This spring semester, Brandeis University is offering a course titled “The Jews of Latin America,” for undergraduate and graduate students. This is the first course of its kind—focused exclusively on Jewish life in Latin America—to be offered at Brandeis. The course, which is sponsored by Targum Shlishi, explores what it has meant to be Jewish in Latin America and what Latin America has meant for Diaspora Jewish communities. Taught by Dalia Wassner, Ph.D., the course is part of Brandeis’ brand-new Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies (LAJGS), an initiative of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, and is offered through the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department and cross-listed by the Program in Latin American & Latino Studies.
A pioneering course
“This is a pioneering course. Brandeis is a world leader in the field of Judaic Studies, and it is continuing its tradition of being at the forefront of the field with this course and its support of the Project in LAJGS more broadly,” says Wassner, who developed the course and is the director of LAJGS.
The course examines the multiple understandings of Jewishness that have developed in Latin America, and how Jewish inclusion in society has played a role in national conversations of identity from colonial times to the present. Course materials include the works of public intellectuals, writers, artists, playwrights, and filmmakers, all approached within their historical contexts and their cultural or political salience.
“Dalia Wassner’s course on Latin American Jewry helps students broaden their conception of the Jewish world, explore central themes of Jewish life from a Latin American perspective, and learn how Jews adapt to new settings,” says Jonathan Sarna, University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, under whose supervision the course was developed. “I encouraged this course, initially, from a concern that our course offerings focused too narrowly on Europe, Israel, and the United States. Dr. Wassner’s course reminds students that the Jewish experience should be part of global studies.”
A pioneering initiative
The newly founded LAJGS is envisioned as a pioneering academic and cultural center for the study and exploration of Jewish life and gender in Latin America and the Latin American diaspora. The project will expand knowledge of Jewish culture, history, literature, languages, ethnicity, and ritual, and will enrich the scope of academic and popular understandings of global Jewish identities. Viewing Latin American Jewish life as a diaspora and through the lens of gender is unique to LAJGS.
Wassner’s vision for LAJGS is that it “not be in an ivory tower,” she says, but instead promote an inclusive approach by offering events and cultural programming that is of interest and proves relevant to both the university and the community at large. To that end, she has been building awareness in the community around LAJGS and has given several talks in a variety of venues already this semester.
While there has been a great deal of support welcoming the emergence of her project both in the university and in the greater community, Wassner finds that there is a clear need for more awareness within the American Jewish community and the field of Jewish Studies and Latin American Studies on the subject of Jews in Latin America.
“One often encounters reactions of surprise at the existence of Jewish communities in Latin American countries, and very little knowledge of their makeup, their culture, and their history,” she says. Wassner, whose parents are from Mexico and who spent part of her childhood there, reflects that she has often been surprised at how little is known in the U.S. about Latin American Jewish life and history.
Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi, concurs, explaining that building awareness is a major reason that the foundation sponsored the course. “Also, the fact that my wife, Raquel, hails from Colombia, means that I have been exposed, for more than three decades, to the Latin Jewish community both in South America and in Miami. Theirs is a rich history of diverse cultures, with a strong attachment to Israel. Among the kehillot that remain there is a strong sense of community,” he says.
About the Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University
The Hadassah Brandeis Institute Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies (LAJGS) serves as the first academic and cultural center for the study and exploration of Jewish life and gender in Latin America (Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean) and among Latin American Jewish immigrants worldwide. In the 1970s there were over 510,000 Jews living in Latin America. Today the number is less than 400,000. In the past forty years, an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 Jews have left Latin America for the United States, Israel, Western Europe, and Canada. Latin American Jews must therefore comprise both academic and cultural conceptions of American and World Jewry, they ought to be considered among the current global trends of migrants, and they would be most accurately understood as individuals with gendered perspectives, experiences, and identities. Yet, the HBI is the first institute worldwide to endorse the study of the Latin American Jewish diaspora comprehensively and through the lens of gender. For more information about the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, visit its website.
About Targum Shlishi
Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation, is dedicated to providing a range of creative solutions to problems facing Jewry today. Premised on the conviction that dynamic change and adaptation have historically been crucial to a vibrant and relevant Judaism and to the survival of its people, Targum Shlishi’s initiatives are designed to stimulate the development of new ideas and innovative strategies that will enable Jewish life, its culture, and its traditions to continue to flourish. For more information on the foundation, visit its website. Follow Aryeh Rubin, Targum Shlishi’s director, on Twitter