The Sev­enth Heav­en: Trav­els Through Jew­ish Latin America

  • Review
By – February 17, 2020

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.

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