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Keywords: 1910s; 1920s; 1960s; ancestry; anti-Semitism; antisemitism; Ashkenazi Jewry; family background; family history; heritage; immigration; Mexico City, Mexico; migration; Ottoman Empire; Poland; roots; Sefardic; Sefardim; Sephardic Jewry; Sephardim; shtetel; shtetl (small town in Eastern Europe with a Jewish community)
Keywords: Ashkenazi Jewish culture; Chanukah; community; cooking; culinary traditions; cultural fusion; Eastern Europe; food; Hanukkah; identity; immigration; Jewish holidays; Jewish identity; khanike; latkes; Mexican culture; Mexico; migration; mole latkes; mole sauce; Old Country; otherness; Poland; Spanish language; Yiddish language
ILAN STAVANS ORAL HISTORY
LESLEY YALEN:So, this is Lesley Yalen, and today is May 31st, 2013, and I'm hereat the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, with Ilan Stavans, and we are going to record an interview as part of the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project. Ilan, do I have your permission to record this interview?
ILAN STAVANS:You do.
LY:Thank you. So, you were born in Mexico City. Can you tell me briefly aboutyour family, where they came from on both sides, and how they wound up living in Mexico City?
IS:I was born in Mexico City, in 1961. I am the grandchild of Eastern Europeanshtetl dwellers, who arrived to Mexico at various points between 1919 and 1929, 1:00from mostly Poland, depending on the grandparent. I had one that was born in a place called Nowy BrudnÃ³w, that is now a suburb of Warsaw, and at that time, when she left, was a distant village. Other grandparents come from other parts of Poland and from the Ukraine. And, for a variety of reasons that had to do with anti-Semitism, with pogroms, or with poverty, that they were experiencing -- my grandmother on my father's side recalls -- she left a document -- an autobiographical document -- recalls an incident in which -- in which she alone was -- was harassed by a number of thugs because she was Jewish, and she was 2:00buried up until her head. A result -- as a result of all that, they immigrated. Many of them were hoping to come to the United States -- that was the usual path and pattern. There was also the constellation of the possibility of going to Argentina, but, again, depending on the grandparent, some had already siblings in Mexico, or a place called Mexico that they had heard of, but they had really very little knowledge about. And others simply had friends or distant relatives that had mentioned it to them. Be that as it may, because immigration quotas were closed at some point, because they had to be stationed temporarily in the Caribbean, or go to Central America, they didn't arrive directly to Mexico, and, over time, between 1919 and 1929, they made their way from the coast of the Gulf 3:00of Mexico -- Veracruz, mostly, or the YucatÃ¡n, or Guatemala -- to Mexico City, where the majority of the Eastern European Jews -- all of them Yiddish speakers -- concentrated. That was also the time -- this is not the case of my family -- in which another immigration -- another Jewish immigration -- was taking place from the Ottoman Empire, at that time already on its way to -- to collapse, and it is fascinating to me to think that the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, never having seen each other -- not having a language in common -- were arriving at the same ports, sometimes to the very same neighborhoods, and seeing each other for the very first time. And that exposure, that encounter, wasn't unlike the exposure they encountered to the non-Jewish Mexicans for the first time, substituting what a muzhyk [Russian: peasant] was in -- in Russia, or in Poland, 4:00or in the Ukraine, to a campesino [Spanish: farmer] in Mexico. That must have been a very, very shocking experience to most of them.
LY:That is really interesting. Was the Old Country something that you grew uphearing a lot about, that was very present for your grandparents?
IS:I hardly knew both my grandfathers. They died when I was very young -- three,four, five years of age -- and I have loose, very distant memories of them. From my father's father I have the memory of him giving me a bicycle when -- in one of my birthdays, when I was very little. And of my father's -- of my mother's father, I have the memory of him sitting comfortably in a -- in a chair in what must have been his home, in a -- in the -- a neighborhood where most of the Jews congregated, the Colonia del Valle. Many of them remained loyal to their 5:00memories of the Old World, or of the alter heym [Old Country]. They spoke Yiddish among each other. They struggled -- when I already came along, I am -- there's a generation in between my grandparents and me, that is the generation of my parents, and so there was already an acclimatization to Mexico. They spoke Yiddish with each other, but they spoke Spanish with the rest of the country -- the servants, the workers, the neighbors -- and within the family Yiddish was the glue, what kept us together. From grandkids to grandparents, from grand-- from children to parents. And in many ways also the foods, the customs, were very much Eastern Europe, very much Poland or the Ukraine. The decoration I remember of my grandparents' house always looked as if it belonged to another 6:00century and another geography. And of course I didn't know where it belonged, because I was so little at the time -- I'm thinking about six or seven years of age -- but I did know that it didn't fit into the landscape of the other homes of neighbors or friends that I visited with some regularity. The food that they would prepare on Fridays and Saturdays was food that combined very interestingly -- and as I look back, I long for that food in a particular way -- it combined the Yiddish, Jewish food that they had grown up with -- herring, and gefilte fish, and kreplech [meat-filled dumplings] -- with salsa, and chili, and mole, and all sorts of Mexican culinary varieties. And I thought of all that as a regular part of life, because one is a child, and because one doesn't put much 7:00thought into this, and only later did I realize that there was a -- already a culture, a new Jewish variety emerging at that time, and that was a combination of Eastern European, Yiddish culture, with Latino, particularly Mexican, one, that over the years since then has developed in a number of different ways, and has acquired heft, and roots, and stamina, and has flourished, giving ten, fifteen thousand people that live in Mexico City, of that generation, a sense that they are not part of the old world, and they are not completely Mexican -- they are a hybrid, something in between.
LY:Do you make any of those dishes today?
IS:I do, I do. In Hanukkah, in particular, we cook -- my wife Alison and I -- aspecial type of mole, that is a chocolate-based sauce that you generally use for 8:00chicken, with the latkes, and with applesauce and sour cream. So the combination has become very popular among my friends, who come to this Latino-Jewish Hanukkah party. And we do all sorts of combined celebrations, with the dreidel and with a piÃ±ata. We also do different recipes during Rosh Hashanah, or to break the fast in Yom Kippur, or on Friday night. It is something that I carried with me. I was never really a person for the kitchen, but when I married Alison in 1998, she made an effort to talk to my mother and to my grandmothers at that time, and see what kind of food we had done, and to her credit she -- she passed on that information to my kids, and now to their girlfriends, in a way that, not 9:00being Latina, I am very grateful to.
LY:So, in your childhood home, it was you, your parents, your brother and sister-- was anyone else living with you?
IS:We had -- we had these maids -- we had a Mexican maid for about -- maybetwenty years. Her name was Ines, and she had a daughter called Vicky -- Victoria -- who herself, at some point, got pregnant, and had another daughter -- that is, the granddaughter of Ines. And Ines was a very important presence in my life. The -- the presence of maids in Mexico was -- it was part of the middle class, even the lower middle class, and certainly of the upper middle class and above. And -- when I moved to the United States in '85, I realized the labor clashes and differences in the conditions, in which Ines had lived and Vicky had 10:00lived in the house, and I realized how heroic my parents had been. Ines was a woman who had come from a small town -- Texcoco -- to Mexico City, looking for work. And, for whatever reason -- I don't know the details -- she ended up working in my house, at the beginning cleaning, and eventually much more than that. She was instrumental. She was essential to the upbringing of the three of us -- in the way she cooked, in the way she told us stories, in the way she connected us with Mexico. And when she had her daughter, Vicky -- Vicky was about two or three years older than me -- well Vicky was, for me, a conduit or a bridge to understand what non-Jewish Mexico was experiencing. The books she read, the comic strips, the soap operas, the music she heard, the friends she 11:00had -- it was a completely different world, coinciding in the very same house, and when I look back at my family, I think of the five of us, but I think of the seven, and eventually the eight of us, as a -- as a unit, as a nuclear entity. At one point, I was already in my teens and was beginning to write fiction, and I was immersed in a novel that took me -- a short novel, really a novella -- that took me several versions to complete, and whose main character was based on a girl that I was madly in love with. She was Canadian, and I met her in Mexico at one point. She has -- she had come to the country to do some research, and she was the daughter of a -- of a Holocaust survivor. And I named her -- this is not her real name -- I named her Thalia, and, in honor of the character Thalia, 12:00Vicky named her daughter Thalia. So there was already -- I often think of the intricate way in which reality and fiction are intertwined in Latin America, and, for me, the fact that my character had become a real person, and then that real person affect the way the character eventually evolved in the novel, is proof of that magical realist component of our lives there.
LY:Yeah, yeah. It's something out of a MÃ¡rquez book, or something.
IS:Maybe -- MÃ¡rquez or Vargas Llosa, or Borges.
LY:Yeah. So Vicky lived with you as well, once she was born.
IS:Vicky was -- I believe that she was born in the house. At the very least shecame -- she was already there when I -- when I have memory of the past. At some point, she married, she became a secretary, she had a troubled life, and then returned back to the house. And my parents put her through school. My parents sent her to secretary school. My parents helped her to buy a house. It was -- it 13:00is -- it is an incestual relationship, the one that, in the so-called or mis-named Third World, the middle and the upper middle class have with maids, servants, chauffeurs, in that you would think that it's a -- it's a totally alien, separate world, when in fact it is interconnected with everything you do -- emotionally, psychologically, and even, as I was mentioning, financially. So Vicky grew up, and I might even suggest to you that my awakening to my own sexuality, my being a man, was closely linked to seeing her in the house. I mean, after all, she was three years older than me, and a very attractive woman, so it was -- it was a -- an interrelationship there that left an important mark 14:00in my life.
LY:Your grandparents didn't live with you? Did they live nearby?
IS:My grandparents did not live with us. My pare-- my grandparents lived in aneighborhood that wasn't so n-- so close to us. They lived in Colonia del Valle, or in Alamos. Those were neighborhoods -- the pattern of the Mexican Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe is more or less as follows. When arriving to Mexico City, after being in the coast, or in different towns, congregating in Mexico City, as most Jews did, in -- at that time -- they first settled in what is right now downtown -- downtown being the centro histÃ³rico, the historical center, of the city, where the cathedral, and the Alameda Central, the central park, is, and other major buildings, and where the city -- the Spanish city -- was built on top of the Aztec city that once existed there, in the sixteenth 15:00century. The Jews settled there because it was a business area, and because there was already an infrastructure there of old buildings that probably, at that time, must have been affordable and where the first immigrants arrived and started have all sorts of tentacles and ramifications. My grandparents arrived first there. The first philanthropic institutions, the first mikvah [pool for ritual immersion], the first Yiddish-language school, the first shul, the first synagogue, were all based there. And as the community became more solvent, as they became more diversified in terms of work and of professions, they started moving out. Think of the Lower East Side, the equivalent of the Jews moving to Long Island, or moving to different parts of Queens or New York City. And one of 16:00the -- or two of the neighborhoods, where they first settled, after moving out of downtown, was Alamos, and the other one was Colonia del Valle. They were more or less to the south of downtown Mexico City, and the second generation -- that is, the children of the immigrants -- were the ones that came of age. My mother and my father came of age in those neighborhoods. When my mother and my father decided to get married -- and that is a fascinating story unto its own -- they were rebels. My father is an actor -- of television, of soap operas, and of theater -- and he -- being an actor in the 1940s, in the 1950s -- really the 1950s -- was something absolutely daring. It was rebellious, and was not seen with positive eyes by the establishment. It was not too far from probably being 17:00a prostitute. And so my grandmother -- my father's mother -- was adamant that this was not a profession for a Jewish boy, and that it would ultimately lead to perdition. She did everything in her power, and more, to stop him from becoming an actor. And that meant that every time my father applied for -- or auditioned for a play, or applied for a job, my grandmother found all sorts of strategies to impede those activities. But she was married to a man who had a very different point of view, my grandfather. And, as my father tells is, because I didn't meet my grandfather, it was my grandfather who, under the table, would give him some money, or would encourage him to continue doing the acting. And when my father met my mother, who eventually first became a nurse, and then 18:00helped the family by cooking certain things when there wasn't enough money in the house, and soon went to graduate school herself and became a psychologist -- they really saw themselves as not belonging to the Mexican Jewish community, because of the stern, strict voice that my grandmother Bella, my father's mother, had had. And that meant that they wanted to live as far away from Colonia del Valle and Alamos as they could. And they found a place which is called -- a neighborhood called Copilco, in the southern part of the city, next to the big university, the Universidad Nacional AutÃ³noma de MÃ©xico, which goes by the acronym UNAM, where I -- I wasn't born there, but where I spent most of my childhood. It was a very left-leaning neighborhood, full of intellectuals, 19:00and artists, and doctors, and politicians, and that neighborhood defined me forever, because of the bookstores that it had, the coffee places, and because it meant that we were Jewish, but we were not with the Jewish community -- that my father and mother had created this little bastion where other rebels, some of whom were Jews -- this is the place where Frida Kahlo, not too far from it, had -- had lived, where Leon Trotsky had also lived, Diego Rivera -- so it was the place where -- where it was cool and hype to be an actor, and eventually to become a writer. And that was a neighborhood where there were not many Jews, and the Jews that existed there -- the Jews that lived there -- were rebel Jews, were Jews with an attitude, so to speak, and --
LY:Very cosmopolitan --
IS:Very cosmopolitan --
LY:-- it sounds like.
IS:-- and very secular. Very non-affiliated to either synagogues or to rituals20:00and traditions. So that was the -- the environment where I grew up.
LY:So you mentioned, when your parents were young, the Jewish community feltmaybe oppressive to them, in some way. But when -- when you were growing up, what was the mainstream of the Jewish community in Mexico City? What -- what did it feel like? What was it?
IS:It's -- it's a fascinating question, Lesley. There is an ambivalence that Ineed to convey here in order to answer it. While we were living really far away from the centers -- the equivalent of a Jewish ghetto, although using the word ghetto here might be dangerous, because it conveys a sense of enclosure, with walls, and there was never such a thing in Mexico -- but there is a sense of a 21:00ghetto, in that the Jews lived in neighborhoods all together, and when they moved out of those neighborhoods, moved to other neighborhoods, where they continued living together. That -- the community of those neighborhoods was one that was defined by strong allegiances to one another, by belonging to youth organizations, or belonging to particular types of synagogues. There were -- there was an Orthodox synagogue. At the time, the Conservative movement that had come from the United States was finding its roots in Mexico, and my parents eventually joined a synagogue that was affiliated to the Conservative movement in the United States. But it needs to be said that the Conservative movement in Mexico -- in other words, as it had connections with the United States -- had reshaped the norms and the patterns of that movement, and it didn't quite follow the same paradigm or the same requirements. So it was Conservative in its own 22:00style, or in its own way. There were Reform synagogues. There were Yiddish schools -- I attended one of those Yiddish schools. There were two Yiddish schools. Mine was the old Yiddish school, the Yidishe shule in meksike [Yiddish secular school in Mexico]. It really was, really, the Alte yidishe shul. It wasn't that old, but it meant that there was a new yidishe shule that was done in order to bring in new pedagogical approaches that probably the administrators and the teachers of the old yidishe shule where I went to were not really receptive to. There was also a Hebrew school, the Tarbut School. There were other Jewish schools. And then the majority of kids of my generation that were Jewish belonged to one of those Yiddish schools. We went from kindergarten to high school with the very same kids -- my class probably had between seventy and 23:00ninety kids. They came from mostly the big neighborhoods where the Jews lived -- Colonia del Valle and Alamos had by then already evolved into other neighborhoods, Polanco and Tecamachalco, and those Jews send their kids to this -- to this old Yiddish shule. We came from the south, and there -- there might have been two or three kids altogether -- altogether -- that were not J-- non-Jews, that were the children of the janitors. And again for me, as in the case of Ines and Vicky, they were always very interesting, very attractive, very enigmatic and mysterious figures, because they were not part of the norm. Yiddish school was in Yiddish. We went -- we went in Yiddish -- we learned 24:00history, and we learned civics, and we learned certain disciplines in Yiddish. And there was also Spanish classes that were done in school. Yiddish was both a language of instruction and it was an ideology. The ideology of Yiddish was, in many ways, our religion. We were non-affiliated or, if we were affiliated, we were secular Jews. This is Jews that didn't think that you needed to pray every -- every day, or every Friday and Saturday, in order to show your -- your commitment to your religion. But the language, Yiddish, and through the language the whole culture of Eastern Europe, was our religion, in that we felt that we were part of a chain of generations, that the -- the history that had started in Biblical times, with the destruction of the First and Second Temple, through the -- you know, the medieval times, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Zionism, 25:00the Holocaust -- arrived to us, and we were the link that was going to make it have a future. And so, even in classes that were not in Yiddish, the sense was that we needed to understand the Jewishness of our past in order to be part of that continuity. And, in retrospect, what is so decisive and so crucial to me is the absence of Zionism. I was born, again, in 1961, and I went to school up until 1978, nineteen seventy-- 1978. And, you know, those -- that -- from 1948 onwards, the period of the emergence of the state of Israel is a decisive one in Jewish history, and even though we had Hebrew classes, even though the story of Israel was very much a part of our instruction, of our education, the 26:00Yiddishists really sustained the bastion, defended the barracks, so that Yiddish would not give place to Hebrew and to a Israel- or Zionist-oriented ideology that would erase what had happened in Eastern Europe altogether in the Holocaust. It wasn't until I left school in the late '70s, that the instruction in Yiddish became, in the eyes of many -- many that were now sending their kids, that were probably a little bit older than I was, but had already established their own families -- an anachronism. Why teach them Yiddish, if Yiddish is no longer a language that is spoken anywhere in the world? And lerers [male teachers] and lererkes [female teachers] were dying or were retiring, and it was difficult to replace them. And the option was to start bringing shlichim 27:00[Hebrew: emissaries], to start bringing morehs [Hebrew: male teachers] and morot [Hebrew: female teachers] from Israel that would replace them by teaching Hebrew. But through Hebrew -- by teaching the whole history of Israel, and the -- and the vision of what Israel was about. And I would say that it was in the last five or six years of my Yiddish-language instruction in school, that Yiddish started losing gravitas, and Hebrew started arriving, to the degree that, at the very end of my education, I -- I was convinced that I wanted, before going to college, to spend some time in Israel and to try to see if it was a place for me. Not as a full-fledged, open-hearted Zionist, but as a reluctant Mexican Jew, who had his doubts about this identity, this equation -- can one really be Mexican and Jewish? Is there a way to reconcile the two? To 28:00me, when I was an adolescent, that was the hardest thing to -- to solve.
LY:I wanna ask you about that, but first, I just wanna go back for a minute toyour school and your parents' choice to send you there. They were -- they wanted to live in a neighborhood that wasn't parochial, and didn't feel exclusively Jewish, but they chose to send you to that school. Was it for ideologic-- do you think that they had that ideological commitment to Yiddish? Or it was just sort of by default, or --
IS:Yeah. It's a -- it's a question that, only when you become a parent, yourevisit in ways that you never thought you would. Why did my parents send me to Yiddish school, having been the rebels that they were, and having established that distance -- geographical for sure, and that conveyed also a psychological distance, as well, from their own parents and, with that, from the -- the 29:00center, the epicenter of the Mexican Jewish community? I think that they felt that the distance could have a danger, that we could grow up totally -- totally remote, totally cut off, totally un-- disconnected from the culture that they had had. And they were rebels against certain figures, but they were not rebels against the historical tradition that converged in them. The options that they had at that time were to send us to English-language schools -- that is, American schools -- which would have been very practical. That is, the language that was arriving in Mexico at the time, and a sign of the future -- teach your kids English, they are going to be bilingual, and their job opportunities are going to multiply. There was also still a romantic view of French. French had 30:00been a very popular language in Latin America in the nineteenth century. And there were French schools -- L'AcadÃ©mie FranÃ§aise, and other -- other schools that had French instruction. And, last but not least, nothing that my parents I think would have embraced, there was German -- very good German schools. But I think my parents -- and the other option was public schools. But that was really not an option, because public schools in Mexico, to this day, are not at the level, in any way, that private charter schools, and if you belong to the lower middle, middle, upper middle class, certainly above that, the option of public schools is -- is a non-option. The teachers are often absent, the curriculum is in disarray, there are not enough resources. So I don't think my parents at any 31:00point had the option or the question, Should we send them to public schools? The other options -- English, French, German -- would have meant affiliating themselves with types of culture that they were not rebelling against. Again, they were rebelling against certain figures, but not certain -- not the historical tradition. This meant a big sacrifice, Lesley. On one hand, it meant that my parents -- my father, as an actor, didn't have the resources that entail sending three kids to private schools that were very expensive, and he must -- my mother, too -- must have had some sort of arrangements with the very figures that had been trying to run away from -- my grandparents -- in order to see if they could help, economically, send us to those schools. And I can't stress this enough, but Mexico City, already then, in the '70s, was a very overgrown, 32:00overpopulated city, where traveling ten miles could sometimes entail an hour and a half. And so every morning, it would take us an hour and a half to travel ten miles to school, which, it seems to me, that my parents must have thought so thoroughly about that, as much as they thought about the economic side -- you know, an hour and a half for your kids to be in the school bus or on whatever -- whoever is driving them that day -- is a big effort. It takes three hours of the school day. That, again, is another aspect of my childhood -- the amount of time, the adventures that happened in the school bus. The people I met, the boredom that occurred, the talking with -- there was the chauffeur, but there was also a man who was overseeing everybody, because it was a big journey, and 33:00the opportunities of engaging in conversations with that other man. The first love affairs. The school bus, after all, was, all together, three hours a day. Oy gevalt. (laughter)
IS:So it was -- you know, I -- I was very unhappy with the Yiddish educationthat I got, while I was in school. I thought -- to the degree that, when I left school, I was angry at my parents for having enclosed, having imprisoned me in a type of education that I thought had not benefitted -- had not opened doors for me. But today I say the opposite. Today I am enormously grateful to my parents. They created an anachronism in me, Yiddish -- English would have been better, or French. But I am so grateful that they did Yiddish, because eventually I learned 34:00English, and eventually I learned the French, too, but Yiddish I wouldn't have been able to study at any other point. And the languages that you study at crucial childhood ages are decisive. They are not only about words. They are about visions of the world. They define the texture of how you approach everything, and that was crucial for me.
LY:So let's talk about language for a minute. So you were speaking Yiddish allday at school and what -- what was being spoken in your home, and --
IS:Different languages. Let me --
LY:-- with your friends.
IS:-- let me try to map the -- the day and the space in that day. In schoolthere was Yiddish, and Yiddish was spoken in different classes that we took, and with different teachers, but there was also lots of Spanish. We had teachers in Spanish, and when we went to play soccer, we would play in Spanish, so we knew, 35:00in Yiddish school, that we were bilingual, and we knew perfectly -- and I say this with a -- with a sense of wonder and puzzlement -- we knew perfectly which language belonged to what moment of the day and to which classroom. And I say this with this puzzlement, because I don't remember us ever mixing Spanish and Yiddish. I am fascinated by the phenomenon of Spanglish, the fact that English and Spanish intertwined, cross-breed, become one. This, to many, is horrendous. Either protect the one or protect the other, but don't mix them. And I wonder, why did we understand so clearly that Yiddish was here and Spanish was there? I have difficulty responding to my own question, but I do know that Yiddish was Yiddish and Spanish was Spanish, as if we had hemispheres in our brain that 36:00opened up in a particular moment or -- and space of the day, and closed depending on where we moved. As time went by, there were two other languages that were decisive in my education. One was this presence of Hebrew that I see, as I was trying to describe to you, as coming from behind, because Yiddish was being protected by the Yiddishists, by the Bundists, by those that believed in Yiddish as an ideology, but Hebrew, with Zionism, was on the ascendant. At one point, there was a clash between the two. And it was clear, in the generation of my parents, that Yiddish was the language that they had chosen, but practically the Jewish language needed also to be Hebrew. And so there were classes that were in Spanish, classes that were in Yiddish, and classes that began to be in Hebrew. And those classes had to do with Bible, but they also had to do with grammar, they had to do with Hebrew literature, and so on and so forth. So three 37:00languages coexisting with each other. And because we were members of the middle class in Mexico, because American foreign -- foreign culture -- or American culture was already entering in a foreign way into Mexican culture -- you would see movies, you would see television shows with subtitles, lots of music everywhere in English, and the amount of tourists that came from the United States was astonishing -- that English started to filter in and, at some point, I took private classes, or my mother started to introduce some English to us. And eventually -- English never became a solid language, but there were four languages in those spaces. And I -- I don't see language, as I was trying to explain to you -- I don't see language only as words. It is words, but -- and it is the grammar and syntax of words -- but language is -- is a set of glasses 38:00that you put. And you change those glasses, and you put another, and the world looks differently, and you look differently, because the sh-- the frame is another one. Yiddish was the language of our Jewishness, our way of relating to the past, of seeing Poland and the Ukraine as -- as places where we had some connection, even though it was only through nostalgia, through visions of a past that were presented through the memories of grandparents and of parents that recreated memories of grandparents, and so on. My father, for instance, every so often, when he would joke, he would sing in Polish, or he would sing in Russian, and my mother would crack a joke that obviously had started in another language and then, when you heard it in Spanish, it was a disaster. So Yiddish was the 39:00language that made us Jews. Spanish was the language of the second circle, of neighbors and friends. It was the language, also, of the country in which we lived. We were very grateful to this country, even though we didn't feel fully and completely Mexicans. And there was Hebrew, the language of a future of the Jewish people, whereas Yiddish was the language of the past. And English, the practical language of business, of the entertainment and the culture businesses, and, I didn't know then, but eventually the language of my own future.
LY:So when you came home from school and walked in the door and said, "Hey guys,I'm home" --
LY:-- was it in Spanish?
IS:That was probably in Spanish --
IS:-- if a grandparent was there, visiting, that would be in Yiddish. It was --that part was probably in Spanish. If I communicated with my mother -- with my mother, I communicated in Yiddish more than I communicated with my father, for 40:00some reason. And to this day, I communicate with my mother in Yiddish, and I write emails to her in Yiddish, and she writes back in Yiddish, even though we transliterate it in -- in English-language or Spanish-language characters. So it would depend on who was in the house, and the mood that I was, I would be speaking in one language or in the other.
LY:So, let me ask you just a couple more questions before we move on to the nextpart. You mentioned the adolescent sort of crisis of identity, which I think is -- happens with most adolescents, it's -- you had a lot of factors going on. Then you were -- you were in this Bitachon, security force. Can you talk about that --IS:Yeah, yes.
LY:-- a little -- yeah.
IS:The issue of identity was an issue that, you know, as a writer, was decisive41:00to me. Maybe I can tell you that there is no reason to become a writer if you're happy with everything that is around. If you aren't, you probably already have the seed, or the little worm inside, that will make you want to write. I wanted to write, and I wanted to write in any language that I could, to convey the contradictions that lived inside me. I loved the country, I loved Jewishness, but I couldn't see Jewishness in Mexico as harmonious or living in peace with one another. I could say that -- I could blame my parents, I could blame the culture in which I -- in which I grew up, for not creating that harmonious -- that harmony, or that harmonious bridge. On the other hand, I wouldn't be the 42:00writer that I am, and I am thankful for that contradiction, in that it enabled me to see the opportunity to fit words and explain how that world defined me, and eventually to wanna say something in other contexts. There was one very important moment that happened in the early '80s. I was already -- I had already left for Israel and lived in Europe for a while, trying to find a place where I could live. I wasn't committed to living in Mexico City or in Mexico as a whole. I felt that, as a Jew, I was cosmopolitan. I had various languages. I wanted to be a writer, and I could be a writer in different places. And so I tried Israel. I thought, maybe I'll do aliyah, I'll become an Israeli, and I'll solve the 43:00wound that lives inside me, of this contradiction, that is very diasporic -- either you're Mexican or you're Jewish, either you're German or Jewish, or American and Jewish. And after I lived in Israel for, you know, a year and a half, I realized that -- that I liked being in the Diaspora, that I liked -- that the very wound -- injury -- that had pushed me out of Mexico was the injury that made me a writer, and that I didn't want to cure it altogether. I wanted to use it for -- for writing fiction, and for writing essays, and for reflecting on language and reflecting on identity, and so on. So I -- I came back to Mexico and started doing an undergraduate degree. I did -- my father did something that, again, I was unhappy at that time with, but I am grateful to him for that, and that is that he made me sign a kind of contract. I wanted to become a 44:00writer, and he had had a huge struggle becoming an actor. And he had limped to a certain degree because of his mother's denial, his mother's rejection of his career. So my father said to me, "Look, Ilan, being a writer is gonna be wonderful, but it's very difficult. There are many people that want to be writers, and they -- very few are able to succeed. So do something that I didn't do. Why don't you have an undergraduate career in something in which you'd be able to work, in case you don't succeed as a writer." And I -- you know, he made me sign this little contract, which didn't mean legally anything, but it was an agreement between the two of us, and I went to school in order to become a psychologist -- my mother was a psychologist and I thought a psychologist is a 45:00good thing that a writer would be able to use. When I returned, and when I start -- when I was in undergraduate school in Mexico -- I should say that I had tried to come to the United States to do an undergraduate, but I didn't quite figure out how to do it, and I didn't have the money, and couldn't come up with an institution that would help me finance my studies. So I went to a very public and very left-leaning university in Mexico, La Universidad AutÃ³noma Metropolitana in Xochimilco, which is -- it wasn't too far from where I lived. And at that time, something dramatic happened in Mexico. There was a very steep economic crisis, the result of which was the decision by a very erratic Mexican president to nationalize the bank industry. This happened in '81, '82, and there 46:00was a state of fear and disorientation, and doubt, and uncertainty, at that time, and that president threatened to publish lists of people that had taken funds, money out from the country to other banks and that, in his argument, had bankrupt the country. And he -- it was thought, or he said -- I don't remember the details -- that the majority of those in that list were going to be Jewish, and that meant that there was going to be an atmosphere of anti-Semitism and of persecution, or, at the very least, of -- of intense fear. The Jewish community in Mexico was -- felt very vulnerable to this, and I remember at that time being asked, in a very secretive way, in a very -- very unofficial, untraditional way, 47:00with a phone call once -- if I would be ready to belong to a paramilitary organization that eventually was called Bitachon, in Hebrew, "security." And I said yes because other friends of mine had said yes, and I really didn't know what I was getting into. The organization, to this day, is very -- I don't know if it still exists -- to this day, to me, is very mysterious, very bizarre. At eleven o'clock at night, I would be picked up, or I would drive to a particular place, where others of my age, male and female, would gather. There would be two or three adults, covered with white pillowcases -- their heads, so that we wouldn't see them -- who, for three or four hours, would teach us, would train 48:00us in self-defense and in activities to protect the Jewish community, that on occasion involved physical confrontations. We participated, after the training, in night adventures, going to erase anti-Semitic graffiti in certain walls of the city, or in -- in beating some people up that had done -- we didn't really know who they were, but we were told to do this. I was nineteen, maybe eighteen, nineteen, and that's a period -- that's a period of my life that I think often about and have not quite reconciled myself with. The premise was, we're not -- 49:00we don't have an army to defend ourselves. We don't have a mechanism that makes us self-sufficient. We are a target of different forces, but if we don't do something for -- on our own, we can be beaten up very easily. There must have been some connection -- there are people that know far more about Bitachon than I do. My information is purely anecdotal and purely autobiographical. I have never gone and done more research about this. And I have kept it that way because of what it meant to me. The idea was that probably someone in Israel, or some link to the Tzahal was established, and that we needed to be far better prepared. This is in '81 or '82. In '94, there was a terrorist attack in Buenos 50:00Aires -- in '92, '93, '94, a series of terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires, to the Israeli embassy and to the Jewish Community Center. And when those events -- I was already in the United States -- when those events happened, Lesley, Bitachon for me acquired a different presence. It was an "a-ha" moment -- look, we -- we had already this seed, the very beginning of a sense of pride, of autonomy, and of saying, We are not going to go to the chambers, to -- to be beaten up, the way our ancestors had. So the idea of my immigrant grandparents, the counter-movement of Zionism that had taken place while I was in school -- all 51:00that came together in the sense that you -- you live in the diaspora, but you don't have to be foolish. You don't have to be stupid. You have to figure out ways to defend yourself. American Jews have a lot of resources. American Jews are well-positioned. Latin American Jews, Mexican Jews, are not, and if we don't do something for ourselves, nobody will. And that became very clear to me in 1994, with -- with eighty-five people killed, the AMIA event, and Latin American Jews clearly becoming, at that moment, contemporaries of Middle Eastern and international politics, a target of Iranian terrorists, and clearly a community that, if it didn't do something for itself, would repeat this type of tragedies that went back to the Holocaust, and even further.
LY:Interesting. I'm gonna move ahead and just ask you -- we've been talking52:00mostly about, you know, your earlier life, and just to ask you to change tracks for a minute and just give me a really quick snapshot of what your life is today. Where do you live, who do you live with, and where do you work -- just briefly.IS:I am now a professor. I have been teaching, this year, nine-- 2013 -- for twenty years at Amherst College, here in Western Mass. I am married for twenty-five years to the same wonderful woman, Alison Sparks, who is a Jew, born in St. Louis, and grew up, first in Albuquerque and eventually in Hartford. And I have two kids. I have twenty-two-year-old Josh and seventeen-year-old Isaiah. 53:00Josh is a junior in college and he's a DJ, and Isaiah is a junior in high school, and he's very interested, as his grandfather is, in theater and in scenic arts. I -- only a side of me is a professor and, in fact, the word professor, to me, feels uncomfortable. I spend my life as a professor, but I'm really a teacher, and I love teaching students. I love the students that I have. I never knew what a small liberal arts college was, because we don't have such a concept in Latin America. And I discovered it when I was hired in '93, by this place, Amherst College, and the concept -- small, dedicated to the humanities, or a combination of the humanities and the sciences, and a deep relationship 54:00between students and teachers -- is a winning ticket in education. And I ha-- I am the teacher that I am because of the students that I have and because of the institution where I teach. I -- I always, as an undergraduate, when to big lectures, hardly knew my teachers. And I think of myself as a self-taught writer and intellectual. I would have been a very different person, had I gone to a place like the one I teach. And I say that I'm a teacher, but mostly what I do is write. I write in -- in different languages. I write in English and in Spanish, mostly, but I sometimes write in Yiddish, too, and in Spanglish, and -- or in Hebrew, depending on the circumstance. And, talking about identity again, 55:00my teaching is part of my writing, and my writing is part of my parenting -- my being a parent -- and I can't separate them, one from the other. A lot of the ideas that I have to write is -- a short story or an essay -- start in the classroom, and sometimes an idea that I write goes back to the classroom in the form of a reading, or in the form of a discussion. So a lot of what I teach has to do with the two -- the two veins, or the two tracks. One is the Jewish connection that I -- that I am part of: Jewish history, Jewish identity, Jewish culture, from Biblical times to the present, and Hispanic culture. And I often try to bring the two together, by exploring the place and the role that Jews have had in the Hispanic world, from Spain to Latin America.
LY:So let me ask you about two of your writing projects that you mentioned are56:00two of the things you've -- you're most proud of, or most -- one being "El Iluminado," and one being "Golemito."IS:Um-hm.
LY:Which one should we start with?
IS:Why don't we start with "El Iluminado."
LY:"El Iluminado." So tell me where the seed came from, how you got involvedwith this, and, yeah.
IS:"El Iluminado" is a graphic novel. It is a story where I myself am acharacter. It has a professor, or teacher, or Amherst College faculty called Ilan Stavans, who goes and gives a lecture in Santa Fe about crypto-Jews, and, unbeknownst to him, he has already become part of a mystery connected with the death of a crypto-Jew, and the echoes and links of that death has over -- over 57:00time, over space, and over a series of family members connected with that individual. I grew up in Mexico loving comic strips. Pop culture in Mexico really meant reading foreign artifacts like Superman, and Batman, and the Avengers, but also Mexican artifacts, the equivalent of superheroes, that were native-made -- KalimÃ¡n, and Condorito, and Mafalda. And the model of the graphic novel is endearing to me. I find my passion for movies and my passion for literature coinciding on the page -- the visuals and the text. A number of years ago, maybe three or four years ago, here at the National Yiddish Book Center, I was -- had a public conversation with a couple of graphic novel 58:00artists and children's books makers, and one of them was Steve Sheinkin, and we struck a friendship after that, and at one point, Steve said, "I think I have a -- a little -- a little present for you" -- this is about, maybe, a month and a half -- and he sent me -- he's famous for a series that he developed, of Rabbi Harvey, a rabbi in the Old West that gets into all this trouble, and sorts that trouble in his own way -- and Steve sent me a mini graphic novel, where Rabbi Harvey goes to Mexico, and meets me, and then meets my father, and meets different -- he had read my autobiography, "On Borrowed Words," and I was just transported. I, you know -- becoming a superhero myself, in some way. And I thank him profusely, and I said, you know, "Maybe we should do something together." And the idea of doing the graphic novel emerged at that point. It 59:00took us maybe two years, and it was a lovely collaboration of text and graphics, and of we both doing the two. I'm not a painter or an artist, but I have a very clear sense of how the page should look, and develop how the characters should take shape. The story deals with the -- the auto-da-fÃ© of a very famous Mexican Jew, although he didn't openly say that he was Jewish, called Luis de Carvajal the younger, who was burned at the stake in -- at the very end of the sixteenth century, in 1595. And this is a story that I always loved, and I am always puzzled that nobody told me about it when I was in school in Mexico. I had to discover it on my own, after I had left Mexico. And I wanted more people to find 60:00-- to find out who Luis de Carvajal is. This is a man who had arrived from Spain, who was raised Catholic, and only awakened to his own Jewish identity in Mexico, because the Inquisition wasn't as mighty, as forceful there. But, when he did, the Inquisition started going after him, and eventually imprisoned him. He wrote an autobiography -- wrenching, really fascinating text. The Inquisitors started to follow him, spied him. They let him free after they had imprisoned him. That enabled them to follow him to different paths and capture his sister and his mother, and eventually he was imprisoned again and burned at the stake. And I think it's a -- it's a fascinating story, a story that connects with the emergence of crypto-Jews in the Southwest, in New Mexico and Arizona, Santa Fe, in many ways. And that's what I tried to do in the story. I'm very proud of it, because -- because of a number of different things. First because we often 61:00complain -- we meaning adults, we meaning teachers, we meaning the older generation -- that the young people don't read. The young people are not interested in history. They are not interested in -- in the -- in world affairs. I don't believe that is true. I believe it's -- we need to find different ways to connect with the younger audience, and this book has really connected with the younger audience, and I am very proud of that. And I also am very proud of the book, also, because I -- I turned myself, through Steve, into a cartoon, and in some ways, it makes me -- it was a dream, you know -- the dream of every young boy -- I'm sure girls too, but I speak for boys -- of, Oh, I wanna be like this character when I grow up. I wanna be like Clark Kent, or I wanna be like -- 62:00and here I did that little trick, and -- with some humor.
LY:And your interest in the crypto-Jews. Has that been something recent or --
IS:The interest in the crypto-Jews is -- is relatively recent, if twenty yearsis recent. I don't know, I'm fifty-two. It is recent in that it wasn't present in my Mexican education. And here, I'd like to say that one of the things we didn't grow up with, in everything that I told you about going to Yiddish school, everything that I told you about our parents giving us a sense of what -- of what our continuity with the past -- is that we were never told a history of Mexican Jews. Perhaps because this was a relatively new community, new diasporic chapter, or perhaps because the Jews were not ready at that time to 63:00think of themselves in historical terms, in Mexico. You know, it takes a step to start seeing yourself, with a distance, in retrospect, as a historical character. And so it wasn't until I left Mexico that I started reading about Mexican Jewish history, and I discovered, for instance, that the very place -- the very same place where my maternal -- my paternal grandmother first kissed my paternal grandfather, in the Alameda Central, the central park that is in downtown Mexico City, was where the Jews -- where the autos-da-fÃ© took place. And there is a plaque that says "Placa del Quemadero" -- plaza of the burnings. They -- there's a photograph of the two of them, shortly after the kiss, with a park photographer, that has gone from one member of the family to another, and, 64:00in studying it, I realized that that little sign is at the very end, and I went in a trip that I did to Mexico, to see what that plaque was, and I realized that, in the very first act of romance, of passion, of maybe creating a new family, they were refuting the hatred that had taken place against Jews in Mexico, without knowing it. And why didn't they know it? Because Mexican Jews arrived -- because Eastern European Jews arrived to Mexico, as Yiddish speakers, thinking they were the first, that -- that Mexico had no Jewish history whatsoever, and we lived under that veil, under that premise, for a long time, until -- until I left Mexico that I started going deeper into that past. So crypto-Jews, for me, today, are an essential component, a key that I stress time 65:00and again in understanding the path of the expulsion -- 1492 -- to who we are today, and a chapter we can no longer afford to ignore. The purpose of the book is precisely to say, Look, I'm a Mexican Jew, but I'm a Mexican Jew of Ashkenazi background. There were Sephardic Jews. We need to know about them, and we need to connect the two.
LY:They're also such a great metaphor for everything about identity and, youknow, continuity, and --
IS:They are. It's -- I find crypto-Jews -- you know, in a place like the UnitedStates, and a country like the United States, where we all fashion ourselves, our identities, in different ways -- but where identity can be taken very lightly, too, and we can take off a mask and put another one with relative ease 66:00-- crypto-Jews had remained loyal, sometimes in spite of themselves, sometimes unbeknownst to themselves, for generations. This is five hundred years, six hundred years since -- since the very past. And one of the things that -- you know, the fact I was mentioning to you, Lesley, that my father is an actor, and there's something in acting that I envy, and that is the fact that you have a living audience in front of you, and that you act for that living audience. We writers write in the quiet of our studio, hoping that, one day, somebody will read what we just finished. But the internet has opened up channels of communication, and the number of emails that I've received connected with "El Iluminado" are really extraordinary. And the variety of responses -- people who say, Oh, I do come from a crypto-Jewish family, or a converso [Spanish: 67:00crypto-Jewish, lit. "convert"] family. I read your book, I -- I liked this part very much, or I didn't like this other part -- can you tell me how I can figure out if I am indeed a Jew? So this put me -- puts me, I have to confess, in a somewhat awkward position. Being an Ashkenazi and having come from the periphery to this topic, now I am an authority, and, you know, I've done some research and I suggest, you know, there are DNA tests that you can take, but that can create -- that can Balkanize the family. That can create tensions. Or you can -- you can see if there are diaries and letters, and go to cemeteries and see where the ancestors were buried, and the signs and paraphernalia that exists in tombstones -- engraved. All sorts of things, and they -- and readers find in the book -- sometimes they stop. They say, Oh, in page ninety-six, you are seen doing this 68:00-- can you explain a little more what you were thinking of? They are very minute in detail, which proves that readers -- young readers -- read very carefully.
LY:So, speaking of young readers, "Golemito," which is not even published yet, Ijust realized -- that is a beautiful, beautiful children's book. Can you tell me how that came about?
IS:Yes, "Golemito" is a -- "Golemito" is a short story that I wrote, envisioningthe -- a possible reincarnation -- the word doesn't -- it might be a little out of place -- of the myth of the golem, taking place in Mexico, in the context of the yidishe shule where I went to, with some of the friends -- Sammy Nurko and Berle Shapiro are all real friends that I had in my past -- and creating -- Sammy Nurko was a very close friend of mine, who was a kind of crazy inventor in 69:00school, who could create a radio or create devices whereby the ring to -- to let people know that the class was over -- could start seven minutes early, so that everybody would be able to leave class earlier, but who was always bullied by others. And Sammy and I had a very close relationship, and I always think of that relationship that I had with him, and I have imagined what would've happened if the golem -- which was created in Eastern Europe as a myth to help protect the Jews from anti-Semitic attacks, particularly in Prague, with the Maharal, a very important rabbi, Rabbi Loew, who, according to Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, had such power with the Hebrew alphabet that he was able to create 70:00this Frankenstein-like monster that had written letters on his forehead and was a kind of servant and protector of him, and of the synagogue, and of the Jewish community, against the bullies from the outside. The myth of the golem is such that eventually, because of the articulation of the word "met [Hebrew: a little]" and "emet [Hebrew: truth] "in the forehead, can actually kill the cr-- its cr-- its own creator. And Mary Shelley used the myth for "Frankenstein," thus my invocation of the word -- of the title, a little bit before. What would happen if we could have created a little golem? A little miniature one that you could hold it in your hand, by not using Hebrew letters, but Nahuatl poetry that Sammy and I used to read. So this is a kind of fictional meditation on that friendship, on the Yiddish school, and on the little golem that we visualized 71:00for ourselves. And it was originally published in the magazine "Spider," and after that this publisher bought it, and I'm very excited to -- to turn it into a book.
LY:Yeah, reaching more young reader and --
IS:I am -- one of the things that I love is to explore different media andreaching different audiences -- children, young adults, adults graph-- of the graphic novels or comic strips. And so the idea of writing for children is very attractive.
LY:Back to your home life, your family, do you practice Jewishness -- cultural,religious -- and, if so, how today?
IS:I am -- I'm a cultural Jew, with very strong faith defined by ambivalence. I72:00-- we belong to a congregation in Northampton, Congregation B'nai Israel. I have longstanding interest in the Bible as a narrative, as a novel, if one could conceive it that way. I teach a course regularly on God -- how we see God in various religions -- secular ways of perceiving God, atheism, agnosticism, debates among religions in the Middle Ages concerning the power of God, the same God being represented in various religions, or different Gods being for different religions. I envy those that have a faith that is unshakeable, and I 73:00say this with no degree of irony. If I could not doubt my faith, I would be a committed believer. But I can't, and I -- I have to doubt, to the degree that I go back and forth, and never to the degree of saying, This -- this option is right, and this option is not right. Meaning my doubt, my ambiguity, my uncertainty, never leads me to deny God altogether and say "I live in a world that is godless." God, at some point, comes back and says, "Here I am," and "Consider me again," or "I am considering you, Ilan, again," and "Welcome to the 74:00dialogue." In my home, we are -- it's a Jewish home. We celebrate the holidays. We often -- not always -- light candles on Friday. There is a lot of Jewish discussions, Jewish debates at home that have to do with literature, that have to do with philosophy, that have to do with politics -- Middle Eastern politics, American politics, are at the center of the dinner table dialogue. So it's a v-- I would say it's a very Jewish home. It is not a very religiously Jewish home, but religion plays a role.
LY:And what about language? How -- what languages are spoken?
IS:So the languages are -- it's -- my kids are bilingual. They speak in Spanishand English, and we often, by default or on purpose, speak Spanglish, which is 75:00the mixing of the two. Isaiah has become interested in Yiddish. Josh understands a little bit of Yiddish, too. They are cognizant of what Hebrew is. They both did their bar -- bat -- bar mitzvahs. They will have their own road and route, when it comes to Judaism. I -- I think that I -- as a father, as a parent, together with Alison, I've given them the tools for them to be able to reject or employ according to what their lives will request. I am not an intrusive father. I don't want my kids to be what I am or to be something that I want them to be. Sometimes that means that they take detours and eventually come back. Sometimes 76:00that means that the detour doesn't come back. I appreciated that type of freedom that my parents gave me. I think that -- that Jewishness is an important element to them. They are young, and we will see how important it is.
LY:So let me ask you sort of a two-part question. One is, what about Jewishnessor Yiddishness do you think -- if anything, what specifically is important to you to transmit to them? And then, separately, what do you think that your parents tried to transmit to you about Jewishness?
IS:Yeah. I think the answer to both questions, Lesley, is a question mark. I --I think that I -- I think that I'm here in order to think. To think things 77:00through, wherever that might lead me, and to do something creative with whatever I think. Not to become lazy and not think would be the biggest sin, and a way to really spit on my parents' educati-- the education that they gave me. I -- sometimes the thinking leads me away from their own vision of the world. But the act of thinking is what they wanted me to do, not the conclusion of that thinking. I am -- I am worried about something. It's not, as I was saying to you, that we don't read, or that we don't engage with text. I am worried about the light-heartedness with which thought is approached -- thinking things through. It has to do with the deficiencies, because of budget cuts and other challenges, of the education that we're giving our own children, that we don't 78:00think things through. The classroom, the dinner table, is a place where you can go deep into a topic in a chatty kind of way, in an engaging kind of way, but let your mind go as far as it can. I think that that -- you know, it would be selfish to say that that is Jewish, but it would be foolish to say it's not. To think things through, to discuss the ambiguity, the ambivalence in which we sit, to face the challenges that we have in the present, in the context of what we inherited and with the -- with the forbearing of what might come in the future -- that is our role. If anything that we do today plants a seed, in only one individual -- only one student, only one reader, only one child, that -- whose 79:00life is going to open up as a result of that, I think our mission was accomplished. It is -- it is not about finding a hundred million readers, or a hundred million students, or a hundred million kids. Just find one, and find it in a way that is empathetic. Do not preach to that student, or to that reader, or to that child. Make the child feel -- the student, the reader -- that she or he is part of this thinking process. I think that I -- I have given that to my kids. I am proud -- I am most proud when I see them interact socially, when I see them be humorous with things, and when I see them thinking -- I can see 80:00their eyes moving in a particular way -- together with others. Thinking for ourself is important. It is a pre-step in the process of thinking with others. But the Jewishness of all this is the act of thinking together with others, not -- not doing it alone. And I think that that is something that my parents taught me. Now, I will -- I wanna come back to something I said at the beginning. My father is the actor, my mother is the psychologist. My father is the intuitive, impulsive, emotional one in the family. My mother is the rational, the calculating, sometimes the cold one. It's -- it's a combination that be explosive, but it can also be loving and ba-- and balanced. I don't think that emotion alone leads you very far. I don't think that thought alone leads you very far. I think you need emotion and thought, and I say this with a clear 81:00sense that, often, thought is presented as unemotional, disconnected with anything that will push you to -- I don't think that you can disconnect emotion from thought. I think it's very important to connect it, but at the same time to know what the various aspects are, that -- not to let emotion takes you -- Hispanic culture is very emotional, is driven by sentiment, by -- by passions. When you turn the television on and see those soap operas, even if the -- if it's in mute, you know that they are Hispanic because of the way that they are -- they're throwing themselves at others, and -- and it's easy to stereotype. It's easy to make fun of. But it's also easy to know that this is something of that culture. The culture is warm, the culture is giving, and it can be a culture that doesn't think things through. On the other's ha-- on the other 82:00hand, American culture can be very calculating, can be very practical, can be very goal-oriented, and sometimes unemotional. Or -- or kind of deceiving, in the sense of using others for one's own purpose. And I -- I hope that my kids have not only the Jewish side, but the Mexican side, and the American side, together. And do with it whatever they want to do with it -- whatever they can. I mean, to be honest, we all, as Jews, think we're free. And we are. Freedom is -- everything is determined, but we're all free, at the same time. On the other hand, when one starts looking back at one's life, one realizes that freedom was never fully open, that there were paths that were already kind of chosen, and that we responded to the forces that were before us. 83:00
LY:Well, I was gonna ask you if, as a writer and academic, if you have amission, but I think you sort of just answered that to a large extent. About your career as a writer and an academic, I was gonna ask you about a couple of your hero, mentor people, and I was thinking particularly of Irving Howe. I thought it was just interesting reading about how important he was to you, that he's this kind of public intellectual, academic, and public, and multi-lingual, and multi-genre, and it seems like that reminds me of you, and -- (laughs)
IS:Irving Howe was a -- when I first -- I never met the man, and maybe that'sfor the better. Sometimes when you meet a writer you admire, or an artist you admire, or a politician you admire, you don't admire them as much, and it's 84:00because the image that you have of that figure and the reality clash. Irving Howe did something that I learned passionately from him, and that is that it is the duty of the writer to write clearly, and to write for people to understand. And it might sound, Lesley, as something childish to say, but academia can often obfuscate thought, can make it obscure. Only the initiated are going to be able to understand the jargon, and that -- that frustrates me. It upsets me, and it ultimately defeats, in my eyes, the very purpose of teaching and the very purpose of writing. I love finding new audiences and I love doing so by forcing 85:00myself to -- to find a language, a different language, in order to communicate with them. I don't believe -- it's the same English language in which one writes an autobiography for adults, a children's book like "Golemito," or a book like "El Iluminado." It's the same language, but it's not the same way you use the language. You have to put yourself in the mind of a child, to see what a child might understand, and -- or a young adult, or an adult -- and I think that the biggest sin a writer might engage in is in writing for himself or for herself, or for a small group of people, and forgetting that the rest of the world is out there. There's too much writing, there is -- that is -- that goes to waste. And there is no reason why the university should be a place secluded, excluded, 86:00distant from society as such. I think the university, the college, is in society. It's a laboratory. It's a -- it's an ex-- a place to experiment. It's a pulpit. It's a -- an open forum, where what is happening in society is explored and then being brought back to society. I feel that my mission is not only to communicate with a larger audience in the different languages that I have, sometimes adopting those languages and sometimes switching them. There are things that I can only write in Spanish and not in English, or only in Yiddish, or only in Hebrew, because the audiences are different. When you write a short story in Spanish, it has a different taste than when you write the same short story in English. The audience is different, the way that the words are organized on the page, the -- what the audience will take is different. And I -- 87:00my ultimate mission is that that writing will -- will cause something. It's not about changing the world. It's about making people aware that -- that something change inside them. I don't know exactly what that change is, but I do know that I don't wanna create light-hearted, forgettable entertainment. I want to provoke thought. That is what I'm after, and -- there is a very famous Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who once said that the limit of one's world is the limit of one's language, and also the limit of one's language is the limited of one's world. And that which you cannot say doesn't exist. I -- I am 88:00fascinated by that thought, and I am fascinated by the possibilities of saying things, in different ways, within the realm of these worlds. What can we do? How can we invent -- I'm writing, for instance, right now, a book with Barry Moser, who is -- of animals that don't exist, creating -- mixing different parts of animals into a new animal and then writing a description of that animal as if it was an animal that existed for a long time, and where it's found, and what its patterns are, and how it has changed and evolved -- creating kind of an alternative zoology.
LY:It's like the bestiary --
IS:Kind of a bestiary, too, of the Middle Ages, or Borges had once -- one likethat. Imaginary animals with their entire history. Maybe that's part of what Wittgenstein is saying. It's the limit of our world. But the limit of our world 89:00is also the limit of our fantasy, of our imagination.
LY:That's really interesting. So is he doing woodcuts for --
IS:He's doing woodcuts, and engravings, and lithographs. He only -- he just sentme about six, and, ah, they're beautiful. They're beautiful.
LY:Cool. So let me ask you one more question. Unfortunately, we're --
IS:These questions have been wonderful.
LY:Oh, good. (laughs) If you had to give advice to young adults who arestruggling with, you know, multiple identities -- someone in the same -- in the situation that you were in, with multiple languages, Jewish with multiple other identities -- what would that advice be?
IS:It's a very easy answer. Be patient. There is nothing better than patience,and that is because you are betting on time. Time has a way to let you know that 90:00the confusion that you are going through right now is not a confusion forever, and that eventually things that look obscure, dark, unfathomable, are clear and convincing as time goes by. Be patient, and be -- and persevere. And realize that everybody has a confusion of identity, that nobody really knows who he or she is. We are all in this heart journey together. And there is fun in trying to sort things out. Patience and perseverance, and a sense of humor.
LY:Let me ask you a follow up question. Do -- to what extent do you thinkliterature helped you sort those -- those things out, or would you prescribe 91:00some literature? (laughs)
IS:I would -- I would -- I think that literature is an antidote or a medicine,because it does what the mirror does. And that is, you can see yourself reflected, depending on the day, and depending on the time, and depending on what you are looking to find on that mirror. But the good thing about being a writer, and I'm inviting this -- this person to maybe consider writing, too, or becoming an artist -- the good thing about writing is that you don't have to see the bookshelf as finished. You can say, I found a lot of things in that bookshelf, but I didn't find something that I was looking for. Thus I wrote it, for others to find it. And maybe others will read it and say tha-- it had something, but my own answer is not yet there. I'll add something to that bookshelf. Bookshelves are never finished, and neither are mirrors. We are always changing in front of others. The important thing about identity is to 92:00know that it's a game, and that it's never finished. It's always changing. Just when you think you know who you are, you have a child. You meet somebody new. You move to a new place. You -- you all of a sudden watch a new movie, ate something different, and you realize, ooh, the world is not what I thought. The world is always changing, and it is as it should be. That is part of the Jewish vision of life, at least in the secular world. Being Jewish is not knowing who you are, but daring to find out as you go along.
LY:That's a nice place to stop. Thank you.
IS:Thank you, thank you.
LY:Thank you so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]