Nues­tra Améri­ca: My Fam­i­ly in the Ver­ti­go of Translation

Clau­dio Lomnitz

  • Review
By – April 8, 2021

In order to escape increas­ing anti­semitism in Roma­nia and Ukraine, Misha Adler and Noe­mi Mil­stein emi­grat­ed to South Amer­i­ca in the 1920s. Bare­ly out of their teens and full of ear­ly Zion­ist fer­vor for social­ism and mod­ern Jew­ish cul­ture, they met and fell in love in Lima, Peru. In the fol­low­ing years, they found­ed pub­li­ca­tions and brushed shoul­ders with lumi­nar­ies of South Amer­i­can his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture. They were jailed and freed, par­ents and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als, speak­ers of a dizzy­ing num­ber of lan­guages. They moved fre­quent­ly from city to city, coun­try to coun­try, con­ti­nent to con­ti­nent. They were East­ern Euro­pean, Latin Amer­i­can, Israeli, and yet, at many times, stateless.

Their grand­son, renowned Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty anthro­pol­o­gist Clau­dio Lom­nitz, tells their sto­ry and that of oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers in this fas­ci­nat­ing, fast-mov­ing book. While tech­ni­cal­ly a mem­oir of Lomnitz’s famil­ial dis­cov­er­ies, Nues­tra Améri­ca often reads more like a his­to­ry of a lit­tle-known type of Jew­ish dias­poric expe­ri­ence. Lom­nitz clear­ly knows that nar­ra­tiviz­ing his research process as a tra­di­tion­al mem­oir wouldn’t do jus­tice to the dra­mat­ic and trag­ic turns Misha, Noe­mi, and their fam­i­ly suf­fered. With a tone that is both aca­d­e­m­ic and ten­der, the grand­son steps back and lets his ances­tors’ sto­ry unfold one heart­break­ing turn at a time. When Lom­nitz asserts him­self into the nar­ra­tive, it’s usu­al­ly to explain an intrigu­ing bit of Latin Amer­i­can his­to­ry and its sur­pris­ing inter­sec­tion with the Jews of that continent.

Lom­nitz con­duct­ed metic­u­lous research, scour­ing archives, trav­el­ing, and con­tact­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers who live far away. He col­lects and presents data with the attuned eye of an ethno­g­ra­ph­er and some­times writes of his own fam­i­ly with a schol­ar­ly remove. He presents every spec­u­la­tion, fan­ta­sy, or wish about his fore­bear­ers with cau­tion, warn­ing us that what fol­lows is not ver­i­fi­able fact. While this dis­tance pre­vents Misha, Noe­mi, and the oth­ers from ever becom­ing ful­ly-fledged char­ac­ters in their own sto­ry, it also keeps the book decid­ed­ly hon­est. And by pre­vent­ing the read­er from becom­ing too swept up in the family’s emo­tion­al response to their sit­u­a­tion, Lom­nitz forces us to con­front, again and again, how what we know of the past is often hearsay, and how, despite our best efforts, we can nev­er ful­ly know those who cre­at­ed us. It is a pro­found mes­sage nes­tled lov­ing­ly in a book that edu­cates and entertains.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

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