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Ashkenazi Jews are descended from ancient Turkey and were trade masters. During the 1920s and 1930s they sailed to the Curacao, which is a Caribbean island in order to escape the European pogroms. However, they were not the only Jews on that island, Sephardic Jews were an elite class of merchants. The Jewish people were always on the move, rather for commerce or escaping political intolerance. Argentina and Cuba were one of the few countries that accepted Ashkenazi Jews as refugees. There is a possibility that Ashkenazi Jews did not keep their Jewish identity intact due to integration and possible intermarriage. This research will discuss how their identity formation progressed the longer they stayed in Argentina and Cuba and if they were fully accepted by their host country.
According to Abraham-Van Der Mark, Ashkenazi Jews were starting to leave Curacao because they were starting to become a trading minority. In addition, their overall socioeconomic circumstances were decreasing. “Most of the first settlers died of old age and, because of political insecurity and economic decline, many Ashkenazi left the island in the 1980s, to settle elsewhere…” (Abraham-Van Der Mark, p. 257). In order to survive, Ashkenazi Jews had to leave the island. However, the Sephardic Jews were integrated into the society, in which they were accepted by the white elites. They managed to thrive from the trade that they became known as the ‘Rothschild of the Caribbean”. The Sephardic Jews dominated the competition of wealth and resources, however, the trading monopoly caused them to flee to Argentina and Cuba.
South American countries such as Argentina accepted Ashkenazi Jews, who were seeking better opportunities and future for their children. Over time, they assimilated in the Argentinean culture. They chose to become part of Argentinean culture, rather than create religious Jewish establishments (Horowitz, p.202). Ashkenazi Jews reinvented themselves in the new culture and were able to get rid of the pervasive stigma in being a minority. “The Jews entering an advanced industrial society are self-conscious and very concerned over any undue delays in blending in” (Horowitz, p. 204). Ashkenazi Jews were willing to quickly assimilate into Argentina.
Jewish establishment such as synagogues kept everyone together and created a community, in addition to keeping the religious faith alive. They shielded themselves by creating an enclave in order to protect themselves against anti-Semitism within Argentina. The native elites had different ideologies than the Ashkenazi Jews. “Within this context, Jewish immigration followed a different course; from the very beginning it did not “blend” and in fact, as time went on, the strangeness did not abate regardless of the changing degree of outside pressure” (Dulfano, p.123). Argentina was not tolerant towards the Jewish community.
The Ashkenazi Jews brought their skills and knowledge to Argentina. “…The Jewish community still enjoyed freedom to pursue economic and educational goals which led to rapid ascent on the economic ladder and the subsequent homogenization of the community with in an almost single socio-economic middle class” (Dulfano, p.123). The Jewish community focused on becoming the middle class by strengthening their internal networks. Over time, the Jewish community started to take on the culture of Argentina.
Jewish women played a critical role in assimilating, because they displayed service and made sure that their children were educated. “The study of Jewish women calls attention to the dense associational networks in the small towns and colonies, which created links among women, assisted the poor, enhanced children’s education, and maintained the quality of local services” (Deutsch, p. 53). Ashkenazi women also took on the responsibility to expand their networks in order to create resources for anyone who needed them. Their philanthropy intertwined the Ashkenazi Jewish community. This is considered boundary crossing, because the Argentinian Jews were able to navigate the hostile environment of anti-Semitism.
The Ashkenazi women were very philanthropic towards responding to fascism in Argentina. Junta de la Victoria wanted to make a difference in Argentina by having no tolerance for fascism. “The group was dedicated to defeating fascism overseas and preventing it from spreading to Argentina” (Deutsch, p.64). Ashkenazi Jews were trying to escape the anti-Semitism in Europe.
The Jewish community also bought in different ethnic communities together in order to help soothe the prejudices between the Jewish and Argentinian people. Deutsch mentioned an event that celebrates diversity by showing that they are all interconnected by their love for Argentina. “As the magazine observed, “the youth no longer understand the old distinctions of origin;” most were “Argentine-born, sharing the same tastes and language” (Deutsch, p. 59). By 2nd generation, the Ashkenazi Jews embraced their Argentinian heritage.
Liebman states that the 2nd generation Ashkenazi Jews lose touch with their Jewish heritage. Over time, their political views change towards the government. “Thus the majority of Jewish youth are found in the extremes of the political spectrum where quick change is sought” (Liebman, p. 316). Ashkenazi Jewish youth could not become a part of the political system because they were not allowed to be in decision making. Argentina only allowed Jews to partake in economic opportunities that allowed for social mobility.
Ashkenazi Jews were prevented from fully being involved in Argentinian society in regards to the political, cultural and intellectual arenas. Argentina was trying to preserve their nationalistic culture, by unintentionally mimicking anti-Semitism due to the progression of the Dirty Wars that occurred during 1976-1983. The Dirty Wars were also known as the National Reorganization Process. This also negatively impacted the Argentine Jewish communities. The Jewish community was particularly impacted by the Dirty Wars because many valued members of the Jewish community began to disappear. Terrorism, Democracy, and the Jews of Argentina by Levit is about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who were politically active in ending the dictatorship rule of Juan Peron. Their goal was to bring awareness about the Argentinean government.
According to Levit, the Jewish population was disproportionately affected by the Dirty Wars. “While Jews make up less than one percent of the total population, estimates reflect that Jews comprised 15 percent of the victims killed by the military junta” (Levit, p. 27). A vulnerable population such as the Ashkenazi Jewish population had suffered through the brunt of the Dirty Wars and the fascist ideologies that were similar to Europe. The Dirty Wars was a catalyst for the Argentinean Jews to keep close to their roots and not fully integrate into society.
Unlike Argentina, Cuba was progressive towards protecting religious minorities such as the Jews. However, the Ashkenazi Jews faced challenges in assimilating into the Cuban culture. The Cuban Jews developed two identities which was Jewish and Cuban. Strug and La Porte discuss how the Cuban Jewish community was protected “…under post-revolutionary Cuba religious were protected and were not victims of violence” (Strug & LaPorte , p.8).
According to Levitz, identity is clearly constructed and identification is a collection of affiliations. Despite Cuba being a safe haven, Jews had to withhold their identities. For example, Cuban Jews feared in identifying with the Communist party. The prejudice prevented Cuban Jews from receiving a college education or a stable job. “One respondent stated, “My father was a revolutionary and being Jewish was somewhat of a taboo. In those days when you were looking for a job, you did not mention a religion.” (Strug & LaPorte, p.9) This showed that the Cuban Jews could not fully identify as Jewish because it would have limited their opportunity.
The Jewish community could not fully embrace their religious identity by eliminating the aspects that associated with Judaism. For example, they wore the Star of David necklace rather than eat chicken. One of the respondents that they choose to interview stated “In Cuba, you couldn’t really be religious. It wasn’t that they were going to put you in prison, but the reality was that there was a strong bias against anyone who practiced a religion. So, the people abandoned religious practice.” (Strug & LaPorte, p.9). Even though Cuban Jews were not religiously persecuted, they could not practice religious activities in public. The Jewish community survived the political turmoil by intermarrying with non-Jewish Cubans.
Intermarriage was seen as a threat to the Jewish community but was necessary in order to by fully accepted by the society. “Respondents explained that while intermarriage is viewed within the greater Jewish world as a threat, in Cuba intermarriage is the norm, primarily for practical reasons; one respondent noted that “the supply of available marriage partners is limited.” (Strug & LaPorte, p. 12).
The Jewish community integrated into the Cuban society because their community was decreasing in population and influence. This resulted in two cultures merging together and creating a unique identity. “We found that intermarriage, which is viewed by most Jewish leaders and organizations as a threat, is welcomed and even embraced in Cuba, as long as the non-Jewish spouse is converted according to halakha” (Strug & LaPorte, p. 15).
Halakha means being considered Jewish before converting, however, intermarriage was not the only way to having a strong Jewish community. Strug and LaPorte mention how the Jewish leaders are also trying to incorporate non-Jewish Cuban youth and this is a tactic that is used to bring in more members. “Our respondents indicated that Jewish leaders both in Cuba and abroad were purposeful when developing strategies to nurture the Jewish identity of Cuban Jews, placing a large emphasis on engaging youth” (Strug & LaPorte, p.15).
Ruth Behar’s work describes how she had to create her own identity which became known as “Juban”. She was expelled from Cuba, despite being born in the country. Her family was forced to come to the United States. She created her own identity in combining her Cuban descent with her Jewish heritage. When she came to the United States, she tried to fit into her identity. Her grandfather spoke fluent Spanish, even though that was his second language. “He spoke Spanish to his children and grandchildren; the Yiddish that he spoke with my grandmother and others of their generation failed to get passed on, while English, learned in a second exile, never entered his veins” (Behar, p. 153).
Her grandfather had to adopt the Cuban identity despite getting pushed out of Cuba during the Revolution. Even though her grandfather spoke fluent Spanish, he made enunciation mistakes in order to preserve his Jewish identity. “The “sound” of a colonized voice, it seems to me, carries traces of the effort to resist speaking, to resist speaking “as usual”. (Behar, p. 154). Behar’s grandfather tried to put in linguistic brakes and normalize the experience of living in Cuba.
Behar also mentions how the United States played a role in pushing the European Refugees into Latin America, as a result of the 1924 Immigration and Naturalization Act that limited the number of Jewish refugees that could come into the country. It was believed that Cuba would be the 1st stop into getting into the United States, which was not the case. “Many Jewish emigrants had initially viewed Cuba as a way station en route to the United States” (Behar, p. 156).
Cuban immigrants who came to the United States had to hide their identity in order to get into the country. “…Those same Jewish “aliens” who the consular official in 1939 had feared would smuggle themselves into the United States, concealing their “true” Jewishness behind the mask of a “false” Cuban identity, crossed the border into the United States” (Behar, p. 157). The Jewish identity was stigmatized during the Holocaust, who were desperate to get accepted into a country. Behar states how “: I am cubana because I am Jewish. I am cubana because my grandparents were unwanted cargo that could not be delivered to the United States” (Behar, p. 157).
The Argentinian and Cuban Jews share the story of struggle and acceptance in their host countries. However, even though that they wanted to integrate into both societies, it varied based on the government of Argentina and Cuba. For instance, Argentina closely followed a European model that was very similar to fascist countries such as Germany and Italy. This created a problem for many Argentinian Jews because they were only allowed access to economic mobility, but they experienced discrimination in other fields such the military, culturally, and intellectually.
However, this did create a stronger sense of Jewish identity because many Jewish-based organizations became established. Also, Ashkenazi women, played a crucial rule in speeding up assimilation because they became philanthropically involved in the Argentinian community. For example, they wanted to be inclusive to non-Jewish youth in order to promote unity in Argentina. However, this did not prevent the Argentinian government in creating the Dirty Wars and persecuted the Jewish community for “political crimes”. The Jewish community did not have any kind of protection from the trauma they had suffered from the Dirty Wars.
In Cuba, the Jewish community was not persecuted as it was in Argentina, because after the Cuban Revolution the religious minorities in Cuba would be protected. However, it was out of the social norm of Cuba to even mention they were Jewish, because as a result of the Cuban Revolution many Cuban Jews had to leave. This dwindled in numbers by hiding their identity as well as keeping small aspects of Judaism. For example, a woman in one of their interviews stated that she never took of her Star of David necklace or a father refusing to eat chicken or shellfish, which are seen as “forbidden food”. However, despite these small practices they could not openly say that they were Jewish because they were under a Communist regime.
Despite, the differences there were a few similarities, which was how well the Jewish community was well-preserved even though there were governments that did not approve their identity. Secondly, Jewish community in Argentina and Cuba are inclusive towards Argentinian and Cuban youth. The integration of Jews in both Latin American countries was challenging because they had to rebuild their lives in a new country. For example, Ruth Behar talks about her Jewish and Cuban ancestry and how her family had to assimilate but still wanted to keep their Jewish roots.
The Jewish communities of Argentina and Cuba were created out of necessity. However, their identity formation is very different. Argentinian Jews experienced segmented assimilation due to fascism. The Cuban Jewish population had to become invisible during the Cuban revolution.
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