A native of Brazil, where Portuguese is the primary language, Rabbi Cukierkorn also spent years in Uruguay, becoming fluent in Spanish. Now the rabbi has decided to combine some of his Spanish know-how with his rabbinical know-how to craft "Hamadrich: A Guide to the Values and Practices of Modern Judaism." The book, written entirely in Spanish, is due out from the European Association of Judaic Studies in March.
Rabbi Cukierkorn said the inspiration to write the book came largely from his personal experience with Spanish-speakers who were curious about Judaism.
"I have always had individual dialogues with people who come to me to learn more about Judaism, and especially with Spanish speakers," he said. "More and more they come to me because they can write to me in their language. Often they have asked me to recommend books, and the truth is there really aren't many good basic books about Judaism in Spanish."
Over the last four years Rabbi Cukierkorn worked on "Hamadrich," a book which he jokes "would be almost entirely useless in English — there are a thousand books that tell you the same things. But in Spanish, not a single one." Rabbi Cukierkorn said his book is typical of many introductions to Judaism in that it goes through the basics — history, beliefs, texts, practices, life-cycle events. However, he said, he also thinks his book differs in that it comes from a less traditional point of view.
"The book conveys information from a non-Orthodox perspective, which in my mind means an unbiased perspective. When I describe something, I explain the differences between traditional and Reform views. I never negate traditional views, but I provide the reader with variations. In this way I think we provide a more complete understanding of the diversity within the tradition."
Rabbi Cukierkorn said he sees the book's target audience as twofold. First, it is a good reader for the general public in Spanish-speaking countries — non-Jews who are interested in learning about Judaism. But he also thinks it is something U.S. Jews can give to their Spanish-speaking friends, co-workers and employees as a way to explain their beliefs and rituals.
"I see this book as a good way to begin a Jewish-Hispanic dialogue, which is something we desperately need," Rabbi Cukierkorn said.
In addition to the regular introductory information about Judaism, the book also has a special section on the history of Iberian Jewry, or Jews on the Spanish peninsula of Europe. Though medieval Spain was the home to the largest Jewish population in the world until the time of the Spanish Inquisition, today the Iberian peninsula is home to only some 20,000 Jews, he said. There are approximately 500,000 Jews in Latin America.
Rabbi Cukierkorn said presenting books on Judaism to the Spanish-speaking world is one of his primary scholarly goals, and one he thinks could make an important impact.
"There's so much about Judaism in English and other European languages, but in Spanish there is almost nothing, and there is a great need and interest for more. I think it's one really useful contribution to Jewish scholarship that I'm equipped to make," he said.
Rabbi Cukierkorn is considering writing his next book in Spanish about Jewish views on sex and sexuality.
Ben Shockey, former assistant editor of The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, works as a teaching assistant at the University of Maine in Portland.
This article appeared in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, February 2002