Folk Tales Beyond Chelm
A Jew brought the first umbrella to Latin America.
With all the attention paid to the hardy entrepreneurs who 350 years ago settled on the New World’s northern Atlantic coast, i.e., North America, it has been all too easy to overlook those Jews who instead schlepped their goods (including families and traditions) south — that is, to Latin America. While the stories of Ashkenazic populations such as the villagers of Chelm, Minsk or the Lower East Side have been welcomed into literary canons both Jewish and secular, it took writer and story scavenger Nadia Grosser Nagarajan to create a place on the shelf for the oral tales of the Jewish communities below the equator. “Pomegranate Seeds: Latin American Jewish Folk Tales” is Nagarajan’s second compendium of Jewish folk tales, a project that came on the heels of her first, “Jewish Tales From Eastern Europe.”
“It had been assumed that the Jews of South America and the Caribbean basin did not have any tales, old or new, like those of their European or Middle Eastern brethren,” the author writes as she explains her choice to embark on the project, an undertaking that took her across the United States, Central and South America, and Israel in search of sources for her ambitious oral history.
In the end, her sleuthing produced a slim volume (34 short stories spanning the 500 years of Jewish presence on the Southern hemisphere) of reconnoitered history that places Jewish culture within the eclectic weave of Latin America’s mestizo culture.
In “The Diver,” Nagarajan gives life to a cluster of families living outside the old colonial capital of Iquitos, in a Peruvian settlement where Spaniards once came to find fortunes by tapping rubber in the jungle. Known as the Iglesia Israelita (the Israel Church), this tiny community abstains from mixing platano frito (plantain, fried and dipped in sweet milk sauce) with juanes (beef-filled tamales) and wears the Star of David as well as the crosses common in that part of rural Peru.
As a mostly invisible narrator, Nagarajan conjures up the experiences of characters ranging from “The Hatter of Cuenca,” the German Jewish “gentleman who owns the most prominent hat factory” in a town in Ecuador’s Andes, to “The Survivor,” a Polish Jew who fled World War II to make a new life as a mute jewelry peddler in Argentina.
“Pomegranate Seeds” opens with an introduction by Ilan Stavans, a scholar of Latin American and Jewish literature and culture. Stavans mentions Isaac Bashevis Singer and the chatty New York cafeterias where the writer would go to eavesdrop on the tales told by “displaced individuals like him.”
“Nagarajan is also a conscientious listener,” Stavans writes, “… a conduit that lets the collective psyche speak for itself.”
As a conduit, Nagarajan proves reliable with both fact and fiction. As well as transmitting the folk tales of the Latin America Diaspora, multiple mini-histories come through in the form of annotations. Check out the brief but complete footnotes to find bits about the tango’s origin, the creation of the Panama hat and, of course, the umbrella.
Ariella Cohen is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Pomegranate Seeds: Latin American Jewish Tales
By Nadia Grosser Nagarajan, with an introduction
by Ilan Stavans
University of New Mexico Press, 207 pages, $23.95.