Gloria Gervitz. Migrations: Poem, 1976–2020. Translated by Mark Schafer. New York Review Books, 2021.
Eduardo Halfon. Canción. Translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. Bellevue Literary Press, 2022.
JEWS ARE IN SOME SENSE the quintessential recipients of historical brutality. From Egyptian enslavement to the Holocaust, via inquisitions, pogroms, forced migrations, and destitutions, Jewish tragedy spans history. Those raised in avowedly Jewish households and social worlds learn few things with as much clarity as the importance and endlessness of ancestral suffering. Memory is a central pillar of our faith and religious practice: Jews remember the suffering of forebears in an often direct, embodied sense. From holy days such as Passover to the now-archetypal glimpse of a grandparent’s tattooed arm, from prayers imploring God’s favor in adversity to implements like the tallit and tefillin, reminders of suffering and survival are everywhere. To be Jewish is to be alive to pain and heartache and to find shelter in a legacy of survival, to recognize that tragedy and life are inseparable.
Nevertheless, the Holocaust posed a challenge to less militant Judaism, which, though aware of history’s capacity to hurt, faltered in finding language for that infinite horror. The Enlightenment, in facilitating assimilation, had allowed Jews access to unprecedented cultural and material capital. How, then, to understand an exceptional, unparalleled atrocity with historical roots in the very Enlightenment from which Jews had allegedly benefited? In the late 1950s and early 1960s, secular and exiled German Jewish scholars like Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt wrote momentous studies of evil attempting to respond to this seeming unnameability. Fundamentally, both philosophers asked: “how could someone do this?” The vein of interrogation that explored how individuals came to commit atrocities peaked with the 1974 publication of Jewish psychologist Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, which argued that individuals usually prioritize obedience over ethics.
Similar concerns around the status of evil washed over Jewish theology in the 1960s, though with a less marked interest in the individual. Theodicy, the term Leibniz proposed for the dilemma of God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence against the sullen fact of injustice, had historically never been a central concern of Jewish thought. The Jewish God was never quite as powerful or unambiguous as the Aristotelian, Christian counterpart, and so questions of theodicy remained marginal. In (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, Jewish theologian Zachary Braiterman affirms sharply: “a professed hostility to theodicy characterized modern Jewish thought.” Braiterman describes eminent rabbis and intellectuals like Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Mordecai Kaplan as “modern” theologians who came of age pre-Holocaust and responded to the horror with conceptual frameworks developed before Auschwitz. He finds in their work a marginalized “theodic impulse,” a need to give evil and suffering a meaning of some kind, render them redemptive or somehow connect them to God’s will. They attempted to incorporate the Holocaust into their visions of God, sublimating its exceptional horror as though it did not require a complete transformation of our thought—attempting to treat it, in some sense, as yet another historical tragedy for the Jews.
Partially against this theodic wave, an antitheodic theology emerged to establish the Holocaust as a total break from what came before, irreducible by now-antiquated theologies. These theological and Talmudic scholars—Braiterman focuses on Richard Rubenstein, Eliezer Berkovits, and Emil Fackenheim—insisted upon a totally transformed Judaism that centered the Holocaust without turning to God for explanations or redemption. Their main target was the foundational notion of covenant, the Jewish people’s contract with God, renewed with every circumcision, the belief that God would protect us if we upheld our faith and fulfilled his commands. Braiterman excludes major figures of the movement, most notably Arthur Cohen, author of The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust, but his subjects converge in their dissatisfaction with the preexisting sense of covenant. Most radically, Richard Rubenstein argued in his 1966 book After Auschwitz that “to posit a just and omnipotent God covenanted to Israel and active in its affairs could only mean that God justly willed the murder of six million Jewish people.” In turn, he proclaimed “the death of God” and suggested that Jews move toward something like paganism. Though Rubenstein was the most extreme, many of his generation reached similar conclusions. Only through such radical critique could Judaism make sense of Auschwitz and perhaps one day return to God and covenant.
The project of refashioning Judaism in light of Auschwitz acquired particular significance in Latin America, where throughout the twentieth century de facto governments executed genocidal plans of disappearance, murder, and civil war. Jews were disproportionally targeted, as were leftists, trade unionists, and queer and indigenous people. Add to this a general awareness of escaped Nazis’ presence in Latin America (Eichmann in Argentina and Menguele in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, among many others). Estelle Tarica, in Holocaust Consciousness and Cold War Violence in Latin America, shows that Argentina—the Latin American country with the largest Jewish community—led the charge in using consciousness of the Holocaust to politicize and make sense of state-sponsored atrocities that defined the 1960s and ’70s. Mexicans and Guatemalans also found the allusion both relevant and useful in making sense of their own states’ brutalities. Jewish populations in those nations are small, but Jewish and non-Jewish writers alike pioneered efforts to set the Holocaust in relation to Guatemala’s civil war, the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, and a broader, longer colonial project.
Gloria Gervitz, one of Mexico’s most prominent poets, began her singular opus, Migrations, in 1970. Multiple versions were published over the years, with a final edition, Migrations (1976–2020), appearing in English in late 2021, months before her death. She continuously rewrote and expanded the text in pursuit of an ineffable poetic distillation, a synthesis of her Jewish childhood and faith, sexuality, family life, and a history of migration and exile.
Eduardo Halfon, perhaps Guatemala’s leading writer, creates novelesque works of autofiction and family history in which remnants—a ring, a pin, a car, a look—unmoor shards of memory, moving us toward enchantment, nostalgia, and political invective. In his latest book, Canción, his eponymous narrator travels to a Tokyo-based conference for Lebanese writers in which he feels out of place, becomes enamored of his guide (whose grandfather survived Hiroshima), and recalls the story of his own grandfather, a wealthy businessman kidnapped by Guatemalan guerrillas in the 1960s.
Though the two writers are markedly distinct, each reckons with the past’s irreducible relationship to the present, echoing the antitheodic project: only by grounding our Judaism in the concrete history of twentieth-century tragedies can we truly return to God and to covenant.
The Vertigo of Kol Nidre
Migrations begins with what has remained, throughout ten or so published iterations, an unforgettable opening couplet: “in the migrations of red carnations where songs burst from long-beaked birds / and apples rot before the disaster.” Beyond a red carnation’s traditional associations with love and beauty, the coexistence of vitality—flowers, birds—and putrefaction—rotting apples—places us squarely within the territory of multigenerational poetry, concerned with the worldly cycles of life and death. We are “in the migrations” of a transitory life, caught between beauty and decay, living an unmoored life that cannot but be itinerant and ephemeral. From the first lines, Gervitz invokes Jewish themes: migration, kabbalistic and vital cycles, even apples, traditional symbols of sweetness and good fortune. “The disaster” remains unnamed for the remainder of the text, but always looms in lingering half presence. The allusion, of course, is to the Holocaust, so often represented as an apocalyptic event or Messianism’s dark side. That the rotting apples precede “the disaster” insists, after Rubenstein and the antitheodicists, on the presence of evil in our world before the Holocaust, without brushing off the Holocaust’s exceptionality. The line break that immediately follows the opening couplet indicates the Holocaust’s radical inassimilability, even amid the glorious beauty of life and movement. From the very first page, Migrations forces evil and beauty, apocalypse and rebirth, to coexist through a deeply Jewish language, which Gervitz renews in a poetic gesture much like Rubenstein’s.
Her exaltations of vitality engage the most uniquely American of poetic traditions, a lineage founded by Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass (which he, like Gervitz, constantly rewrote and expanded throughout his life) and continued by Rubén Darío, who founded of modernismo, a poetic movement that transformed Spanish-language literature around the turn of the twentieth century. Other predecessors might include Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, whose elegiac edge and penchant for grandiosity Gervitz carries on and playfully subverts. Place, the essential signifier of Whitman, Darío, and Neruda, is central to Migrations as well. I’ll quote her beginning at greater length:
in the migrations of red carnations where songs burst from long-beaked birds
and apples rot before the disaster
where women fondle their breasts and touch their sex
in the sweat of rice powder and teatime
vines of passionflowers course through that which stays the same
cities crisscrossed by thought
the old nanny watches us from a shaft of light
pools of shadow breathe
purples rain down nearly red
the heat opens its jaws
the moon sinks into the street and the voice of a black woman
a sad black woman sings and swells
“Where,” at first somewhat abstract and focused on womanhood and sexuality, soon blossoms into melancholy reminiscences of childhood spent at play in the urban heat. Polyphonic and multisensorial, Gervitz’s careful weave of poetry transforms “migrations” and the unsettledness of life—Jewish life—into a song of place, rooted somehow in its uprootedness. Paradoxes litter the text; sameness blurs always into difference, stillness into movement and into stillness again. Migrations reminds one of Whitman, who poetically electrified the United States with an ecstatic, devotional verse that spread to envelop everything around it, promising to ennoble all it touched. Gervitz’s work, however, is not undergirded by a fantasy of universal understandability—she writes of herself and her family, her past and future only. In the very specificity of singular experience, she finds the universe constantly in flux.
In a world that constantly changes, music and prayer become central pillars of Gervitz’s poetic vision. She is above all concerned with their relationship in Jewish religious practice. She alludes to shaharith—daily morning prayer—and Kol Nidre, the often dramatic and moving centerpiece of Yom Kippur religious services, connecting them to her grandmother’s “sonata” and the everyday musicality of summer and wind. In the fields of memory that Gervitz so perfectly inhabits, instants stretch into landmarks and momentous eternities, as when her grandmother offers a lesson: “dream that the dream of life is beautiful my child.” Prayer diffuses into memory, as though remembering and dreaming were devotional acts of utmost sanctity, utterly mundane and bodily but in their very embodied ordinariness offering visions—passing, migrating, perhaps—of divinity. Or if not of God, then of the sanctity of our human world. She writes: “I spread my legs beneath the bathtub faucet / gushing water falls / the water enters me / the words of the Zohar spread open / the same questions as always.” Gervitz’s body is “spread open” into the Zohar, kabbalah’s founding text; self-pleasure morphs into exegesis and interpretation, into prayer and tradition. Since much of Jewish prayer transpires as a question (“what makes this night different from any other?” children ask during Passover), her pleasure’s rehearsal of “the same questions as ever” only heightens the passage of sensual pleasure into the ecstasy of faith, of God.
To remember, to masturbate, to observe children playing and remember the songs of childhood: for Gervitz, God is everywhere. As Migrations progresses, her devotional poetics erupt at the level of form too. Greek and Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish proliferate, often in reference to prayer. With the words “Kadosh/Kadosh/Kadosh—a transliteration of the Jewish word for “holy” and a citation of Scripture (Isaiah 6:3)—Gervitz invokes the act of prayer, to which that versicle is essential, and with which Migrations slowly becomes synonymous. It’s an assertion, too, of a diasporic, exilic Judaism—wandering away from its own (now putatively secularized) holy language of Hebrew into the errant sanctity of Latin America, of Spanish. Gervitz’s book becomes a sensuous siddur (or prayer book) in the first person, infinitely tied to her own Mexican Judaism.
In later sections, Gervitz’s verses become shorter, more abstract, less sensory, departing from her rhythmic and extensive free verse toward aphoristic, interrogative fragments that are often repetitive and shape the poem itself into a long, beautiful invocation. If at first Gervitz gives poetic form to luxuriant memories of childhood, the latter sections of Migrations use self-interrogation to wonder more explicitly about the possibilities of remembrance and mourning, of her own personal relationship to the world and its history. Though never mentioned explicitly, the Holocaust—and Jewish history’s other tragedies—are central to this memorial impulse. Their presence, however, never excludes beauty, and indeed only heightens Gervitz’s delight in the brief world around her.
For Gervitz, like Richard Rubenstein and the other antitheodicists, the overlap between belief and memory is inescapable: to remember childhood, pleasure, death, one’s mother, is to come closer to God and the divine. Inevitably, such memories must reckon with tragedy too, must acknowledge the complex consequences of God’s failures and the never-settled problem of evil and its coexistence with the intense beauty of our world. Evoking Latin American Jewish practice—Hebrew transliterated into Spanish and with a Mexican accent—rejects singularized, universalizing visions of Judaism (e.g., Zionism) that would collapse and negate the very history of tragedy through which they seek legitimacy.
The Lebanese Writer
Like Gervitz, Eduardo Halfon has employed a consistent methodology throughout his career: in the mode of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, his semiautobiographical fiction examines his remarkable family history and the lives around him. In The Polish Boxer (2012), Halfon’s eponymous narrator journeys across the world, encountering various strangers whose lives illuminate his own. In Mourning, the same narrator crosses Poland, Italy, the US, and Guatemala, hoping to understand the mysterious drowning death of his father, Salomón. Literature for Halfon never serves a judicial purpose; in writing, he sets the past against the present to uncover time’s prolixity, the expansive convergence of historical threads at every remarkable instance. Leaving moralism behind, Halfon asks: How do ordinary lives come to take such extreme shapes?
In Canción, his latest book, Halfon travels to Tokyo for a conference about Lebanese writers. Though he himself is Guatemalan, as were his parents, his Sephardic Jewish grandfather reached Guatemala in the early twentieth century after fleeing Beirut. The city was then a part of Syria, but his grandfather always claimed to have come from Lebanon. Disguises proliferate in Halfon’s oeuvre, and here they seize precedence: not only in the autobiographical pretense of an eponymous narrator, but of one who says he “opened the closet to find my Lebanese disguise—among my many disguises—inherited from my paternal grandfather, born in Beirut.” Other writers at the conference question his Guatemalan provenance, his right to be at a conference for Lebanese authors, and his Judaism: diasporic subjectivity exists as a problem, outside the clearer genealogies and experiences of his peers. Halfon writes:
I’d never been to Japan before. And I had never been asked to be a Lebanese writer. A Jewish writer, yes. A Guatemalan writer, obviously. A Latin American writer, of course. A Central American writer, less and less. A US writer, more and more. A Spanish writer, when traveling on that passport was desirable. A Polish writer, on one occasion, at a Barcelona bookstore that insisted—insists—on shelving my books in the Polish literature section. A French writer, since I lived for a time in Paris and some people assume I’m still there. I keep each of those disguises on hand, nicely ironed and hanging in the closet.
What rests at the very core of Halfon’s disjunctive presence is the trauma of necessary flight, of exile and escape, that shaped Judaism with particular intensity in the early twentieth century. Though his own migrations are more a product of economic and cultural privilege, they nevertheless echo the pursuit of a “homeliness” of which history has robbed Halfon and many Jews. Like Gervitz, he is “in the migrations,” at home in unsettlement.
In attempting to explain his presence at the conference, the narrator expands on his grandfather’s story. Also named Eduardo, he was kidnapped by Guatemalan guerrilla fighters, who relied on ransom money to sustain their armed struggle. Halfon explores both the perspective of his grandfather—a wealthy and successful businessman with a love for talismans—and his kidnappers, including a young butcher by the name of Canción. Many years later, when the narrator was a child, the military police entered the Halfon family home and informed the grandfather that Canción’s body had been found. This event, and a meeting between the adult narrator and another of his grandfather’s kidnappers, anchor the story in the present. Halfon insists upon pursuing every memory’s contemporary resonances concretely, and the echoes between past and present ping-pong through the novel’s pages.
Though Halfon is Jewish—as his fellow Lebanese writers remind him rather unkindly—devotional aspects of Judaism are not central to Canción (unlike Migrations). An attention to history, in all its horrible and complex wonder, sustains the Judaism of this text. Its epigraph is from Baudelaire: “Perhaps it would be nice to be alternately victim and executioner.” In the text’s movement between roles—between Canción and the grandfather, or Aiko (his guide and the granddaughter of a Hiroshima bombing survivor) and Halfon—lies a profound need to understand how victim and executioner came to be, and how such violence is carried forward through the generations. Like a contract, or perhaps a covenant, Halfon’s eventual intimacy with Aiko is built upon their shared experiences of family silences and secrets, explanations refused, and conversations in private rooms. Though it’s reductive to compare their relationship to the covenant between Jews and God, the act of taking such horrors as grounds on which to build a relationship—or a world—is in harmony with an antitheodic project that may refuse God but more broadly begins from the Holocaust to rebuild a sense of collectivity in its aftermath.
The bond between Halfon and Aiko is also opposite to the relationships between the conference’s other attendees, whose ties are only ever substantiated by their (perhaps unexamined) sense of national belonging. Canción is most interested in what common ground a painful, broken history can offer, how an inheritance of trauma can serve a project that rebuilds without disregarding the past. Perhaps, Halfon says, we may even learn that what carved the paths leading up to those traumatic events were the unresolved legacies of prior trauma. By re-creating the minute interactions of his grandfather with the kidnappers (most notably, his grandfather gives the two gold pens he had in his pocket at the time he was seized to the politest kidnapper, who calls him “Señor Halfon”), Halfon draws our attention to those moments in which characters seem to apprehend each other’s historical condition—how they got there, what is at stake for each other. In doing so, he doubles down on the possibilities that apprehending history can offer us the opportunity to rebuild our world and our relationships.
Migrations and Canción suddenly seem quite alike, both passionately devoted to memory as a liberatory and reconstructive project, both drastically, distinctly wandering. In both books, the past is an ambivalent site of pain and a powerful harbinger of freedom, the place to look for explanations, promises, and meaning. Though Gervitz is more outwardly God-fearing and conventionally religious, Halfon is no less Jewish, no less devoted to the Jewish people, no less fervent (or tortured) a signatory of the covenant. In their unique ways, both projects attempt to capture the beauty of the past without forsaking its terrors. Each attempts to renew a covenant with the world, with God, with others. Like Rubenstein and those who struggled for justice in Latin America, Gervitz and Halfon both challenge those who would hide from ambivalence and from knowing truth—or oppose that truth to beauty. As Gervitz writes in the final verses of Migrations:
———————–—who one day
————-—in this moment
———-—that is every moment
—–—I am alive.
Federico Perelmuter is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires. His essays have appeared in the Washington Post, The Baffler, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Point, and The New Republic.