Academic journal article Shofar

How a Samovar Helped Me Theorize Latin American Jewish Writing

Academic journal article Shofar

How a Samovar Helped Me Theorize Latin American Jewish Writing

Article excerpt

How a Samovar Helped Me Theorize Latin American Jewish Writing

Samovars can be used for brewing more than tea. My essay proposes a theory of Latin American Jewish literature through part serious, part playful commentary on Eduardo Stilman's story, "El samovar de plata" (The Silver Samovar). I suggest that Latin American Jewish Studies forge stronger links with Jewish and Holocaust studies, focus on broad cultural fields, and become multigenerational and multilingual. I call for a pluralization of our discipline to achieve a kaleidosopic diversity within an enveloping oneness.

Eduardo Stilman tells a wonderful story about a disappearing samovar.(1) He caressingly describes the prodigious object -- its finely carved arabesques, polished ebony handles, mischievously turned spigot that never poured a drop of tea, and deep inviting hollowness, a refuge for all manner of items, large and small. Until one day the samovar can't be found -- and that's where the story really begins.

The household is turned upside down in search of the precious artifact. Father frantically undoes beds and closets; Aunt Mariela and Uncle Ignacio look with unremitting anxiety; Mother interrupts her Sunday piano sessions to scrounge around; Grandmother spends hours sighing and staring at the spot in the dining room where the samovar might have been, then leafing through old photo albums. And the narrator, then a little boy, expands the hunt as he grows up, asking friends, quizzing antiquarians, remembering the family hunts. The story concludes with these elusive words: "But how sad it would be if it were all a bunch of lies, and I'd never really fingered my elders' igneous silver samovar, as palpably as Borges touched Lafinur's dagger" ("Sería triste que todo fueran puras macanas, que yo no haya tanteado de veras, tan palpablemente como Borges tanteó el puñal de Lafinur, el ígneo samovar de plata de mis mayores") (p. 13).

How are we to read this suggestive tale? Or to put the question more bluntly: Where can we pigeonhole it? Is it Argentine? The author is from Buenos Aires; the book was published there and contains the almost requisite reference to Borges. Is it Latin American? It's written in Spanish, and it alludes intertextually to Borges's poem about Lafinur's dagger, forged in Toledo and wielded in independence struggles and gaucho wars.(2) Is it Jewish -- perhaps the most slippery category of all? For while my descriptions of Argentineity and Latin Americanness may be mildly tongue-in-cheek, many would concede certain markers of Latin American identity, foremost language and literary tradition. That is true of the field of Latin American Jewish Studies as well. Its primary signs of identity have been Luso-Latin American, and its "locus of enunciation" the university department of Hispanic and Lusophone literature.

But to go back to the silver samovar. Is the narrative Jewish? And if it is, then why do we have more trouble defining it as such? And to shuttle back to the disciplinary level, why aren't we part of Jewish Studies? Are we in Latin American Jewish Studies, like a fiery water urn of Eurasian origin, too exotic, too marginal?

Hana Wirth-Nesher attempts to define "the indefinable" in her provoking essay collection, What Is Jewish Literature? (whose title, not un-Jewishly, takes the form of a question).(3) She states from the outset that the only consensus about her subject is that there will be none (another Jewish trait?). Jewish literature cannot be reduced to biographical accident, nor to theme, nor to language -- otherwise where would we place Bernard Malamud? Isaac Babel? Paul Celan? Or for that matter, Anton Shammas, an Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew?

Attempts to define a Jewish imagination or a Jewish orientation toward texts are equally complex -- for instance, Geoffrey Hartman's elegant summation, which singles out such traits as the domination of the written word; a poetics where forgetfulness is sinfulness; fantasy always shadowed by profanation, and a distinctive humor that assuages the anguish of profanation. …

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