Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production Before and After 1492 by David A. Wacks (review)
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Wacks, David A. Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production Before and After 1492. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2015. Pp. 298. ISBN 978-0-25301-572-3.

In Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production Before and After 1492, David A. Wacks attempts to bridge the gap that can often exist between scholars of Sephardic and Jewish Studies and those of early modern Iberian literature. As such, he utilizes some of the recent, fine historiographical work on the pre-modern and early modern Spanish Jews to produce a more detailed picture of the Sephardic literary output that still receives little critical attention.

A cornerstone of this project is Wacks’s idea of “double diaspora,” wherein the Sephardic imaginary contends with the exile from both the Holy Land and the Iberian Peninsula. Importantly, this terminology permits him to place into conversation Jewish cultural production on either side of the oft-artificial divide of 1492, both within Spain and as exiles from it. Tying these worlds together under the broader rubrics of diaspora studies and, to a lesser extent, Spanish imperialism, Wacks provides a compelling case for Sephardic writing as a constantly renegotiated intersection for the shifting conceptions of Spanishness and Jewishness.

His work can be divided roughly into two sections. The first chapter is essentially an extension of the introduction, where Wacks explains his use of diaspora studies as the theoretical framework for his analyses. Rather than rely on traditional Jewish conceptions of diaspora as the providential dialectic of exile (galut) and redemption (ge’ulah), he has recourse to Armenian and African theorists who conceive of diaspora as polysemic and as a process that takes place within a network of distinct communities. Despite the fact that contemporary scholarship on Jewish history rarely engages in this explicit prophetic narrative the way Wacks describes and criticizes it, he is able to make the more pertinent observation that Sephardic texts can uniquely perform the diaspora and diasporic culture(s) without explicitly taking up either as a theme.

Each of the remaining six chapters focuses on instances of this performance of diaspora. Chapters 2 through 5 discuss Jews writing within Spain before the expulsion: Jacob ben Elazar, Alfonso X’s Hebrew troubadour Todros Abulafia, Shem Tov de Carrión, and Vidal Benvenist. Chapter 6 enters into the post-expulsion era with a fascinating meditation on sovereignty and imperialism in the seemingly contradictory historiographies of Solomon ibn Verga and Joseph Karo, while chapter 7 concludes with a description of Jacob Algaba’s failed attempt to translate Amadís de Gaula into Hebrew.

Often operating as more or less independent essays, these chapters offer substantial insights into the interplay of language, empire, and culture in both the production and content of the studied texts. Combating a tendency in Sephardic Studies to study the Jews in relative isolation, Wacks does an excellent job of representing Spain’s Jewry as active cultural agents whose mainly Hebrew writings emerged in conversation with contemporaneous output in Arabic, Provençal, Galician-Portuguese, Castilian (or Hispano-Romance), and even Latin. The Hispanist will also readily appreciate Wacks’s sustained efforts to connect his commentary to canonical Iberian texts, such as Cantigas de Santa Maria, Libro de buen amor, Don Quixote, El conde Lucanor, Golden Age “Tragicomedy,” Lazarillo de Tormes, and Amadís de Gaula.

That said, there are a small number of ways in which Double Diaspora leaves the reader with uncertainties. Even with the insights gleaned from other diasporic peoples, the diaspora studies angle does not always appear to be the best way to frame Wacks’s textual commentary. What tends to be more theoretically interesting is his occasional focus on empire and sovereignty, and expanding that discussion as the text’s theoretical frame may have done more justice to his keen observations. He also sidesteps the ever-important issue—“Who are the Sephardim?”—claiming that there was not only a “cohesive” Sephardic identity but also that it existed before the Expulsion. This conclusion may be seen as controversial by some Sephardic Studies scholars and, in a way, seems counterintuitive to Wacks’s main thesis that there were a myriad of diaspora [End Page 503] experiences...