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Forward Books; Bursting Out of the Gate; Anthologist Ilan Stavans Offers Readers a ‘Portable Library’ of Hispanic-Jewish Literature

The Scroll and the Cross: 1,000 Years of Jewish-Hispanic Literature

Edited by Ilan Stavans

Routledge, 329 pages, $95 (hardcover), $26.95 (paper).

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Notwithstanding a few timeless classics, a truly good Jewish anthology, say by Irving Howe, is hard to come by. There are tough editorial choices to be made. How can the volume satisfy everyone? The process will inevitably be fraught with problems such as space considerations, permissions and budgetary constraints. Indeed, permissions for Jewish literary writings these days come at a high premium. The fee for a story by Philip Roth or Saul Bellow might come close to $8,000, which can drain an editor’s permissions coffers. And then there are unforeseen problems, like when a publishing house shackles readers to an inadequate or dated translation simply by holding the exclusive translation rights.

The past seven or eight years have seen Ilan Stavans burst out of the gate and become the publishing industry’s anthologist of choice. From the eye-opening “The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays” (1997) to the irreverent “Wáchale! Poetry and Prose about Growing Up Latino” (2001), the latter one with a prologue that is fully delivered in Spanglish, the hybrid language spoken by a growing segment of the Latino population in the United States, the tale of the tape is now at 10 anthologies and counting. Many have been reprinted numerous times.

Stavans must burn the candle at both ends. Apart from his regular teaching duties at Amherst College, where he is Lewis-Sebring professor of Latin American and Latino culture, he has produced essays, short fiction and a PBS television show, in addition to editing “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda,” a thousand-plus-page volume scheduled for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux later this year. He is in charge of the three-volume edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected stories to be released by the Library of America commemorating Singer’s centennial in 2004. He is also a regular contributor to the Forward’s Arts and Letters pages. To make matters worse, he has accomplished all this at the offensively young age of 41.

Stavans’s latest omnibus work, a marvelous anthology called “The Scroll and the Cross: 1,000 Years of Jewish-Hispanic Literature,” is the first major collection intentionally catering to a popular reading audience (not an academic one) that falls under the banner of Hispanic-Jewish. (While acknowledging the term’s political baggage, Stavans still prefers “Hispanic” over “Latino” because of its gender neutrality.) Forward readers will recognize many of the arguments laid out in his introductory essay. For Stavans, it is important to show Jews simultaneously as witnesses and participants in Hispanic civilization. He is also quick to point out that Hispanic-Jewish literature is often confused with Sephardic literature. This collection has a strong South American lilt, and in the world of contemporary Latin American Jewish letters many of the most important writers are in fact Ashkenazic.

Of course, “The Scroll and the Cross” will spark some debate, a healthy sign that people are paying attention. This anthology maps out Stavans’s fascination with the Spanish empire and its former colonies. To this end the anthology scours the Iberian Peninsula for examples of the Hispanic-Jewish literary tradition. The literature then transports the reader across the Atlantic to the new world of the Spanish-speaking Americas, where Stavans shifts emphasis to writings from Mexico, Argentina, Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Chile and Guatemala. Of the approximately 40 entries Stavans selected for this anthology, nearly half are by authors who hail from Spain. And roughly one-quarter of the contributions were penned by non-Jews.

Selections from such luminaries as Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Rubén Darío provide contrasting perspectives. Notably, “The Scroll and the Cross” contains an excerpt from Mario Vargas Llosa’s classic “The Storyteller,” a work of fiction whose main protagonist, Saúl Zuratas, is, according to Stavans, loosely based on the Jewish Peruvian author Isaac Goldemberg. Stavans has said repeatedly that we have much to learn from the period of convivencia in Medieval Spain. Although he cautions that the era has at times been romanticized, he believes that Jews then understood the concept of “tolerance” in less manipulative a fashion than we do today. So the anthology touches on humanitarian themes relevant to today’s America.

The writings in the book are laid out chronologically, starting with Samuel Hanagid and progressing to such thinkers as Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moses Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides and Maimonides. While the emphasis is primarily on literature, Stavans includes fragments from such important texts as the antisemitic legal code issued by King Alfonso X, “Las siete partidas.” He also shines the spotlight on crypto-Jewish writers, and Luis de Carvajal the Younger is represented by a substantial entry. One delight for me was the inclusion of an essay by Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, former head of B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, whose bravery during la guerra sucia, the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, is legendary, but whose writings are not in wide circulation. It is enlightening to read Meyer’s work alongside the excerpt of Jacobo Timerman’s famed memoir, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.” The book’s inclusiveness highlights the overt and subtle changes Jews and non-Jews have undergone in Hispanic society over the centuries. I am reminded of

an oft-quoted passage in Alberto Gerchunoff’s “The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas,” where the dayyan of rabbi’s cries out, “Yemach Shemam Vizichrom! May Spain sink in the sea! May she break into pieces! May her memory be obliterated!” Perhaps this is what the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, author of “1492: Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile,” also included here, calls “Man in his moment of Unremembering.”

But the tides have changed in recent years. Near the end of the volume we encounter Chicano poet Tino Villanueva’s powerful poem “At the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C.” In this moving tribute to the Shoah and the impact of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Villanueva is consumed. The final line, “I am your memory now,” exemplifies the honest yet difficult quest by a Mexican-American poet to make the misery of the Holocaust part of his own experience.

As a whole, the grand finale of this gem of a “portable library,” which is how Stavans himself describes anthologies in his introduction to “The Oxford Book of Jewish Short Stories” (1998), is the chapter “The Rise and Fall of Yiddish,” taken from the editor’s own “On Borrowed Words,” in which he narrates the story of his relationship with his beloved Bobbe Bella. Bella, a native Yiddish speaker from Poland’s Nowe Brudno, gives her Spanish diary to her grandson, and Stavans, who is in the process of drafting his own memoirs, thanks his grandmother thusly: “Mil gracias por tu hermoso diario. I admire you. Your memories are mine already.” In my eyes, this chapter is about the vicissitudes of memory; how we possess memory and how memory possesses us.

In America, Jewish-Hispanic relations may grow in time to rival the importance of Jewish-black relations. Stavans has been vitally instrumental in the growth and public awareness of these relations. Yet, as “The Scroll and the Cross” proves, the poles of Hispanic and Jewish are not miles apart, and at times they dwell within one another. The writers in this anthology affirm the idea that Spain is more than a memory, and in the process prove that Jews are at home in the Spanish language and the Spanish language is at home in them. “Your memories are mine already…”

The bull reproduced here is one of more than 50 drawings in ‘Having Trouble to Pray,’ an ongoing series by Peruvian artist Moico Yaker. ‘When I first came across Yaker’s exuberant art, I realized I had found another south-of-the-border loner of astonishing talent for whom Jewishness is a key to the garden,’ wrote Ilan Stavans. A selection of Yaker’s work will be on view during the month of May at his New York studio (by appointment) at 526 West 26th St., room 612 (917-428-3653).

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