Yael Halevi-Wise, ed. Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 384 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-7746-9.
Reviewed by Dalia Wassner (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Sephardism Within and Beyond Jewish Studies
Sephardism, edited by Yael Halevi-Wise, seeks to elucidate and expand the applicability of Sepharad beyond the scope of Jewish national and literary identities to include modern and postmodern definitions of “colonialism,” “orientalism,” “hispanism,” and distinct “nationalisms.” In this task, Halevi-Wise explicitly sets out to contribute to the formation of what Susannah Heschel referred to in a lecture as “Jewish Studies as Counterhistory” (p. 12). Building on Edna Aizenberg’s groundbreaking research on the Jewish Latin American adoption of Sepharad as a literary and political tool employed to authenticate and make sense of the Latin American diasporic Jewish condition within Latin America’s national projects of modernization, Halevi-Wise gathers twelve case studies that traverse the globe in order to demonstrate a wide literary and historiographic application of the Sephardic experience regarding as much the convivencia as the expulsion of 1492.
Among the most innovative and ambitious chapters are those that uncover the spaces where Jewish literature and its use of Sephardic history intersect with other modern fields of inquiry or historical processes. Among these, Michael Ragussis’s chapter argues convincingly that Jewish English writers, such as Grace Anguilar and George Eliot, depicted modern British Jewish identity in response to Walter Scott’s prior adoption of Sephardic imagery in Ivanhoe (1820) in an effort to challenge nineteenth-century England’s alleged characterization as an inclusive nation. In like spirit, Diana R. Hallman undertakes an innovative study of Eugéne Scribe’s 1835 opera La Juive, in which she claims that Scribe built as much on William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as on Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (1779). Hallman then argues that in adopting Inquisition images to discuss Jewish inclusion in post-Enlightenment France, Scribe participated in a literary conversation that bridged Jewish and gentile writers who invoked the theme of Jewish national integration in a manner that effected public discourse on national identity. In a similar vein, Judith Roumani’s chapter analyzes the creation of the State of Israel within the context of the end of colonialism in Arab lands, demonstrating that the two were connected processes that affected not only postcolonial French Jewish identity, but also emerging postcolonial non-Jewish intellectuals and writers in the transitional colonies of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, who likewise adopted images of Sepharad in an attempt to manage their own emerging postcolonial conditions of insecurity and dislocation.
In my contention, Dalia Kandiyoti’s chapter “Sephardism in Latina Literature” earns a singular mention for explicitly bridging the field of Sephardic studies pioneered by Aizenberg and for speaking to the emergence of the new and exciting fields of study that Halevi-Wise intended to champion in her edition, meaning the reenvisioning of “Jewish Studies as Counterhistory.” By highlighting the Sephardic link between Jewish and Latino/a Diaspora literature, Kandiyoti’s chapter uniquely signals the historiographically vague yet historically real connection that exists between Jewish, indigenous, and Latin American national identities. Kandiyoti illustratively points to a Latino-Jewish band called Hip Hop Hoodios who in their song titled “1492” chide: “Well, here’s some words that will hit you with a thud: Millions of Latinos got Jewish blood” (p. 240). Here Kandiyoti brings to the fore lesser-known writers, such as Kathleen Alcalá who invokes Sephardism to both challenge Ashkenazi-centric Jewish Latin American identities and to suggest that the image of crypto-Jew is useful in describing the colonial indigenous experience itself, since both comprised groups that were banned from the emergent societies’ official narratives. Ultimately her chapter truly grapples with the work’s intended purpose: “If sephardism is a connective mode through which to retell stories of borderlands, diaspora, and the Americas, which bodies of criticism should we as scholars of literary and cultural studies draw upon to think about such works” (p. 248)? In response, Kandiyoti suggests applying indigenous concepts, such as nepantla, which she defines as the experience of being “in-between,” and mestizaje, having to do with “intermarriage, migration, and forced or voluntary adaptation” (p. 249). Insightfully, Kandiyoti then draws a distinction between the endemic Jewish condition often portrayed as indicating tragedy and loss (a la Sander Gilman), and the native American term nepalta, which connotes an in-between state that simply acknowledges multiplicity in the sense of layering and stacking, a condition that is itself authentic to borderlands, which of course is the quintessential Sephardic connotation.
Other chapters in the work speak to the use of Sepharad in an effort to further challenge accepted notions of Jewish identity, such as Bernard Horn’s on A. B. Yehoshua’s Sephardic elements employed to expand Israeli national identity, or Ismar Schorsch’s chapter on nineteenth-century German-Jewish adoption of Sephardi liturgy, synagogue architecture, literary images, and scholarly lineage in an effort to claim German authenticity through Jewish and German shared Greek roots. Yet these chapters are fundamentally more concerned with understanding evolving modern Jewish identities than in exploring non-Jewish engagement with these insightfully elucidated Jewish elements.
Halevi-Wise’s chapter on the picaresque novel opens with the following citation by Homero Aridjis, a twentieth-century Jewish Latin American writer: “‘We cannot fully understand what has happened in America during the past five hundred years if we lack an understanding of the Spain that conquered it’” (p. 151). Arguing for the centrality that the “Jewish question” has played in defining as much Latin American as Spanish identity, Halevi-Wise builds on Roberto Gonzales Echeverría’s articulation regarding Latin American writers’ struggle “to dispel the myth of a homogenous empire in order to strengthen democratic and revisionist platforms in their [own] environments” (p. 145). By bringing twentieth-century Latin American Jewish novels into conversation with the Spanish medieval picaresque genre, Halevi-Wise does indeed demonstrate the literary intersection between Jewish and Hispanic history, sought both by Jews and non-Jews across generations and oceans, in an effort to portray the possibility of alternative, heterogeneous futures.
On a note of historical poetics, Halevi-Wise’s work entered the public sphere in 2012, the same year Spain announced that it would grant Spanish citizenry to practicing Jews of Spanish descent who had been expelled in 1492. The very nation whose treatment of Jews arguably provided the modern and postmodern language for articulating subsequent Jewish and non-Jewish identities born of rupture, dislocation, or ambivalence, as this edition argues, thereby seemingly joined the editor in advocating for the present need for reintegrating the banished Sephardic past into the contemporary nation.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Dalia Wassner. Review of Halevi-Wise, Yael, ed., Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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