A conventional study of the Jews of Latin America might start in the south of the continent and move north, or start in pre-modern 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, buildings which used to exist, and abandoned railway stations converted into humid museums. In this man’s hands, a continent becomes a cabinet of curiosities. 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. There’s a kind of magic going on.
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 anyway? Before long, Frida’s whole “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 its ‘performative’ Jews, eager for tourist attention, but also with Jews deeply rooted in tradition.
All this delightful stream-of-consciousness travel 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 than the Inquisition’s Sephardi Jews, were fleeing the Nazis, which also means Stavans must tend to the Nazis who came after the war, the “Rat Route.” He explores antisemitism across the continent, 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. He means well; he wants to relate to big questions about identity. In the end, he manages to bring it back home, by wondering about the Arab presence in Latin America, although it feels like a detour.
Happily, Stavans brings this bizarre 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!