Critical Approaches to Jewish-Mexican Literature
Aproximaciones críticas a la literatura judeomexicana
Edited by Darrell B. Lockhart
Tempe, AZ: Chasqui, 2013. Paperback. 312 pp.
Reviewed by Paulette Kershenovich Schuster
This edited bilingual anthology examines Jewish-Mexican literature from various modes of literary expression. As a whole, Mexican literature is one of the most prolific and influential in Latin America. The Jewish voice in Mexican literature is not a new phenomenon, having its earliest roots in the colonial period. In the twentieth century, Jewish-Mexican literature began to emerge with the large influx of immigrants from Europe and it is still being developed today. However, as Darrell B. Lockhart, the editor of this work, points out in his well-written introduction, it "is a body of literature that exists very much at the margins of Mexican letters" (p. 11).
At first glance, I noticed that the overwhelming majority of the authors were women (twelve) and that fifteen of the essays dealt with the work of female literary figures. Perhaps, this was a conscious effort of the editor in order to highlight the fact that the majority of contemporary Jewish-Mexican writers are women (which he makes note of in his introduction) or rather to pay homage to them. In any case, as a feminist, I was pleasantly surprised and was eager to embark on this reading journey.
This impressive collection gathers some premier contemporary Jewish-Latin American and/or Mexican literary scholars. It is divided into twenty-two entries, which includes an introduction (written in English with quotes in Spanish), twenty essays or chapters (thirteen in English and eight in Spanish) and a bibliographical list (written in English with sources in both languages).
The introduction, "On the Socioliterary Dimensions of Jewish-Mexican Literature," begins with an explanation of the meaning of the term Jewish-Mexican. Then, Lockhart defines Jewish-Mexican literature and warns against compartmentalizing authors by imposing set labels. Rather, he argues that they should highlight their own individual identities whatever they may be. Lockhart does not deconstruct each chapter chronologically, but instead chooses to focus on "the different manifestations of style, theme and language in literary texts" and how they are "framed by or grounded in specific historical and sociocultural contexts" (p. 12). He does so by discussing different literary pieces being analyzed and their authors. In doing so, he draws the readers into a complex and interesting interplay of sociocultural intertextuality where ethnicity, religion, history, gender and national discourses are imbricated. He explains the origins of Jewish-Mexican literature, emphasizing the recreation of the Jewish experience in the colonial period and the effects of the immigration of Ashkenazi writers in the twentieth century to Mexico. Furthermore, he discusses the meaning of identity and memory and how it is shaped in the context of the dominant Mexican cultural narrative. Signaling how Jews and Jewish issues such as the Holocaust are portrayed by non-Jewish authors, Lockhart alludes to the degree of influence they have on each other.
Adina Cimet opens up the section of essays with her "Anatomy of a Legacy: Immigrant Jewish Writers in Mexico." She describes the importance of Yiddish as an important cultural marker and vehicle for expression of Eastern European Jews. Yiddish was a bridge between the old and new world and "a carrier of history, tradition, and cumulative wisdom" (p. 31). Cimet focuses her analysis on three Yiddish writers from this period: Salomon Kahan, Yakov (Jacobo) Glantz and Itzhok (Isaac) Berliner. She discusses their writings in relation to the dialogues and debates about continuity and adaptation within the Jewish community. These representative writers offer vignettes of the life of the community and the struggles it faced. However, as Cimet cites (p. 39), they failed to write about the internal cultural issues, problems of ethnic language reproduction or the need to rebuild in order to sustain the collective's Jewishness. In Chapter 2,"Margo Glantz: Inscribing Histories," Saúl Sosnowski presents one of Mexico's foremost writers and literary critics. He examines her biographical work Las genealogías, which depicts among other things, the story of an Ashkenazi family in Mexico, the trials and tribulations of the immigrant experience of that period and the intellectual environment in which she was raised as the daughter of the aforementioned early pioneer of Yiddish writing in Mexico, Jacobo Glantz. Sosnowski further discusses the underlying significance of individual and collective memory, and remembrance, contained in her work.
In Chapters 3 and 4, both Naomi Lindstrom and Stephen A. Sadow, analyze Angelina Muñiz-Huberman and her work. They discuss how Muñiz-Huberman recreates historical accounts of the Jewish past and examines exile and identity within a Jewish context. Lindstrom cogently explores various works of Muñiz-Huberman and the many accolades she received. Sadow analyzes two of Muñiz-Huberman's pseudobiographical novels: Areúsa en los conciertos (2002) and El sefardí romántico: La vida azarosa de Mateo Alemán II (2005).
In Chapter 5, Leonardo Senkman thoroughly analyzes the La morada en el tiempo (1981) of Esther Seligson. He deconstructs the various notions and distinctions within this multifaceted dialogue between memory, love, continuity, permanence, exile and the intersections and imbrications of corporeality and subjectivity and offers a fresh perspective in doing so.
The next three chapters are devoted to some of the works of Sabina Berman. In Chapter 6, Lois Baer Barr discusses Berman's epic novel La Bobe (1990) which recounts the story of a girl's encountering and dealing with death of her grandmother and acquiring her knowledge. Baer Barr also analyzes Balún-Canán (1957) by Rosario Castellanos. This work deals with various experiences in Chiapas. These semi-autobiographical narrations both recount the recollections of female characters between childhood and maturity and their memories of family life. Baer Barr weaves both stories and analyzes the many conjunctions and differences, and the deployments of power across gender, race, and class, and the interplays of geographical spaces, childhood and adulthood and the construction of their own identities. Both are a celebration of the female voice.
In Chapters 7 and 8, two plays by Berman are analyzed. Nora Glickman examines Berman's Molière and Mónica Bausset analyzes En el nombre de Dios. Glickman analyzes which elements Berman appropriates from the theory and theatrical practices of Molière and her use of scenographic space and representations in her own work. Bausset analyzes the female characters of Berman's En el nombre de Dios, which has been rewritten several times.
The next cluster of essays deal with the work of Rosa Nissán. Renée Sum Scott joins three of her literary productions: Novia que te vea (1992), Hisho que te nazca (1996) and Las tierras prometidas (1997) as one cultural autobiographical unit. Sum Scott analyzes these in relation to her Sephardic identity. Judith Morganroth Schneider focuses her attention on Nissán’s Las tierras prometidas. Here she analyzes Nissán’s sexual awakening as she moves away from traditional conventions of life in Mexico within the various sectors of the Jewish community into a new erotic and free world in Israel while still holding onto her diasporized Jewish identity. Finally, Manuel F. Medina views gender roles, feminine spaces and the vicissitudes of tradition, culture and tradition in Novia que te vea and Las tierras prometidas.
In Chapter 12, Jacobo Sefamí analyzes the poetry of Gloria Gervitz via her life work of Migraciones in which she writes about memory, exile and time.
In "Love Preserves: Ethnicity and Desire in the Narratives of Sara Sefchovich," Sandra Messinger Cypess discusses how Sefchovich portrays women in her various writings as empowered protagonists who challenge the status quo.
In Chapters 14 and 15, two authors are described. Laura Weingarten–Ruderman elucidates Ethel Krauze and her work and Florinda F. Goldberg discusses the poetry of Myriam Moscona. The latter writes primarily on identity within language, family and about women. These authors are studied in relation to their Jewish identity and issues of integration, gender and power.
In Chapter 16, "Keeping the Identity Question Open: Jewish, Mexican, Lesbian Subjectivity in Sara Levi Calderón’s Dos mujeres" Alexandru V. Lefter discusses this seminal and controversial work as the first and only story of a Jewish-lesbian woman. Berman also discusses lesbians and queers in some of her work. Lefter engages the reader in his discussion of the sexual demarcations of socially constructed and meaningful feminist, lesbian and textual theorizations contained in the novel.
Angelina Muñiz-Huberman examines the work of Ilán Stavans and how he articulates and defines his identity and interests.
In Chapter 18, Joanna L. Mitchell explores Jacobo Sefami's novel Los dolientes which is centered on the death of the family's patriarch. As a result of his demise, the family gathers and through the process of mourning, finds meaning in their Shami (descendants of Jews from Damascus) Jewish tradition.
Salvador A. Oropesa examines the novel of José Woldenberg who writes about history in relation to Jewish immigration to Mexico.
Although women's writings dominate the spaces of Jewish-Mexican literature, men's voices are also heard. In Chapter 20, "Jewish (Men)ority Literature in Mexico," Lockhart analyzes the texts of Gerardo Kleinburg, Victor Weinstock and Ilán Stavans, three authors who have greatly contributed to the field and who have offered unique and conflictive discourses on identity. They have written on Jewish identity in Mexico, as well as on men's issues and masculinity studies.
Darrell B. Lockhart in the last entry of this collection offers a comprehensive bibliographical list of updated sources on literature written by Jewish-Mexican authors.
These authors brilliantly articulate critical considerations, interpretations and profound readings of each text in this collection. They offer unique perspectives on the layers of meaning embodied in these textual spaces where diversity and otherness, inclusion and exclusion and the intersections of languages, traditions, memory, loss and longing and Jewish identity dominate.
This collection is a continuous dialogue between and within a hyphenated Jewish-Mexican identity, time and place, language, gender and narrative.
This volume is a welcome addition to the growing field of Jewish-Latin American literary studies and certainly will be valued as an important resource.
Dr. Paulette Kershenovich Schuster received her Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and teaches at the Open University in Israel. She is the author of a book on the Syrian Jewish community in Mexico (2012), and her articles have been published in several countries in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew.