, which had shaped the lives of their parents or grandparents coming from Europe, also played a great role in their lives. In most of the cases, their first years in the US were really miserable- their Jewishness was questioned by their fellow Jews, their family undervalued their nostalgias, and their social status was lowered. Only after many years, did they start to notice the privileges of living in the US, and began to enjoy it, to be proud of their Jewish latinidad.

Memory. Returns. What is the role of remembering the lost world.

Ruth Behar says that “Facing the pain of up-rootedness, regaining access to the past that our present and future, permits creative integration of multicultural identity”. Her life story explains it perfectly. Behar who left Cuba in very early childhood, started to visit the island frequently. She wanted to reclaim her lost home. Although she spent most of her life in the United States, she believes that Cuba is her true home. From a personal journey for a lost identity component, she started a broader search for remaining Jewish Cubans.

Astonishingly, her desire to “come back home” resulted in anger in her family. They did not understand how someone comfortably settled in the USA can visit the Communist island. It was the opinion of her grandma, mother, father, brother etc. Some were even afraid that she might become Communist herself. For her family Cuba was lost forever. As I mentioned earlier, for immigrants from Eastern Europe, Cuba was just a temporal stop, a substitute for real America; “Hotel Cuba” as some used to say. But for Ruth and other people from her generation, Cuba was a place where they belonged; it was a place of earliest memories, their axis mundi.

For Ruth Behar, visits to Cuba became a kind of repetitive ritual. She cannot live without visiting the island from time to time. In fact, she states, that she is more connected to Cuban Jews who did not always know how to be Jewish, how to behave during services, than with the US Jewish community. She likes to be an anonymous Jew, to be learning how to be Jewish. Ruth adds that through her frequent trips to Cuba she is rebuilding a fabric which was torn by forced immigration in the 1960s. Thanks to immersing herself in latinidad she rebuilds a sense of self-support and self-affirmation.

Pertaining to the triple migratory experience of Jewish Latinas analyzed in this work, we cannot omit the stories of women who originated from Europe but later on started their new life in Latin America, and whose Europeanness constitutes the essence of their identity. Veronica de Darer, already mentioned here, underlines her German background. According to her it was the most influential factor in forming her identity. Not Jewishness, and not latinidad which was all around her in Venezuela, but t German values that have shaped her as a person (Darer 2002: 32-36). She mentions that quite often her inner, German world was in conflict with the Venezuelan outside. However, German values of work, punctuality, efficiency, and absolute sense of right and wrong, were put upon her  in a daily, methodological way, were rooted in her really strongly, leaving less space for Latin or Jewish aspects of her identity. Despite her immersion in the German world, she never decided to go there. According to her, Germanness is within the realm of the past and she feels no need to go back there.

Ruth Behar, in her documentary movie about her journey back to Cuba[4], where she goes in search of memories, shows a couple of ways in which latinidad and Jewishness are preserved in the daily life of Cubans who immigrated to the USA. In the daily life of gusanos, “the worms”, how calls them Fidel Castro. One of the characters in the movie is a belly dancer. According to her, this is the way that she commemorates her Sephardic origins from Turkey. Also Cuban women, who now live in Miami, remember the land of their parents, by preserving traditional recipes for burekas with cheese and spinach, the typical cuisine of the former Ottoman Empire. These simple things, small details, are the way that memory of distant, but emotionally close places is preserved.

Photography is another means that enables us to remember certain moments from our lives, and to remember people and places. Usually, we take photos when we experience happiness or when something unusual is happening. Later on we come back to the photos; we try to reinvent the emotions, to reinvent a past. For Marjorie Agosin, looking at the photographs of her family members who perished during the Holocaust was a process of constructing her own memory, her own understanding of family stories. She remembers her mother and grandmother, and talks to the photos of relatives, visiting them in a way. Marjorie calls that “ritualistic lovemaking in the shadows”. Family photographs symbolize for Marjorie death, loss and absence.

Photos, but also other small objects such as jewellery or candelabras taken from remote places in Europe, function as artifacts, as quasi- magical objects with the power to move in time and between spaces. Objects which connect the two worlds, the old and the new. They make it impossible to forget, they constantly preserve the memories of lost places and people.

Photos of maids were also present in the childhood of Agosin (Agosin 2000:93). She enjoyed looking at the photos from the maids` first communions, photos of their first lovers, photos of some provincial towns. They were full of joy, smiling, and simple beauty. Marjorie says that both sets of photos were significant in her childhood. They connected the horrors of the Holocaust which she faced in the form of post- memory, and sheer pleasures of daily life in Chile.

The role of memory is especially important when it comes to defining who we are, and where we come from. Without memory we lose a connection with the past, which it makes harder to define our present identity. Returning, coming back to our homelands is an important aspect of the memorialization process.


Migration is without a doubt a factor which fosters identity changes. This leads to redefinition of self- perception and a redefinition of perception by others. The effect of change is strengthened when it comes to the triple migratory experience of Jewish latinas, who are connected with three geographical spaces: Europe, Latin America and the United States. This fact resulted in transculturation, in the development of new cultural identities. They created hyphenated identities that merged different components: Jewish- Latino, German- Argentinean, Yiddish- Spanish, homeland- exile etc. Their identity can not be described in classic terms of a dichotomy: are you more Jewish or Venezuelan? Do you still feel Argentinean living 15 years in Massachusetts? These aspects are constantly mingling, constantly interrelated, always influencing one another. In most of the cases, this complex religious/national/ethnic mixture resulted in difficulties- especially concerning recognition of their Jewishness, adaptation in new surrounding or a lack of support from majority of society or from fellow Jews. Gender roles transmitted in a traditional Jewish upbringing depreciated the position of women and her perspective on migratory experience. Despite the above mentioned difficulties, Jewish girls from Latin America, struggled for success, recognition and understanding. Many decided to migrate themselves, following the plight of their ancestors. Now, in their fifties or sixties, Jewish latinas who spent their childhood in Latin America, are proud of their multilayered identity, happy to enjoy a variety of backgrounds, and a variety of sources they can draw from. Aware of the complexity of their identity, they memorialize their experiences in many ways. Some devoted themselves to writing memoirs of fiction. Others decided to frequently return to the places they have left in childhood or to perform journeys to Europe to explore the spaces where their ancestors came from, trying to examine and understand the European layers of their identities. Memory is also preserved through processes of transmission of heritage to younger generations- to people who themselves will have to devour the stories of their mothers and internalize them in their own identity.


–        Agosin Marjorie, Passion Memory Identity. Twentieth- century Latin American Jewish Women Writers, University of New Mexico Press, 1999

–        Agosin Marjorie, Alphabet in My Hands. A Writing Life, (Rutgers University Press, 2000

–        Agosin Marjorie, Sepulveda Emma; Amigas. Letters of Friendship and Exile, University of Texas Press 2001

–        Agosin Marjorie, El gesto de la ausencia, Editorial Cuarto Propio, 1999

–        Agosin Marjorie, Uncertain travelers. Conversations with Jewish Women Immigrants to America, HBI Series on Jewish Women, Brandeis University, 1999

–        Agosin Marjorie, Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America, Ohio University Press 2002

–        Behar Ruth, Suárez Lucia ; Portable Island. Cubans at Home in the World, Palgrave Macmillan 2008

–        Ruth Behar, An Island Called Home. Returning to Jewish Cuba, Rutgers University Press, 2007

–        Behar Ruth ed., Bridges to Cuba / Puentes a Cuba, University of Michigane Press, 1996

–        Behar Ruth, Juban America in: Stephen A. Sadow, King`s David Harp. Autobiographical essays by Jewish Latin American Writers, University of New Mexico Press, 1999

–        Bokser Liwerant Judith; Latin American Jews: A transnational Diaspora in: Eliezer Ben Rafael, Yitzhak Sternberg ed. Transnationalism. Diasporas and the advent of a new (dis)order, International Comparative Social Studies, Brill 2009

–        Colvo-Roth Fortuna, What? No Yiddish? Growing up Sephardi in Peru,

in: Marjorie Agosin, Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America, Ohio University Press, 2002

–        Darer de, Veronica, My Past Is My Present. The Complex Identity of German-Jewish-Venezuelan-American, in Marjorie Agosin, Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America, Ohio University Press 2002

–        Freidenberg Judith Noemi, The Invention of the Jewish Gaucho: Villa Clara and the Construction of Argentine Identity, University of Texas Press, 2009

–        Jurkowicz de Eichbaum Marta,  Cuando las mujeres hacen memoria. Testimonios de la historia oral de la inmigracion judia en Argentina, Nuevo Hacer 1999

–        Klier Doyle John, Lambrozo Shlomo, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, Cambridge University Press 2004

–        Kosminsky Ethel, Memories of Comings and Goings, in: Marjorie Agosin, Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America, Ohio University Press 2002

–        Esther Levine Levis, My Cuban Story, in  Marjorie Agosin, Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America, Ohio University Press 2002

–        Roth Cecil, Marranos and Racial Anti- Semitism. A study in parallel in: Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1940)

–        Sepulveda Emma, Morgan Tammy, Memorial de una Escritura. Aproximaciones a la obra de Marjorie Agosin, Editorial Cuarto Propio 2002

–        Shua Anna Maria, With All That I Am, in: Marjorie Agosin, Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America, Ohio University Press 2002

[1] a society characterized by masculinity as a central value

[2]http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005468, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

[3] cultural heritage of Latin American countries

[4] Ruth Behar, Adio Kerida (Good bye dear love), 2002, Women Make Movies

Mariusz Kałczewiak is  graduate student of Warsaw University; right now he writes his Master thesis devoted to the transnational migration of Latin American Jews; his academic interest include Latin American Jewish studies, religious law and identity studies. He participated in number of international programs focusing in Jewish life and history (Berlin, Tel Aviv, Boston); this paper was written during his internship at Haddassah Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University; summer 2010.

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