If in approaching so vast and amorphous a bookshelf one should dare to venture any generalization, it is that the Sephardic cultural sensibility...
“The Schocken Book
of Modern Sephardic Literature”
edited and with
by Ilan Stavans
Schocken, 439 pp., $27.50
Publishing houses that set out to showcase writing from one “culture” in fat volumes often end up with unwieldy tomes that draw artificial boundaries around times and places. Schocken Books succeeds here where others fail, perhaps because it has the sure-footedness that comes from its long, deep list of Judaica.
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A new collection, “The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature,” offers up surprises for both newcomers and a reader well-versed in literature by and about Jews. For some Americans, the real revelation may be discovering Sephardic Judaism itself.
All of Judaism shares a foundation, and its two largest populations, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, inhabit much common ground in their practices. But Judaism has a polyglot history, born of centuries of upheaval and displacement, and Jews maintain many differences in observances and traditions.
The best-known Jewish communities in America are the Ashkenazim, or those descended from Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. (“Ashkenazic” comes from the Hebrew word for Germany.) Sephardic Jews take their name from the Hebrew word for Spain, and those who identify as Sephardim today have roots there, in Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East. These names refer to the great centers of Jewry in medieval Europe.
(Another term, “Mizrachim” — from the Hebrew word for “Eastern” — usually refers to non-Ashkenazim without roots in Spain, including some in Kurdistan, Iran and the Far East.)
The Sephardic condition, as editor Ilan Stavans writes, is “one of fracture and displacement.” That description rings true for most of history’s Jewish populations, but as Stavans notes, Spain’s expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 was particularly dramatic and far-reaching.
That expulsion greatly reduced the Sephardic population and scattered survivors around the globe, including, eventually, the Americas. For various reasons, starting with their mass migration from Europe at the turn of the last century, Ashkenazic Jews have remained the majority culture in the United States, with its history and traditions most visible. This collection reveals the lopsided nature of our awareness of this Diaspora history, and introduces the rich societies and textured writing that developed as Sephardim melded with many host cultures.
Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, is a passionate writer in his own right; his introduction to this collection fairly vibrates with energy. He’s organized an astonishingly varied, lively collection, beginning with a fascinating short story published in 1844 about a Jewish family’s 18th-century flight from Portugal. Stavans identifies the author, Grace Aguilar, as the first Anglo-Jewish novelist.
He moves from the emotional poetry of Emma Lazarus (whose best-known poem welcomes the “huddled masses” at the Statue of Liberty) to the contemporary short story by Ruth Behar, “Never Marry a Man Who Doesn’t Beat You,” a clever sendup of the midlife sparks between the only two Cuban Sephardic Jews in Ann Arbor.
Now, highly unscientific studies of bookstore browsers picking up this collection will tend to reveal a common pattern: Scan, flip, flip. Heft the heavy volume. Set it down. Perhaps there should be a little card hung on the shelf that reads: “Do Not Be Afraid! You Do Not Have To Read This Cover-to-Cover All At Once.”
Owning such a book is like buying an annual membership to an art museum; once your admission is covered, you are gloriously free to dip in for a quick visit — or an entire afternoon — any time you wish.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer
living in Portland.