The Jews of Latin America

Judith Laikin Elkin
  • Review
By – January 15, 2015

Per­haps the most com­pre­hen­sive discus­sion of the Jews of Latin Amer­i­ca over the past forty years is Judith Laikin Elkin’s clas­sic work: The Jews of Latin Amer­ica. In this, the third edi­tion of the book, Elkin dis­cuss­es a num­ber of the dynam­ic changes that have recent­ly occurred in the com­mu­ni­ties of Latin Amer­i­ca (for exam­ple, a chang­ing response to Zion­ism) and con­sid­ers the prospects for the future of those Jews who have man­aged to per­sist amidst the inhos­pitable con­di­tions they encounter. 

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant obser­va­tions in this new edi­tion is that the enthu­si­asm for Zion­ism that once inspired the Jews of the region is in dra­mat­ic decline. The con­cept of Zion­ism had long been a moti­vat­ing force among Jews through­out the world. Pri­or to the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, the Zion­ist ide­al had roused Latin Amer­i­can Jews to allo­cate most of their char­i­ta­ble dona­tions to Israel. Elkin reflects, In a wel­ter of Jew­ish eth­nic and reli­gious iden­ti­ties, Israel pro­vid­ed a uni­fy­ing sym­bol.” But lit­tle by lit­tle, Jews were admit­ted into the sur­round­ing cul­ture until, as Elkin explains : Jews are like oth­er non-Latin, non-Catholic immi­grants to Latin Amer­i­ca, only more so.” As the exter­nal pres­sures and anti-Semi­tism decreased, the con­cen­tra­tion on Israel dimin­ished also. Atten­tion in contempo­rary soci­ety appears to be redi­rect­ed inward toward the local community. 

More­over, as inter­est in Zion­ism waned, inter­est in Judaism as a reli­gion inten­si­fied. Nev­er­the­less, Elkin argues that this grow­ing inter­est in reli­gion was inhib­it­ed in the face of seem­ing­ly inad­e­quate out­lets. The tra­di­tion­al Ashke­nazi syn­a­gogues that had once been the focus for many Jews no longer held the same appeal for the third and fourth gen­er­a­tions of Jews. With regard to the Sephardim,“Sephardic Ortho­doxy retained tight con­trol of its flock — until it could not.” The Jews of the present gen­er­a­tion are near­ly all native born. Dis­sat­is­fied with past approach­es, they now con­front an uncer­tain future. 

Some have cho­sen the path of the baal teshu­vah, mov­ing more and more toward ultra-ortho­doxy. Oth­ers strive for a renew­al of Jew­ish life through a more progres­sive inter­pre­ta­tion of the halakha (Jew­ish law). These alter­na­tive paths are cer­tain to yield dis­sen­sion with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Elkin also asserts that con­tem­po­rary Latin Amer­i­can Jews are faced with anoth­er, even greater dilem­ma: whether to pur­sue a path to remain a part of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, or elect to assim­i­late, becom­ing a part (though not an inte­gral part) of the non-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties that sur­round them. 

With excel­lent notes, an updat­ed bibliogra­phy, and an index, this work is an invalu­able source of infor­ma­tion about the Jews of Latin America.

Relat­ed content:

Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

Discussion Questions