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  • The Merchant of Havana: The Jew in the Cuban Abolitionist Archive by Stephen Silverstein
  • Amelia Rosenberg Weinreb

imaginary jew, judios, judiazation, anti-semitism, anti-slavery, abolitionism, afro-cuban, African slave trade, industrializaiton, capitalism, race, racialization, merchant class, bourgeoisie, Havana, Cuba, Steven Silverstein, Amelia Rosenberg Weinreb

Silverstein, Stephen. The Merchant of Havana: The Jew in the Cuban Abolitionist Archive. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2016. xi 205 pp.

The “imaginary” Jew—the conceptual, mythical, composite Jew—introduced in various other national and historical settings, had yet to be developed in Cuba’s nineteenth-century context of abolitionism and the rise of industrial capitalism, prior to Steven Silverstein’s The Merchant of Havana. The “notional” Jew, as Silver-stein calls him here, as elsewhere, served as a reviled figure onto which political, economic, and cultural anxieties flowed. Furthermore, as is often the case, the imaginary Jew in Cuba emerged despite the fact that Cuba’s Jewish population was numerically insignificant, that Cubans exhibited little evidence of institutionalized anti-Semitism, and that historical records reveal a negligible number of Jewish slaveholders. Nevertheless, as Silverstein illustrates, the Jew became a key character in Cuba’s progressive literature starting in the 1830s, and continued as the movement gained traction through the abolition of slavery in 1886. In his text, three overlapping arguments regarding economic disruption, racial identity, and abolitionist tropes are present in each chapter, contextualizing the phenomenon of the notional Jew.

Silverstein first frames the disruptive features of nineteenth-century Cuban society that set the stage for the Cuban socioeconomic reorganization that resulted in “heightened production of the Shylock figure” (9). The country’s new network of railroads, the sugar boom’s growing connections to global trade, the intensification of slave labor, the new centrality of capital debt, and, notably, the established creole elite sugar-producer’s new dependence on moneylending, together forced an [End Page 501] unwelcome social transformation. In particular, agricultural production and the inherited latifundia, mainstays of Cuban social order of the era, were displaced by foreign capital and the growth of industry, giving rise to social anxiety about the foreign-born merchant, thus invoking the “well-worn lexicon” (4) of the merchant Jew, a code for both social malignancy and modernization. This era ushers in the appearance, for example, of a morally dubious character, in one case baldly named “Don Judas,” in a play by progressive ideologue Antonio Bachiller y Morales. Don Judas offers to buy a sugar mill from a vulnerable widow, which he will then sell for profit, leaving her life in shambles, and introducing what became an abiding character. In similar works, including more well-known pieces featured in Silver-stein’s text—namely Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab (1841), Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La cuaterona (1867), and of course, Cirilo de Villaverde’s classic Cecilia Valdéz (1882)—the moral order is corrupted by an outsider merchant who, if not explicitly Jewish, was at least Judaized or “steeped in literary conventions of depicted Jewishness” (36).

This role of the notional Jew in a changing nineteenth-century Cuban economy would alone be sufficient to sustain a monograph, but in Silverstein’s text, dense with arguments, he adds a crucial second layer: that the Jew’s racial status and morality is intertwined with that of the Afro-Cuban’s, proposing that one cannot fully analyze race in Cuba during the period in question without seeing these racial types as linked. By focusing on this figure of the notional Jew, the dialectics of Jewish and Black racialization—the unsettling features of the body, sexuality, morality, nationality, outsiderness, judeophobia and negrophobia—share more with each other than they do with the landed aristocracy, which fears being supplanted by foreign capital, slave rebellion, or both. In this context, using Bauman’s proteophobia (traits ascribed to outsiders who do not predictably fit the existing order), Silverstein demonstrates that it is possible to extend beyond the more conventional limits of both Afro-Cuban history as abolitionist history and theories of anti-Semitism as discrimination against Jews, to construct a more robust account of entangled Cuban race relations.

Finally, in his analysis of the abolitionist archive, Silverstein states...


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