‘I Have a Story to Tell’
Argentina Mosaic explores Jewish culture and identity
by Michelle Simmons
April 20, 2010
Denise Del Gaudio ’11 (from left), Lily Hoffman ’12 and Terri Soifer ’12 interview Macabi Retreat member Hilda Krawieki (far left) poolside during the Jewish Immigration to Argentina Mosaic.
Oral history is a people’s history. It captures the everyday transmission of history and culture through families, traditions, rituals and, most importantly, stories. As host to the American Oral History Association, Dickinson’s Community Studies Center (CSC) has been collecting those stories since 1997 through its Global Mosaic programs.
“A sense of community and connection is created by talking with and listening to people, in hearing their life experiences and history in a contemporary landscape,” said Susan Rose ’77, director of the CSC.
For its most recent Mosaic, Jewish Immigration to Argentina, Rose and Shalom Staub, associate provost of the college, joined nine Dickinson students for three weeks in the city and suburbs of Buenos Aires and conducted more than 40 interviews of community members, young and old.
Escuela Técnica ORT, a leading Jewish secondary school in Buenos Aires with close ties to Dickinson and an oral-history archive of Jewish immigration to Argentina, collaborated with the CSC on the project. The two worked together to place the research team with host families, and ORT provided facilities and transportation for interviews. The Mosaic also received support from a Posen Foundation grant administered by Andrea Lieber, associate professor of religion and Sophia Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic Studies.
Tapping family roots
The project began last fall with courses to prepare students for the rigorous oral-history interview agenda. Staub’s Ethnography of Jewish Experience provided background on secular Jewish culture from a global perspective while Rose’s course focused on methodologies and the history of Jewish migration in Argentina.
In January, students went to Argentina to begin their work. The research team focused on areas such as El Once, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Buenos Aires; the Macabi Retreat Center, about an hour’s drive outside the city; and pioneer settlements in the provinces Entres Rios and Buenos Aires. In addition to more formal interviews, they collected histories from community leaders, students, scholars and host-family members.
“Students interviewed [Macabi] members poolside, and people would just come up and say, ‘I have a story to tell,’ ” Rose said. “There was a lot of enthusiasm for the project in the community.”
The Mosaic especially resonated with sociology major Gabriela Uassouf ’10, a graduate of ORT. Because of her familiarity with Buenos Aires, Uassouf helped coordinate the trip; for her, it was an opportunity not only to share stories of her homeland but to tap into family roots.
“Interviewing my mother was something I don’t think I would have done outside the academic context of the Mosaic,” she recalled. “[I was surprised] to realize how many questions I had never asked my relatives, not only in relation to immigration to Argentina, but also in relation to the contemporary situation of Argentine Jewry.
“As I facilitated or conducted interviews and activities … I also had the opportunity to think of my own situation as a young Argentine woman from a Jewish family,” she continued. “Of course, now I’ll have to go back and interview my father’s side, which is Catholic.”
Diversity of perspective
History major Denise Del Gaudio ’11 noted the advantage of total cultural immersion. “My host family spoke little English, giving me the wonderful opportunity to enhance my language skills,” she said. “We walked through the city, took public transportation, ate Argentine food and even had a favorite café for our afternoon coffee.”
And through the interviews, the research team discovered a wide spectrum of Jewish experience—from the secular to devoutly religious, from the first community of Ashkenazi settlers to Sephardic immigrants—as well as perspectives across generations.
“Some of us identified with the Argentine youth and their questions about Jewish identity, which are often similar to those that American youth pose,” said Uassouf. “Other students enjoyed the connection with the older generations and gathering the knowledge that they gained through the migration experiences.”
In March, Del Gaudio, Uassouf, Lieber and Staub traveled to New Orleans to share their insights at the Posen Foundation Conference on the Teaching of Secular Judaism/Jewish Secularism in the University. Uassouf is considering a trip to Prague in July to present her research paper at the International Oral History Association’s annual conference.
Rose notes that although it will take time to translate all the interviews, the Mosaic has long-term promise. Transcripts will be available in Spanish and English and housed at both the CSC and ORT archives for future researchers. The students also plan to launch a Web site, and Rose anticipates continuing interest. “It’s a project that could be sustainable. There’s potential for continuing research on Jewish ethnography, such as in Brazil, Mexico or Uruguay,” she mused.
Read the Ethnography of Jewish Experience blog.