New books: Arab Jews, Latino Jews and other complicated identities

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The attention paid to identity politics in the past decade has made the word identity a fraught one. But questions of identity are very real and deserving of discussion, and notably for Jews. Several very different new books illuminate some of the complexities in how we understand ourselves.

Jews with roots in Latin America form a significant subgroup in this country, composing about a third of the Jewish population of Miami-Dade County and the Bronx, and 14 percent of the Jews in Los Angeles County’. But this group has received inadequate attention and study. Laura Limonic’s “Kugel and Frijoles: Latino Jews in the United States” helps ameliorate that situation.

Limonic, who teaches sociology at SUNY Old Westbury, was born in Argentina. For her research, she interviewed 85 Latino Jews living in the United States, primarily immigrants from Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela.

What emerged overwhelmingly from the interviewees is a sense of alienation in their adopted communities — of feeling like outsiders among fellow Latinos, whose family heritages are often deeply flavored by Catholicism; while often feeling estranged from their larger Jewish communities, with whom they may feel inadequate commonalities due to factors such as culture and language.

And Latino identity complicates how we understand race in the United States, for it is a cultural designation, rather than one defined by skin color. Indeed, in the countries from which most Latino Jews came, Jews functioned as a small ethnic minority. But upon coming to the United States, many discovered that Jews are often seen as a subset of the dominant white majority, which is not how this predominantly immigrant group tends to view themselves.

Because neither the Jewish community nor the Latino community tends to offer an adequate home for Jews from Latin America, Limonic writes, a pronounced new group identity — that of Latino Jews — has emerged that did not exist in their native countries. But it is tough for that identity to blossom, as relatively small numbers make it difficult for most Latino Jews to establish institutions or organizations, except in a small number of communities (notably Miami and San Diego).

I am grateful that Limonic wrote this book, although I would love to see similar subject matter presented in a work that feels less like an academic study.

An unusual mixture of history, family history and diatribe, L.A.-based journalist Massoud Hayoun’s provocative debut “When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History” functions as something of a manifesto urging Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa to consider themselves not as Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews, but as Jewish Arabs — essentially reclaiming their Arab identity, while maintaining their Judaism.

For Hayoun, there are two malevolent forces in modern history that changed the self-conception of Jews in the Arab world and led to Arabness and Jewishness becoming binary identities. The first is European colonialism. Hayoun holds that, along with other ills, the ruling French actively divided Jews from their neighbors in their North African colonies for political purposes. This impact was furthered by the large network of schools run by the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, which emphasized the French language and encouraged Jewish identification with France, rather than Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco.

And the second was the Zionist movement. Zionism encouraged Jews to establish solidarity foremost with other Jews worldwide, rather than with their compatriots. But, as Hayoun notes, the movement’s Ashkenazi leadership was often privately contemptuous of the Jews of the Arab world, and emigres frequently found themselves treated as second-class citizens upon arriving in Israel, with unequal housing and employment opportunities.

Hayoun was raised by a grandfather from Egypt (but with roots in Morocco) and a grandmother from Tunisia, both of whom kept detailed journals for decades. Most of the book consists of a narrated reconstruction of their lives, which included years in Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, France and the U.S. And Hayoun adds many recollections of his own upbringing and experiences — some of which are quite affecting, such as his bar mitzvah and his family’s experiences in the aftermath of 9/11.

Because I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, the questions of identity that Hayoun evokes are not mine to decide. But I did frequently take issue with the book, and particularly with its expressions of contempt for Israel and European Judaism that felt gratuitous or marred by reductivism.

In speaking of identity, I want to briefly mention a final book, Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, “Good Talk.” After Jacob, an Indian American from a Christian background, and her Ashkenazi Jewish husband had a son, questions about his race soon emerged and led to the writing of this book. It’s a lengthy reflection on race and identity, capturing both Jacob’s own past and the increasing apprehension she experiences concerning what her dark-skinned, “half Jewish” son will experience in this country. I love Jacob’s insistence on the importance of conversation, if we are to understand ourselves and each other.

From "Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations” by Mira Jacob
From “Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations” by Mira Jacob
Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.