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UNTIL THE LAST QUARTER OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, scholarly attention on the Jewish communities of the Spanish- and Portuguese-language Americas was scarce. This is surprising given the size of the population in the region: a total of around half a million Jews, with the largest concentrations to be found in Argentina and Brazil, with around 240,000 and 180,000 people respectively. The literature generated by this population is substantial. In this essay my objective is to map some of its patterns and motifs and to reflect on a handful of authors, in particular a non-Jew: Jorge Luis Borges. I concern myself with issues such as antisemitism and assimilation and devote the latter part of my meditation to the Holocaust. The reader ought to be aware that this in no way is an exhaustive analysis and that I've left out some important themes, for instance, the role Ladino and Yiddish--and to a lesser extent Hebrew--played in the shaping of this canon, as well as the relevance of Zionism in the region.
To understand the change from eclipse to academic recognition of this literature, it is crucial that I describe the three major waves of immigration across the Atlantic Ocean: the crypto-Jewish in the colonial period; the Askhenazic between 1880 and 1930, with additional immigrations at the time of World War II; and the Sephardic, from parts of the former Ottoman Empire that started around 1880 and lasted into the 1970s.
Jews arrived in the Americas with Christopher Columbus and played an important role in the three-hundred-year colonial period from 1525 to 1825. (1) At first the main cultural centers were Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and Peru, where crypto-Jews as well as New Christians from the Iberian peninsula sought refuge from the Inquisition, but the Caribbean basin and the region of the River Plate were also magnets. Of course, to describe this as a wave of Jewish immigration is deceiving, if anything because those that arrived in the New World didn't identify themselves as Jews, hiding instead their identity. And how many of them were there? The demographic estimations vary. The Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula were probably no more than 20,000 and it is unlikely that the number that crossed the ocean, either as overt or as secret Jews, was ever higher than 2,000. (2) The scholarly examination of the colonial period in the Americas didn't begin in earnest until the late nineteenth century, in large part because the fever for independence that swept the continent from approximately 1810 to 1865 focused on breaking away from Spain not only politically but also culturally; there was almost no interest in intellectual and artistic life in the colonial era. (3)
Perhaps the most significant historical figure in the Americas in colonial times was Luis de Carvajal de Younger, also known as El Iluminado. (4) A crypto-Jew from a prominent family in Benavente, Spain, that resettled in Nueva Espana, as Mexico was known in colonial times, Carvajal was arrested in 1589 by the Inquisition under the suspicion of being a Judaizer, i.e., a proselytizer. Such an accusation, even if untrue, usually meant a life of misery that went from bankruptcy and social ridicule to imprisonment of some length and torture. He was put on trial but somehow managed to persuade his victimizers of his innocence. But six years later he was arrested again, this time under charges of impenitent heresy, and was burnt at the stake in 1596, at the age of thirty, in the most notorious of all autos-dafe ever held in the region. His career from his birthplace in the Iberian peninsula, to the site of his death in the Plaza del Quemadero in the Mexican capital, is emblematic of the fate of the Jews in the Colonial era.
Carvajal was the nephew of Don Luis de Carvajal the Older, a formidable conquistador, a "pacifier" of the Indies, whose reputation brought him an appointment by the kings as governor of the New Kingdom of Leon, in northern Mexico. The younger Carvajal, his sisters, and mother were brought to Mexico by their famous relative. It was the humanitarian atmosphere, fostered by his uncle, that encouraged El Iluminado to explore his Jewish roots, acknowledged by various members of the family but kept under wraps by the Inquisition.
The Inquisition began to function in Mexico in 1570. Some eighty years prior, Columbus had sailed across the Atlantic in search of a new way to the Indies. That, at least, is the belief. Did he also serve as a bridge between the Old World and the New at a time of distress to the Jewish people, when the Catholic Kings, in an edict of expulsion in 1492, expelled a large and mature community from the Iberian peninsula? The Holy Office had been active in Spain, and in a far more vicious manner than anything ever seen in the Americas, for at least a hundred years. The colonies were perceived by some as a place of religious tolerance, as is evident in the literature of the time, including a handful of comedias by Lope de Vega and in an emblematic chapter in the second volume of Don Quixote. (5)
Martin A. Cohen (6) translated the lengthy autobiography that El Iluminado wrote between 1591 and 1592, and drew for his account on a series of epistles to his mother and sisters that Carvajal wrote during his second imprisonment. Prisoners were neither permitted to communicate with the outside world nor with other prisoners. His mother and sisters were in a cell next to his. In order to reach them, Carvajal inscribed a message on the core of an alligator pear, hid it in a melon, and asked the jailer to bring the fruit to his relatives. Of course, his victimizers suspected the strategy but didn't discourage it. El Iluminado continued to be provided with alligator pears and other fruit. Carvajal also composed a Last Will and Testament in the last months of the second trial. As Cohen suggests, more than a will, this was an expression of painstaking commitment to the Jewish religion of his forbears. (7)
The second wave of Jewish immigration to the Spanish- and Portuguese-language Americas took place at the end of the nineteenth century and lasted until World War II. The newcomers were Yiddish-speaking shtetl, city, and ghetto dwellers. Their arrival in the Argentine and Brazilian Pampas was, for the most part, the result of efforts by philanthropists like Baron Maurice de Hirsch and the Aliance Israelite Universelle. (8)
Argentina is the country with the richest traditions of Jewish writing. It started with the folklore of the agricultural communes such as Rajil and Moisesville. The anthology Los mejores relatos con gauchos judios (9) offers a sample of memoirs and stories by colonos, as the Jewish immigrants were called. Their foundational literary figure is Alberto Gerchunoff, responsible for the early classic, The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, published in 1910 as a token of appreciation to Argentina in its first centennial of independent life. (10) In Spanish, academic ruminations on Gerchunoff abound, written by Argentine scholars like Leonardo Senkman and Saul Sosnowski. An English translation of Gerchunoff's book was released in 1955, and was reissued in 1997 with a kaleidoscopic introduction that places him in the context of the Yiddish, Jewish, Spanish, and Latin American intellectual traditions. (11)
More than half a century after his death, Gerchunoff remains the paradigmatic figure. Up until very recently, Spanish culture resisted embracing its Jewish sensibility. This becomes clear in a sentence found in the 1974 edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, in which The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas is described as "the first work of literary value to be written in Spanish by a Jew in modern times." The astonishing implication is that roughly between 1492 and 1910, when Gerchunoff compiled his 26 interrelated fictional vignettes on life in the agricultural communities in South America in the late …