Rights of Passage: The Struggle over Jewish Intermarriage and Conversion in Colombia

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Rights of Passage: The Struggle over Jewish Intermarriage and Conversion in Colombia(1)

This contribution explores the recent debates over Jewish intermarriage and conversion in Colombia, and the extent to which they revived "Old World" and early-immigrant ethnic identities. To this effect it focuses on Bogotá's Sephardic community and tries to elucidate through the speeches, letters, and resolutions stemming from a 1981 High Holiday controversy the non-linear nature of ethnicity and how ethnicity is transformed through struggle. In doing so, this piece also points to a pattern of gendered relations that crossed ethnic and religious boundaries among Jews in Colombia.

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah on September 28, 1981, a prominent Syrian-Colombian Jew unexpectedly rose to the podium at Bogotá's Sephardic synagogue and issued a passionate attack against Jewish intermarriage and conversion. Before three hundred families, this former president of the Comunidad Hebrea Sefaradí congregation decried assimilation between Jews and Colombians as a malignant tumor, with intermarriage the result of its deadly proliferation. He castigated Jewish parents for their moral depravity of the home and Jewish youth for their profligate disrespect of authority and tradition. Finally, he publicly admonished the President of Bogotá's Ashkenazi community, Colombia's largest Jewish body, for his appearance at a recent high-profile wedding between an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and the non-Jewish son of a former Colombian presidential candidate held at the prestigious Jewish Carmel Club. The congregation sat in silence, divided between approbation and contempt.(2)

These debates over intermarriage, conversion, and assimilation, at the heart of world Jewish concern today, unfolding in Bogotá's Jewish community, offer a window into the multiple forms of self-identification and division among the country's seven thousand Jews.(3) After the arrival of most Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews to Colombia from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean in the late 1920s and 1930s, Colombian Jews had organized themselves into three distinct communities: Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim, German-speaking Ashkenazim, and a smaller group of Arabic, French, and Ladino-speaking Sephardim who banded together because they were comparatively few in number.(4) Language and regional origin had served initially as definitive markers of ethnicity among Colombian Jews, a social pattern that gradually began to wane in the decades after 1945. Yet this 1981 High Holiday drama that originated in Bogotá's Sephardic community, and the heated letters, exchanges, assemblies, and resolutions that followed, reawakened latent ethnic divisions reminiscent of "Old World" and early-immigrant constructions. In their efforts to ban conversion, Syrian-Colombian Sephardim reformulated first-generation ethnic loyalties to serve their current political and cultural needs.(5) By emphasizing different aspects of collective identity at particular historical moments, they illustrated how ethnic identification can be strategically manipulated depending on what is at stake.(6)

Jewish Latin American scholarship suggests that, over time, small Jewish communities in Latin America have tended to "overcome ideological and ethnic differences."(7) Their common needs have propelled second-, third-, and fourth-generation Sephardim and Ashkenazim to pool their financial and demographic resources and join together. For the most part, this has been the case among Jews in Colombia, where first-generation ethnic and cultural differences seemed to blur in the post-war era. However, the controversy over intermarriage and conversion that came to life in 1981 appears, momentarily, to challenge this pattern. For a small but vocal group of Syrian-Colombian Sephardic Jews who opposed all forms of conversion, this particular historical conflict served to trigger latent pride in their Aleppino heritage. …