Book review: Looking at Jewish Latin America

By: By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It was a dream of visiting his childhood home in Mexico that started Ilan Stavans on his journey through Latin America – a journey that included visits to the U.S. and Israel to learn more about Latino Jews. In his book “The Seventh Heaven: Travels Through Jewish Latin America” (University of Pittsburgh Press), Stavans decides to write about the lives and history of those Jews through a personal lens. The book is part travelogue, part dialogue with those he meets and part critical discussions of writers – some of whom are Jewish and many of whom are not – and of films he likes. Rather than a systematic look at Latin America, his book is more of a mosaic, filled with interesting bits and pieces, although the final picture never feels completely in focus.
Stavans is an interesting mix: born in Mexico in 1961 of Ashkenazic heritage, he emigrated to the United States during the 1980s. He notes that he loves “the combination of Jewish and Latino. There is enormous joy in that encounter. Over several centuries Latin American Jews have thrived in multiple spheres, from economic well-being to the scientific, artistic, and educational realms. But the formula for success contains within it the traps of ostracism. One doesn’t need to be a catastrophist to realize the region contains seeds of hatred and that Jewish life is fragile.” In fact, in one chapter, Stavans discusses Jewish conspiracy theories, many of which were unfamiliar to me. However, in other sections, he shows how and when Jews have become important parts of the countries in which they live.
The author gave himself four years to travel, although he notes that his approach was far from systematic. That is reflected in his writing, which jumps from topic to topic without warning. The author discusses Jewish history and immigration in the different areas he visits, which leads him to thinking about a particular novel of an author he likes and how that reflects on his idea of humanity and Judaism. Some of the most interesting sections show the contradictory impulses found in some of these countries. For example, in the 1930s, the leader of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, slaughtered Haitians who lived under his rule. (Stavans notes the numbers murdered is debated and range from 500 to 12,000.) However, Trujillo was one of the few leaders in the Americas who welcomed Jewish immigrants during that time – Jews that no one else wanted. Stavans notes that Trujillo was willing to let 100,000 Jews immigrate, but only 800 German and Austrian Jewish citizens actually did. These families received land, animals and loans to help them get started in their new lives. 
Stavans also travels to Israel to see how Latin Americans fair in that country. There seems to be no real Latin American community there, unlike some other immigrant communities that seek to maintain their ethnic heritage. Politics play a large role in the discussion with Israeli citizens from Latin America and readers may find themselves disagreeing with Stavan’s idea that “to a large degree, the Israelis are responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism in the last 50 years, at least since the Six-Day War.” He quickly follows this by noting that “I support the existence of a Jewish state, where I have lived and which is a magnet to me.”
The question of identity rises frequently in his work. This is most apparent in his final chapter, which was written after the last presidential election. Stavans notes “the fragility of life in the United States... the anti-immigrant, anti-black and anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Trump camp.” This leads Stavans to apply for Polish passports for himself and his two children because his grandparents fled to Mexico from that country. He can’t help but note the irony of what he is doing: “My grandparents would probably be turning over in their graves if they knew of my efforts. As a result of poverty and anti-Semitism they had left – or better, ‘were aborted from’ – Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. They never looked back: Mexico became their new home.” Now, Stavans is looking toward Polish citizenship as a safety measure, one that would allow his children to move to and work in Europe, if necessary. 
“The Seventh Heaven” is an interesting mix that never seems to jell. Each section in itself was interesting, but the whole lacks cohesion. In addition, much of the writing felt dry and methodical, which makes the work best read in short sections. However, this is a welcome addition since the history of Jews in South America deserves far more attention than it is normally given.