Books MA Jewish Life

Conversation with… Ilan Stavans

Professor to lead weekend on Latin American Jews 

By Stacey Dresner

ilan stavansAMHERST – The Yiddish Book Center will present “Yiddish con Salsa: The Jews of Latin America,” a weekend program led by renowned author and scholar Ilan Stavans April 19-21. The program will delve into the historical, political, and social contexts of this complex Jewish community with roots in both Eastern Europe and pre-1492 Spain. Informed by his lifelong investigation of language and identity, and his own experiences as a Jew growing up in Mexico City, Stavans will illuminate the cultural landscape in which the Jews of Latin America search for their roots. “Yiddish con Salsa” will include four lectures by Stavans; “Jews and Latinos: Unlikely Partners”; “The Converso as Metaphor: The Legacy of Secrecy”; “Magical Realists with Yarmulkes: The Writer as Activist”; and “Yiddish con Salsa: Adventures of Mame Loshn in the Hispanic World.” The program will also include discussion groups, which will be offered in English, Spanish, or Yiddish; a screening of the award-winning comic film “My Mexican Shiva”, based on a short-story by Stavans; course packet and books for recommended reading (provided in English or Spanish); a wine and cheese reception with Stavans; and three kosher, catered meals, beginning with Shabbos dinner.
Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, was born and raised in Mexico. He attended Yiddish day school with other children of Eastern European immigrants. In the 1980s he came to the U.S. as a graduate student, and is now an internationally known, award-winning cultural critic, linguist, translator, public speaker, editor, short-story writer, and TV host.
He recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about Yiddish con Salsa.

Q: The weekend at the Yiddish Book Center is called “Yiddish con Salsa.” What kinds of things can participants expect to learn about Jewish Latin American culture?
A: It will be a compact, enlightening, three-day tour of Jewish life in the Spanish-speaking world, focusing on various aspects of culture, from literature to cuisine, from assimilation to anti-Semitism, from the Holocaust to the relationship with Israel. The role Yiddish has played in shaping Jewish-Latino identity was be the centerpiece. My motivation is to help fill a major gap in our understandingEl Iluminado of Jewish life today. Few people think of the Hispanic world as a place where Jews have thrived; yet the region houses the fourth largest concentration of Jews worldwide (after the United States, Israel, and France). It is crucial for people in the United States to understand the common ground shared by these two groups, Jews and Latinos.

Q: What is Jewish life like now in Latin America? Do they embrace Judaism or Jewish culture? Is it different in different Latin American countries? And is it difficult to celebrate Jewish culture in countries that are so overwhelmingly Catholic?
A: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico are the Latin American countries with the largest Jewish population, ranging from over 200,000 to under 40,000. Each of these countries has its metabolism. Argentina is the site of the only pogrom ever to take place on this side of the Atlantic, the Semana Trágica; and also where a couple of terrorist attacks (probably initiated by Iran) with horrific consequences took place in the 1990s. Brazil has enabled its Jews, among the oldest in terms of history and also the most rooted, to integrate in ways unseen anywhere else in the region. As for Mexico, its Jewish community is astonishingly insular. In short, looking at Latin America in this regard as a unified block isn’t recommended. Catholicism is the defining religion all across the continent but it has been loosing ground in the past few daces. Multiculturalism has become a fashion, although not quite in the same style we’re used to in the United States. Interestingly, this multiculturalism has brought Jews and Indians together in places like Peru.

Q: In your book, Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots, you write about going back to Mexico and touring Centro Histórico, the downtown area of Mexico City. What significance has that place had for Jews over the centuries?
A: The Centro Histórico is to Mexico City what the Lower East Side is to New York: the neighborhood where Jews and other immigrants first settled. Subsequent generations moved to fancier sections of the city. In the last few years, a few important buildings in the Centro Histórico (a synagogue, a mikva, a school) might be said to have been “rediscovered”; some of them have even become tourist destinations. In my book, I tell the story of how I chose to take one of those tourist trips to my own birth place, revisiting the houses my ancestors livid in upon arriving from Poland, the Ukraine, and other places in the Pale of Settlement: the shul where my father had his Bar Mitzvah, the community center where my parents were married, and so on. My quest in the book is multifold: to recreate the encounter of Jews and Mexicans at the outset of the twentieth century that defines me; and to explore Mexico’s other Jewish past, that is, the vicissitudes of Sephardic Jews from Syria and Lebanon and the ordeal of crypto-Jews (also known as conversos) during colonial times and their plight under the domains of the Inquisition. The Centro Histórico is an extraordinary place: history speak loud and clear there.

Q: Was the InquStavans, comicisition in Mexico City different for Jews than the one in Spain?
A: Mexico City and Lima, Peru served as headquarters for the Inquisition in the Americas. The Inquisition in Spain was far more vicious than the one here. Proof of it is the fact that the number of autos-da-fe in the Iberian Peninsula easily outnumbers those on these shores. Indeed, Conversos, New Christians, and others Jews from Spain sought refuge in these colonies because rumors circulated that the branches of the Inquisition in the New World were less stringent, more lenient.

Q: Your new book, the graphic novel El Iluminado, is about this topic.
A: Yes, about today’s community of crypto-Jews in Santa Fe and other parts of New Mexico. The storyline moves in two levels: there’s a murder that takes place at the present time in the small enclave of crypto-Jews of the Southwest; and that murder eventually connects with the odyssey of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, also known as The Enlightened, arguably the most famous martyr of the Inquisition in Mexico City, who died at the stake in 1595. My graphic novel was done in collaboration with Steve Sheinkin.

Q: How is writing a graphic novel different from your other books?
A: Doing a graphic novel is like writing for the movies but without a screen.

Q: You show up in El Iluminado as Professor Stavans, a detective who tries to solve the mystery surrounding the murder you talked about.
A: Unquestionably, becoming a cartoon is one of the highlights of my life. Or maybe I should put it differently: becoming real is one of the highlights of my cartoon life.

Q: Do you have any idea how large the converso population is today in Mexico, and how it has affected Latin American culture?
A: Impossible to know. Conversos, by definition, live in the shadows, their identity kept in secret. Quantifying a secret is like counting the angles of a spider web as it is shaped.

Q: How strong is Yiddish culture today in Mexico? In all of Latin America?
A: I went to Yiddish school from kindergarten to twelfth grade. During that period, Yiddish was loosing steam in Mexico. Yiddish newspapers ceased publication while Hebrew became a language of instruction. All this happened as an entire generation of speakers was passing away. But Yiddish is still present in certain small quarters, just as it is in Canada and South Africa. And, of course, in the orthodox community it is a “bastard” language (even more of a hodgepodge than it has been for centuries).

Q: The publicity for the weekend at the book center calls Jews and Latinos unlikely partners. Can you explain?
A: We certainly haven’t been willing partners in recent times. Look at some major American cities today where Jews and Latinos find each cara a cara, face to face: Los Angeles, Miami, Houston. They belong to different economic strata, socially they move in different circles, politically they have empathies as well as antipathies. Over time, American Jews have forged an alliance with Blacks. It hasn’t been easy, since there’s much by way of misunderstanding between them. The attempt to bridge the gap separating Jews and Latinos in this country needs to be jumpstarted. In the last presidential election, it was Latinos who put Barack Obama back in the White House, but not in the way everyone thought it would happen. Latinos are liberals in some sense and conservative in others. They share elements with Jewish culture: a strong belief in the family as a unit, a commitment to tradition, a belief in hard work, and the abuse that comes from misconceptions in the media. Bringing these two groups together is an urgent, necessary task the present generation needs to embrace.

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