Thursday, September 19, 2013

Jews in Flight: Aleppo to Montevideo

Perfumes of Carthage by Teresa Porzecanski

Once, before the creation of Israel, there was a thriving Jewish community in Syria. Indeed for more than 3,000 years Aleppo, Syria’s largest, now bitterly war-torn city was “the crown of Jewish splendor in the Sephardic world.”  It has been said of Aleppo that, outside of Israel itself, there is no other city in the world that can claim such a rich and vibrant Jewish history.

Beyond the city’s location at the heart off a bustling trade network in spices, a part of what made the once-Ottoman city of Aleppo such an important center for Sephardic Jewish life and learning was what has come to be known as the Aleppo Codex, the earliest known record of the entire text of the Bible, a manuscript (consulted by none other than the great Maimonides in his effort to codify the text’s transmission) that, after nearly a thousand years of safekeeping in Aleppo, was finally smuggled out of Syria to Israel in the 1940’s. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the birth of modern Israel in 1948 proved the death knell for the ancient Jewish communities of Syria.  Just a year earlier, rioters had destroyed the Jewish quarter of Aleppo, killing 75 people and prompting more than half of the city’s Jewish population to flee the country for good. Of the 30, 000 Jews who remained, it was not long before they too—like so many Palestinians in the newly created Israel—were forced to abandon their deeply rooted lives there, emigrating to other Jewish communities throughout the world, so that today there remains hardly a trace of the once-great Jewish presence in Syria.

Of the many far-flung Sephardic communities, those of Latin America proved especially appealing to Syrian Jews who readily struggled to make their lives anew in countries and cultures as varied as Mexico, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.  A smaller contingent, refugees from the many anti-Jewish restrictions and pogroms in Syria during the 1910’s and ‘20’s, chose Uruguay as their home, where they settled principally—amidst a rush of Spaniards and Italians—in the bustling port city of Montevideo where this novella, Perfumes of Carthage is set.

Perfumes of Carthage (paired with another novella by Porzecanski called Sun Inventions) is published in English by the University of New Mexico Press as a part of its remarkable series—edited by esteemed Jewish Mexican-American essayist, critic, and translator Ilan Stavans—called Jewish Latin America.  

Born in Uruguay at the end of WWII, a descendant of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews from the Baltics and Syria, Porzecanski grew up in Montevideo speaking Yiddish, Arabic, and Spanish—a lush, if conflicted world of longing and nostalgia, which she skillfully recreates in Perfumes of Carthage. Centered around a woman named Lunita Mualdeb, the story describes the small, still exotic community of Syrian Sephardic Jews in the River Plata region of Uruguay during the 1930’s. It was a trying period in the nation’s short history, defined largely by the dictatorship of Gabriel Terra during which the constitution was abolished, professors and writers jailed, and dissent often brutally repressed. The title, Perfumes of Carthage is the name of a perfume shop owned and operated by one of the novella’s principal characters, a man named Jeremías Berro whose perfumes—like so many of the novel’s details—have the power to conjure both the distant wonders of the Orient and the Past itself, which haunts this funny, tragic tale.

The author’s dedication of the novellas is moving: “For my aunt, Ana Porzecanski, shot to death in Latvia, 1939.”

Teresa Porzecanski, a scholar on such wide-ranging issues as racism, labor history, and Indian rituals, has published five novels and seven collections of short stories in Uruguay.  Perfumes of Carthage and Sun Inventions were translated by Johnny Payne and Phyllis Silverstein. Find them and other great titles from the Jewish Latin America series at

Peter Adam Nash

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