A conventional study of the Jews of Latin America might start in the south of the region and move north, or start in premodern times and work forward. But Ilan Stavans is not conventional, so he takes readers on a serendipitous journey through space and time, stopping at strange gravesites, places where buildings once stood, and abandoned railway stations converted into humid museums. In Stavans’s hands, here’s a kind of magic going on. The oddly dressed gentleman loitering the street corner, the old lady sipping tea, the shambolic hippie — they all have stories, and they all address, quite seamlessly, the questions at hand.
The journey begins in Argentina, where, among other things, Stavans searches for traces of the Jewish gauchos, and the early twentieth-century farm settlements sponsored by Baron Hirsch. In Buenos Aires, he wanders Jewish El Once, visits Borges’s haunts, and chats with Yiddishists. A random yeshiva student on the street tells him tales of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the quixotic Monsieur Chouchani. It’s all so astonishing that he decides, as an antidote, to head to Mexico City to fulfill an old dream of revisiting his childhood home. Before long, the ghosts of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and even Trotsky stop by, each with their carefully curated Jewish profiles. Why, Stavans asks, did Frida make such a production of her “Mexicanness” when she was living in Mexico? Before long, Frida’s “indigenous” look becomes the perfect segue to exploring the so-called Indian Jews, and then he’s off to Santa Fe and the American southwest, where practically everyone he meets is a descendant of crypto-Jews. There’s Uruguay and Chile and Brazil to come, but best of all, Cuba — with both “performative” Jews, eager for tourist attention, and Jews deeply rooted in tradition.
This delightful stream-of-consciousness travelogue has some important anchors. Jews came to Latin America after their 1492 expulsion from Spain by the Inquisition. Since the Inquisition was also instituted in the New World, the exiled crypto-Jews, or “new Christians” had to keep up appearances or endure the torture chambers. The second big wave of Jews, more Ashkenazi, were fleeing the Nazis — which also means Stavans must address the Nazis who came through the “Rat Route” after the war. He explores antisemitism across Latin America, especially the paranoid rumors of a Jewish homeland scheme, “Plan Andinia,” in Patagonia.
Profoundly depressed, Stavans shifts the scene to Israel, under the guise of exploring Latino Jews who made aliyah. The Israeli bustle is quite upbeat, until Stavans tries to sort out the Palestinian situation. In the end, he manages to bring it back home by wondering about the Arab presence in Latin America, although it feels somewhat like a detour.
Happily, Stavans brings his journey to an appropriately weird ending, as he waits with his family for new passports in a Polish consulate in Trump’s America. What a trip!
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.