David William Foster, ed. Latin American Jewish Cultural Production. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009, 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8265-1624-4


With his most recent edited book, Latin American Jewish Cultural Production, David William Foster picks up where Marjorie Agosín left off with her invaluable 2005 anthology Memory, Oblivion, and Jewish Culture in Latin America. Foster’s anthology imperatively augments Agosín’s work and will soon become an essential text in the growing scholarly field of Latin American Jewry. Foster’s book advances this scholarly field into studies of cultural production necessary for understanding how Jewish Latin America has transcended persecution and dislocation by attempting to re-establish a communal and cohesive identity.

The volume consists of eleven essays divided into categories of identity, literature, plastic arts, film and photography. Foster’s book, like Agosín’s, enjoys contributions from scholars with diverse academic backgrounds: a librarian; a curator; an independent film scholar; Spanish, Portuguese, and comparative literature professors; and literary theorists, among others. The essays, Foster relays, “were recruited on the basis of cultural production that was, in some way, Jewish marked” (xiv), leaving open to interpretation the degree to and manner in which the cultural production is influenced. These ambiguities steer Foster’s edition toward a widely applicable study of cultural production that does not buckle – or limit itself – in its approach and scope. That its contributors are Semitic and non-Semitic, alike, draws attention to how Latin American Jewry has cultural implications beyond concentrated localities in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico.

Jewish identity, the adhesive that adjoins the eleven essays in this volume, comes in a multiplicity of forms. The first part of Foster’s volume, titled “Latin American Jewish Identity,” includes essays on cultural production of authors whose primary motivation is a sense of identity influenced by Judaism or Jewish heritage. The bulk of Berta Waldman’s essay, “Notes Concerning Jewish Identity in Brazil: From Word to Image,” concerns Brazilian Jewish immigrant writer Clarice Lispector. For Waldman, Lispector represents a case study for a “privileged moment in which we can contemplate a degree of cultural identity to be seen as collision and the mixture and fusion of cultures, traditions, and diverse histories” (5). She goes on to consider the effects Brazilian nationalism had on Lispector’s writing and, in particular, her knowledge of Yiddish. Waldman concludes by exploring young Brazilian artists with Jewish origins that seem to address Jewish matters more explicitly than their precursors. In her essay ““Israel”: An Abstract Concept or Concrete Reality in Recent Judeo-Argentinean Narrative?,Amalia Ran studies how biographic stories in several contemporary Argentine novels by Jewish Argentineans elucidate identity connections to Israel. Ran delicately probes divisive questions of Latin American Jewish identity, especially the importance of Zionism that has had nearly a sixty year history in Argentina. The last essay in the first part of Foster’s volume is “Beyond Exotic: Jewish Mysticism and the Supernatural in the Works of Alejandro Jodorowsky” by Ariana Huberman. In it, she explores the influences of Jewish cultural motifs in the works of Chilean-Mexican writer, filmmaker, and performance artists Alejandro Jodorowsky, a renounced Jew. Huberman detects Jewish influence of mysticism, the Kabbalah, and folk beliefs in Jodorowsky’s work, showing that Jewish cultural production does not only come at the hands of those who identify as Jewish.

The second part of Foster’s book, “The Literary Road,” contains studies of Latin American Jewish literature. It opens with Márcio Seligmann-Silva’s chapter, “Writing on the Shoah in Brazil,” on reflexive Holocaust literature by both Jewish immigrants to Brazil and Brazilian Jews who were compelled to write about the subject. This body of work, Seligmann-Silva notes, has not received much national or international attention despite its quality and pervasiveness among Jewish writing in Brazil. Naomi Lindstrom returns the reader to the imperative works of Jewish-Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Her study, “Judaic Traces in the Narrative of Clarice Lispector: Identity Politics and Evidence,” deals with Lispector scholarship since the 1970s and how many scholars have unreasonably extrapolated from and misinterpreted Lispector’s identity in her writing. Lindstrom argues that Jewish elements in Lispector’s writing have broadened the group of “literary texts and writers that come under the purview of Latin American Jewish cultural studies to include writers who do not thematize Jewish topics, but whose Jewishness may be sought in less tangible manifestations” (94). The final essay in the collection on literature is “Argentina’s Wandering Jews: Judaism, Loyalty, Text, and Homeland in Marcelo Birmajers’s Tres mosqueteros” by Sarah Giffney. Giffney considers the Tres mosqueteros by Marcelo Birmajer as a key in understanding the transitioning loyalties of Argentine Jews away from religion. The novel’s unremitting humor, Birmajer finds, emphasizes Jewish community and discusses a loyalty defined more by the cultivation of community than by a belief in God.

“The Plastic Arts” is the third part in Foster’s volume on cultural representations of Latin American Jewry. Laura Fellman Fattal’s chapter, “Spectacle and Spirituality: The Cacophony of Objects, Nelson Leirner (b. 1932),” examines the ways in which Nelson Leirner’s talismans and installations, among other projects, express the hybridity of his own Jewish identity. Indeed, Leirner’s work, Fattal suggests, can be seen as a synecdoche of Jewish Latin American (plastic) artists: the artists “eschew direct depictions of religion, the Holocaust and Zionism, but their work is rife with allegory and conjecture” (133). Janis Breckenridge considers the contentious public debate in Buenos Aires, Argentina about the Jewish community’s resolve to establish memorial sites for the victims of dictatorial state terrorism in her chapter “Text and the City: Design(at)ing Post-Dictatorship Memorial Sites in Buenos Aires.” She considers three sites (Parque de la Memoria, El Club Atlético, and Museo de la Memoria) as crucial examples of the ongoing debate in Argentina of how to grapple with the devastating memory of the last dictatorship in concert with two testimonial texts – one from Jewish detainee Nora Strejilevich and the other from a national commission – linked to El Club Atlético. These sites and texts, Breckenridge describes, act like a collective memory of Argentina’s desaparecidos.

Foster’s anthology takes a turn toward the visual arts in its last part, “Film and Photography.” Ilene S. Goldman opens the section with a study on the tensions of Jewish identity in a Mexican comedy, its literary predecessor and successor, “Mexican Women, Jewish Women: Novia que te vea from Book to Screen and Back Again.” Though the film and novels look at their comfortable lifestyles, Goldman highlights the identity crises many Mexican Jews face in their everyday lives thematized by all three works, establishing a fruitful dialogue between them. Hernán Feldman’s chapter, “Catastrophe and Periphery: July 18, 1994 and September 11, 2001, on Film,” looks at the darker side of Jewish life, in particular the fatal consequences of terrorism in both Argentina and the United States, through cinematic responses. The Jewish response to these catastrophic events is of particular concern to Feldman who examines the ideological issues that stem from these. Foster concludes the collection, and the book, with a poignant essay on Judeo-Brazilian photographer Madalena Schwartz. His chapter, “Madalena Schwartz: A Jewish Brazilian Photographer,” parallels Huberman’s earlier chapter on Jodorowsky. Scwartz, like Jodorowsky, is an artist whose production does not explicitly concern cultural Jewish motifs. Yet Schwartz’s work, as Foster points out,“demonstrates a particular Jewish commitment to the Other” (211). Perhaps the most renowned portrait photographer in Brazil, Schwartz’s work unconditionally captures the interface of art, politics, and identity.

Foster’s anthology builds upon a body of scholarship that is concerned with Latin American Jewish identity within their cultural production. Agosín’s 2005 anthology more than merely contributed to the fields of both Jewish and Latin American Studies. Agosín’s edition broadened the applicability of Latin American Jewry to disciplines beyond the humanities and social sciences. Her edition is unique for its multifarious contributors: creative writers, historians, literature scholars, anthropologists, social scientists, and artists. The fifteen pieces it presented ranged from poignant anecdotes of émigré and recollections of Sephardic legacy to academic studies of Jewish humor and devastating chapters on Jewish persecution. Foster’s compilation naturally parallels Agosín’s. Indeed, Latin American Jewish Studies is multidisciplinary and should not restrict its ambition to an already blazed path. Foster, astutely, has taken the field of Latin American Jewish Studies yet another step with this carefully compiled book.

The force of Brazilian, Argentinean, and Mexican localities upon academic discourse, however, remains one of the few shortcomings of Foster’s Latin American Jewish Cultural Production. By his own admission, Foster’s book draws attention to the three major Jewish loci in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Ariana Huberman’s study of Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, performances, and writings provides the only exception in this volume to studies of the three major Jewish societies. Foster’s volume, thus, runs the risk of cultural reductivity; that is, reducing a culture to a certain nexus or origin thereby overlooking peripheral cultural production. Peripheral cultural production frequently proves to be the most fruitful for academic study and therefore should merit more attention than it currently enjoys. Foster, however, acknowledges the volume’s limited scope and identifies it, aptly, as a point of departure for further academic study of Latin American Jewry in Cuba, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Uruguay. The opened space for further studies of cultural production in these “peripheral” Latin American Jewish societies invites a potentially groundbreaking – and multidisciplinary – study that could reshape conceptions of Jewish representation around the world, forging intersections between topics as disparate as psychoanalysis, feminism, postmodernism, Marxism, and postcolonialism.


Works Cited


Agosín, Marjorie (Ed.). Memory, Oblivion, and Jewish Culture in Latin America. Austin:

University of Texas Press, 2005


Foster, David William (Ed.). Latin American Jewish Cultural Production. Nashville:

            Vanderbilt University Press, 2009.


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Whitman College