Sephardism in Caribbean Literature
…fleeing the Inquisition
a Sephardic merchant, bag locked in one elbow,
crouched by a Lisbon dock, and in that position
was reborn in the New World: Lima; Curaçao.1
The topic of Black-Jewish relations and their literary representation has rarely been addressed outside of a twentieth-century U.S. framework.2 Despite both the geographical breadth and historical depth of Black-Jewish encounters, discussions of their literary representation largely have been centered on the United States and have tended to be inflected by persistent political tensions between African Americans and Jewish Americans. As a result, the broader terrain of Black-Jewish relations in the Americas, and the purchase of Jewishness on the Caribbean literary imagination in particular, have been neglected. Drawing inspiration from historical scholarship on the Jewish Atlantic and the hemispheric turn in American studies, my research explores how the field of Jewish American literary studies can be expanded to engage Caribbean spaces. Reorienting the field towards the Caribbean encourages much needed dialogue between Jewish and postcolonial studies. Moreover, such a reframing draws attention to the Sephardic presence in the Caribbean, thereby correcting an overemphasis on Ashkenazi experience in Jewish studies.
Consider Caribbean literary evocations of both the Holocaust and the Sephardic expulsion as well as how the memories of these two cataclysms sometimes become intertwined in Caribbean literature with that of a third historical trauma, transatlantic slavery.
While some scholars have identified the Holocaust as a site of “multidirectional memory” that can bridge the gap between Jewish and postcolonial studies, I argue that 1492 warrants consideration alongside the Holocaust as a key node of inter-diasporic comparison and identification.3 In the larger book from which this essay is drawn, I consider Caribbean literary evocations of both the Holocaust and the Sephardic expulsion as well as how the memories of these two cataclysms sometimes become intertwined in Caribbean literature with that of a third historical trauma, transatlantic slavery. Sephardism—by which I mean referencing Sephardic historical experience in an affiliative and identificatory manner—is a significant feature of postwar and contemporary Caribbean literature. Caribbean literary sephardism attests to the resonance of the Sephardic expulsion for postslavery writers concerned with concealed identities and questions of cultural resilience. Moreover, Caribbean writers’ introduction of Sephardic motifs reflects their awareness of the historical presence of Sephardim in the islands and on the Caribbean mainland.
A rich historical analysis of the early modern Sephardic Caribbean is currently emerging in the work of Jonathan Schorsch, Natalie Zemon Davis, Aviva Ben-Ur and others.4 Yet it is worth noting that these historians’ valuable recovery of a neglected chapter of Jewish history was anticipated by a body of imaginative literature that registers the historical entanglement of Black and Jewish identities in the Caribbean. While academic disciplines tend to divide and compartmentalize, creative writing allows the imagination freer reign and thereby has proven more open to what Bryan Cheyette calls “metaphorical thinking,” which he contrasts with “disciplinary thinking.” Cheyette explains that “the disciplinary thinking of the academy…confines different histories of diaspora to separate spheres,” whereas metaphorical thinking sees “similarities in dissimilarities.”5 Accordingly, I argue that imaginative literature has a unique contribution to make to our understanding of Caribbean Jewishness, which is located at the juncture of African and Jewish diasporic histories.
This essay will briefly illustrate the phenomenon of Caribbean literary sephardism with reference to St. Lucian poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), a verse biography of the Sephardic Caribbean painter Camille Pissarro.6 Other key examples of Caribbean literary sephardism that I discuss elsewhere include Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise (1993), Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986), Jewish Jamaican visual artist and poet Anna Ruth Henriques’ The Book of Mechtilde (1997), and Surinamese author Cynthia McLeod’s plantation novel The Cost of Sugar (1987).7 These literary texts illustrate how moving beyond a narrowly national U.S. framework as well as more customary references to the Holocaust and to Ashkenazi experience makes it possible to identify alternative modes of drawing Black and Jewish histories into relation.
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The multilayered story of Caribbean Jewry is a largely unfamiliar one to many because of the tendency to focus on Ashkenazi experience in Europe and the United States. Yet it has been a source of inspiration for Caribbean novelists and poets, many of whom have made significant use of the intersection of Black and Jewish diasporic cultures. As a number of works of Caribbean literature signal, the history of Caribbean Jewry dates back to the earliest moments of New World colonialism, when the expulsions from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s propelled some Sephardic Jews and New Christians to resettle in the Americas. Jewish settlement in the Caribbean occurred over a period of more than three hundred years, establishing itself in the seventeenth century and peaking in the latter half of the eighteenth century. As a result, Dutch and British Caribbean colonies such as Curaçao, Suriname, Jamaica, and Barbados have had significant and longstanding Jewish populations. In cultural terms, it is noteworthy that both Jamaica’s “first national painter,” Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849), and a founding father of Impressionism, the St. Thomas-born artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), were the products of nineteenth-century Sephardic Caribbean communities.
Pissarro is the subject of Derek Walcott’s long poem Tiepolo’s Hound, a significant example of Caribbean literary sephardism that references the Iberian expulsion as well as the history of Sephardic settlement in the Caribbean. In the poem, in a striking instance of Caribbean identification with Sephardic Jewishness, Pissarro serves as a double for the St. Lucian poet. Born in St. Thomas in 1830 as Jacob Abraham Pizarro to Sephardic Jewish parents, and a founding father of the Impressionist movement in France, Pissarro shares both Walcott’s island upbringing and artistic vocation. The two men’s lives become intertwined in the poem, as Pissarro journeys to Paris to satisfy his “longing for the centre” and Walcott searches for an elusive hound that he had once glimpsed in a painting.8
Although Walcott’s Pissarro eventually abandons the faith of his forefathers along with his bourgeois colonial family’s life of commerce, Sephardic Jewishness remains a dominant theme of the poem. There are reminders throughout Tiepolo’s Hound of Pissarro’s Sephardic roots and the traumatic history that attends them, as when the poet’s visit to Spain leads him to recall “far Braganza/ from which the Pissarros sailed for paradise.”9 With its repeated references to the Inquisition, the Synagogue of Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and the Portuguese city of Braganza from which the Pissarro family hails, Tiepolo’s Hound locates Pissarro’s story within a broader history of Sephardic exile and resettlement in the Caribbean.
At the same time as recalling the Inquisition, the poem reads Pissarro’s Sephardic Caribbean story against the legacies of the Middle Passage that haunt the speaker, a stand-in for Walcott who is as much the focus of the poem as is Pissarro. Indeed, while ostensibly devoted to Pissarro, Tiepolo’s Hound in fact intertwines the biographies of two subjects whose artistic formations it charts: the nineteenth-century Jewish painter and the twentieth-century St. Lucian poet. The poem stages a Black-Jewish dialogue, one that is informed by a strongly empathetic and identificatory perspective as well as a poetics of reciprocity. Tiepolo’s Hound thus exhibits characteristic features of Caribbean sephardism, citing the Inquisition as a context for Sephardic migration to the Caribbean and returning to the scene of the Expulsion while simultaneously situating these Sephardic motifs within a broader comparative and connective framework. Invoking 1492 as the meeting point of diverse histories, Tiepolo’s Hound elaborates a capacious and intricately webbed structure that challenges the perspective of linear historical narrative.
The imbalance between artist and subject foregrounds the power differential between Sephardic Jews and Afro-Caribbeans in colonial St. Thomas.
As a Jew of Portuguese ancestry and Caribbean birth who settles in the France of the Dreyfus Affair, Walcott’s Pissarro, much like other colonized subjects, experiences multiple forms of marginalization. Once he has taken his place among the Impressionists, Pissarro remains an outsider even among “the Academy’s outcasts.”10 As Walcott emphasizes, he and the Jewish painter also have in common the experience of diaspora: “Our tribes were shaken like seeds from a sieve.”11 Part way through Tiepolo’s Hound, however, tensions emerge around the Black-Jewish analogy as Walcott begins to back away from the comparison between himself and Pissarro. Walcott admits that he “shifts [Pissarro’s] biography as he shifted houses/ in his landscapes” so that what he offers the reader is an “inexact and blurred biography.”12 Moreover, whereas earlier in the poem he had presented Pissarro’s departure from the Caribbean as inducing a terrible homesickness, he later suggests that this too may have been a fabrication. These self-reflexive moments call attention to the act of comparison itself and raise questions about the limits of analogies between Black and Jewish experience—especially in a colonial Caribbean context in which relations of power between Blacks and Jews were sharply asymmetrical.
Such questions become still more pressing in a passage at the end of Tiepolo’s Hound in which Walcott imagines himself and the artist working side by side, writing and drawing one another. The poet then metamorphoses into one of the recently liberated slaves depicted in Pissarro’s early drawings of St. Thomas. No longer identifying with Pissarro as a fellow artist, the poet now casts himself in the role of one of Pissarro’s subjects. Whereas earlier in the poem, the analogy between painter and poet had tended to align the two men on an equal plane, here, the imbalance between artist and subject foregrounds the power differential between Sephardic Jews and Afro-Caribbeans in colonial St. Thomas.
Thus although strongly identificatory in its twinning of the poet and the painter and reading of Pissarro as emblematic of the Caribbean artist, Tiepolo’s Hound also incorporates a critique of Pissarro’s colonial Jewish gaze, which abandons St. Thomas in favor of France, and which is limited by its failure to fully engage the injustices of slavery. Yet while Walcott recognizes Pissarro’s privileged position within the colonial economy, this awareness does not detract from sephardism’s function in the poem as a vehicle for reframing European art history and exploring the psychic condition of the Caribbean artist. To the contrary, Pissarro’s Sephardic Caribbean story affords Walcott an important opportunity to lay claim to a European artistic inheritance on behalf of the Caribbean.
Tiepolo’s Hound advances this reinterpretation of the relationship between metropolitan and colonial culture not only by tracing Impressionism’s Caribbean roots but also through an emphasis on Pissarro’s Sephardic heritage, which promotes an aesthetics of reciprocity, intersectionality, and triangulation. The term “triangulation” appears in a passage about a Turner painting that Pissarro and Monet view in London and that is later copied by Walcott’s father Warwick:
Triangulation: in his drawing room
my father copies The Fighting Téméraire.
He and Monet admire the radiant doom
of the original; all three men revere
the crusted barge, its funnel bannering fire,
its torch guiding the great three-master on
to sink in the infernal asphalt of an empire
turning more spectral, like the mastodon.13
Here, Pissarro provides a crucial bridge between Walcott’s St. Lucian father and the French Impressionist painter Monet. With his Portuguese roots, Sephardic Caribbean upbringing, and French career, Pissarro connects the early-twentieth-century Caribbean of Warwick Walcott to the nineteenth-century European artistic legacy of Monet and Turner. The principle of triangulation embodied by Pissarro suggests, not the unidirectional influence of the Old World on the New as in conventional models of colonial mimicry, but rather an unstable and dynamic reciprocity between Europe and the Caribbean.
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In her essay “The Allure of Sepharad” Edna Aizenberg asks, what is “the recurring pull of Sephardic ancestry, language, and history? … Throughout the centuries, many have wanted to become Sephardized, attached to the legacy of Iberian Jewry. Nothing similar has happened in the Ashkenazi world.”14 Aizenberg documents the appeal that Sephardic motifs have held for Ashkenazi Jewish writers in Latin America, whose appropriations of Sephardic history generate a “neo-Sephardic” literary tradition. She defines sephardism as an assimilationist strategy through which Latin American Jews foregrounded a common Spanish inheritance with their host society. More relevant to Walcott’s poem and other instances of Caribbean sephardism, however, is Dalia Kandiyoti’s alternative theorization of sephardism as connecting histories rather than collapsing differences. In Kandiyoti’s analysis of Latino/a writing, sephardism works “not to collapse or create supposedly stable formations—like ‘Jews’ and ‘Hispanics’—but rather to posit Jewish, Sephardic, Latin American and diaspora Latina/o identities as historically connected.”15 Similarly, Walcott’s poem Tiepolo’s Hound entwines various cultural histories without erasing their differences. As I have shown, Walcott’s attention to the Pissarro family’s bourgeois colonial affluence and to the artist’s complicity in the colonial gaze generates a slippery and unstable form of comparison.
Moreover, Tiepolo’s Hound not only illustrates sephardism’s connective orientation but also exemplifies what Yael Halevi-Wise terms sephardism as “counterhistory,” harnessing Sephardic motifs to contest normative cultural and historical narratives.16 In contrast to mainstream art historical narratives that locate the origins of Impressionism firmly in France, Walcott foregrounds both Pissarro’s Jewishness and his Caribbean roots. By suggesting that Pissarro injected a Sephardic Caribbean sensibility and aesthetic into his artworks and the school of painting that he helped to establish, Walcott reverses standard assumptions about colonial-metropolitan lines of influence and draws attention to the colonial origins of European modernity. Pissarro’s straddling of multiple cultures, identities, and geographies thus is critical to the poem’s reframing of Eurocentric narratives of art history.
Attending to Sephardic motifs in Caribbean fiction, drama, and poetry opens up a new window onto constructions of Jewishness in postcolonial literature that departs from the more standard emphasis on Holocaust analogies. In particular, examples of Caribbean literary sephardism such as Walcott’s suggest that 1492 holds certain advantages over the Holocaust as a literary topos. Rather than immediately necessitating a reply to exceptionalist objections to Holocaust analogies, the framework of 1492 inherently draws apparently disparate histories of Jewish and Black displacement into profound and complex relation by virtue of its double resonance as the year of both the Sephardic expulsion and Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. 1492 thus offers a way out of the impasse created by what Michael Rothberg terms “competitive memory” by drawing attention to the overlapping trajectories of Jewish and Black diasporic histories.17
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- Derek Walcott, Omeros (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990), 155.
- This essay is adapted from the first chapter of my book Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination (New York: Columbia UP, 2016).
- See Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009).
- See for example Jonathan Schorsch, Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004); Natalie Zemon Davis, “David Nassy’s ‘Furlough’ and the Slave Mattheus,” in New Essays in American Jewish History (Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 2010), 79–94; Aviva Ben-Ur, “A Matriarchal Matter: Slavery, Conversion, and Upward Mobility in Suriname’s Jewish Community” in Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500–1800, ed. Richard L. Kagan and Philip D. Morgan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2009), 152–69.
- Bryan Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (New Haven: Yale UP, 2013), xii; 6.
- Derek Walcott, Tiepolo’s Hound, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000).
- Michelle Cliff, Free Enterprise (New York: Plume, 1993); Maryse Condé, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, 1986, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Random House, 1992); Anna Ruth Henriques, The Book of Mechtilde (New York: Knopf, 1997); Cynthia McLeod, The Cost of Sugar, trans. Gerald R. Mettam. (Paramaribo: Waterfront Press, 2010).
- Walcott, Tiepolo, 24.
- Ibid., 147.
- Ibid., 45.
- Ibid., 157.
- Ibid., 70; 101.
- Ibid., 76.
- Edna Aizenberg, “The Allure of Sepharad,” in Sephardic Identity: Essays on a Vanishing Culture, ed. George K. Zucker (London: McFarland & Company, 2005), 157.
- Dalia Kandiyoti, “Sephardism in Latina Literature,” in Sephardism: Jewish-Spanish History in the Modern Literary Imagination, ed. Yael Halevi–Wise (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012), 236.
- Yael Halevi-Wise, “Introduction: Through the Prism of Sepharad: Modern Nationalism, Literary History, and the Impact of the Sephardic Experience,” in Sephardism: Jewish-Spanish History in the Modern Literary Imagination, ed. Yael Halevi–Wise (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012), 12.
- Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, 3.