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A South-of-the-Border Search for Identity

In my view, complaints about a film misrepresenting the source on which it is based miss the point. Once a writer sells the material and agrees to no longer be involved, the product is beyond his domain. He might as well sit back and enjoy the show, just like any other spectator.

A few years ago, Alejandro Springall came to visit me at Amherst College. He dreamed of making a film about Mexican Jews and wanted me to write the story. I was intrigued by the invitation: I’m always in need of exploring with new forms; plus, I’m an unredeemed film buff. In fact, when I was an adolescent I seriously considered — as “seriously” as one does at that age — pursuing filmmaking as a career. Springall and I spent hours together at a Holiday Inn, including pulling an all-nighter, mainly sharing our experiences of growing up in Mexico City, a megalopolis today of about 18 million people where Jews constitute less than 0.1% of the population. Yet the tightly knit, complex, entrepreneurial Jewish community has solid roots, as is evident in thriving neighborhoods such as Condesa, Polanco and Tecamachalco, and in institutions like the Kehila, the Yiddish and Hebrew day schools, the legendary sports center, mikvehs and cemeteries, and its various youth organizations. Its ancestry isn’t exclusively Eastern European, though; there are a significant portion of members identifying themselves as Sephardic, with ancestry in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. Some still speak Ladino.

I didn’t know Springall before this, though I had admired his 1999 movie “Santitos.” He isn’t Jewish, but he told me about dating Jewish girls and feeling at home in their milieu. Should a movie come out from it, I remember telling myself during our tête-à-tête, it would have the perspective of an affectionate outsider, which is more than fitting, given that Mexican Jews in my view retain a sense of uniqueness that makes them stand apart. We signed an agreement, and months later I sent Springall the first draft of “Morirse está en hebreo,” a 90-page-long novella that was eventually collected in my book “The Disappearance.” Springall’s film, also called in Spanish “Morirse está en hebreo” and titled in English “My Mexican Shivah,” premieres at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on January 10 as the opening entry of the New York Jewish Film Festival. Co-produced by John Sayles and with an original score by The Klezmatics, it has a cast of theater and soap opera actors that includes my father, Abraham Stavans. The film was shot in a Polanco apartment like the one in the story. (I visited the set and even had a cameo appearance.) It belongs to the growing shelf of south-of-the-border movies about Jewish topics, from “The Holy Office,” about the 16th-century auto-da-fé of Luis de Carvajal the younger, to “The Lost Embrace,” about Argentine-Jewish angst.

Aside from a brief opening and a funeral at the Ashkenazic panteón, the plot was Aristotelian in its structure. It’s about the death of Moishe Tartakovsky, a patriarch in the Ashkenazic community. Unfolding in the background are the presidential elections of 2000 taking place, in which the ruling party, Partido Revolucionario Institucional, finally lost after holding on to power for 70-plus years. The candidate that replaced PRI ruler President Ernesto Zedillo wasn’t from a left-wing party, like Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who, speaking for the Partido Revolucionario Democrático in the elections of 2006, claims that, despite his defeat, he is Mexico’s rightful president. The winner in 2000 was Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive from the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional. The nation’s democracy was still untested then. Maybe the word is immature.

Immature is how I’ve at times felt we Mexican Jews perceive ourselves. Antisemitism is always latent in Mexico. It has been supported by the Catholic Church and by certain extremist ideological factions since colonial times. But the Jewish community ignores it, preferring to look inward. It’s just as well, since my intention in “Morirse está en hebreo” wasn’t to dwell on the political sphere per se. Without ignoring the larger national scene, I wanted to write an intimate portrait, a chamber piece, concentrating on the domestic side of a single family; the Tartakovskys would serve as a microcosm of a Diaspora that happens to be my own.

What has made each chapter of the Jewish Diaspora, from the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem to the present, different? The fact that, like chameleons, we Jews “adapt and adopt,” as a teacher of mine enjoyed saying; we assimilate to the environment by incorporating elements of that environment into our Weltanschauung. A seller of leather, Moishe Tartakovsky’s personality is built around the dilemma of being a member of a small minority in a country monolithically Catholic. Why does he constantly feel like a traitor? Is Mexico his real home?

Since the 1970s, writers in Latin America have been pressured to conform to the magic realism made famous by Gabriel Garcia Márquez and others. While I’ve been interested in the style, I’ve resisted being enlisted into its ranks. It might be seen as ironic, then, that between the time I sent Springall the draft and its final publication, an uncle of mine, Abraham Slomianski, also a family patriarch, died exactly the same death I had imagined for Tartakovsky. Talk about literature as a way of life, or else about life as a way to literature.

In any case, before he died, Moishe’s family — his two children, Bernardo (aka Berele) and Esther; his grandchildren, Nicolás, Ari and Galia; his close friends and associates; his school sweetheart; the shiksa who was his lover; the maid, et al. — approached him as the glue keeping everyone together, for better or worse. They saw him either as idol or as villain, received either his gifts or his scorn. But they hardly spent any time together as a family unless he was around. So with his death, they faced a challenge: What would keep them together now? And did they all see Moishe through the same lens? Was he a chameleon even among Jews? I wrote the novella in English with portions in Yiddish and Hebrew. The tone is humorous, although it isn’t outright comedy.

Sadly, the political dimension was left out. The film isn’t a reflection on the perils of young democracies and the role that minorities play in them. There are mariachis, paramedics and other supporting figures, but they are marginal. Springall also endorses the symbolic, a decision I applaud. Two bearded Hasids — played by a pair of excellent amateur actors — take the function of a Greek chorus, offering insight into the story through comments delivered in the Yiddish I grew up with (but with subtitles, of course). But his adaptation is less than subtle, emphasizing the role I barely insinuated for my characters.

I have no regrets, though. It is at once exciting and strange to see my fictions transposed onto the big screen. Springall turns the material into comedy by stressing the exoticism that results from Jews and Mexicans seated together in shiva. To me there isn’t much exoticism there, only a mundane relationship based on centuries of misunderstanding. Art is about letting loose, about breaking boundaries, about usurping what isn’t ours. In the novella “Morirse está en hebreo,” I sought to exorcise some of the demons of my past, to place them in historical context. I visualized myself in Tartakovsky’s shiva. What I mourned was the ambivalence of Mexican Jews during the PRI years. Springall reinterprets the material in an exaggerated manner, one suitable in cinematic terms.

This time around, I’m the outsider.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His book “The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories” (TriQuarterly) was published last month.

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