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Finding Jewish Life South of the Border

There’s more to Jamaica than soft sand and reggae, more to Mexico than ancient pyramids and enchiladas, more to Argentina than great steaks and the tango.

Jewish history in the Americas dates back more than 500 years, and because of this, sites of interest for modern-day Jewish travelers dot the region from Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel — the first synagogue built in the Western Hemisphere, now reconstructed, in Recife, Brazil — to the New World’s oldest Jewish cemetery, Curacao’s Bet Chayim.

There are also sites of more recent vintage: a park in Lima, Peru, named after Yitzhak Rabin; in Buenos Aires, the place where Adolf Eichmann was living when he was nabbed by Mossad agents in 1960 and brought to trial in Israel; the house in Mexico City in which an exiled Leon Trotsky was murdered in 1940, now a museum.

Ben G. Frank compiles a wealth of information on the region in his new book, “A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean & South America” (Pelican). Frank, who previously wrote “A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe” and “A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia & Ukraine,” took dozens of trips south of the border in preparing his hefty new book, which counts more than 500 pages.

Historical background is his strength. He details how “secret Jews” fleeing the Spanish Inquisition arrived in Jamaica as early as 1530, although they could not live openly as Jews until the British took the island in 1655. He explains how, in 1903, Jews helped create the first flag for a newly independent Panama — although they mistakenly used six-pointed stars instead of five-pointed ones. And he recounts the journey of the Jews cast out from Brazil in 1654, who found havens in places like Barbados, Martinique and as far away as New Amsterdam, where they marked the beginning of Jewish life in America.

Latin America and the Caribbean are still home today for more than 400,000 Jews, supporting dozens of synagogues, community centers and schools. Frank catalogs these venues as part of his exploration of present-day communities — although visitors will likely be more interested in the kosher restaurants he lists.

The historical and cultural information in Frank’s book makes for an interesting read, a unique primer on this part of the world. “A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean & South America” is broad in its focus and far from comprehensive, but remains a long-overdue volume that will enlighten casual readers and pique the interest of potential tourists.

It is a shame, however, that such a grand undertaking has been published in such a substandard form. The text is often choppy, badly edited and incomplete. Despite its title, the book fares quite poorly as a practical travel guide. While typographical errors, erratic formatting, linguistic inconsistencies and sheer sloppiness can prove annoying in ordinary text, these shortcomings bear graver consequences when it comes to listing addresses, phone numbers or other contact information.

Visitors to Mexico City who rely on Frank’s guide, for instance, will have a difficult time contacting World ORT or the Jewish Agency (their phone numbers have too few digits), or locating the restaurant Hipodromo (whose address is listed simply as “Mexico Park, the old neighborhood” — this in a metropolis significantly larger than New York City). Similar examples abound throughout the book, beginning on the very first page of the text, where Rio de Janeiro is misspelled.

Frank’s book will open up a world of information for many readers. But before they actually visit the places he describes, they’d be wise to check other books and Web sites to confirm the details.

Wayne Hoffman is managing editor of the Forward. He is also a longtime travel writer who has traveled extensively throughout Latin America.

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