A Kosher-style Cervantes

"Cervantes Vehayehudim" ("Cervantes and the Jews") by Luis Landa, Ben-Gurion University Press, 182 pages.

Ruth Fine
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Ruth Fine

"Cervantes Vehayehudim" ("Cervantes and the Jews") by Luis Landa, Ben-Gurion University Press, 182 pages

Two years ago, at a conference on the Golden Age of Spain, one of the world's leading Cervantes scholars had a startling confession to make: Cervantes appears in his dreams and helps him grasp the true meaning of his life and thoughts.

Miguel de Cervantes, the man and the author, is indeed an intriguing character to many readers and researchers. The desire to find out Cervantes' true intentions, and expose the real person hiding behind the myriad masks, is also the driving force behind this book.

In the epilogue, Luis Landa imagines himself talking to the author of "Don Quixote," who leaps out of Landa's computer screen. Landa tries to persuade Cervantes to confide secrets about his life and work. In this respect, "Cervantes and the Jews" is a window into the world of this illustrious Spanish author. Landa offers his readers a glimpse of Cervantes from a vantage point that has rarely been studied: Judaism.

Over the years, Landa has had a fruitful dialogue with Cervantes. In 1982, he translated several of the novels that make up Cervantes' "Exemplary Novels" into Hebrew, and 12 years later, Hakibbutz Hameuchad published his excellent translation of Cervantes' masterpiece, "Don Quixote." In these works, Landa proves himself a marvelous builder of bridges - linguistic and cultural - between the Golden Age of Spain and contemporary Israel. His rich experience and extraordinary sensitivity are clearly discernable in his new book, too.

Landa warns us not to be misled by the title of his book. The first two chapters explore the literary and textual links between Cervantes and the Jews, but the rest of the book, especially the last three chapters, examine the connection of other Jews, among them Freud, Bialik, Mendele Mocher Seforim and S.Y. Agnon, to this Spanish author. The question of Cervantes' Jewish roots remains problematic, although I doubt it can ever be resolved. As Landa points out from the start, "we cannot say with certainty that Cervantes was of Jewish stock, although my book was written on this premise."

While "Cervantes and the Jews" is not an attempt to prove this theory on the basis of factual evidence, Landa sets out to unravel the mystery of Cervantes' origins and his attitude toward Jews. To do this, he chooses the method that is safest and most honest: textual analysis.

It is worth pointing out that although the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they remained alive and well in the literary imagination and folklore of the Spaniards. At the same time, the void left by the Jews was partly filled by another social class: the "New Christians" or "conversos" - Christians who had at least one non-Christian ancestor. In his textual readings, Landa demonstrates that Cervantes belonged to this class.

"In this book, I am looking for a possible connection between Cervantes' presumed Jewish origins and the nonconformist elements in his writing," says Landa. Thus he attributes Cervantes' nonconformism and rebellion against social conventions to his Jewish ancestry and the difficulties faced by the conversos. Belonging to this social class would presumably have a profound effect on his understanding of the social periphery. It would explain his criticism of the social norms in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. Analyzing several texts by Cervantes in which Jews and New Christians appear, Landa shows that their characters are open to many different readings.

`Conversos' theory

As a rule, the presence of Jews is minimal in Cervantes' work. His writing, which seeks to portray an extra-textual reality, places the Jewish characters outside Spain - in Algeria, Constantinople or Italy. The Jew in the work of Cervantes is relatively free to believe and practice his religion - just the opposite of the reality of Spain - whereas the Christians in "The Captives" are denied their freedom. The role of the Jew actually changes from one story to the next. He can be a defenseless victim in one narrative, and totally secure and independent in another. He plays the foil to two other groups: the Christians and the Moors. In particular, Landa applies this conversos theory to his analysis of "Don Quixote" and "The Wonder Show." He believes that Cervantes' origins made him more empathetic toward groups on the margins of Spanish society, especially the New Christians.

Landa goes on to explore folkloristic characters, situations and motifs in Cervantes' work - first and foremost Sancho Panza, who symbolizes "the other." From the character of Sancho Panza, we learn about Cervantes' sensitivity toward his people and his cultural heritage. In another interesting analysis, Landa dwells on the inter-textual relationship between Hebrew sources like the Talmud, Muslim makame narratives and certain episodes in "Don Quixote."

Chapters 4 and 5 are an important contribution to the study of Hebrew literature and its sources. Landa compares Don Quixote's thoughts on the Golden Age of Spain in the original, to Bialik's Hebrew translation. The Bialik rendering of "Don Quixote" is an adaptation: Parts of the original text have been omitted, the historical context is gone, and all the immodest bits have been excised. At the same time, new components have been introduced, such as the presence of God, of whom no mention is made in the original.

Landa also offers a brief but clear analysis of the first Hebrew translation of "Don Quixote," all but forgotten today, by Nachman Frankel (1871). He believes that it is closer to the spirit of Cervantes than Bialik's translation, although both use biblical language. Later in the book, he discusses the influences of "Don Quixote" on Hebrew classics like Mendele's "The Travels of Benjamin the Third" (1875) and Agnon's "The Bridal Canopy" (1919). In doing so, he sheds new light on these works and on various aspects of "Don Quixote."

The sixth and last chapter opens our eyes to an unusual link - or rather, the lack of one: Freud and Cervantes. The father of psychoanalysis, who knew Spanish and admired Cervantes, never mentions the character of Don Quixote in his work. Landa's conclusion is that despite the many psychoanalytical studies of this book, "Don Quixote is not the kind of hero you can easily lay on the psychiatrist's couch." Landa sees him as a purely fictional character, a character whose subconscious cannot be probed.

Landa's book fills a gaping hole: Until now, research on Cervantes and his oeuvre has been almost nonexistent in Hebrew. "Cervantes and the Jews" is a valuable and welcome addition to the bookshelf, breaking new ground in a field that few have explored. In his introduction, Landa displays great empathy for the author of "Don Quixote," and one feels it throughout the book. It is the "human - perhaps too human" Cervantes that interests him.

Has Landa succeeded in recreating Cervantes the man and author? Has he laid bare something of his character? The answer is in the book. But even if the portrait he paints is only another of the masks of which Cervantes is so fond, Luis Landa presents his case with clarity and intelligence. As one of Cervantes' characters remarks at the end of "The Dialogue of Dogs": "The story is charmingly written and competent, and that is enough for me."

Dr. Ruth Fine is a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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