Coverage of the books is supported by a generous grant from the Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
What makes family history books so fascinating to me is that they offer a new and personal perspective on historical events while simultaneously illustrating how historical circumstances have a profound impact on the development of individuals and families. their descendants.
Raised in Santiago, Berkeley and Mexico, Claudio lomnitz is professor of anthropology at Columbia University. “Nuestra América: my family in the vertigo of translation” is his exploration of what it means to inherit a particularly Jewish heritage of hardship and homelessness.
Lomnitz’s quest to understand the lives of his ancestors was made more difficult by the need to unravel complicated national claims to their places of origin. As he notes, “I must have studied a lot just to answer a seemingly simple question: where were they from?
Growing up in the predominantly Jewish town of Nova Sulitza in Bessarabia (Eastern Europe) In the early 20th century, Lomnitz’s maternal grandfather Misha Adler lived on the Russian side of the main street, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the other side. After World War I, Bessarabia fell under Romanian rule, and the virulent Romanian nationalism that arose during this period mingled with violent anti-Semitism.
Misha, a Zionist, sought to make aliya, but her plans were overruled by Britain’s new restrictions on Jewish immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1923. Meanwhile, the need to leave was acute, and it turned out that Peru actively courted Europeans. emigrants (motivated, disturbingly, by the government’s desire to create a demographic counterweight to the nation’s indigenous and Asian populations).
Misha arrived in Lima in 1924 and soon fell in love with Noemi Milstein, another member of the Hashomer Hatzaïr movement whose family had also fled Romania for Peru. But Peru’s welcome did not last. President Augusto Leguía promoted allegations of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy, and a 1929 crackdown on leftists saw mass arrests of Jews, regardless of their political affiliations.
Misha, who actually had strong leftist convictions (he and Noemi were active in a Marxist intellectual circle), was sent to a notorious island penitentiary. Relationships got him out of prison, but he and Noemi were expelled from the country.
They would spend the rest of their lives moving between Colombia, France, Israel and Venezuela. Lomnitz’s mother would add the United States and Mexico to the list, while Lomnitz’s father, Cinna, had a similar traveling education in Germany, Belgium and Chile. And the tragic backdrop was that the vast majority of those close to Lomnitz who had not packed their bags and left Europe were murdered.
It is a moving book, not least because of the resilience that those close to Lomnitz often display in the face of statelessness. And Lomnitz writes honestly about his complicated heritage, even acknowledging his own linguistic homelessness, in which, “sandwiched between Spanish and English”, he feels “insecure in both”.
In “Hidden: memory of a Judeo-Iranian girl caught between Chad and America” Esther Amini likewise looks to his family’s past to help him make sense of his own life.
Amini was born in New York to parents who left Mashhad, the holiest city in Iran, where conditions for Jews were particularly dire. In the aftermath of a 1839 pogrom who killed dozens of Jews, Mashhadi Jews had to convert to Islam or flee. Many of those who submitted to the conversion continued to adhere to the Jewish ritual in secret, “chanting the Quran in public places alongside their Muslim neighbors while at home in their basements they taught the Hebrew to their young sons and fervently studied Torah ”.
Amini’s parents, Fatullah and Hana, grew up in such crypto-Jewish families. Mashhadi Jews married girls at a young age, to protect them from rape or the advances of Muslim suitors. Hana was 14 when she was engaged without her consent to Fatullah, who was more than twice her age, and she had her first child at 15.
Despite her restricted life, Hana dreamed of moving to America. The family finally arrived in New York City in 1947, “carrying futons, rugs, padded satchels and 27 centuries of persecution.”
During their first visit to an American synagogue, they were rejected because their ignorance of Yiddish made them suspect; their attempt at another synagogue went better. When the rabbi asked them to stand up and honored them, Amini’s parents cried. “Never before have they sat in an above-ground synagogue with hundreds of their fellow Jews, and never before have they felt so deeply valued for who they are.
Amini brings an empathetic but unwavering lens to the complex personalities of her parents. Hana’s love for jewelry, makeup, ornate hairstyles and trendy dresses was a clear response to living in a world women were forced to hide in – she even had it. burnt. chadors before emigrating. But Amini also connects aspects of Hana’s tumultuous character with a deep sense of having been deceived by life – by being forced to hide her body and her Jewishness, by her illiteracy, by an unsatisfying marriage and, most importantly, by death. from his mother. during childbirth, and from her father soon after.
Fatullah is also a complicated character. While protecting Amini, he also didn’t support her in an ominous way. She grew up forging her signature on her report card, not because her grades were bad, but because they were excellent. Her traditionalist views left no room for the education of women.
And the act that actually won her father’s approval – his consent to marry the Mashhadi man he had chosen for her – was overturned when she finally filed for a divorce.
Amini began to study Persian Jewish history in the hope of better understanding his parents’ state of mind. She writes: “I was trying to understand how life as crypto-Jews had shaped my parents, as I was keenly aware that their trauma was making its way into me.
And, as with many difficult chapters in Jewish history, knowledge can be a burden. As Amini discovered, “The more I researched my family history, the more I felt his weight weighing on me.”
“Nuestra América: My family in the vertigo of translation” by Claudio Lomnitz (464 pages, Other press)
“Concealed: Memory of a Jewish-Iranian Girl Caught Between Chador and America” by Esther Amini (310 pages, Greenpoint Press)