Invisible Sephardim

by Richard Kostelanetz (August 2015)

Rereading Ilan Stavans’ The Scroll and the Cross (2003; on Kindle, 2013), I can’t get over what a truly curious, if not peculiar, anthology it is. Subtitled “1000 Years of Jewish-Hispanic Literature,” it publishes not only Jews but gentiles who wrote about Jewish subjects, including such familiar Spanish-language authors as Federico Garcia Lorca, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Unamuno, and Julio Cortazar.

What’s up here, I can hear you saying already? It’s an editorial vision new to me, derived it seems from a course in “Jewish-Hispanic Relations” that Stavans has apparently given at Amherst, where he is a chaired professor. Whereas opportunistic anthologies try to exploit established tastes, more adventurous, customarily more laudable collections, such as this, attempt to articulate a new position. Among the other authors reprinted here are Solomon ben Gabrial, Yehuda Halevi, Maimonides, Gonzalo de Berceo, Miguel Leví de Barrios, Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, Albert Gerchunoff, Samuel Eichelbaum, Américo Castro, Jacobo Timerman, Homero Aridjis, Ariel Dorfman, and Ruth Behar. The question is whether this book of readings, initially for his course probably, connects its disparate parts?

The Cross and the Scoll didn’t succeed for me, notwithstanding Stavans’ instructive prefaces to each selection. One reason is that this book is sloppily edited. Let me suggest the principle that any anthology whose selections appear in either chronological or alphabetical order is ipso facto under-edited. By ordering his selections solely according to the birthdates of the authors, thus leaping from 1635 (Miguel Leví de Barrios) and to 1864 (Unamuno), concluding with himself (b. 1961), Stavans has at once aggrandized and slighted himself. Quite simply, chronological order kept the book’s editor from the opportunity to present an optimal sequence that demonstrates his thesis, each chapter ideally building upon its predecessor, which is what an original selection of initially separate materials needs to do. Because most of Stavans’ prefaces seem autonomous, I got the impression that perhaps the selections once had a different order. Indeed, in his appendix, Stavans himself suggests alternative sequences.

The classroom origins also accounts for the predominance of ancient texts that might be useful to teach but hard for most of us to read. Some were so obscure, even when prefaced (as though further instruction was required), that I tended to skip over these esoteric texts to the next Stavans preface. Secondly, though several contributors born in Latin America (Peru, Cuba, Chile, or, like Stavans himself, Mexico) are now teaching here, one only piece was written by someone born in the USA. That exception was Marshall T. Meyer, a Dartmouth alumnus who became a prominent rabbi in Buenos Aires before returning to New York.

This Latin-American bias accounts for the failure to connect some critical dots about Jewish-Hispanic relations within the USA, especially in my home town. I know that New York Jews speaking Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish (which sounds amusingly archaic to most Spanish ears), sooner worked among Hispanics than Ashkenazim (for whom Sephardim had a derogatory word known only to them). Soon after my Sephardic grandfather came from Asia Minor to New York in 1907, he and his younger brother went to Brownsville, Texas, in search of Spanish-speaking business opportunities, which for them probably meant a retail store. (They quickly returned.) Their problem was not just that they didn’t speak English; they didn’t speak Yiddish or Italian or any of the other languages then popular in New York City, where what French or Greek they knew would have had limited usefulness. Even when they learned English, they were heard by most New Yorkers as sounding not like Jews but Latinos.

In my New York Sephardic family was an olive-oil importing business, a doctor whose practice was predominantly Puerto-Rican (because his English was insecure), and even a botanica wholesaler (selling potent herbs appreciated mostly, if not only, by Latinos). The doctor’s Hispanic patients would commonly ask my uncle’s nurse where Doctor “Morris” Amateau (né Amato) is from? “Dr. Amateau is from Spain,” she would reply, figuring that the real answer, Rhodes, would generate too many questions in a busy medical office. “Oh, that’s why his Spanish is so funny.” Nonetheless, Puerto Ricans, so prominent in the Hispanic-Jewish experience of my Sephardic family, scarcely figure in Stavans’ vision. (What makes this neglect even more surprising is the fact Luis Antonio Ferré, the editor and publisher of Puerto Rico’s principal newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, graduated with a magna cum laude degree from Stavans’ Amherst!)

When Uncle Mario became a US Army doctor in World War II, he haltingly told his inquisitor that his birthplace was “Rhodes, … island,” which was reinterpreted to make him known as an “Irishman who spoke good Spanish.” Cousins of cousins, likewise surnamed Amateau, have produced a trade book titled The Enchanted Formulary (2006), which is a guide to “Blending Magickal Oils for Love, Prosperity, and Healing.” Though its dedicatees include Jack Mizrahi, Jason Mizrahi, Milton Benezra, and not one but four Amateaus, nothing within the text reveals that the authors of this collection of botanica recipes are Sephardic Jews.

Given all this family history, it is not for nothing that I customarily check off “hispanic” on questionnaires about ethnicity, knowing that I’d love to favor “reparations” for losses incurred by our expulsion from Spain with compound interest, natch, but doubt if the current Spanish monarchy has enough dough. Instead, the current Spanish government has invited us Jews back, even publishing a list of acceptable surnames that includes mine (once Castellanos), I guess not to collect benefits but so we can pay Spanish taxes.

Wondering whether Stavans is still unaware of Sephardic-American writers, I tried to find a copy of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), whose principal editor of its 2480 pages he is. On is this description: “This groundbreaking Norton Anthology includes the work of 201 Latino writers from Chicano, Cuban-, Puerto Rican-, and Dominican-American traditions, as well as writing from other Spanish-speaking countries. Under the general editorship of award-winning cultural critic Ilan Stavans, ….” On the W. W. Norton website is this table of contents. As far as I can tell, though this book includes Jewish Latinos with Ashkenazi names (Goldman, Dorfman), Sephardic writers still don’t exist in Stavans’ literary universe, Lord knows why not.

Some sense of the Sephardic experience in the Americas appears in a charming book that Stavans ignores (not even to mention), similarities in their titles notwithstanding Victor Perera’s The Cross and the Pear (1995). Given that Stavans is the sort of writer who wants to tell readers all he knows, my hunch is that he may not known about Sephardic Americans and that, having gone from Mexico City to Amherst, he may not know anyone who would tell him what he does not know. On page 3, Stavans confesses, “My research into the Jewish-Hispanic tradition [is] still in a state of growth,” which is another way of revealing that perhaps this attempt at a taste-making anthology has appeared too soon.




Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art,,, and, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked. His many books are available here.


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