Like a Bride and Like a Mother, by Rosa Nissan, translated by Dick Gerdes, introduction by Nan Stavans, University of New Mexico Press, $24.95
This is an unfamiliar familiar story. The familiar part: a young woman grows up in a traditional family. She longs to break away, to study, to explore. But she must marry early, have bundles of children, keep house. She finally rebels, divorces, and after much anguish finds the human and professional fulfillment she craves.
The unfamiliar part: Oshinica Mataraso is a Mexican Sephardi, and the coming-of-age novel brims with the sounds of Ladino, the lilting tongue of the Jews exiled from Spain.
Oshinica belongs to a triple minority— Jewish in a Catholic country, Sephardic in a largely Ashkenzic community, female in a machista society. The twin novels—Like a Bride and its sequel. Like a Mother—recount how she negotiates these multiple otherings with humor and joie de vivre. From childhood when her Catholic classmates accuse her of killing Jesus, to wifehood when her Jewish husband accuses her of killing their marriage, Oshinica fights the system, ultimately achieving liberation through art.
Her weapons are bloodless but potent— images and words. A photography apprenticeship reveals a world both beautiful and practical; Oshinica learns that she can create art and earn a living as a photographer. And one of Mexico’s literary grand dames, Elena Poniatowska, teaches her how to transform her diffuse and self-conscious scribbling into the novels we are reading. The demure teenage bride expected only to beget babies (preferably sons) surprises everyone as she engenders imaginary creatures, and defiantly declares: “I only want to do what my desires tell me to do.”
Like a Bride and Like a Mother are based on author Rosa Nissan’s own life. The first novel, Novia que te vea was received well when the Spanish original appeared in 1992; it was made into a successful movie by another Mexican-Jewish woman, director Guita Shyfter. The second novel, Hisho que te nazca in Spanish (1996), takes up Oshinica’s bittersweet saga as a wife and mother, divorcee and professional. Nissan’s loving, if critical, recreation of a disappearing Sephardic world uses pungent Ladino anecdotes, dialogue and verses peppering the standard Spanish text; the two books’ very titles are deliciously Judeo-Spanish, in a literal translation: “A bride may [I live] to see you,” “A boy may you give birth to.”
Nissan doesn’t reduce Ladino to quaint folkloric window dressing. When Elena criticizes Oshinica for writing her sentences “backwards,” with the verb at the end of the sentence, Ladino-style, as in the novels’ titles, the once-meek apprentice doesn’t hesitate to defy her literary mentor: “I defend myself when it absolutely has to be said a certain way…because that’s the way I heard it said at home. That’s the way Ladino is.” That’s the way Ladino is, that’s the way she is—independent, Jewish Sephardic, Mexican, female. No one, not even a respected Mexican feminist intellectual guru, can take that away from her.
Edna Aizenberg is Professor and Chair of Spanish at Marymount Manhattan College, and a critic of Latin American Jewish literature. Her new book is Books and Bombs in Buenos Aires: Barges, Gerchnunoff and Argentine-Jewish Writing.