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  • Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination by Sarah Phillips Casteel
  • Alexandra T. Herzog (bio)
Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination. Sarah Phillips Casteel. Columbia UP, 2016. 352 pages. $60.00 hardcover; $59.99 ebook.

In Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination, Sarah Phillips Casteel investigates the fascinating intersections between Jewish studies and post-colonial studies, deconstructing the delimitations of each discipline. Casteel explores how Caribbean writers have linked Jewish history—with its emphasis on genocide, conflicted identities, and survival—to the history of their own people. By looking at the histories between Jewish and Caribbean communities, Casteel argues that the concept of Caribbean Jewishness is appealing to Caribbean writers because it "disrupts dominant interpretative frameworks and racial binaries" (22). Casteel's research opens a rich dialogue on the intersections of black and Jewish relationships as revealed through a diverse body of texts from Caribbean literature. She analyzes novels, poetry, and plays by authors as diverse as Jamaica Kincaid, Derek Walcott, Maryse Condé, Michelle Cliff, and Cynthia McLeod. While critics such as Michael Rothberg, Bryan Cheyette, and Jonathan Boyarin have also engaged in comparative analysis across Jewish studies and postcolonial studies, the exchanges between the two disciplines remain rather limited. As the first in-depth account of the relationship between postcolonial studies and Jewish history, Calypso Jews will compel scholars of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and Jewish studies more broadly to consider other angles of analysis and to step out of an often insular field.

The book is divided into two halves that each deal with a key traumatic event in Jewish history that has become referential for Caribbean writers: the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the Holocaust. The first two chapters, "Sephardism in Caribbean Literature" and "Marranism and Creolization," investigate Caribbean Sephardism and its relationship to the literary form. By looking at Sephardic motifs as well as the representation of the Marrano and crypto-Jew in Derek Walcott's poetic portrait of Camille Pissaro and the fiction of writers Myriam Chancy and Michelle Cliff, Casteel uncovers a general sentiment of sympathy toward Sephardic Jewishness. Her analysis, however, also brings up the question of whether the authors are over-identifying with the Sephardic reality, creating tensions and ambivalences.

The last two chapters of this first section, "Port Jews in Slavery Fiction" and "Plantation Jews in Slavery Fiction," identify a specific plot around the "port Jew" [End Page 224] and the "plantation Jew" in Caribbean slavery narratives. This plot focuses on a relationship between a white slave owner and a black slave that is disrupted by the presence of a Jew who functions as an ambivalent character. Indeed, benefitting from white privilege, some Jews were able to find a place in the colonialist structure, doing business either as "port Jews" or as plantation owners. While Jewish figures embody ethical values that condemn racial inequity, their automatic connection with victimhood through the Holocaust is problematic. According to Casteel, the Jew destabilizes a strict separation between victim and perpetrator, becoming an in-between character, as Derek Walcott's play Drums and Colors (2002) and Maryse Condé's Moi, Tituba, sorcièrenoire de Salem (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem [1988]) both illustrate.

The second half of the book is devoted to the memorialization of the Holocaust, presenting the black and Jewish experiences as "contiguous and intersecting" (23). Chapter 5, "Calypso Jews," discusses the figure of the Holocaust refugee in the Caribbean using both fictional and nonfictional pieces, including memoirs of and calypso songs about Jewish refugees who found safety in the Caribbean. Chapter 6, "Between Camps," focuses on Europe and North America, examining how the Holocaust serves as a "surrogate for the memory of slavery in Caribbean writing" (24). Casteel makes a powerful argument for the existence of a new literary genre based on this cross-cultural identification among slavery, colonialism, and the Holocaust. For her, "Black Holocaust narratives adopt the strategies of both postslavery and Holocaust fiction to recover a lost chapter of Holocaust history—that of Black victims of the camps" (204). These two genres inform each other such that Caribbean writers present their characters both as descendants of the Middle Passage...


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pp. 224-226
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