Author Ilan Sta­vans has three new books out this year, and will be intro­duc­ing each one to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil read­ers as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I am not being face­tious: per­haps the first piece ever writ­ten from a Jew­ish per­spec­tive in what we call today Latin Amer­i­ca are Columbus’s diaries. I don’t want to jump into the debate on his Jew­ish ances­try; still, his approach at describ­ing the land­scape, his utopi­an vision of the inhab­i­tants of the new­ly dis­cov­ered lands as he looked for a new route to the Indies, dis­till a Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty. At any rate, less debat­able are the scores of cryp­to-Jew­ish poems, essays, mem­oirs, and inquisi­to­r­i­al tes­ti­monies writ­ten in Peru, Mex­i­co, Argenti­na, Colom­bia, Cuba, and oth­er places dur­ing the colo­nial period.

This has been an area of pas­sion­ate research for me. I am in the midst of com­plet­ing a trav­el book through the region, due out from Nor­ton next year. In it there is a dis­tinct way of look­ing at things, what the Ger­mans call a weltan­schau­ung. I know about it because I was born in Mex­i­co. But I didn’t become a Latin Amer­i­can until I left home, to live first in the Mid­dle East, then in Europe, and even­tu­al­ly in the Unit­ed States. Becom­ing part of the whole rede­fined me.

The Jew­ish com­po­nent of Latin Amer­i­ca, both vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble, is enor­mous. Of an over­all pop­u­la­tion of 450 mil­lion, less than half a mil­lion iden­ti­fies itself as Jew­ish, a minus­cule num­ber. Still, the impact on thought, com­merce, pol­i­tics, cul­ture, and reli­gion is sig­nif­i­cant. In the Unit­ed States there are anoth­er 60 mil­lion peo­ple whose roots are traced back to the His­pan­ic world. Last year I saw a sta­tis­tic, unre­li­able in my eyes, argu­ing that 200,000 of them are Jew­ish. The cipher must be con­sid­er­ably small­er. Still, the sug­ges­tion is tan­gi­ble proof that Jew­ish-Latin Amer­i­can influ­ence north of the Rio Grande is grow­ing substantially.

At any rate, I hope a place to appre­ci­ate such influ­ence is Oy, Caram­ba! An Anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish Sto­ries from Latin Amer­i­ca. The focus is lit­er­a­ture, specif­i­cal­ly the mod­ern peri­od, from the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry to the present. Yet lit­er­a­ture is life. In oth­er words, no aspect of Jew­ish life in Latin Amer­i­ca is alien to these tales. Just as in its English‑, Portuguese‑, Yiddish‑, and Hebrew-lan­guage coun­ter­parts, there are tan­gi­ble genealog­i­cal lines in Jew­ish-Latin Amer­i­can let­ters: a grand­par­ent fig­ure, a par­ent, and so on. The founder is Alber­to Ger­hunoff from Argenti­na, author of The Jew­ish Gau­chos of the Pam­pas. His work, in part, is about immi­grant, just like that of Abra­ham Cahan. Moa­cyr Scliar from Brazil, author of The Cen­taur in the Gar­den, is a deli­cious humorist, a kind of Sholem Ale­ichem. Isaac Goldem­berg from Peru, pub­lished The Frag­ment­ed Life of Don Jacobo Lern­er, about eth­nic and the­o­log­i­cal mix­ing, what is known as mes­ti­za­je. Clarise Lispec­tor, also from Brazil, is an aston­ish­ing styl­ist bet­ter than Vir­ginia Woolf. Oth­er authors are equal­ly mem­o­rable: Mar­cos Agui­nis, Angeli­na Muniz-Huber­man, Eduar­do Hal­fon, Marce­lo Bir­ma­jer, Rosa Nis­sán, and Ariel Dorf­man, among them. And I am only talk­ing of those large­ly devot­ed to fiction.

There are Ashke­nazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi authors, as well as descen­dants of cryp­to-Jews. Plus, there are myr­i­ad non-Jew­ish writ­ers in Latin Amer­i­ca with a last­ing inter­est in Jew­ish themes. Car­los Fuentes, for exam­ple, wrote nov­els about the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict, José Emilio Pacheco about the Nazis in Mex­i­co, Mario Var­gas Llosa about Jew­ish-indige­nous rela­tions, and Leonar­do Padu­ra about the Holy Office. A puz­zling chap­ter in Rober­to Bolaño’s The Sav­age Detec­tivestakes place in Tel-Aviv. Nazism is a ubiq­ui­tous top­ic. There is Jorge Volpi’s In Search of Kling­son and also Bolaño’s Nazi Lit­er­a­ture in the Amer­i­c­as, an ency­clo­pe­dia of nonex­is­tent books on the topics.

Edit­ing Oy, Caram­ba! was a joy. It includes sto­ries orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Yid­dish, Span­ish, Por­tuguese, and Eng­lish. (The vol­ume is an expan­sion of Trop­i­cal Syn­a­gogues [Holmes and Meier], which appeared in 1994. This was the first anthol­o­gy I ever pub­lished in Eng­lish.) When I look at its con­tents, I wished it could have been at least twice the size. This is unavoid­able. Antholo­gies, as every­one knows, are made of hors d’oeu­vre: one of their objec­tives is to whet one’s appetite. But when they do their job well, they accom­plish much more: they offer con­text, allow­ing read­ers to see beyond the sur­face; and they build bridges across authors, coun­tries, and peri­ods. Think of all the antholo­gies whose influ­ence is deci­sive, from the Bible to The Ara­bi­an Nights. Mine is com­par­a­tive­ly mod­est: to show that Columbus’s sen­si­bil­i­ty, com­plex as it is, lives on.

Ilan Sta­vans is a Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor in Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege and the author of many books of both Jew­ish and non­sec­tar­i­an interests.

Relat­ed Content:

Ilan Sta­vans is the inter­na­tion­al­ly-known, New York Times best­selling Jew­ish Mex­i­can schol­ar, cul­tur­al crit­ic, essay­ist, trans­la­tor, and Amherst Col­lege pro­fes­sor whose work, trans­lat­ed into twen­ty lan­guages, has been adapt­ed into film, the­ater, TV, radio, and children’s books.