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Laura Limonic, Sociology Alum, on ‘Kugel and Frijoles’ and Latino Jewish Identity

Alumna Laura Limonic and the cover of her book, Kugel and Frijoles (Photo courtesy of Limonic)

This has been a noteworthy year for Laura Limonic (Ph.D. ’14, Sociology), whose research focuses on Latino immigration: She just received tenure at SUNY Old Westbury, where she is a professor of sociology. And her recent book, Kugel and Frijoles: Latino Jews in the United States, was awarded the 2020 Best Book in Latin American Jewish Studies.

Her book explored the Latino Jewish population, estimated to number between 148,000 and 220,000 — a very small group, and her book focuses on an even narrower portion: Jews who immigrated to the United States after 1965. Limonic recently spoke to The Graduate Center about her research and the advice that helped her on her path to a tenured position:

The Graduate Center: How did you become interested in this topic? 

Limonic: I’m an Argentine Jew, and that’s how I began to think about issues of race, ethnicity, religious identity, and how they intersect — the sort of interesting questions that I try to answer in my book. 

The book came out of my dissertation. I had all sorts of ideas, as we all have when we start graduate school, and [Distinguished Professor] Nancy Foner (GC/Hunter, Sociology), my adviser, jumped on this. I was luckily very well funded. I had a Graduate Center Dissertation Fellowship, and I also got funded through an AJS (Association for Jewish Studies) Berman Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. Additionally, I received support from the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies. And then, when I graduated, I got an early career fellowship from the same foundation, and they funded me to expand my research from Boston and New York to Miami and California. That’s when I was able to get a much bigger picture of Latino Jews in the United States. 

GC: How exactly do Latino Jews identify? Can they choose their identity or is somewhat imposed upon them?

Limonic: We know that Latinos in general have a range of identities that they can choose from, and part of that is those who look more white have more options. That’s true for Latino Jews also. We also know that Latinos have a lot of ethnic identities. Sometimes they might concentrate on their national origin identities, and other times it’s more of a pan-ethnic identity. 

For Latino Jews, it’s really context-based. What I found is that if there’s organizational support for a pan-ethnic identity — in areas where Latino Jews live together, like South Florida — they congregate together. For example, there are schools, particularly Jewish day schools, where you get all kinds of Latino Jews attending. There are also public-private spaces, big buildings that are built around public pools, and playgrounds and day-cares, where you have Jews from all over Latin America participating in daily life. Mexican Jews and Argentine Jews and Venezuelan Jews might go to the same synagogue or the same Jewish community center. 

Within places where they are geographically close to one another, and there’s institutional support for both community- and identity- building, those are the places where Latino Jews are most likely to identify as Latino Jews. And that manifests in more community building, as people marry across country-of origin-lines, but within their ethno-religious group. There are commonalities, and that comes across in the food, in literature, in popular culture, in movies. In language, obviously; not everybody speaks English. And in behavior: how people interact with one another. 

GC: Do you have any advice for students who are hoping to get on the tenure track?

Limonic: I think CUNY does a few things very, very well to prepare us to teach, and it makes us very marketable. And that’s the fact that we do a lot of teaching. That’s one of the things that landed me an interview, because Old Westbury emphasizes teaching excellence. 

This is advice that I got at a first-year colloquium: Only allocate necessary time to things. Our time as graduate students is limited. It doesn’t make sense to spend hours and hours writing an exam. What was really helpful to me was to think about graduate school as a job. I worked at the U.N. for the first three years that I was a graduate student, and then I had two kids, so I was super busy. And I worked at the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at The Graduate Center, so I worked a lot. And the way I tried to get everything done was to block off my time as efficiently as possible. 

Nancy Foner also said to me: You don’t have to go to 10 conferences. You just have to go to one. You don’t have to write 10 book reviews, just write one or two. That’s what I found super helpful: learning not to waste time on things that are not going to be meaningful on the job market. 

Submitted on: JUL 10, 2020

Category: Alumni News | Diversity Books | GCstories | General GC News | Immigration | Research Studies | Sociology