A Maverick in the Ivory Tower

By Neal Sokol

Published June 13, 2003, issue of June 13, 2003.

“Think about it,” said author and anthologist Ilan Stavans, “the end of World War II happened not even 60 years ago. How to understand the amount of monographs and studies on Jewish themes published worldwide today, especially in English, if not as a revenge of a perseverant spirit?”

Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, was beaming with pride over the strides made by Jewish studies departments around the country.

And a compliment from him actually means something. Stavans is a maverick in the field of Jewish studies, where he is known for his frequent mutinies against the establishment. The Mexican-born intellectual’s books are obligatory reading in high schools and colleges across the nation, and he is a frequent contributor to The

Chronicle of Higher Education, The Nation, The Forward and The Times Literary Supplement. He provides commentary for the BBC, NPR, The Boston Globe and The New York Times, which crowned him “the czar of Latino literature.” And on his PBS television show, “La Plaza: Conversations with Ilan Stavans,” he hosts such celebrities as Rubén Blades, Linda Chavez, John Leguizamo and Richard Rodriguez.

He models himself on his literary forebear, Edmund Wilson, a polymath and clear writer whose interest ranged from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Iroquois Indians. And none other than Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has labeled him “an old-fashioned intellectual,” and “a brilliant interpreter of his triple heritage — Jewish, Mexican, and American.”

In his acclaimed memoir, “On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language,” Stavans displays a great diversity of knowledge, expressed in assorted languages including Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish and French. The son of veteran actor Abraham Stavans, Ilan was educated at the Colegio Israelita de México, the Bundist institution known as Yidishe Shule. And he “grew up in an intellectually sophisticated middle class, in a secure, self-imposed Jewish ghetto — a treasure island — where gentiles hardly existed,” as he wrote in one of his autobiographical essays.

Stavans earned his bachelor’s degree from Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco, a radicalized campus whose student body fed the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. After attempts to settle in Spain and Israel, Stavans came to the United States as a newspaper correspondent and on a fellowship to study at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where he learned from Moshe Idel and David G. Roskies. While still working as a journalist for El Diario/La Prensa and other dailies in Latin America, he finished a doctoral degree at Columbia University in 1990. He has been in the driver’s seat ever since.

Of his triple heritage, the Jewish Diaspora is his principal obsession. Ten years ago, Stavans released “Tropical Synagogues. Short Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers,” an anthology that single-handedly opened readers’ eyes to the culture of Jewish communities in Latin America, from the U.S.-Mexican border to the Argentine pampa and the Caribbean Basin — all together almost half a million people strong.

Stavans followed “Tropical Synagogues” with other popular multiple-viewpoint works including “The Inveterate Dreamer,” and canonical anthologies like “The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories” and “The Scroll and the Cross: 1,000 Years of Jewish-Hispanic Literature.” With each, his approach has been to show the countless sides of a single experience.

In addition, Stavans seems to be campaigning against what he calls a “plethora of poorly shaped, uninspiring academic styles.” He is impatient with “the lack of communication skills” of Jacques Derrida but also attacks Harold Bloom for “falling asleep while typing.”

In “Against the Ostrich Syndrome,” a controversial 1997 article in an academic journal, Ilan Stavans claimed that Spanish departments were among the most “morose” faculties in academia. When asked how Jewish studies departments measured up, Stavans labeled them “intellectual ghettos of self-pride and complacence.” “They thrive by pumping the ethnic and religious ego of Jewish students, just like other ethnic departments do in academia these days,” he said. “To think critically about Jewish studies, one needs to take off the cool sunglasses.”

“Quantity and quality aren’t always synonymous,” he added. “Far too often volumes in Jewish themes are self-congratulatory, uncritical, idealizing victimhood; the prose is needlessly obtuse, almost impenetrable. And the provincialism of their content worries me: Yiddish, the Holocaust, Zionism, America — after those themes, what?”

According to Stavans, his quest is to “deparochialize” the field of Jewish studies. “Our graduate programs emphasize that scholars, to be successful in academia, need to know more and more about less and less. I instead believe in the art of polymathy, i.e., to know more and more about more and more,” he said.

“For too long American Jews have defined their identity through the tyranny of Ashkenaz,” he added. “How is Jewish history taught in religious schools and undergraduate programs? It begins with Adam, Eve and the apple, of course, and moves along to the kingdoms of Israel and the biblical prophets. Then come the Greek and Roman periods, the rabbinical revolution and the shaping of the Talmud, and, in a flash, we are already in the 19th century: nationalist fervor and the rise of Zionism. Then comes the Holocaust, the Jewish state, and the paradise-like consolidation of American Judaism, often portrayed, à la Francis Fukuyama, as an end of history in itself. Whatever happened with La Convivencia in the Iberian Peninsula, the Ottoman Empire and the Arab world?”

In his work, Stavans puts his money where his mouth is. He has been credited as the foremost champion of Spanish- and Portuguese-language Jewish writers for the United States market. In 1997 he launched the “Jewish Latin America Series” with University of New Mexico Press, which includes works by Alberto Gerchunoff, Rosa Nissán, and a forthcoming volume edited by Alan Astro containing stories originally written in Yiddish in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Argentina. He is also the series editor of “The Americas,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press, which has re-released important works of Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar and Argentine journalist Jacobo Timmerman.

This fall and next year, Stavans will continue to redefine the borders of both Jewish and Latino studies. He has edited a 1,000-page volume titled “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), scheduled for an August release. It commemorates the 2004 centennial of the popular Chilean poet and Nobel laureate. In September, his “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” (HarperCollins) will appear. A book that has taken almost a decade to produce, it studies the rise and dissemination of this hybrid dialect, part English and part Spanish, which, in its socio-linguistic formation, Stavans has compared to Yiddish. The book includes a dictionary of “Spanglish” made of thousands of never-before recorded entries as well as a translation of the first chapter of “Don Quixote” into the hybrid dialect.

And to celebrate another centennial in 2004, that of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stavans is editing a four-volume set of stories for The Library of America. The edition includes every published Singer story — both fictional and autobiographical — ever translated into English, plus almost two dozen unpublished stories. In connection with the set, Stavans is also preparing a small photographic album about Singer.

“Overall, the endeavor is thrilling,” said Stavans. “Singer’s archives, housed at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, have finally been cataloged, and there is a treasure trove of letters, unknown novels and photographs that show a dramatically different picture of Singer. Reading them, one quickly realizes that behind the façade of the gentle zeyde imprinted in the mind of American Jews lurks a more complex, scheming figure.”

Sandwiched between Neruda and Singer, Stavans is likely to give us a whole array of marvels. He talks of wanting to concentrate on Sephardic civilization “after the breakup of the vessels in 1492,” and he readily confesses near-obsession with the topic: “The approximately 200,000 Jews expelled from Spain irrigated myriad geographies. I’m fascinated by that irrigation — the endless mutations, material and spiritual, of a diaspora broken into many.”

For the present, Stavans remains focused on the role of the scholar in society. “Arguably the most important responsibility of the scholar is to live in the present,” he said. “The testing, dissemination and marketing of ideas is an essential component of a pluralistic society. Could democracy survive without a vigorous, all-embracing criticism?”



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