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 2005-11-10
Book Review: Bodies and Souls
 
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Norman
Manson

 

                                                 Book Review

Despite some flaws, Bodies and Souls
adds to knowledge of Diaspora experience
 
                            

  jewishsightseeing.com,  November 10, 2005

books 

Bodies and Souls by Isabel Vincent; William Morrow; 276 pages; $25.95.

Reviewed by Norman Manson

One of the darkest and best kept secrets of modern Jewish history is the fact that a prostitution industry involving Jewish women and pimps in several parts of the world flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Isabel Vincent in this book makes an admirable effort to shed light on this tragic chapter in the story of the Jewish diaspora.

She does so by detailing the lives of three Jewish women, all of them forced by cunning, deceitful men into leaving their East European homes and entering a miserable life of prostitution in the Americas. The main focus of the book is on brothels in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, but a similar situation in New York is discussed briefly - one of the women spent time there as well.

Vincent has done a great amount of research on the subject, but the book comes up short in several ways. For one, the narrative is somewhat disjointed - at times, the reader is uncertain of whether it deals with Buenos Aires or Rio. And the accounts are fragmented, picking up the story of one woman, then digressing to other subjects for several pages before resuming the original story, leaving the reader to pull the threads together. And, perhaps most important, there are gaps that surface every sooften in the narrative. The author asks questions or writes suppositions or surmises, for there are no records or other definitive
  proofs.

The latter shortcoming is certainly to be expected, for the records on prostitution in general and these unfortunate victims in particular are sketchy at best. The mainstream Jewish communities of the cities wanted absolutely nothing to do with these women of ill-repute and ostracized them to the point of refusing to bury them in their communal cemeteries. And most of the women were, at best, barely literate and unable to record their stories for posterity.

The three women spotlighted are named Sophia Chamys, Rachel Liberman and Rebecca Freedman. While they all suffered similar fates, at least to some degree, their stories differ in significant ways. Chamys' story is the most tragic - her short life was marked by violent acts on the part of her "husband," a pimp named Isaac Boorosky. She died young and was buried in a Catholic cemetery. Liberman, on the other hand, managed to start an antique business and gain some respectability. When her former bosses refused to leave her alone, she went to the Buenos Aires police and brought about at least a measure of reform. But unfortunately, she too died young, as she was about to visit her family in Poland. Rebecca Freedman went from prostitution, in both New York and South America, to become a sort of one-woman  chevra kadisha  (burial society), caring for the bodies of her fellow prostitutes after they had established their own cemetery in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike the others, she lived to the age of 103, dying in 1984.

The stories of other women, and the male sex traffickers who ran the operations, also are recounted briefly. But reading about this tragic situation is more difficult than it should be, as the narrative at times is quite confusing. Also, there are a couple of errors in discussing Jewish rituals and customs: the ritual of putting on teffilin takes place in the morning, not on Friday evening, and the well-known Jewish dance is the hora, not the tora.

While the significant presence of prostitution represents a blot in modern Judaism, it was probably inevitable that, given the extreme difficulties faced by East European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some would turn to this disreputable occupation. Their story merits being brought to light, for the bad must be told along with the good. Despite its flaws, this book constitutes a significant addition to modern Jewish historical scholarship.