After the Expulsion: An Excerpt from “Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction”

Ilan Stavans explores Sephardic literature in this excerpt from “Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction.”

By Ilan StavansAugust 14, 2021

After the Expulsion: An Excerpt from “Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction”

LARB PRESENTS AN excerpt from Ilan Stavans’s Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction, published last month by Oxford University Press.


Until the end of the 15th century, Jews outside of the Middle East lived dispersed all over Europe. The various governments offered special dispensation for them to settle in specific areas. In Spain, those areas were called juderías, most of which were neighborhoods in larger urban areas such as Toledo, Gerona, and Córdoba. A large community developed in the Iberian Peninsula. Over time, the contact between the three Abrahamic religions — the other two are Christianity and Islam — gave place to what came to be known as La Convivencia, which, according to scholarly debates, goes from the Muslim Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the early eighth century until the expulsion.

Prior to 1492, the foundation behind this outlook was a cadre of experimental poets writing in Hebrew that favored a type of liturgical poem called piyut, meant for use in religious services. They include Shmuel Hanagid, who, aside from writing poetry, was a military figure, a Talmudic scholar, and a merchant of immense importance in Muslim Spain, and Shlomo ibn Gabirol, known in Latin as Avicebron. He was primarily known for his poetry, portions of which have been integrated into the Yom Kippur liturgy. Yet in European intellectual circles, his work Fons Vitae, written in Arabic (its title is Yanbu’ al-Hayat), was well known, although his authorship was acknowledged only in the mid-19th century. Moses ibn Ezra, who wrote substantially about rhetoric, especially the use of metaphor, differed with Maimonides and was arguably the most important philosopher and biblical commentator of Jewish Spain.

Perhaps the most resonant of the Jewish poets in medieval Spain was Yehuda Halevi, a physician, poet, and philosopher whose book Kitab al-Hujjah wal-Dalil fi Nusr al-Din al-Dhalil (completed in 1140), known in its Hebrew translation by Judah ibn Tibbon as Sefer ha-Kuzari, is built as a dialogue between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars. It is an essential philosophical disquisition on various aspects of Judaism, such as the names of the divine, how the universe was created ex nihilo, the value of the oral tradition, and so on. Along with Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed (ca. 1190), Halevi’s treatise is of fundamental importance in medieval Jewish theology. Likewise, his diverse poetic explorations are influential. He wrote love poems, elegies, riddles, travel verses, and laudatory poems about friendship, a number of which have been canonized in Jewish liturgy as Shabbat hymns. One of the most enchanting and a primer of the Sephardic outlook is “My Heart Is in the East.” It displays, in full splendor, the forking paths of Sephardic identity. This is my translation:

My heart is in the east, and I am in the far-away west.
How can I savor food? How might it be sweet to me?
How might I render my vows and bonds, while
Zion is under the might of Edom and I am in Arab bondage?
It would be good for me to leave behind all goods from Spain
while I behold in my eyes the precious dust of the forsaken sanctuary.

Halevi represents diaspora life for Jews as a forking path between their individual location, in his case, Spain, and Jerusalem, the site of King Solomon’s destroyed temple, as the source for constant longing. In the context of aterritoriality, that dualism is a constant. Toward the end of his own life, having lived in various locations in Christian and Muslim Spain, he traveled to Egypt and from there set off for Jerusalem. He probably made it, although rumors have it that he died at sea. It is also said that he was killed by an Arab horseman.

Although premodern when judged by the parameters of the European Enlightenment, these cadres of Hebrew poets continue to exert enormous appeal among Jewish readers. Heinrich Heine, the German Romantic poet and among the first Jews to enter a national literary canon (even though, as in the case of Mendelssohn’s descendants, Heine’s family converted to Lutheranism when he was young), was infatuated with them to such an extent that he translated some of them into German. Emma Lazarus used Heine’s versions as her source for her English versions.

The road to Spain as a unified nation exacerbated the tension among the three religions. The year 1492 is an annus mirabilis when everything fell apart. It marks the time in which La Reconquista, the drive to homogenize Spain under a Catholic faith, brought together King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, known as los reyes católicos, the Catholic monarchs, meaning their partnership was based on an agreement established by the Catholic Church. Harassment against Jews and Muslims intensified. Other European nations had already expelled them from their midst: England in 1290, the Duchy of Austria in 1421, and Ravenna in 1491. Others would quickly follow suit: Portugal in 1496, Nuremberg in 1499, and several papal states in 1569. In other words, there was a continental rush to narrow the path minorities — especially Jews — had in emerging nationalistic projects.

The defining characteristic in pre-1492 Spain was the perfidious role that El Santo Oficio, the Spanish Inquisition, played in every aspect of life. As an institution, it pushed non-Catholics to either convert or leave. Those choosing conversion sometimes embraced it wholeheartedly. Others engaged in it only as a public act, keeping a hidden identity in the domestic realm, thus living a double life. As the question of limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, became a referendum in Spain on people’s identity, a new class of people, known as conversos, meaning converts, spread all over the Spanish kingdom. The nomenclature includes important variations on the converso type: cristiano nuevo, New Christian; marrano, describing a converso in a derogatory sense; its Hebrew equivalent, anusi; and Crypto-Jew, a hidden Jew. Aside from the Alhambra Decree, as the Edict of Expulsion is known, other important events took place that year. In an effort to find a new maritime route to India, which was impeded by a Turkish blockade in the Mediterranean Sea, the Genoese admiral, whose ancestry has been suggested to have been partially Jewish, sailed from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. With funds from Queen Isabella, Columbus set foot on the island eventually known as Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The end of La Convivencia dispersed Jews to a number of places: from the Netherlands to Italy, from the Balkans to Turkey and Northern Africa, or Jerusalem and its surroundings, and into the Western Hemisphere. Ladino, also known as Judezmo and judeo-español, was a language made of Spanish and Hebrew elements and until the late 19th century was written in Hebrew characters, though there was a flourishing Ladino publishing industry (using Hebrew characters) well into the 20th century. Ladino was used to create poetry, lyrics, and storytelling. An emergent consciousness came to the fore, which might be called “the converso split,” a dense web of transnational connections among cristianos nuevos, who possessed Jewish family roots but had abandoned them, yet felt united by the ostracism they were subjected to. They were rejected not only by the Spanish Inquisition and the old Christian majority of Spanish society, but also by Jews. Metaphorically, this group suddenly became the new Jews, a loosely defined people with strong cultural ties, who took it upon themselves to help each other, at times quietly and at other times overtly, against adversity.

Through conversion, those whose genealogy included Jewish elements often became devoted Catholics. This switch was projected into their work. They embedded secret messages in their work to alert readers about the double consciousness they inhabited. Poets like Santa Teresa de Jesús and Fray Luis de León, the latter the author of important exegetical works on the Book of Psalms and other biblical narratives, were to various degrees suspected of Judaizing. The same ought to be said of the anonymous author of Lazarillo of Tormes (1554), a novel considered the first in Europe in the picaresque genre. The acerbic critique it makes of the Catholic Church was possible only through some distancing from it, which is what conversos experienced in their daily life. The same goes for Fernando de Rojas, author of La Celestina (1499). The entire narrative is made of a series of dialogues that follow the tradition of courtly love. One of its protagonists is a hybrid between a healer and a matchmaker. If one takes a narrow view of Sephardic culture, all these authors should not be considered part of it. After all, they or their ancestors had abandoned the Jewish faith. Yet that duality, to be an outcast while retaining a certain sensibility connected to one’s past, was a feature — religious, intellectual, and emotional — a number of them manifested.

The case of Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher responsible for the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), is pertinent. He himself rejected his Judaism; as punishment for his ideas, the Amsterdam community in which he lived proclaimed a herem, an excommunication. Nobody was allowed to relate to him. Still, his Jewishness defined his worldview. And that worldview, especially in the realms of ethics and government, was the cornerstone in the shaping of essential documents like the US Constitution, written during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Américo Castro, a prominent early 20th-century Spanish cultural historian, author of The Structure of Spanish History (1954), concluded that the New Christian mentality was shaped by a sense of pride, not shame, in secrecy. He even speculated, without any tangible evidence, I should add, that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605–’15), might have had Jewish blood. A few scholars read the first sentence of his novel — “En un lugar de la Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero”; in my English translation: “In a place of La Mancha of which name I do not care to remember, there lived, not long ago, a hidalgo who has a lance on the shelf ” — as evidence of attempting to hide one’s origins.

One of the most significant Sephardic writers, whose odyssey showcases the tortured nature of a double life forced by the Spanish Inquisition, is Luis de Carvajal the Younger. He arguably is the most famous martyr of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas, which, although not as lethal as its counterpart in the Iberian Peninsula, nevertheless established a similar reign of terror. Carvajal’s uncle, the Spanish-born, Crypto-Jewish governor of the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León, was aware that in New Spain, as Mexico was known in the 16th century, the Spanish Inquisition was more lenient. The uncle brought along his extended family, asking them to retain their secret Jewishness at home. Among them was Luis de Carvajal the Younger, who became known under his chosen name, Joseph Lumbroso, a.k.a. El Iluminado. He rediscovered his Jewish roots in his early 20s and became obsessed with them. Never having read the Hebrew Bible, he taught himself a few tenets he discovered in it. Soon, he became convinced he was a biblical prophet endowed with the task of bringing back to their old faith those members of the tribe who had distanced themselves from it.

As Carvajal began to proselytize among other Crypto-Jews in New Spain, the Spanish Inquisition tracked his activities. He, his mother, and his sister were eventually arrested and put in prison. They were interrogated by inquisitors who wanted to know every detail of their endeavor. To extract precise information, they were tortured. Inside the prison, Carvajal communicated surreptitiously with his relatives by sending them messages in mamey peels. The inquisitors intercepted these messages. The Carvajals repented, at least publicly. The story takes a surprising twist. Carvajal was released from prison, at which point he proselytized again. And he drafted an autobiographical narrative in which he described in detail — in the third person — all his activities, including his and a friend’s decision to circumcise themselves on the bank of the Pánuco River. That narrative is the first memoir by a Jew written in the New World. Not long after, Carvajal and his relatives were arrested again and burned at the stake, in the Plaza del Quemadero in downtown Mexico City, in the most important auto-da-fé ever to take place in the Americas. (Against the background of a lost manuscript, my graphic novel illustrated by Steve Sheinkin, El Iluminado [2012], recounts his ordeal.)

As Sephardim built new communities, their literature reflected the historical events affecting them. One example is Daniel Levi de Barrios, a.k.a. Miguel Barrios. Born in Spain and wanting to connect with his Jewish heritage yet understanding he needed to keep it secret, he escaped the Inquisition by traveling to Algeria, Italy, France, and then the West Indies. Levi de Barrios serves as a connection with the nascent Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. It was there that the movement known as Sabbatanism, in which Levi de Barrios participated, took shape. Its central figure was Shabbetai Zvi, the false messiah, a rabbi, and kabbalist from Smyrna, in the Ottoman Empire, whose claim to be the messiah persuaded thousands of followers. In the year 1666, just as his prophesy of a new age was to arrive, he was arrested in Constantinople by the grand vizier Ahmed Köprülü. While in prison, Zvi converted to Islam. His unexpected move shocked his followers. Some abandoned Judaism; others followed him in conversion, creating a subwing of the movement that, in its antinomianism, argued for sin as a road to salvation. (In 1973, Gershom Scholem wrote a lucid biography of Zvi and his movement.) The impact on Levi de Barrios was deep. As a convert, he looked at Zvi as a redeemer like Jesus Christ. But after the conversion to Islam, he became an antinomian, becoming persuaded that redemption was attainable through sin. He set out to write a treatise — now lost — on the divine presence in the modern world. Afterward, he kept his distance from all types of religion. In time, he became a successful poet as well as the author of comedias and history books. Whereas Carvajal was himself convinced of, and ultimately doomed by, his messianic powers, Levi de Barrios, getting his feet wet on Shabbetanism, emerged from the experience as an astute champion of enlightened ideas. This duality would define successive generations: some would fear doom while others would embrace hope.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Sephardic writers included Benjamin Disraeli, who was baptized at an early age and displayed little interest in Judaism, and, on the opposite side, Grace Aguilar, a novelist, poet, and advocate for religious and education reform whose most important poems meditate on the biblical characters of Hagar and Ishmael. But unlike Yiddish literature, which I discuss in the following chapter, the Sephardim never fully developed a coherent modern literary tradition. Instead, there are figures here and there who acknowledge the Spanish heritage as impacting their oeuvre.

Among them is Greek-born Swiss novelist Albert Cohen, who worked for the International Labour Organization and wrote humorous, idiosyncratic novels, like Belle du Seigneur (1988), full of idiosyncratic Ottoman characters. These two positions, rejection and embrace, are notable across the tradition. Arguably the most famous 20th-century Sephardic writer is Bulgarian novelist and cultural critic Elias Canetti, who grew up in Ladino but wrote in German. Quite prolific, he alternated between novels and book-long essays. His most famous novel is Die Blendung (1935), known in English translation as Auto-da-Fé, a phantasmagoric exploration of life under fascism. His two most important nonfiction books are Masse und Macht (1960), known as Crowds and Power, a probing study of the psychology of the masses under fascism; and Der andere Prozess (1969), titled Kafka’s Other Process (1969) in English, in which he explored, in minute fashion, the sentimental life of the author of The Metamorphosis with his lover Felice Bauer. Canetti’s style could oscillate from the lyrical to the phantasmagoric. This is clear in his multivolume autobiography, especially in Die Gerettete Zunge (1977), translated as The Tongue Set Free. The reader is able to sense a delicious mix of Ladino, German, and English, and the respective cultures they represent, in its pages.

Other Sephardic writers include Italian activist and member of Parliament Natalia Ginzburg; chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, also Italian; and Serbian short story writer Danilo Kiš, who spent the last period of his life in France. Born in Palermo, Sicily, a prominent anti-fascist and for a while a member of Italy’s Communist Party, Ginzburg’s work focuses on the tension between the domestic and public spheres in Italian family life, especially among the intelligentsia during the Second World War. Her novel Family Lexicon (1963) is a vivid, surgically delivered, empathetic portrait, with an added focus on family language, that is anchored in the death of Leone Ginzburg, an influential anti-fascist journalist, editor, writer, and teacher and Natalia Ginzburg’s first husband. It chronicles the plight of Italian Jews under the regime of Benito Mussolini and the death of celebrated poet Cesare Pavese, whom she published while an editor in Turin at the publishing house Einaudi. Ginzburg (née Natalia Levi) also published Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, and another Sephardic writer, Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945).

Influenced by Bruno Schulz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov, Kiš’s volumes of stories A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976), about betrayal and deception in the Soviet bloc, and The Encyclopedia of the Dead (1983), a postmodern meditation on tyranny, are lucid instances of this tradition. A. B. Yehoshua, the Israeli novelist, sought to understand the continuity between the expulsion in 1492 and a sprawling Sephardic family tree in his epic novel Mr. Mani (1989). Faulknerian in language as well as in structure, it tells the story of various generations in reverse chronological order, with the youngest descendant, an Israeli, starting the tale, and the last one, an Iberian, concluding it.

It is important to make a distinction between this tradition and its Mizrahi counterpart. The latter term describes Jews from Middle Eastern and North African descent. After the destruction of the Second Temple, as Jews were exiled in the Roman Empire, a very small number stayed in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas and persisted in their religious practices. The expulsion from Spain also brought Jews into North Africa and the Middle East, which means that a portion of Mizrahim have Sephardic blood. Occasionally in their work, Iraqi-born Israeli author Sami Michael and Tel Aviv–based Orly Castel-Bloom delve into the junction between the forking paths of Sepharad and Magreb.

An ethereal quality present in Mizrahi literature is personified — if such a verb might be used to describe such a ghost-like individual — in Monsieur Chouchani. While I confess to knowing almost nothing about him, not even his first name, let alone his date of birth, I feel the urge to include him in this survey. He was a rabbi, a Talmudist, and a conversationalist who deliberately left no trace, especially in published form. Two major Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Emmanuel Levinas and Elie Wiesel, about whom I will reflect in depth later, befriended him in Paris. Wiesel, upon finding out Monsieur Chouchani had died in 1968, procured a proper Jewish tomb and burial in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he passed away. He apparently had a prodigious mind and was able to recite entire sections of the Talmud. Yet he lived, by all accounts, an itinerant life and was often homeless. In countless ways, his existence is symbolic of the wandering ways of Mizrahi, and for that matter all, Jewish literature.

The most wide-ranging of Sephardic authors is Angelina Muñiz-Huberman. A refugee of the Spanish Civil War, she moved with her family to France and subsequently to Mexico, where she went to school. Her household was Catholic. One day, Muñiz-Huberman saw her mother sweep the kitchen. She took the garbage she piled in the center not through the door, but through the window. When the daughter asked why, the mother responded that it was a custom she had learned as a girl. Eventually, Muñiz-Huberman figured out such behavior was frequent among Crypto-Jews. This led her to a voyage of discovery. She eventually became a scholar of Jewish mysticism, a poet, and a novelist whose oeuvre, such as The Confidantes (1997), deals with the legacy of secrecy among conversos. In her work, she returns to the medieval Hebrew poets — Hanagid, ibn Gabirol, ibn Ezra, and Halevi — to find continuity. She empathizes with Iberian writers such as Santa Teresa de Jesús and Fray Luis de León, and she connects with kabbalists and other mystics.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born American philosopher and civil rights activist who wrote a biography of Maimonides (1935), once published an essay suggesting that the Sephardic sensibility is precise, almost mathematical, and allergic to expressions of disquiet and nervousness and that it sees itself best reflected in liturgical chants. While these might be generalizations, Sephardic literature indeed oscillates toward certain motifs and moods. One is the motif of the lost key. It symbolizes an abandoned door that belongs to the past, although nobody remembers exactly where that door is located. The key invokes nostalgic moods and shares a feeling that the family is both the conduit for continuity to last and its saboteur. Along the way, the key showcases an urge for travel by a people with shifting diasporic addresses to find connections across borders to be able to replicate certain patterns of religious behavior.


Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American author and translator, the publisher of Restless Books, and Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

LARB Contributor

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast In Contrast. He has written Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), Oy, Caramba!: An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America (2016), Borges, the Jew (2017), and The Wall (2018).  He has recently written The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh), and his book-long poem “The Wall” (also Pittsburgh) won the 2019 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.


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