Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
In multiple trips between 2013 and 2017, llan Stavans visited and revisited the Jewish communities in some of his favorite countries: Argentina, Spain and Cuba, as well as Mexico, where he was born and raised. He also went to Israel, where many Latin American Jews have made aliyah.
The result was his engaging work of first-person journalism, “The Seventh Heaven: Travels Through Jewish Latin America,” which this week won the spring 2020 Natan Notable Book Award from the Jewish Book Council. It comes with a $5,000 award.
The peripatetic author, publisher, cultural commentator and professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts had, of course, traveled in Latin America before — but not with the intention of chronicling the diverse experiences of Jews living in the far-flung Spanish-speaking world.
One of Stavans’ inspirations was his reading of a massive study of Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement before World War I by a Russian Jewish ethnographer who published under the name A. Ansky. By the time this fieldwork was concluded, hundreds of thousands of the Jews he’d chronicled had emigrated, their communities decimated by anti-Semitic violence and poverty.
“He was right where the action took place,” Stavans writes in the introduction to his book. “Had he not traveled around, we would have missed a rich multi-faceted description” of a people and a civilization which, by 1938, had virtually “vanished from the face of the earth.”
Over the four years of his immersive wanderings — the same amount of time that Ansky took for his tour of Galicia — Stavans found Jewish communities both thriving and ghostly. He also found Jews as much shaped by national and Latin American cultures as Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jews had been shaped by countries they lived in centuries ago.
“It was in the conversations, perhaps more than the actual places, that I found meaning,” Stavans writes. “A place is a place is a place… But it is the people who make my journey worth the effort… That’s what culture is about. And it was this culture that I desperately wanted to capture.”
The recognition of Stavans’ book “brings the conversation of Jewish identity outside the borders of North America and Israel, introducing readers to Jewish immigrants, cultures, traditions and communities across Latin America,” the JBC said in its July 20 announcement.
“Stavans’ compelling travelogue reminds readers that Jewish stories exist, and flourish, in places and ways far from the narrative that is standard in the minds of many North American Jews.”
In a statement acknowledging the award, Stavans underscored this point.
“Latin America has a rich and diverse Jewish history that goes back to the arrival of Columbus’ fleet in that fateful October of 1492, at a time when Spanish Jews were looking for a safe haven from inquisitorial persecution,” he said.
“Since then, the whole gamut of Jewish possibilities coexists in the region: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahim, conversos, crypto-Jews, gauchos, kabbalists, Yiddishists, Hebraists, secularists, communists, Zionists, anarchists, Bundists, Shoah survivors, war refugees, exiles, messiahnists, Lubavitchers, orthodox, conservatives, reform, reconstructionists, Chabadniks, extremists, anti-Zionists, assimilationists, Israelis, and every type in between,” he continued. “The world needs to appreciate Latin America as a splendid theater where Jewish culture is reinvented every day in imaginative ways.”
The Natan Notable Books committee members noted that they were “excited to catalyze conversations about the diversity of the Jewish people, especially at a time when diversity is very much part of public conversation.”