Folk Tales Beyond Chelm; Pomegranate Seeds: Latin American Jewish Tales

A Jew brought the first umbrella to Latin America. With all the attention
paid to the hardy entrepreneurs who 350 years ago settled on the New
World’s northern Atlantic coast, i.e., North America, it has been all too
easy to overlook those Jews who instead schlepped their goods (including
families and traditions) south — that is, to Latin America. While the
stories of Ashkenazic populations such as the villagers of Chelm, Minsk or
the Lower East Side have been welcomed into literary canons both Jewish and
secular, it took writer and story scavenger Nadia Grosser Nagarajan to
create a place on the shelf for the oral tales of the Jewish communities
below the equator. “Pomegranate Seeds: Latin American Jewish Folk Tales” is
Nagarajan’s second compendium of Jewish folk tales, a project that came on
the heels of her first, “Jewish Tales From Eastern Europe.”

“It had been assumed that the Jews of South America and the Caribbean basin
did not have any tales, old or new, like those of their European or Middle
Eastern brethren,” the author writes as she explains her choice to embark
on the project, an undertaking that took her across the United States,
Central and South America, and Israel in search of sources for her
ambitious oral history.

In the end, her sleuthing produced a slim volume (34 short stories spanning
the 500 years of Jewish presence on the Southern hemisphere) of
reconnoitered history that places Jewish culture within the eclectic weave
of Latin America’s mestizo culture.

In “The Diver,” Nagarajan gives life to a cluster of families living
outside the old colonial capital of Iquitos, in a Peruvian settlement where
Spaniards once came to find fortunes by tapping rubber in the jungle. Known
as the Iglesia Israelita (the Israel Church), this tiny community abstains
from mixing platano frito (plantain, fried and dipped in sweet milk sauce)
with juanes (beef-filled tamales) and wears the Star of David as well as
the crosses common in that part of rural Peru.

As a mostly invisible narrator, Nagarajan conjures up the experiences of
characters ranging from “The Hatter of Cuenca,” the German Jewish
“gentleman who owns the most prominent hat factory” in a town in Ecuador’s
Andes, to “The Survivor,” a Polish Jew who fled World War II to make a new
life as a mute jewelry peddler in Argentina.

“Pomegranate Seeds” opens with an introduction by Ilan Stavans, a scholar
of Latin American and Jewish literature and culture. Stavans mentions Isaac
Bashevis Singer and the chatty New York cafeterias where the writer would
go to eavesdrop on the tales told by “displaced individuals like him.”

“Nagarajan is also a conscientious listener,” Stevens writes, “… a
conduit that lets the collective psyche speak for itself.”

As a conduit, Nagarajan proves reliable with both fact and fiction. As well
as transmitting the folk tales of the Latin America Diaspora, multiple
mini-histories come through in the form of annotations. Check out the brief
but complete footnotes to find bits about the tango’s origin, the creation
of the Panama hat and, of course, the umbrella.

Ariella Cohen is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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