As a young man, I thought of Latin Amer­i­ca as a place left unfin­ished at the moment of cre­ation. To me this was a hand­i­cap: time was slow; space always gave the feel­ing of being elas­tic; and things worked in pecu­liar, idio­syn­crat­ic ways. Now I appre­ci­ate these qual­i­ties. Peo­ple in the region are con­vinced that real­i­ty and dreams are impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate. That spir­its dance around the liv­ing. And that inan­i­mate objects have a soul of their own. I agree.

Lit­er­a­ture has been a superb medi­um to explore this super­nat­ur­al life. Con­sid­er Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez’s mas­ter­piece One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude (1967). In the nov­el, there are rain­storms of but­ter­flies; entire towns mys­te­ri­ous­ly lose their mem­o­ry; and beau­ti­ful women ascend to heav­en. In Latin Amer­i­ca, these occur­rences are nei­ther strange nor uncommon.

Peo­ple in the region are con­vinced that real­i­ty and dreams are impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate. That spir­its dance around the living. 

Being Jew­ish and Lati­no means hav­ing a dou­ble entry to the world of the unre­al. Jew­ish folk­loric tra­di­tion also con­tains an extra­or­di­nary gallery of chimeras: dyb­buks, golems, and a vast assort­ment of angels and demons. We even have the bril­liant Chelemites. In Mex­i­co City, where I grew up, these chimeras often inter­act­ed with local ones — like La Llorona, the wail­ing woman, and El Coco, a face­less ogre.

The lit­er­a­ture of Jew­ish Latin Amer­i­ca is an end­less well of pos­si­bil­i­ties. The map below gives a taste of the books that have been writ­ten or trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, and there are many oth­ers in the canon still.

Art and design by Kather­ine Messenger

Jews arrived in the Amer­i­c­as in 1492, as La Con­viven­cia—the coex­is­tence of Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and Islam — was con­clud­ing. In oth­er words, we came to life in an explo­sion of xeno­pho­bia. That xeno­pho­bia has fol­lowed us like a shad­ow. First, the Inqui­si­tion tar­get­ed us; we had to hide our iden­ti­ty and for­ti­fy it through secre­cy. My favorite colo­nial tes­ti­mo­ny on cryp­to-Jew­ish life is Luis de Car­va­jal the Younger’s mem­oir. It chron­i­cles his per­ilous awak­en­ing to the Hebra­ic faith in the Mex­i­co City region in the sec­ond half of the 16th cen­tu­ry and how the Inqui­si­tion ulti­mate­ly burned him at the stake in the largest auto-da-fé ever per­formed on this side of the Atlantic.

Intol­er­ance greet­ed us again lat­er as we emi­grat­ed from two dis­tant regions: East­ern Europe and the crum­bling Ottoman Empire. Among the most lucid lit­er­ary works about immi­gra­tion is Alber­to Gerchunoff’s The Jew­ish Gau­chos of the Pam­pas (1910). In enchant­i­ng vignettes, Ger­chunoff details the process of accul­tur­a­tion in agri­cul­tur­al colonies in Entre Ríos, which were seen as harsh and unwelcoming.

The quin­tes­sen­tial motifs of Jew­ish Latin Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture are repres­sion and exile. But there is anoth­er con­stant: resistance. 

The quin­tes­sen­tial motifs of Jew­ish Latin Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture are repres­sion and exile. But there is anoth­er con­stant: resis­tance. This was par­tic­u­lar­ly clear in the works that emerged dur­ing the Dirty War of the 1970s. Chil­dren of immi­grants and Holo­caust sur­vivors were active against the mil­i­tary jun­tas of South Amer­i­ca. As a result, they rep­re­sent­ed a high num­ber of desa­pare­ci­dos—the dis­ap­peared. The most dis­tin­guished account of that peri­od is Jacobo Timerman’s Pris­on­er with­out a Name, Cell with­out a Num­ber (1981), which describes Timerman’s impris­on­ment by the Argen­tine jun­ta and points to the way in which his tor­tur­ers were sim­i­lar to the Nazis.

Timer­man is blunt, pas­sion­ate, and relent­less in his quest for jus­tice. Anoth­er response is escapism. A slew of mag­i­cal tales by writ­ers like Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky sur­vey the lim­its of the sur­re­al. My dear friend the Brazil­ian fab­u­list Moa­cyr Scliar wrote what strikes me as the best nov­el in the Jew­ish mag­i­cal real­ist genre: The Cen­taur in the Gar­den (1981). Joy­ful and thought-pro­vok­ing, it is about a Jew who is half horse, half man, and finds no peace in either the ani­mal or the human realm. While Scliar’s depic­tion of his native Rio Grande do Sul has much in com­mon with Franz Kafka’s Prague and Isaac Babel’s Odessa, it is a uni­verse all to its own, with bizarre laws and phan­tas­magor­i­cal characters.

I rec­om­mend two oth­er inim­itable Jew­ish” writ­ers. I put the adjec­tive in quotes because one of them nev­er ful­ly acknowl­edged her Jew­ish­ness and the oth­er spent his life hop­ing he could prove he was a Jew. The first is Clarice Lispec­tor, who was also Brazil­ian. A sub­tle real­ist, her strik­ing voice is evi­dent in mas­ter­pieces like The Hour of the Star (1977), where bib­li­cal allu­sions give way to a haunt­ing med­i­ta­tion on alien­ation. The oth­er is the Argen­tine hom­bre de letras Jorge Luis Borges. He nur­tured a life­long pas­sion for Kaf­ka, Spin­oza, Hasidism, and Kab­bal­ah, evi­dent in sto­ries like Emma Zunz,” The Secret Mir­a­cle,” and Death and the Com­pass,” as well as in mem­o­rable poems and essays.

The best way to read Jew­ish Latin Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture is by sus­pend­ing ratio­nal­i­ty. For my next book, I spent the last four years trav­el­ing to the far cor­ners of the region. I’m more con­vinced than ever that this vast expanse of land is indeed a place left unfin­ished — and that’s its biggest asset. Jews are among its most fer­tile and styl­ized dreamers.