Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination.

Author:Leibman, Laura Arnold
Position:Book review

Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination by Sarah Phillips Casteel. Columbia University Press, 2016. 336pp. + ill.

Sarah Phillips Casteel's marvelous new tome Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination explores the literary representations of Jewishness in postwar Caribbean literature. Casteel's work differs from most previous explorations of Jewish-Black relations in literature and history by shifting the discussion southward to the Caribbean. In doing so, Casteel foregrounds the overlap between Jewish and Black diasporic histories. Previous scholars' focus on the United States, she argues, has skewed the way we understand Jewish-Black relations. Whereas discussion of Blacks and Jews in the United States tend to be a competitive "interaction of different collective memories ... [that] takes the form of a zero-sum struggle for preeminence," Caribbean writers' invocation of 1492 allows writers to evoke Jews in a shared moment of trauma and "unexpected convergences" (15, 10). Casteel shows how Caribbean writers take a "multidirectional" approach to interracial relations. This approach invokes Jews in order to "unsettle dominant narratives of slavery, empire, and race" (2). Casteel breaks the evidence for her argument into two main sections: 1492 and Holocausts.

In the first part of Calypso Jews, Casteel explores the Jewish influence on Caribbean literature through the trope of 1492, which has great resonance as it marks not only the Jewish expulsion from Spain, but also the "onset of European colonization" of the Americas (12). By placing 1492 at the start of her discussion, Casteel not only pays heed to chronology but also distances Caribbean literature from "Ashkenormativity." Casteel argues that "a specific awareness of the Sephardic Caribbean past underlies the persistent presence of Jews in Caribbean literature" (28, emphasis mine). She breaks this presence down into four main tropes: Sephardism, Marranism, Port Jews, and Plantation Jews. Casteel borrows the term "Sephardism" from Yael Halevi-Wise and John Docker, who use the term to describe literature that harnesses "Sephardic motifs to contest normative cultural and historical narratives" and works that are "characterized by an entwining of histories and a pluralistic conception of identity" (37). Sephardism tends to appear in Caribbean literature written following the 1992 quincentennial celebrations. A second but related motif found in...

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