Not next to: The Jewish diaspora holding the center of history

Monday, February 22, 2021 - 5:09pm

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Design by Caitlin Martens

Last week, writer Claudio Lomnitz convened with Jean Comaroff, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology at Harvard University to discuss Lomnitz’s new book, “Nuestra América: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation.” 

“Nuestra América” is a work of non-fiction that Lomnitz further described as both an ethnography and a family history. The event was held by Literati Bookstore as part of their ongoing reading series “Literati at Home,” offered in service of furthering connection in the local Ann Arbor community during the pandemic.

Positioning Lomnitz as the speaker of the text at the nexus of the larger culture and the self, he and Comaroff wove vivid, polyphonic threads of the imaginations and hopes held by generations of their Jewish ancestors in diaspora. Comaroff shared that these imaginations and hopes defined their Jewish ancestors’ defiance of ghetto life. 

Together, Comaroff and Lomnitz dove into the uncanny intimacies and forces that reshaped Lomnitz’s family line as depicted in “Nuestra América.” This reshaping is uncanny due to Lomnitz’s fearless evocation of Jewish icons and mysticism shaped through the sieve of migration that gripped the entire world well into and beyond the 1920s.

The book examines multiple migrations: Lomnitz’s family became intensely involved in the Peruvian leftist milieu before being threatened for their political leanings and moving on to Colombia. The narrative shifts to Chile circa World War II, then pivots to Israel in the 1950s. While Comaroff and Lomnitz are both Jewish, Comaroff’s family landed in South Africa while the Lomnitz family settled in the Americas — both North and South.

The framing question surfaced out of this reclamation of the idea of home: What role did Jewish émigrés occupy in the cultures they interacted with while on the move, and thereafter? 

The pair started off the hour by discussing Lomnitz’s career as a journalist, especially his extensive writing for La Jornada, one of Mexico City’s leading newspapers. Comaroff noted that much of Lomnitz’s journalistic work makes reference to historical and social forces in history.

Lomnitz’s ability to peel away multiple layers of time to find living nerves in the past culminated in a substantial analysis of the personal embedded in the political — by pulling apart the beautifully reminiscent act of seeking it in his ancestral homelands. As someone who has pulled apart my family’s past by attempting to resolve it through text and photographs entangled inside a messy history, I greatly appreciated Lomnitz’s description of making contact with the ancient cloth on a mummy — how this became his impetus for interrogating memory. 

“I realized I could reach out to touch that cloth, to interrogate it,” Lomnitz said, making an eloquent reference to that moment.

However, it was all too easy to lose myself in the labyrinth of moments I regarded with less personal relevance — for him and for me. Comaroff and Lomnitz frequently alluded to the past’s importance now, but I wanted to hear more about the Latin American Indigenous cultures that are conspicuously absent from conversations about Jewishness. I wanted to hear the buried time hidden inside lush descriptions of waves retreating from “perforated rock” and even more about the “octopus (that) hit itself in the whirlpool,” rather than an overextended reframing of history as repetitive movements around historical events.

The book is an ongoing pivot through a kaleidoscope of historical chaos from one nation to another and from one generation’s birth in one place to their transformation in another — one that ultimately culminated in the author’s upbringing in Chile, Mexico City and Berkeley, Calif.

Their conversation certainly made one thing abundantly clear: The world is never settled, even in the family unit. Comaroff and Lomnitz seemed uniquely aware of the cast of mind that results from new beginnings imbued with hope after fleeing an onslaught of racial hatred wielded against their global community spanning generations and continents by virtue of that community’s Jewishness.

While the anti-Semitism looming over their ancestors was never conspicuously absent, Comaroff and Lomnitz chose to recenter joy through their reverence for stories. In one striking example of how Lomnitz historicized his ancestors without overtly sensationalizing them, he spent some time explaining the deep background of a photograph of his grandfather. 

The photograph, which shows Lomnitz’s grandfather in Odessa on the day of his bar mitzvah, was taken on an appallingly ordinary day in December 1917. Lomnitz recalled that, just out of frame, the Russian Revolution was incidentally imploding as Russia was becoming the Soviet Union.

The conversation flickered between their invigorating exchange as old friends and the academic unveiling of the themes present in the book. But it quickly shifted again toward topics of collaboration in other forms and the rapport between them maintained the air of continuity in the way their exchange felt fluid and effortless.

Along the way, one predominant question surfaced when Camoroff asked of Lomnitz’s Peruvian ancestors: “Is (what Jewish communities have had) a community or is it a nationalist community?”

Lomnitz responded by saying that at that time — in Lima, Peru, where his grandparents became fiercely involved in the leftist milieu just after fleeing death in Eastern Europe — his ancestors believed they could have both. 

“They did not feel universalism was the opposite of nationalism,” Lomnitz told Camoroff. “Being Peruvian didn’t mean shutting down the horizons at all.”

Lomnitz and Cameron then spoke sparingly of the nature of insights through history involving similar collisions between Jewishness and other cultures. I felt myself longing for more information; I wanted to hear more anecdotes about the revolving cultural milieu and the curation of history through art and the representation of artists or the intelligentsia.

Comaroff stumbled upon a poignant reference to these collisions when she observed, “(‘Nuestra América’) shows how characters at the margins of history stumble upon critical insights.”

This formed the portrait of a Jewish culture that ruptured imperceptibly along borders when the people who carried it scattered to flee persecution — as an act of faith written by their bodies traveling along the margins. They did this while still taking root with unspoken ferocity, to bind differences together.

The formations involved a vast number of characters just out of frame, of more famous Latin American figures. These people are largely ignored by history but are shown to be propulsive characters in the making of that history, assuming a kind of “peripheral centrality.”

As I listened to Lomnitz and Comaroff speak, I began to believe that marginality and being al fuera can be a form of “being next to” that provides structure to the center of any society and allows it to hold. Such fusion and “being next to” can be said to inevitably outline societies through their mêlée of differences, much the same as how what is in the light is shaped and translated by what hasn’t yet been illuminated.

Lomnitz continued, describing the procedure of stretching his storytelling over the taut boundaries of death. His grandfather was murdered, he said, and he was surprised when an old friend offered to interview many sources on his own, in his attempt to reconstruct what happened. Such collaboration, he said, was shockingly important to him in the process of writing the book.

All of this, Lomnitz seemed to be saying, is a manifestation of commitment to compromise and nation. It can show collaboration between cultures that settle on a notion of national identity through their accumulation of immigrant histories. They implant new growth in American soil from the sources of their roots.

“Emancipation is everywhere … America can be a kind of Zion,” Comaroff suggested, echoing the vision of a homeland that compels collective memory.

While history frequently feels like a dull eye void of the living, their description of the book through conversation was a vivid zeitgeist when enlivened by Lomnitz’s retelling. Even so, it was missing the tension of historical mystery I love being enveloped with when watching a historical documentary; I didn’t feel the tense atmosphere of the World Wars was examined in the conversation for proper effect.

But, through multiple layers of screens, their conversation was an electrical surge of memory shared across time. At the conversation’s conclusion, I felt eager to order the book and take a long pause, to consider all of the history surging through its pages.

Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu


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