Nues­tra Améri­ca: My Fam­i­ly in the Ver­ti­go of Translation

Clau­dio Lomnitz

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.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Clau­dio Lomnitz

  1. At the start of the book, Lom­nitz writes about his rela­tion­ship to lan­guage, and talks not only about the lan­guages that he lacks— the lan­guages that cut him off from ful­ly under­stand­ing his grand­par­ents’ lives— but also about the par­al­lels between his own Spanish/​English bilin­gual­ism, and his lin­guis­tic inse­cu­ri­ties in both lan­guages, and the rela­tion­ship between Yid­dish, Hebrew and Esperan­to. What lim­i­ta­tions in under­stand­ing our past do you think are caused by lan­guage loss? What role does lan­guage— and accept­ing one’s own language(s)– play in this book?

  2. In his dis­cus­sion of the sorts of towns that his grand­par­ents grew up in (shtetl means lit­tle city), Lom­nitz con­sid­ers what he calls the provin­cial cos­mopoli­tanism.” Life in the shtetls seems to have had a con­tra­dic­to­ry ten­den­cy: on one hand, per­haps as a reac­tion to dis­crim­i­na­tion laws in the Russ­ian empire there was a very strong inward turn in Jew­ish towns, man­i­fest for instance in the live­ly Has­sidic tra­di­tion, but that is amply on dis­play in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and paint­ing, etc., but on the oth­er hand, there was the fact that Jews were often engaged in com­merce, had rou­tine con­tact with speak­ers of oth­er lan­guages, were very often more lit­er­ate than oth­er eth­nic groups, etc. What do you think about the idea of provin­cial cos­mopoli­tans? In what ways were shtetl Jews— the Fid­dler on the Roof kind of Jews— provin­cial, and in what ways were they cosmopolitan?

  3. In Chap­ter 2, Nues­tra Améri­ca has a dis­cus­sion of the ques­tion of the Jews body, and how that con­cern was relat­ed to anti­semitism and to the devel­op­ment of a mod­ern idea of Jew­ish pos­si­bil­i­ties. Lom­nitz dis­cuss­es his grand­par­ents’ rebel­lion against anti­se­mit­ic ideas of the Jew­ish body, and the con­nec­tion between those ideas and their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Hashomer Hatzair move­ment. What are some of the ideas of the body that MIsha and Noemi’s gen­er­a­tions rebelled against? What is the rela­tion­ship between the phys­i­cal, bod­i­ly, rebel­lion and eman­ci­pa­tion of their gen­er­a­tion and pol­i­tics? What sort of trans­gres­sion to the tra­di­tion­al por­tion of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was involved in move­ments like the Hashomer Hatzair?

  4. Many of the Jews arriv­ing to South Amer­i­ca in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry worked— at least ini­tial­ly— as door to door sales­men, known with the Yid­dish term Klap­pers”. What sort of a vista did these Klap­pers get of South Amer­i­ca? What sort of per­spec­tive did they have on local soci­ety that was maybe hard even for Peru­vians (or Colom­bians, or Brazil­ians…) to have? Why was the expe­ri­ence of the Klap­per polit­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing in Peru at the time when Misha and Noe­mi got there?

  5. A gen­er­ous por­tion of Lomnitz’s book is ded­i­cat­ed to think­ing about the Peru­vian intel­lec­tu­al José Car­los Mar­iátegui, and to the rela­tion­ship between Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion and the process of re-think­ing Peru— and South Amer­i­ca gen­er­al­ly— that Mar­iátegui con­tributed to so deeply. What did Misha, Noemí and Mar­iátegui have in com­mon? Why do you think that a famous fig­ure like Mar­iátegui took in two quite young Jews like these? What was the attrac­tion for him? What did Misha and Noemí learn from Mariátegui?

  6. Relat­ed to this ques­tion, what do you think are some of the dif­fer­ences and some of the points of con­ver­gence between Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion and the process that Mar­iátegui called Peru­vian­iz­ing Peru”? And even more specif­i­cal­ly, what are the points of con­ver­gence between the so-called Jew­ish Ques­tion” and what was then called the Indi­an Ques­tion”? Why do you think that Misha was so drawn to Native Amer­i­can his­to­ry and society?

  7. Jew­ish immi­grants from Rus­sia to Peru went from being a despised and feared race” to being Euro­pean, at least on the sur­face. How do you think that peo­ple like Misha and Noemí might have felt through this tran­si­tion? What was their expe­ri­ence with anti-semi­tism in Peru and Colom­bia, and how do you think it dif­fered from their expe­ri­ence with anti­semitism in Rus­sia and Romania?

  8. Lomnitz’s account of the holo­caust in Bessara­bia high­lights the active par­tic­i­pa­tion of neigh­bors, peas­ants, and Roman­ian intel­lec­tu­als in geno­cide. Some of the intel­lec­tu­als who had a role in the rise of Roman­ian fas­cism were folks who had close Jew­ish friends, as was the case of Mircea Eli­ade and Mikhael Sebas­t­ian. What does this book tell us about the polit­i­cal role of the intel­li­gentsia in what even­tu­al­ly became ful­ly fledged geno­cide? Do you think that great Roman­ian intel­lec­tu­als like Eli­ade had any respon­si­bil­i­ty over even­tu­al developments?

  9. How is it pos­si­ble that Misha and Noemí even con­sid­ered the pos­si­biliy of emmi­grat­ing from Colom­bia to Biro­bidzhan? Why would an idea like that cross their minds at the moment when World War II was com­ing to a close? And why did Noemí and Misha turn so sharply away from the Sovi­et Union and com­mu­nism (not social­ism) just two or three years later?

  10. In chap­ter 16, Lom­nitz talks about the ways in which var­i­ous fam­i­ly mem­bers deal with the stag­ger­ing loss­es and the dizzy­ing moves of their lives. He talks about what he calls the columns” in his fam­i­ly, and about how silence was used to pro­tect younger gen­er­a­tions. And he talks about wor­ry­ing. Do you think silence is a use­ful strat­e­gy for inter-gen­er­a­tional pro­tec­tion? At what sort of cost does it come?

  11. In the final por­tion of the book, Clau­dio Lom­nitz talks about his father and his father’s sto­ry. There’s a tri­ad in that sto­ry— Sina Arons­frau (Claudio’s great-grand­fa­ther), Bro­nis (Sina’s daugh­ter, and Claudio’s pater­nal grand­moth­er), and Cin­na (Bronis’s son, and Claudio’s father). Bro­nis named her son Cin­na after her mur­dered father Sina (or Zyna), but she kept the true sto­ry of her father’s assas­si­na­tion from her son. He nev­er learned that sto­ry, and was always mis­led about the iden­ti­ty and motives of the true mur­der­ers. How do you explain Bronis’s silence on this mat­ter? Cin­na always felt that his moth­er over-pro­tect­ed him. Did she? What is the price of this sort of pro­tec­tion. And what are its bless­ings (if there are any)?

  12. What do you make of Misha and Noemí’s deci­sions with regard to their emi­gra­tion to Israel? Why do you think that they might have left Colom­bia in 1949? What sorts of fac­tors led to their return to Colom­bia in 1955? How would you assess the effects that mov­ing to Israel, and life in the kib­butz, had for Claudio’s par­ents, Cin­na and Larissa?