The Other Americans, Forward, 1994

The Other Americans.

When we think of Latin American literature, we generally envision labyrinths, bullets suspended in midair, half-human creatures and towns infected by mysterious memory losses. We don’t usually think of Jews. Yet Latin America has been home to Jewish communities since the late 15th century, when groups of Sephardim began to arrive along with Columbus. In the late 19th century, there was even a short-lived movement to build the Zionist promised land in Argentina. A tradition of Jewish writing has risen out of this history, and its 20th-century manifestations are examined in a new book, “Tropical Synagogues: Short Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers” (Holmes & Meier Publishers, $34.95). Edited by Ilan Stavans, a Mexican novelist and professor of romance languages at Amherst College, it offers 20 stories by Jewish writers from across the continent.

Although Latin American Jews were removed from the central drama of persecution and Holocaust that was the fate of European Jews in this century, they endured regional anti-Semitism, as well as the oppressive regimes endemic to that region. “Jewish writers and intellectuals of later generations suffered the horrors of military dictatorship, persecution, violence, and exile,” Mr. Stavans notes in his informative introduction. In some of the stories collected in this volume, the writers seek to define their own experiences with relation to the distant Holocaust. The Brazilian Moacyr Scliar, for example, writes from a child’s point of view as the first postwar concentration camp refugees arrive in his town. As the community tries to make a place for a survivor named Mischa, Mr. Scliar’s protagonist dreams of “finding out that Mischa has never been a prisoner anywhere, that he is not even a Jew; he is merely a crafty Ukrainian who had himself tattooed and made up the whole story in order to exploit Jews.”

According to Mr. Stavans, contemporary Latin American Jewish literature began with the Russian-born Argentinian writer Alberto Gerchunoff, who gave up Yiddish for Spanish in the early years of this century. Gerchunoff was interested in the ideal of the Jewish gaucho, who personified a merging of the poncho-wearing cowboy and the Jewish community. The story by Gerchunoff included in this volume, “Camacho’s Wedding Feast,” symbolized this union through the reconciliation of a Jewish family with the Gentile son-in-law who stole their daughter.

Mr. Stavans notes that Latin American Jewish communities have remained isolated — even from each other. “Jewish writers in Brazil have not read Jewish writers in Argentina,” he says. And, he adds, most remain even further isolated from mainstream culture. “They refuse to assimilate,” he writes, “and the broader society also rejects their complete integration. Thus the Jewish writer’s cultural manifestation is either within the community, in which case there is little space for self-criticism, or he or she sooner or later chooses to reject the community.” This may be why Jewish Latin-American writers haven’t joined the central pantheon of other American writers, like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick. It is interesting that some of the most famous Latin American authors — including Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes — have been fascinated with the figure of the Jew in their culture and have written stories and novels with Jews as protagonists.

What is lost in the book is a sense of regional distinctiveness and idiosyncrasy, though perhaps it is too much to hope that a single-volume anthology like this one could find a way to encapsulate such a vast scope of cultural difference. Some of the best stories in the volume overcome the somewhat schematic translations, such as the Peruvian Isaac Goldemberg’s “The Conversion,” about an adolescent’s traumatic response to circumcision, and the Argentinian Isidoro Blaistein’s “Uncle Facondo,” which details the havoc caused by the visit of a pleasure-loving, larger-than-life, perpetually wandering relative to the protagonist’s Buenos Aires home.

At a reading and publication party for “Tropical Synagogues” recently held in a baroque, high-ceilinged yellow room at New York’s Americas Society, Mr. Stavans described the stack of rejections he originally received for his proposal for “Tropical Synagogues.” Editors, he recalled, found it difficult to accept his premise. “They wrote to me, asking, `Is this fiction — people studying the Torah and speaking Spanish?’ ” When audience members questioned him about the disproportionate representation of Ashkenazi to Sephardic Jews in the volume, Mr. Stavans argued that the Sephardim in the region had been more persecuted and therefore less artistically productive than Ashkenazis. When asked about the lack of representation of Jewish writers from Cuba, Puerto Rico and other island cultures, Mr. Stavans said he was forced to narrow the book’s focus but that he hoped the volume would lead to other anthologies — and to further discoveries.