Stranger in the Desert: A Fam­i­ly Story

  • Review
By – February 19, 2024

Each of us has a fam­i­ly sto­ry that we believe defines us. But some­times what we con­sid­er a pow­er­ful sto­ry turns out to be more myth than real­i­ty. This is the conun­drum that Jor­dan Sala­ma con­fronts as he shares his own fam­i­ly story.

One Thanks­giv­ing, when Sala­ma was in col­lege, he dis­cov­ered a book about his fam­i­ly his­to­ry, called His­to­ria Antigua, that had been com­piled and writ­ten by his grand­fa­ther. Salama’s fam­i­ly immi­grat­ed to Argenti­na in the 1920s. His great-grand­fa­ther worked as a trav­el­ing sales­man, and claimed to have left descen­dants — referred to as the lost Sala­mas — across the Andes. The author of our book decides to trav­el across Latin Amer­i­ca in search of these rel­a­tives. It’s a jour­ney of self-dis­cov­ery that pro­vides an intrigu­ing descrip­tion of Jew­ish life in Argentina. 

Salama’s quest begins in Buenos Aires, where he receives a warm wel­come from his grandfather’s fam­i­ly and friends. He details what it feels like to be in a coun­try in which he pos­sess­es only a pass­ing abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate, mak­ing ask­ing and answer­ing ques­tions dif­fi­cult. And even when he can answer a ques­tion, his heav­i­ly accent­ed Span­ish makes it hard for his lis­ten­er to under­stand him. 

Salama’s ances­tral roots are Sephardic, Syr­i­an, Argen­tin­ian, and beyond. As he trav­els, he begins to real­ize how much of what he con­sid­ered part of his Sephardic Jew­ish back­ground also stems from the oth­er cul­tures that influ­enced his family.

Along the way, Sala­ma learns more and more about the tur­cos, or Jew­ish trav­el­ing sales­men, who were once so impor­tant to peo­ple in Patag­o­nia. The locals relied on the sales­men to bring them mate­ri­als and news of places that were far away. Tur­cos were typ­i­cal­ly first-gen­er­a­tion immi­grants who had come to Argenti­na years before Salama’s trip. By the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, their descen­dants were like­ly to have brick-and-mor­tar shops and be estab­lished in their com­mu­ni­ties. In fact, accord­ing to Sala­ma, Jew­ish involve­ment in the rag trade” was so ubiq­ui­tous that many joked that the eleventh com­mand­ment of the tur­cos is you shall buy and sell clothes.’”

Sala­ma col­lects sto­ries of Jew­ish life from each of the peo­ple he meets through­out Patag­o­nia, in the Andes, and else­where. He meets Isaac Oss, who car­ries his pro­duce in a cir­cu­lar tin that he bal­ances on his head. Year round, Isaac sells a sticky, flaky dough filled with raisins and nuts, as well as cook­ies and oth­er pas­tries — foods that were adapt­ed for Lev­an­tine Jews for Purim and Rosh Hashanah. He also meets Nor­ma Susana Elias, whose unheat­ed house gets its warmth from the peo­ple who vis­it and from her stew of white corn, beans, squash, and pump­kin in a meat-based broth. 

Sala­ma left New York to dis­cov­er his lost rel­a­tives, but what he real­ly learns about is him­self. He dis­cov­ers more about his back­ground as a Sephardic Jew and his fam­i­ly his­to­ry in both Syr­ia and Argenti­na. He dis­cov­ers that he has so much more in com­mon with the many peo­ple he meets in Argenti­na than he ever expect­ed he would as an Amer­i­can. Most impor­tant­ly, he dis­cov­ers how warm and wel­com­ing peo­ple can be. 

At the end of the book, Sala­ma describes return­ing to Argenti­na for anoth­er trip, this time with his grand­par­ents. He relates their excite­ment about com­ing back, meet­ing with rel­a­tives, and walk­ing famil­iar streets. Because of Salama’s ear­li­er, solo jour­ney, Argenti­na has become famil­iar to him, too. While he admits that the fam­i­ly sto­ry about the lost Sala­mas was prob­a­bly a myth, the feel­ing that Argenti­na has become home, and that he has fam­i­ly across Patag­o­nia and the Andes, is his new reality.

Lis­ten to authors Jor­dan Sala­ma and Eliz­a­beth Graver in con­ver­sa­tion about Mizrahi and Sephardic dias­poric jour­neys, both in fic­tion and real-life, mod­er­at­ed by Stephanie Butnick.

Mar­i­an Stoltz-Loike, Ph.D. is author, speak­er and aca­d­e­mi­cian. She is the author of Dual Career Cou­ples: New Per­spec­tives in Coun­sel­ing and Cross-Cul­tur­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Discussion Questions