Spanish Literati Go Loco For All Things Jewish

By Dale Fuchs

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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MADRID — At Madrid’s annual weeklong book fair this summer, a growing affection among literati for all things Jewish finally burst out of the gate. An entire day of programming was devoted to “the Jewish book,” participants were treated to an exhibit on the history of Madrid’s Jewish community and “Shalom” was the standard greeting of the non-Jewish authors and literary scholars who spoke at the Jewish-themed roundtables and book signings.

Since 1992, half a millennium after the Spanish Inquisition, a burgeoning fascination with Jews and Jewish life in Spain has been creeping into the country’s literary establishment. Mainstream Spanish writers like Antonio Muñoz Molina have embraced Jewish themes while historians and journalists have churned out volume after volume on everything from the Holocaust to the Jewish heritage of the Spanish regions. In the last two years alone, the country’s literary marketplace has welcomed the memoirs of a Sephardic Jew who survived the Nazi death camps, a prize-winning novel about the deportation of Jews in Paris and a highly publicized non-fiction work, “The Jewish Lobby,” which debunks negative stereotypes implied by the title. And, in an almost implausible cherry on top, the director of Spain’s literary council recently converted to Judaism.

“In today’s novel, the Jew isn’t a symbol of the eternal ‘other,’ but rather a metaphor of ourselves, and the history of the Jewish people represents a suppressed part of Spanish society,” explained scholar Paloma Díaz-Mas of the Institute of Spanish Literature. Or, as Jacobo Israel Garzón, the president of Madrid’s Jewish community, put it: “Many people imagine how much better off Spain would have been if it hadn’t kicked out the Jews.”

Indeed, according to journalist José Antonio Lisbona, himself the author of a recently released book about Jewish immigration to Spain since the 19th century, Spain’s educated elites flirted with philosemitism as early as the mid-1800s. For the first time in centuries they had come into direct contact with Sephardic Jewry through their colonial experience in North Africa, and they were moved to discover that the Jews spoke Ladino, a language based on 15th-century Spanish. To these early filosefarditos — lovers of Sephardim — the Jews were no longer a dangerous “other” but a sympathetic cause. In 1863, the intellectuals even pushed to rescind the 1492 expulsion order, according to Lisbona.

The fascination “stems from a yearning to recapture part of Spain’s past, part of its identity,” said Jon Juaristi, director of the Cervantes Institute, and the recent convert to Judaism.

And this isn’t the first time the Spanish literati in particular have become obsessed with Jewish themes. This modern wave somewhat resembles these earlier forays into literary philosemitism, which were, at first, driven by romanticism rather than reality. Historical novels of the 1980s and early 1990s were poorly documented and written by people who had never met a living Jew or even come into contact with large communities elsewhere in the world.

Historically, the Jewish character in Spanish literature symbolized passion and seduction, duplicity and evil, mystery and chaos. “In hundreds of thousands of novels, the Jewish protagonist was an essential ingredient,” said Juaristi, who described this character as a dangerous, dark-haired beauty. Her foil: an upright and blonde Christian character. “The hero would always fall in love with the Jew but marry the blonde. The Jew would then either become a proto-Zionist or end up killing herself,” he quipped.

The other archetypical villain in 19th-century Spain, explained Juaristi, was the “Jew disguised as a monk,” a religious version of America’s Soviet spy genre. The Jewish male was considered benign in ghettos or synagogues, but dangerous when he passed himself off as a Christian — a fear that mirrored the society’s distrust of converts, conspirators or anyone who, like a double agent, might have a dual alliance.

In contrast, the new Jewish-themed books include Jewish characters portrayed in a positive light.

“The Jew is seen as a symbol of a diverse, culturally rich and tolerant society, the

highest values in democratic Spain,” said Israel Garzón, who believes the new infatuation stems in part from Spanish society’s desire to distance itself from the Franco regime. According to this theory, embracing Judaism means embracing tolerance and an international spirit, attributes admired by Spanish society. Muñoz Molina’s 2001 novel, “Sefarad,” for instance, uses fragments of the lives of famous Jewish figures persecuted by the Nazis as a metaphor for the generation of Spanish intellectuals in exile after the fall of the Republic to fascist troops.

Since 1998, commercial and university publishers have backed more than 70 books on Jewish topics, and a small press, Río Piedra of Barcelona, deals with them exclusively. In addition, regional and local governments have gotten into the publishing act, paying for historical research on expelled Jewish populations in their area. And cultural institutions are reclaiming the memory of neglected Jewish writers, such as novelist and playwright Max Aub, who lived in Spain before the Civil War.

This literary love affair goes beyond Spanish writers. Israeli writer David Grossman writes frequent columns for the leading national daily, El País, and American novelist Noah Gordon, author of “The Last Jew” and “The Rabbi,” has been the recipient of several local literary prizes. And since 1992, the 500-year anniversary of the expulsion edict and a turning point in Spain’s Jewish sensibility, new-and-improved translations of American, Israeli and European Jewish writers have hit bookstores, from Isaac Bashevis Singer classics to the recent works of Meir Shalev.

And the scene awaits a new generation of Spanish Jewish writers — perhaps among the children of Moroccan, Tunisian and Argentine Jewish immigrants who have flocked to post-Franco Spain, capable of telling their own modern Jewish stories, set in Sefarad.

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