Beautiful Books with Latin Jewish Voices – Celebrating Sephardic Literature

LGBTQIA+ Jewish Voices

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month! In celebration, I’ve compiled a reading list of books featuring Latin Jewish voices.

One of my goals this year was to honor the diversity within the Jewish tribe. Much of the Jewish representation we see are Eastern European Jews but our tribe is made up of many, unique and wonderful voices. Check out more of my reading lists at the bottom of the article.

Join the conversation! Add your favorite titles in the comments.

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The Collected Stories of Moacyr Scliar by Moacyr Scliar

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From Brazil’s most distinguished and important Jewish writer comes this anthology comprised of six collections: in The Carnival of the Animals, Scliar uses political allegory to convey what was normally censored during the height of repression under Brazil’s military regime. These tragicomic stories reveal Scliar’s interest in issues of oppression, persecution, holocaust, mutability, and the interplay between good and evil. The Ballad of the False Messiah develops the theme of postponement in the sense that for Jews redemption is always postponed in a vain wait for the Messiah. In The Tremulous Earth Scliar explores cruelty and violence in the tenuous lives of his characters, but his experience as a medical doctor informs his compassion for human frailty.

Scliar expands his use of fantasy and magical realism in The Dwarf in the Television Set in topics that range from Jewish prophets to marital revenge. The Enigmatic Eye has been described as a masterpiece evoking the enigmas of art and life, and in Van Gogh’s Ear, Scliar uses dark and subtle humor in a collection of biblical parables. Here witchcraft, magic, conundrums, and labyrinths are shown to be part of everyday life. A final autobiographical piece ties the collections together in which Scliar discusses his membership in Jewish, medical, gaucho, and Brazilian “tribes.”

These powerful stories, individually humorous, bleak, or haunting, together bring a compelling voice of the Jewish Diaspora to the wide readership it deserves.

The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music by Debbie Levy

When Flory’s ancestors are forced to leave Spain during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, they take with them their two most precious possessions—the key to their old house and the Ladino language. When Flory flees Europe during World War II to begin a new life in the United States, she carries Ladino with her, along with her other precious possessions—her harmoniku and her music. But what of the key?

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Ladino reveries: Tales of the Sephardic experience in America by Hank Halio

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LADINO REVERIES relates with warmth and poignancy the assimilation of the Sephardic immigrants into American culture, from Ellis Island to the Lower East Side, through Harlem, the Bronx, and beyond. Proud to be Americans after 500 years of exile from Spain and modest prosperity in Ottoman Turkey, their cultural and linguistic challenges are conveyed with light-hearted candor and a strong sensitivity to their plight.

Particular attention is given to their American-born children, who struggled optimistically and tenaciously to bridge the cultural gaps between the old world and the new. Highlighted as well are the differences, and surprising similarities, between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, and the graceful beauty of the beloved 15th century Spanish of the Sephardim – Ladino – which after five centuries is now in danger of vanishing completely. This revised anthology of the original columns will inspire tears and laughter, as the resilience and character of the Sephardic immigrants and their children unfold.

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Like Leaves In The Wind: The Destruction Of The Salonika Jews by Andrew Claybrook

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In the spring and summer of 1943, the Nazis deported 47,000 Jews from the city of Salonika, Greece to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland. An estimated 1,000 of these deportees escaped death and returned to Salonika to find their properties looted and occupied by Christian “trustees” appointed during the Nazi occupation. Until 1943, Salonika, the second largest Greek city, was the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” thanks to its flourishing Jewish Community dating back to the early times after the birth of Christ.

The destruction of the Salonika Jews was a textbook genocide operation handled by the administrative architect of the Final Solution, SS-Lt. Col. Adolf

Eichmann, and his band of trusted executioners like SS-Captains Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner. The Nazi murderers organized this apocalypse in under two months and executed it with deadly bureaucratic efficiency and precision assisted by local Christian collaborators. Salonika possesses the horrific top record of the one city in occupied Europe that lost 98 percent of its Jews during the Holocaust. In 1944, just as the Nazis were getting ready to retreat from Greece, local collaborators shot the handful of Jews remaining in the city.

Like Leaves In The Wind tells the story of this crime of crimes. It traces the historical background of the Jewish Community and its relations with the Christian population. It offers an overview of the Final Solution. It traces the development of the Nazi Aktion to destroy the Salonika Jewish Community up and including the deportations. The book concludes with an assessment of the tragedy and the role of embedded Greek anti-Semitism, which remains very much alive today.

Like Leaves In The Wind is not a scholarly research work. It is rather a journalist’s long report aimed at a broader reading public interested in details and the historical and political context behind them, all presented in compact form. Its writing made use of a substantial mix of secondary sources out of an abundant bibliography, not to mention the review of many visual records now available online. Ultimately, it is an effort to honor and remember the innocent victims and keep their memory alive.

The Mezuzah in the Madonnna’s Foot: Marranos and Other Secret Jews–A Woman Discovers Her Spiritual Heritage by Trudi Alexy

Acclaimed in the Progressive’s “Best Reading of 1993,” these thrilling and harrowing firsthand stories of survivors and their rescuers vividly reveal the secret history of the Jews who found asylum from Hitler’s Final Solution under Franco’s Fascist regime.

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Beneath the Mountain: A Novel by Luca D’Andrea

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New York City native Jeremiah Salinger is one half of a hot-shot documentary-making team. He and his partner, Mike, made a reality show about roadies that skyrocketed them to fame. But now Salinger’s left that all behind, to move with his wife, Annelise, and young daughter, Clara, to the remote part of Italy where Annelise grew up—the Alto Adige.

Nestled in the Dolomites, this breathtaking, rural region that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remains more Austro than Italian. Locals speak a strange, ancient dialect—Ladino—and root for Germany (against Italy) in the world cup. Annelise’s small town—Siebenhoch—is close-knit to say the least and does not take kindly to out-of-towners. When Salinger decides to make

a documentary about the mountain rescue group, the mission goes horribly awry, leaving him the only survivor. He blames himself, and so—it seems—does everyone else in Siebenhoch. Spiraling into a deep depression, he begins having terrible, recurrent nightmares. Only his little girl Clara can put a smile on his face.

But when he takes Clara to the Bletterbach Gorge—a canyon rich in fossil remains—he accidentally overhears a conversation that gives his life renewed focus. In 1985, three students were murdered there, their bodies savaged, limbs severed and strewn by a killer who was never found. Although Salinger knows this is a tightlipped community, one where he is definitely persona non grata, he becomes obsessed with solving this mystery and is convinced it is all that can keep him sane. And as Salinger unearths the long kept secrets of this small town, one by one, the terrifying truth is eventually revealed about the horrifying crime that marked an entire village.


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Tales of Old Sarajevo by Isak Samokovlija

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This collection of short stories written by Isak Samokovlija, the Sholom Aleichem of Sephardic Jewry, depicts the life and mentality of Bosnian Sephardic Jews.

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi

Primo Levi was among the greatest witnesses to twentieth-century atrocity. In this gripping novel, based on a true story, he reveals the extraordinary lives of the Russian, Polish and Jewish partisans trapped behind enemy lines during the Second World War. Wracked by fear, hunger and fierce rivalries, they link up, fall apart, struggle to stay alive, and to sabotage the efforts of the all-powerful German army. A compelling tale of action, resistance and epic adventure, it also reveals Levi’s characteristic compassion and deep insight into the moral dilemmas of total war. It ranks alongside THE PERIOD TABLE and IF THIS IS A MAN as one of the rare authentic masterpieces of the 20th century.

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In the Heart of the Seas by S.Y. Agnon

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A reissue of this story about the journey of a group of Hasidic Jews to the Land of Israel in the 19th century. It combines elements of the supernatural and mystic with the story of their physical and spiritual adventures.


The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler

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Warsaw, 1941-an exhausted and elderly psychiatrist named Erik Cohen makes his way home to the Jewish ghetto after being interned in a Nazi labor camp. Yet only one visionary man-Heniek Corben- can see him and hear him. Heniek soon realizes that Cohen has become an ibbur-a spirit. But how and why has he taken this form?

As Cohen recounts his disturbing and moving story, small but telling inconsistencies appear in his narrative. Heniek begins to believe that Cohen is not the secular Jew he claims to be, but may, in fact, be a student of practical Kabbalah-of magic. Why is he lying? And what is the importance of the anagrams he creates for the names of his friends and relatives? Heniek traces his suspicions and comes to an astonishing conclusion-one that has consequences for his own identity and life, and perhaps for the reader’s as well.

Home in a Hundred Places by Sarah Dayan Mueller

A Jewish Egyptian spy. A life of high-risk espionage. Will his only chance to reconnect with his kin be mercilessly erased by Alzheimer’s?

Raymond Blanco never intended on leading a life of many roles, but after more than 90 years of experiences, he has a hard time remembering many of them. Raised in a Sephardic family in Egypt during the height of a growing resistance against Jews, Raymond maneuvers his way through childhood and into young adulthood with the guidance of his older cousin. When the two of them become key members of a Cairo-based Jewish spy ring, they’re thrown into a world of split-second decisions that will ultimately determine the course of their

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lives.In the midst of life-threatening choices, Raymond loses contact with his cousin, but spends the rest of his life trying to find him again. Unable to stay in Egypt, Raymond finds his way to New York City, where his life is marked with success, international travels, and prosperity. But now the void in his heart marked by his cousin’s disappearance is slowly being etched away by his fading memories. Can Raymond retain the last vestiges of a hidden career and reunite with his cousin Albert?Inspired by a true story, Home in a Hundred Places portrays dynamic relationships rooted in adventure and loyalty but stained by years of disconnect. Over the course of nearly a century, Raymond’s life is led by deep-seeded familial traditions, unconditional love, and unanswered questions. As Raymond’s life progresses, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease slowly erases his memories. And as he struggles to hold onto a lifetime’s worth of experiences, Raymond is scared that he will one day forget Albert before ever finding him again.

The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi

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When The Pillar of Salt was first published in 1953, it caused a scandal in Tunis. Acclaimed sociologist Albert Memmi, the son of poor Jewish parents who lived at the edge of the equally poor Jewish and Muslim quarters, wrote candidly about the life of Tunisia’s small Jewish community and the failings of the tiny local bourgeoisie, “which thought itself opulent but was only ridiculous.” Memmi was no less critical of his Muslim fellow citizens or of the various European colonialists in his vicinity. “The Pillar of Salt reads like a general indictment,” Memmi writes in a new introduction to this 2013 eBook edition.

This is an unusual man’s coming of age story and a document about a community that has now all but disappeared.


Book of Rachel by Esther David

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A gripping story of a lone Jewish woman battling land sharks to keep her community alive

Rachel lives alone by the sea. Her children have long migrated to Israel as have her Bene Israel Jew neighbours. Taking care of the local synagogue and preparing exquisite traditional Jewish dishes sustains Rachel’s hope of seeing the community come together again at a future time. When developers make moves to acquire the synagogue and its surrounding land, Rachel’s vehement opposition takes the synagogue committee and the town by surprise.
Written with warmth and humour, Book of Rachel is a captivating tale of a woman’s battle to live life on her own terms. Continuing the saga of the unique Bene Israel Jews in India, it adds to Esther David’s reputation as a writer of grace and power.

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

Based on the author’s childhood in the 1960s, a young Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl is adjusting to her new life in New York City when her American dream is suddenly derailed.

Ruthie Mizrahi and her family recently emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to New York City. Just when she’s finally beginning to gain confidence in her mastery of English and enjoying her reign as her neighborhood’s hopscotch queen, a horrific car accident leaves her in a body cast and confined her to her bed for a long recovery. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grow larger. She comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.

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The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

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Gabriela’s mother Luna is the most beautiful woman in all of Jerusalem, though her famed beauty and charm seem to be reserved for everyone but her daughter. Ever since Gabriela can remember, she and Luna have struggled to connect. But when tragedy strikes, Gabriela senses there’s more to her mother than painted nails and lips.

Desperate to understand their relationship, Gabriela pieces together the stories of her family’s previous generations—from Great-Grandmother Mercada the renowned healer, to Grandma Rosa who cleaned houses for the English, to Luna who had the nicest legs in Jerusalem. But as she uncovers shocking secrets, forbidden romances, and the family curse that links the women together, Gabriela must face a past and present far more complex than she ever imagined.

Set against the Golden Age of Hollywood, the dark days of World War II, and the swinging ’70s, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem follows generations of unforgettable women as they forge their own paths through times of dramatic change. With great humor and heart, Sarit Yishai-Levi has given us a powerful story of love and forgiveness—and the unexpected and enchanting places we find each.


The Tortoises by Veza Canetti

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A renowned writer and his wife live quietly in a beautiful villa outside
Vienna, until the triumphant Nazis start subjecting their Jewish
“hosts” to ever greater humiliations. Veza Canetti focuses on seemingly
ordinary people to epitomize the horror: one flag-happy German kills a
sparrow before a group of little children; another, more entrepreneurial
Nazi brands tortoises with swastikas to sell as souvenirs commemorating
the Anschluss.

The Road to Fez by Ruth Knafo Setton

A gorgeously written, erotically charged first novel of a young woman’s spiritual journey in Morocco The Road to Fez tells the story of Brit Lek, a young American woman born to Sephardic-Jewish parents. Seeking solace and a sense of belonging after her mother’s death, 18-year-old Brit returns to Morocco, her birthplace and home for the first six years of her life. Brit falls in love with her Uncle Gaby, her mother’s much younger brother. Gaby and the rest of the family try to steer Brit’s emotional energy away from him, and they urge her to fulfill her mother’s wish that she make a pilgrimage to Fez to the grave of her namesake Suleika, a 19th century Moroccan martyr, who was executed because she would not renounce her faith. Gaby, who moves easily between the Jewish Mellah and the Arab Medina, offers a window for Brit to see beyond the confines of their family’s life in Morocco. Together, Gaby and Brit take the road to Fez and along the way surrender to their forbidden love. The Road to Fez is a magical journey of self-discovery.

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