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What makes books on family history so compelling for me is that they offer a fresh and personal lens on historical events while simultaneously illustrating how historical circumstances have a profound impact on the development of people and their descendants.
Raised in Santiago, Berkeley and Mexico City, Claudio Lomnitz is a 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 legacy of hardship and itinerancy.
Lomnitz’s quest to understand his ancestors’ lives was made more difficult by the need to unravel the complicated national claims on their places of origin. As he notes, “I had to study a great deal just to answer one apparently simple question: Where were they from?”
Growing up in the mostly 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 lay on the other side. After World War I, Bessarabia fell under Romanian authority, and the virulent Romanian nationalism that arose during that period was intertwined with violent antisemitism.
Misha, a Zionist, sought to make aliyah, but his plans were quashed 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 so happened that Peru was actively courting European emigrants (motivated, disturbingly, by the government’s desire to create a demographic counterbalance to the nation’s indigenous and Asian populations).
Misha arrived in Lima in 1924 and soon fell in love with Noemi Milstein, a fellow member of the Hashomer Hatzair 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, without regard for their political affiliations.
Misha, who did actually have pronounced left-wing convictions (he and Noemi were active in a Marxist intellectual circle), was sent to a notorious island penitentiary. Connections enabled him to leave 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 similarly itinerant upbringing in Germany, Belgium and Chile. And the tragic backdrop was that the vast majority of Lomnitz’s relatives who did not pack their bags and leave Europe were murdered.
It’s a moving book, particularly because of the resiliency Lomnitz’s relatives often displayed in the face of statelessness. And Lomnitz writes with honesty about his complicated legacy, even acknowledging his own linguistic homelessness, in which, “sandwiched between Spanish and English,” he feels “insecure in both.”
In “Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America,” Esther Amini similarly looks to her family’s past to help make meaning of her own life.
Amini was born in New York to parents who had left Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city, where conditions for Jews were particularly abysmal. In the aftermath of an 1839 pogrom that killed dozens of Jews, Mashhadi Jews had to convert to Islam or flee. Many who submitted to conversion continued to adhere to Jewish ritual in secret, “chanting from the Koran in public squares alongside their Muslim neighbors while at home in their basements they taught their young sons Hebrew and fervently studied Torah.”
Amini’s parents, Fatullah and Hana, grew up in such crypto-Jewish families. Mashhadi Jews married off girls at a young age, to protect them from rape or from the overtures of Muslim suitors. Hana was 14 when she was betrothed without her consent to Fatullah, who was more than twice her age, and she had her first child at 15.
Resenting her restricted life, Hana dreamed of moving to America. The family eventually arrived in New York in 1947, “shouldering futons, rugs, stuffed satchels, and 27 centuries of persecution.”
Upon their first visit to an American synagogue, they were rebuffed because their unfamiliarity with Yiddish made them suspect; their attempt at another synagogue went better. As the rabbi asked them to stand up and honored them, Amini’s parents wept. “Never before had they sat in an aboveground synagogue with hundreds of fellow Jews, and never before had they felt so deeply valued for who they were.”
Amini brings an empathetic but unflinching lens to her parents’ complex personalities. Hana’s love of jewelry, makeup, ornate hairstyles and fashionable dresses was a clear response to having lived in a world in which women were forced to hide themselves — she had even burned her chadors prior to emigrating. But Amini also links aspects of Hana’s tempestuous character to a deep feeling of having been cheated by life — by being forced to conceal her body and her Jewishness, by her illiteracy, by an unfulfilling marriage and, most importantly, by the death of her mother during childbirth, and of her father shortly thereafter.
Fatullah is also a complicated character. While protective of Amini, he was also disturbingly unsupportive of her. She grew up forging his signature on her report card — not because her grades were poor, but because they were excellent. His traditionalist views left no room for women’s education.
And the act that actually earned her father’s approval — her consent to marry the Mashhadi man he had selected for her — was undone when she eventually filed for divorce.
Amini began to study Persian Jewish history in hopes of getting a better grasp of her parents’ mindsets. She writes, “I was trying to understand how living as crypto-Jews had molded my parents, because I was keenly aware their trauma was snaking its way toward me.”
And, as in the case of many difficult chapters in Jewish history, knowledge can be burdensome. As Amini found, “The more I researched my family’s history, the more I felt its weight pressing down on me.”
“Nuestra América: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation” by Claudio Lomnitz (464 pages, Other Press)
“Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America” by Esther Amini (310 pages, Greenpoint Press)