Review of Una historia del libro judío by Alejandro Dujovne

Rachelle Grossman

Dujovne, Ale­jan­dro. Una his­to­ria del libro judío: La cul­tura judía argenti­na a través de sus edi­tores, libreros, tra­duc­tores, imprentas y bib­liote­cas. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI (2014), 302 pages.

When George Steiner describes the relationship between Jews and books, he invokes an image of both mobility and precarity: “like a snail, his antennae towards menace, the Jew has carried the house of the text on his back. What other domicile has been allowed him?” (George Steiner “Our Homeland, The Text” 1991, 378). With this epigraph, Alejandro Dujovne begins his monograph, Una historia del libro judío [A history of the Jewish book], by situating his study of the Jewish book in Argentina within a larger conversation on the Jewish book as a “portable homeland.”

For Dujovne, a social scientist, “the book” serves as a frame for interrogating questions about Jewish life in Argentina and the tensions between cultural continuity and the homogenizing demands of the nation-state (21). Una historia del libro judío: La cultura judía argentina a través de sus editores, libreros, traductores, imprentas y biblitoecas [A history of the Jewish book: Jewish-Argentinian culture through its editors, booksellers, translators, publishers, and libraries] is based on Alejandro Dujovne’s doctoral research in the field of social sciences. Published in 2014, the book was well-received in the field of Latin American studies at the time, but its impact on the field of Jewish studies, unfortunately, has been relatively limited. This is no doubt in part due to both a language barrier and the relatively peripheral position of Latin America in the field, though there are hopeful indicators that the focus of the field is expanding. Although several years have passed since its publication, scholars of Yiddish studies (with or without an interest in Latin America) will find that this book makes a useful contribution, convincingly demonstrating that the trajectory of the Jewish book in Argentina is intertwined with the story of Yiddish there, which follows a different trajectory than the better known cases in North America.

Tracing the development of editorial Jewish presses in Argentina from their infancy in 1910 through their postwar decline in the mid-1960s and 1970s, Dujovne uses book history as a lens to tell the story of Ashkenazi Jews in Argentina. Addressing both the transnational Jewish literary market and the local, popular book culture that developed in Argentina over the 20th century, he asks “is it possible to speak of a special connection between Jews and books? And, if so, what does [this connection] say about Jewish culture in general and Argentinian-Jewish culture specifically?” 1 1 “¿Es posible hablar de un vínculo especial entre los judíos y los libros? Y, si así fuese, ¿qué nos dice acerca de la cultura judía en general, y de la judía argentina en especial?” Dujovne, 14. (14). With attention to literary world-systems associated with the works of Pascale Casanova 2 2 Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). and Franco Moretti, 3 3 Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review (2000): 54-68; “More Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 20 (2003): 73-81. Dujovne takes a distant reading approach in his quantitative analysis of the Jewish book in Argentina, proposing a sociology of literature that positions Argentina within a “logic of circulation and reception of symbolic goods between center and periphery” 4 4 “Esas afirmaciones remiten de forma directa a problemas centrales de la sociología de la literatura, como las lógicas de circulación y recepción de bienes simbólicos entre centro y periferia.” Dujovne, 83. (83).

“The book” functions doubly in Dujovne’s analysis. Following the tradition of Benedict Anderson and Pascale Casanova, Dujovne demonstrates that books are central to the imagined community that connects Argentinian Jews to Jewish communities elsewhere, a communion that is realized through their participation in a global literary market. But Dujovne also shows how books serve this community in its process of local acculturation through their participation in and appropriation of local publishing practices. In Buenos Aires, a popular reading culture emerged in the interwar period, which was marked by a proliferation of cheap editions that flourished due to a confluence of factors both social (increasing literacy) and economic (cheap paper). Books had clear entertainment value, but they also served as a form of popular education and as a uniting force for an Argentinian cultural identity within what had become a fairly heterogeneous society over the span of only a few decades. 5 5 Luis Alberto Romero, “Una Empresa Cultural: Los Libros Baratos,” in Sectores Populares, Cultura y Política: Buenos Aires En La Entreguerra, ed. Leandro Gutierrez and Luis Alberto Romero (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI Editores Argentina, 2007), 1–3; See also Beatriz Sarlo, El Imperio de Los Sentimientos (Buenos Aires: Catálogos Editora, 1985). The emergence of this popular reading culture coincided with a major wave of Jewish immigration in the 1920s and ’30. The favorable conditions of the developing local book culture supported the emergence of Jewish presses both materially and culturally.

The general reader might miss the prominent role that book institutions play in porteño 6 6 Porteño is the adjective that describes the people and culture of Buenos Aires. culture, but in Buenos Aires, dubbed the “World’s Capital of Bookstores,” the printed word, its production, and its consumption have long been central to the city’s self-definition. 7 7 For example, see Debora Rey, “Argentina’s Capital Is the World’s Capital of Bookstores,” Business Insider, May 1, 2015, (accessed 12/19/2019). Dujovne’s investigation, therefore, highlights the bibliophilic affinity between the People of the Book and their new home in the World’s Bookstore Capital. Although Dujovne’s focus is not a comparison between Jewish and non-Jewish print cultures, he nevertheless demonstrates that the proliferation of bookshops, printers, and libraries in Buenos Aires that specialized in Jewish books waswere a unique, local phenomenon.

By approaching the study of the book from a sociological perspective, Dujovne is able to analyze these interconnections to “explore the social conditions that define the modes of reception and local circulation of ideas produced in the principal centers of Jewish culture, as well as changes in the ways that this community connected itself with them and their place when the European centers disappeared” 8 8 “Esta obra también explora las condiciones sociales que definieron los modos de recepción y circulación local de las ideas producidas en los principales centros de la cultura judía, así como los cambios en las maneras en que esta comunidad se vinculó con ellos, y su lugar cuando los centros europeos desaparecieron.” Dujovne, 21. (21). Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of Dujovne’s work is his assembly and quantitative analysis of an archive. He gathers an immense amount of data on the publication of Jewish books in Argentina in Spanish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Noting not only where books were published and by whom, but also by including ample maps, tables, and charts, Dujovne illustrates the changing social and political dynamics of Argentinian Jewry over the century. In this distant reading context, books operate as nodes within expansive networks that reveal the social, political, and economic commitments of diverse social actors with multiple entanglements across local and transnational contexts. Considering both institutional and personal libraries, publishers, bookstores, and translators, he traces local and global networks represented by these books. He thinks not only about how books represent a “portable heritage” that conceptually anchors Jewish readers to a tradition, but he also demonstrates how books represent interconnections between Jews in Argentina and Jews elsewhere. The result is an invaluable study for scholars interested in immigration, Jewish literature, and the history of the book.

Dujovne spends considerable time in the first chapter outlining the basic trajectory of Jewish history in Eastern Europe and the emergence of modern Jewish literature. This is in order to establish what most scholars in Yiddish studies take for granted: that the Jewish book operates within a transnational network, and that the study of it reveals a host of complex roles and commitments that tie together many different contingents. From this jumping-off point, Dujovne organizes the rest of the book around discrete institutions and networks within the Jewish-Argentinian literary environment: publishers, editors, translators, clubs, organizations, booksellers, and so forth. These following chapters are organized thematically, anchored by key figures and institutions whose approaches to publishing Jewish books demonstrate distinct and often conflicting attitudes about the meaning of being Jewish in Argentina. While Dujovne’s study as a whole is relevant for the field of Yiddish studies, four chapters will be of particular interest to scholars in the field.

Chapter 2 provides an overarching look at the development of the Yiddish publishing in Argentina. Tracing a trajectory from the early 1910s through the 1970s, Dujovne maps a shift in the way that Yiddish cultural actors in Argentina understood their position relative to global Yiddish. In part a history of Jewish immigration to Argentina, Dujovne uses this chapter to highlight the development of a cultural hub into a publishing center. Defined by vaytkayt (distance) within a global literary network, he argues that this community relied on the cultural production of Yiddish literature from centers such as New York and Warsaw in the early years of Jewish settlement in Argentina as they developed their own newspapers and institutions. This attitude shifted in the post-Holocaust period, however, as Buenos Aires became a publishing center. In the wake of the destruction of European Yiddish centers and with the influx of refugee writers to Buenos Aires, Yiddish production in the postwar Buenos Aires became characterized by massive publication projects such as Dos poylishe yidentum and the Musterverk fun der yidisher literatur.

These book series are notable in part for their commitment to Yiddish; the Musterverk, for example, does not include any translated texts. However, as in other multilingual Jewish environments, translation did play a significant role in the literary output of these presses, which is taken up in chapter 3. Engaging with the cultural politics of translation, Dujovne spends considerable time exploring the social and political messages embedded in these projects. He focuses especially those undertaken in the 1920s and 30s under the auspices of the Sociedad Hebraica Argentina. Headed by the liberal integrationist Salomón Resnick, translations of “books of Jewish interest” into Spanish in this period attempted to legitimize Jewish-Argentinian identity, “part of a political-cultural wager,” Dujovne argues, that was Resnick’s intervention in the “dispute over the collective sense of Jewish identity and culture” 9 9 “Si consideramos que con sus notas y traducciones Resnick sostenía una vertiente posible de la identidad judía en el mundo de habla castellana, podemos interpretar sus propias elecciones, incluso las más eminentemente literarias, como parte de una apuesta político-cultural,” Dujovne, 130. (130). More curious, however, are the translations treated in this chapter from Spanish into Yiddish, which demonstrate that there were diverse attitudes toward language and Jewish literature among Ashkenazi Jews in Buenos Aires. For example, Dujovne draws our attention to the 1953 translation of Alberto Gerchunoff’s Los gauchos judíos (1910) by Pinie Katz, which is listed in the catalogue of the communist-leaning ICUF (Yidisher kultur farband). Written in Spanish for a general readership and considered to be the foundational text of Jewish-Argentinian literature, Gerchunoff’s short stories assert and trouble the possibility of Jewish national belonging. Dujovne sees Katz’s translation of this canonical text as an attempt “to thematize issues of [Argentinian Jews] about the local Jewish experience” 10 10 “A la par de la publicación de autores residentes en el país y de tematizar cuestiones propias de la experiencia judía local, la traducción de literatura al ídish, principalmente del castellano, resultaría un indicador válido para ponderar la marca local dentro del repertorio editorial del período.” Dujovne, 115.
(115). While this is an intriguing point, Katz’s other translations into Yiddish of books of non-Jewish subject matter, such Don Quixote and Alfredo Varela’s El río oscuro, are included on this list but left tantalizingly unanalyzed.

Recreating the vibrant microcosm of Jewish Buenos Aires throughout the century, chapter 6 gives a unique spatial analysis of the area of Buenos Aires where Jewish institutions were concentrated. The unique book-centric character of Buenos Aires finds its visual expression in Dujovne’s maps where he pinpoints dozens of bookstores, publishing houses, libraries, and businesses (256-7). These maps reveal that for most of the century, the majority of these operations were located within the relatively small area of the Once neighborhood. Like the Lower East Side, this working-class neighborhood was historically home to Jewish immigrants who worked in the garment trade. Although many moved to a more affluent, middle-class neighborhood within a generation, important institutions were established in the Once that continued to do important work, including the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) community center, which is the focus of chapter 7. In mapping these institutions, Dujovne’s study highlights their close physical proximity. Although ideological differences otherwise maintained stark boundaries between them, urban space necessitated contact between publishers, editors, writers, and readers.

Finally, synthesizing many of the ideas that run throughout the monograph, in Chapter 7 Dujovne analyzes the Jewish Book Month program of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina). This community center operates as the central organization for Jewish life in Argentina, offering courses, community services, cultural initiatives, and maintaining archives of Jewish life in Argentina. 11 11 The Centro Marc Turkow is the main archive on Jewish life in Argentina and it is located at the AMIA. IWO (YIVO Argentina) was housed at the AMIA until the 1994 bombing of the community center. Since then, IWO has been located at the Casa Simón Dubnow, which is also in the Once neighborhood. Inspired by the Jewish Book Council in New York, the AMIA ran the Jewish Book Month program, an annual month-long book fair, which took place for more than two decades (1947-1973). Promoting Jewish cultural literacy, “its great attraction was in its ample and varied offering of titles, for the most part imported, at promotional prices, as well as in the conference programming and in cultural activities.” 12 12 “Su gran atractivo residía en la amplia y variada oferta de títulos, en gran parte importados, a precios promocionales, así como en el programa de conferencias y actividades culturales que la nutrían.” Dujovne, 263. On the impact of the fairs, Dujovne quotes scholars such as Avraham Novershtern who recalled buying each year “between ten to twenty titles in Spanish and Yiddish” 13 13 “el idishista Avraham Novershtern señala que todos los años llevaba a su hogar entre diez y veinte títulos en español e ídish.” Dujovne, 263. (263). While the Jewish Book Month program helped develop a reading public for Jewish books from abroad, it also bolstered demand for the output of local Jewish presses. At the same time, it also allowed the AMIA to effectively define what qualified as a “Jewish book,” which, in turn, actively promoted its own agenda and centralized its institutional power.

Meticulously researched and drawing from a wide variety of sources, Dujovne’s book provides an ample picture of Jewish life in Argentina. One shortcoming of Dujovne’s approach, however, is that while he brings together archival materials, personal interviews, catalogues, and so forth, he doesn’t analyze the literary texts that form such a significant part of his corpus, a common critique of the distant reading methodology that Dujovne employs. While this yields an impressive study of a wide constellation of literary activities, some aspects of his investigation would be enriched by a more robust textual analysis. For example, in his chapter on translation, Dujovne explains that “[Salomón Resnick] was the first to introduce Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch to the Argentinian editorial panorama” 14 14 “A la edición de esta obra le siguieron otras traducciones de distintos géneros. Resnick también fue el primer introductor de autores como Sholem Aleijem y Sholem Asch al panorama editorial argentino, y muy probablemente al de lengua hispana en general,” Dujovne, 133.
by translating them into Spanish, but he doesn’t provide the translated literary texts or analyze the tensions that undoubtedly arose in such loaded moments of intercultural contact (133). Of course, Dujovne’s disciplinary focus as a social scientist differs from that of a literary scholar, and it would be unfair to expect extensive close reading in this book. However, the primary drawback of his strategy in this regard is that in privileging the stated intentions of the translator (or writer, editor, bookseller, etc. as the case may be), he unintentionally obscures the tensions between the goals or politics of intervening actors and the meaning of the texts themselves. While, for example, it is convincing to look at a catalogue or a list of translated works and note an ideological trend undergirding the selection, without knowing if or how the texts might have also been transformed in their translation, one must trust that the things Resnick said about his work are really reproduced by the texts themselves.

Nevertheless, Dujovne’s book demonstrates an important contribution to the field of Yiddish studies. At the heart of the study are the questions of Argentina’s place globally on one hand and the Jewish community’s place within Argentina on the other, a tension he successfully demonstrates by illustrating the competing demands of the literary market.

Grossman, Rachelle. “Review of Una historia del libro judío by Alejandro Dujovne.” In geveb, May 2021:
Grossman, Rachelle. “Review of Una historia del libro judío by Alejandro Dujovne.” In geveb (May 2021): Accessed May 17, 2021.


Rachelle Grossman

Rachelle Grossman is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard University.