Latin American Jewish Literature in English

If you know where to look, there a is a large body of writing by Latin American Jewish authors that is available in English or in English translation. Here are some of the “must read” books for those interested in exploring this marvelous Jewish literature. In another post, I will suggest collections of poetry in bilingual or in English-only formats. 

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When it was first published in 1980, Judith Laikin Elkin’s foundational book on the Jewish communities of Latin America quickly became the standard resource on the topic. This new edition, the first in fifteen years, brings the story up-to-date, incorporating the events of recent decades and reflecting new insights provoked by the changing political, cultural, and economic conditions throughout the region.

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In this collection of fifteen essays, Jewish Latin American writers speak for themselves about their lives, their literary work, their formative experiences, and the Jewish communities in Latin America and the United States. Included are writers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela, about half of whom live outside their country of origin.  Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Autobiography  and Memoir.

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In Osorno, Chile, the Nazis were the great feudal lords of the south and being Jewish was like possessing a savage and dangerous scar.” The author thus describes the backdrop for this memoir of growing up as the daughter of European Jewish immigrants to Chile in the years before and after World War II. Speaking through the voice of her mother, she says, “I write these sometimes intermittent and true memories with the voice of an adolescent and then of a woman. . . . I wish to talk about my life in an unseemly and noisy house in southern Chile and about a town with fifty Nazis and three Jewish families. Everything I tell you is true and this is why I write so that it will be even more certain.                                —Marjorie Agosín

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In this remarkable memoir, Ariel Dorfman describes an extraordinary life, torn between the United States, South America, and his Jewish heritage, between English and Spanish, between revolution and repression.  Interwoven with the story of how Dorfman switched languages and countries–not once, but three times–is a day-to-day account of his multiple escapes from death during Pinochet’s military takeover of Chile in 1973.

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“Echad: An Anthology of Latin American Jewish Writings” is a truly marvelous collection. Editor Roberta Kalechofsky has brought together a diverse selection: short stories, poems, essays, interviews, excerpts from novels, and more. The anthology includes the work of authors from Argentina, Guatemala, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, and a number of other countries.

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Jewish Latin American literature in Spanish begins with The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, a series of vignettes about shtetl life in Argentina first published in 1910. Praised for its depiction of how two entirely different cultures could coexist in a symbiotic relationship, Jewish Gauchos was written about a decade after Jewish immigration to Argentina began in earnest.

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Published in 1977 to great critical acclaim, this remarkable novel is set in the 1930s within a small community of Jews in Peru. Don Jacobo Lerner, an immigrant from czarist Russia, lies on his deathbed trying to piece together his life. Told through the testimony of family and friends, through newspaper articles and cultural announcements, and, most memorably, in the haunting words of his bastard son.                                                                      This novel is one of The 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature
As determined by “The Great Jewish Books Project”, in association with The National Yiddish Book Center

 

 

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First published in Argentina in 1994, this ingenious novel is a detective story in which the police try to solve an assassination and a lost man tries to reconstruct his identity. These two searches are set against the story of four generations of a Jewish family, a social and cultural narrative that spans nearly a hundred years of cataclysmic events of the century including World War I, the Russian and Cuban revolutions, the birth of the state of Israel, and the military dictatorship in Argentina.                                                                                            Mestizo is my favorite Latin American Jewish novel.

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Moacyr Scliar is a world-class fabulist with a solid and distinguished oeuvre awaiting discovery by a larger audience. I’ve seen The Centaur in the Garden compared to works by Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler, and even John Updike. At its center is Guedali Tartakowsky, a Jewish centaur born into a family of Russian immigrants in Rio Grande do Sul. Scliar pushes the tragic destiny of Tartakowsky through an infusion of comedy. Its style is vintage Scliar: crisp, speedy, cinematic, succinct.—Ilan Stavans

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From Brazil’s most distinguished and important Jewish writer comes this anthology comprised of six collections: iThese tragicomic stories reveal Scliar’s interest in issues of oppression, persecution, holocaust, mutability, and the interplay between good and evil. The Ballad of the False Messiah develops the theme of postponement in the sense that for Jews redemption is always postponed in a vain wait for the Messiah. In Van Gogh’s Ear, Scliar uses dark and subtle humor in a collection of biblical parables. Here witchcraft, magic, conundrums, and labyrinths are shown to be part of everyday life. A final autobiographical piece ties the collections together in which Scliar discusses his membership in Jewish, medical, gaucho, and Brazilian “tribes.”

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The Book of Memories, originally published in Spanish in 1994, is a humorous yet moving exploration of a Jewish family’s history, as seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The story begins with Grandfather Gedalia leaving Poland with forged papers to escape the army and sailing to Argentina, the “other America.” Sometimes charming, sometimes stingy, this patriarchal figure, a peddler and sometime moneylender, heads a clan that includes, among others, the feisty and foul-mouthed Aunt Judith and Uncle Silvester, a seducer of young girls who has such high principles that he turns himself in after missing the Argentine police raid on his socialist printing press.

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