Original Interview with Edna Aizenberg and Margalit Bejarano

Edna Aizenberg and Margalit Bejarano, Eds. 2012. Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

The following review and interview were done by Aviad Moreno, Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University and adjunct lecturer at Achva Academic College. His current research observes the role of migration networks in the emigration of Spanish Moroccan Jews to Israel and Latin America. His forthcoming book deals with European-oriented modernity in the Minute Book of the Jewish Junta of Tangier.  He may be contacted at aviad.moreno[at]gmail.com.

Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas: An Interdisciplinary Approach offers a comparative and interdisciplinary overview of contemporary Sephardic identities in the Americas. The book is interdisciplinary not only in the narrow sense of combining studies from a variety of academic disciplines (from history to musicology).  Furthermore, thanks to the rather pioneering decision made by the editors, it binds together case studies from Canada to Argentina, passing through the phenomenon of internal migration within the Americas. By so deciding, they have presented a fresh attitude towards Sephardic studies altogether, which disposes of traditional academic and regional barriers and invites new audiences to view the Sephardic Diaspora through a more universal perspective.  The exceptional decision to publish the book entirely in English, despite its extensive focus on Latin American communities, both reflects and contributes to this important mission.

Another chief factor making this book unique is its focus on the twentieth century, during which the centers of Jewish Diaspora have shifted westwards from Europe, Africa and Asia to the Americas, producing a new spirit among the entire Jewish nation.  Consequently, the Americas are today home to the largest number of Sephardic Jews living outside of Israel. Despite the fact that several communities in this vast region have been left untouched by the editors, the book succeeds well in giving voice to a largely silent (or silenced) Sephardim throughout its historical evolution over the last 100 years in the Americas. Subsequently it may well contribute, from an unexpected standpoint, to the ongoing re-evaluation of traditional Ashkenazi-centered narratives that still predominate much of the academic literature in Jewish historiography.

Aviad Moreno: How has the idea for the book evolved?

Edna Aizenberg: For a full explanation, see bottom of p. xiii and top of xiv in the introduction to the book: “The idea for the book emerged, etc.” There was a symposium that began to look at certain imbalances in Sephardic Studies in the Americas, with an abundance of works on Crypto-Jews in Latin America, for instance, and almost nothing on the last hundred years; what there was tended to be atomized by community or language.  We wanted a contemporary and global approach.

Margalit Bejarano: The Division for Latin America, Spain and Portugal at the Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University conducted a study on Sephardim in Latin America that demonstrated the far reaching impact that the communities of origin in the Middle East and North Africa had on their descendants. We organized a symposium with scholars studying Sephardim in different countries in North, Central and South America, with the objective of comparing the experiences of Sephardim of different origins in different environments. The interesting exchange of ideas brought us to the idea of publishing that book.

Moreno: The time frame of the book is confined mainly to the last 100 years. Why does this specific period in the history of the Sephardim in the Americas merit unique scholarly attention?

Aizenberg: The last hundred years are essential period for Sephardic and Jewish history, the history of the Americas, and Latin American history.  This is when modern Latin American societies began to emerge, as immigration began to change the face of nations in formation.  This is also true of Sephardic and Jewish history, since the migrations to the Americas formed new communal, cultural and linguistic configurations.  It was the time of great population shifts that moved one center of the Jewish world to the Americas, and Latin America was part of this, often neglected by historians of the North.  Also generally neglected, both North and South, are the Sephardim who came, so by concentrating on the last hundred years the book really addresses a number of major questions and redresses major imbalances.

Bejarano: Sephardic studies tend to concentrate on the history of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula and on the Sephardic Diasporas in the Old World. For many years, studies on Sephardim in the Americas concentrated on the colonial period, neglecting the contemporary period. The time frame of the book was chosen to point out the contribution of the pre World War I immigration from the Middle East and the Balkan countries, which laid the foundations of many of the contemporary Sephardic communities in the Americas.

What was the underlying principle behind the division of the book into its three current sections (“ Sephardim in the Americas,”  “ Ideological Divergence” and “Culture in Transition”) ?

Aizenberg: The division came from the logic of development of the volume: first, the broad outlines of the areas to be studied, community and culture; then, ideological divergence, one of the main topics in the book, as the essays look at religion, Zionism, and trans-nationalism; and finally, culture in transition, language, literature, and music.  We did not want this to be a static survey by country, for example, but a dynamic of significant issues and subjects in dialogue, trans-nationally and across disciplines.  I think we succeeded.

Bejarano: The first part of the book presents the general outline of the historical and cultural development which is the basis for out comparative approach. The second part includes historical monographs that deal with specific cases, but present similar phenomena and problems. The third part is devoted to language, literature and music, stressing the interdisciplinary character of the book.

Moreno: Over the last decades, much of the literature on Latin America Jewries have appeared in the Spanish language or in some bi- or multilingual publications. What motivated the initiative of publishing this collection entirely in English? Did you aim to reach a new target audience? On the other hand, did you fear you would miss specific audiences of both readers and contributors?

Aizenberg: We published the collection in English to make it available to new target audiences and to reach the broadest possible public.  Many of the contributors have published widely in Spanish in Latin America, but are unknown elsewhere.  This was a way to make the work of important scholars available to an international audience.  We worked as translators as well as editors.

Bejarano: Your question touches upon a very important issue: there is a language barrier that divides between scholars of Latin American studies and the general English speaking audience that remains unaware of the important scholarly work published in Spanish and Portuguese. We used English as a lingua franca, with the aim of reaching a new target-audience of persons interested in Sephardim from different perspectives.

Moreno: You employ the term ‘Sephardim’ as a comprehensive definition to all the non-Ashkenazi communities, including the Arabic-speaking Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Regarding the latter, the question of terminology has brought about a politically-oriented and animated debate, especially in modern Israel. In this context, several scholars have even criticized the use of the term ‘Sepharadim,’ arguing it deliberately ‘de-Arabizes’ the unique historical identity of Arab-speaking Jews as part of their marginalized re-socialization and incorporation into the (Zionist) collective memory. Could you relate your ideas on the subject and how you decided to use this term, which is so controversial in some academic circles?  Did you consider using other terminologies such as ‘Middle Eastern Jewries’ or ‘Jews from Muslim countries’?

Aizenberg: We have a full discussion of the debates on terminology and the different positions on the comprehensive use of “Sephardim” in our introduction.   Throughout the book, many other terminologies appear in the essays: “Syrian Jews,” “Middle Eastern Jews,” “French-speaking Moroccan Jews,” “Arabic speakers,” to name some.  So there of a great variety that allows for the consideration of unique historical identities.  Absolutely.

At the same time, the Iberian element is central to the volume.  In Latin America, Jews are again in an Iberian, Catholic milieu no matter where they are from.  The first Jews to arrive in the Americas were of Iberian origin.  “Sepharad” inspires Latin American Jews of all stripes, and Ladino plays a literary and cultural role.  So, as the book illustrates, the particular socio-historical and cultural context for the use of “Sephardic” is important and cannot be neglected.

Bejarano: The use of the term ‘Sephardim’ as an inclusive term for Iberian Jews and all the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa does not exclude the division of the Sephardic sector into ‘Arabic speakers’ and ‘Ladino speakers’ or the definition of each sub-ethnic group by its specific origin. Each term has its rationale in the context in which it is used.

An important factor in the use of this term ‘Sephardim’ with reference to the Americas is the self-definition of the immigrants and their descendants. In Latin America, most communal institutions of Jews from Syria use the term Sephardim as part of their name, while Jews from North Africa refer to their Sephardic or Iberian origin. All the groups that are studied in our book come from communities of origin that historically came under the impact of Jews expelled from Spain, even when the Arabic language prevailed. The Sephardic legacy is part of their legacy.

 Moreno: The academic interest in Latin American Jewries and in Northern American Jewries has occasionally been subjected to separate regional disciplines or subdisciplines and have rarely been the topic of the same book. Could you explain your rather pioneering decision to bind together case studies from Canada, Miami and Argentina? Do you consider the book interdisciplinary also in this sense?

Aizenberg: The aim of the book’s “pioneering decision” as you call it—thank you—is precisely to look at a global and trans-national Sephardic diaspora, and not to adhere to the more common regional disciplines or sub-disciplines.  The book is absolutely interdisciplinary in this sense, not just in dealing with different areas of study, history, religion, literature, or music.

Bejarano: The book deals mainly with identities. Communities scattered in different regions throughout the Americas share common roots, and their identities are manifested not only in cultural differences (language, religion, literature, music etc.) but also in social and economic patterns and in political tendencies. All this requires an interdisciplinary and trans-regional approach.

Moreno: In the context of shifting bon-tons in 1970s Israel, manifestations of ethnic revival among Sephardic Jews were perceived as part of the ongoing struggle to express their authentic ethnic voices that had been silenced by the (Ashkenazi) national power elite.  Do you think that the book, and particularly its last section dealing with the Sephardic revival in the Americas, may offer some fresh insights for the reassessment of Sephardic revival elsewhere and particularly in Israel?

Aizenberg: Israel presents a unique case because the Sephardic revival is played out against the background of a sovereign, Jewish, Zionist state, with long Ashkenazi dominance, and the politicization of ethnicity within it.  The Americas as a diaspora, present a different dynamics and the Sephardic heritage, different functions.  In Latin America, for example, it can be a way to configure a contemporary Jewish, Sephardic Latin American identity, as in the novels of the Mexican Rosa Nissan, or as a way of connecting with today’s global communities of Sephardim or with current world music.  Whatever function it has, the insight the Sephardic revival can offer is creativity in the present, not a nostalgic escape to a lost world.  Heritage is in motion, not frozen.  Also, the idea that political resistance is only one possibility of many.

Bejarano: I think that we have to distinguish between the Sephardic cultural revival, which is an Ibero-American phenomenon, and the social-political-religious revival that can be compared with the ethnic revival in Israel. The former is not limited to the sub-ethnic Sephardic groups, but became part of the Ashkenazi and even the non-Jewish audience, as so well described by Edna Aizenberg in the book.

A different phenomenon, which is related basically to the Arabic speaking groups, is the inclusion of the Sephardic Jews in the leadership of the representative institutions of the Jewish communities at large, and their impact on the recent religious transitions. These were achieved by their growing economic power, as well as by the inter-relations with the Sephardim in Israel.

Moreno: The book allows a broad perspective on the process of Sephardic migration during a historically momentous era, when the vast majority of  Sephardic Jews evacuated and detached from their Muslim countries of origin. Do you think the book may contribute to the broader academic and popular discussion dealing with ‘the Jewish exodus from Muslim Lands during the last part of the twentieth century’, which has commonly focused on the mass waves of Aliyah to Israel following its statehood?

Aizenberg: The book illustrates the breadth of Sephardic migration, not only limited to aliyah to Israel. By focusing on the creation of new Sephardic centers in the Americas, where a substantial portion of world Jewry lives, the volume contributes to a wider, more accurate discussion.  It also modifies Ashkenazi-centered historiography on Jewish migration to the Americas.

Bejarano: The discussion on the Jewish exodus from Muslim Lands is connected to the mass migration following the establishment of the State of Israel. Most of the contemporary Jewish communities in the Americas were not founded by Jewish refugees of the late 1940s and 1950s, but rather by immigrants arriving to the New World one hundred years ago – a period in which the Jews were an integral part of Christian and Muslim migrations from the collapsing Ottoman Empire.  While some of the articles, such as Henry Green’s essay on Sephardim in Miami, deal with the impact of the migrations caused by the Middle East conflict, the book cannot be taken as a direct contribution to this problem.

Moreno: Based on the book’s main conclusions, do you have any suggestions for future research?

Aizenberg: Each of the essays suggests areas for more study— such as, religious transitions and modernization, Sephardic Zionism, Sephardic music in new contexts, the use of Sephardic history, or “Sephardism,” as a strategy for adapting to Latin American and other societies. Openness to a multiplicity of definitions and approaches, and conversations among disciplines are essential for 21st century Sephardic Studies.

Bejarano: Returning to your first question, the idea behind the book was the paucity of contemporary Sephardic studies in the Americas. This volume does not pretend to cover this area, and there are many subjects that still require searching. Countries such as Canada, the US – outside New York, Brazil and many smaller countries require further research. Among the fields that need further study – and this is only a partial list – I would suggest: Sephardic Zionism, economic history of different Sephardic sub-groups, linguistic residues of Ladino, Arabic and Haquitia, formal and informal education as well as comparative studies on identity and transnationalism.

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