Category Archives: Focus on scholars and scholarship

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?
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The Traje de Berberisca: an Encoded Dress

by Dr. Yaëlle Azagury
http://yaelleazagury.wordpress.com/

An Ethnological Study of the Bridal Dress of Moroccan Jews also called Keswa el K’bira (Arabic)  or Traje de Berberisca (Spanish), this article first appeared in www.vocesdehaketia.com.  It is an exploration of Moroccan Jewish bridal customs and of the signs and symbols of this traditional dress.

[Editor's note: If you are an advanced doctoral student or recent PhD who would like to feature your research in a short article on our site, please contact Evelyn Dean-Olmsted.]

As a little girl, I often asked my mother in Spanish – I grew up in Tangier where Jews spoke a Spanish meshed with Judeo Spanish -“Que me pongo hoy mama?” Invariably she gave me an enigmatic answer: “El traje de oro y de plata.” This threw me each time into the agonies of an elaborate speculation. What did she really mean by “the gold and silver gown”?  I was an avid reader of fairy tales, so one came to mind.  In Grimm’s the Ass’s Skin, the princess asks her father for three dresses: one the color of Time, the second one the color of the Moon, and the third the color of the Sun. Neither request is meant to be fulfilled.  How can one make a moon-color dress?  Or a sun-color dress?  Or for that matter, how could one even fathom a dress of gold and silver? I was invariably puzzled. One day, though, I found out the “traje de oro y de plata” existed not merely as an imaginary riddle for inquisitive little girls. It was the traje de berberisca, or keswa-el ­kbira (grandcostume), as it is called in Arabic.  Click here to read the rest of the article.

In memoriam: María Rosa Menocal

María Rosa Menocal, a renowned scholar and historian of medieval culture and literature, passed away on Oct. 15 after a three-year battle with melanoma.

Menocal, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and former director of the Whitney Humanities Center, focused her research on the literary traditions of the Middle Ages and on the interaction of various religious and cultural groups in medieval Spain.

Read her obituary here.

Read a tribute to Menocal at the Sephardic Heritage Update newsletter.

Playing with Peculiarity: Sephardic Migrations and the Ambiguity of National Identity

by Devi Mays, Ph.D. Candidate in History at Indiana University

Editor’s note: From time to time, we will feature original research essays  by emerging scholars in Sephardi-Mizrahi studies.  If you are an advanced graduate student or recent Ph.D. who would like to promote your work in this way, please contact Evelyn Dean-Olmsted.

It was the night of the second seder of Passover, and I was seated in the apartment of my friend’s grandmother in the upper-middle class Etiler district of Istanbul. The lights of the Akmerkez shopping mall twinkled in the April drizzle through the window behind me. Linda Hanım,[i] my gracious hostess and a vibrant woman in her late 80s, sat down on the couch next to me, and asked me what had dragged me to Turkey. After explaining that I was researching Ladino-speaking Sephardic immigrants to Mexico in the early 1900s, her face lit up. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “one of my uncles went to Mexico before I was born. He never came back to Turkey, so I never met him, but his daughter visited once. She stayed with me, and we shared the same name.” Speaking in a mixture of Turkish, French, and Ladino, generously peppered with English and Hebrew, Linda Hanım explained that her father had been one of five siblings from the small town of Silivri in eastern Thrace. Of these five, only her father had remained in Turkey, the other siblings having immigrated to the United States, Israel, and Mexico. Like many Jews from smaller towns in the Aegean littoral, her father had left his natal city to move to Istanbul, where Linda grew up in what several Turkish Jews described to me as the “judería” surrounding the Galata tower in Beyoğlu. This area, once known for its cosmopolitan mixture of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Levantines, and Europeans, is now known for its burgeoning café culture, a flood of young people moving into turn-of-the-century buildings still bearing the names of long-absent Greek or Armenian architects, and cobblestone streets overflowing with eager tourists. Continue reading

Watch Adriana Brodsky’s “Becoming Jewish Argentines” lecture at LoC

On March 1, 2012, Adriana M. Brodsky (Kluge Fellow, 2011, St. Mary’s College of Maryland)  gave a lecture at the Library of Congress on the subject of “Becoming Jewish Argentines: Sephardim, Marriage Choice, and the Construction of a Jewish Argentine Identity (1920-1960).” In her lecture, Adriana Brodsky explores the marriage patterns of Argentine Sephardic Jewish communities, paying special attention to when Sephardim began marrying Ashkenazic Jews, thereby giving birth to a new type of Jewish identity, neither fully Ashkenazic nor fully Sephardic, but Argentine. The presentation suggests that loyalties to communities of origin were slowly superseded by a sense of belonging to the Argentine nation.

Watch the video or read the transcript of the lecture here.