An oft-cited fact of history is that the first Jewish community in colonial America consisted of Jews from Brazil who were fleeing the long arm of the Inquisition. Beyond that, however, we hear very little of the place where they came from.
That’s why “On a Clear April Morning,” a novel written in Portuguese by the late Marcos Iolovitch, first published in Brazil in 1940 and only recently translated into English by Merrie Blocker (Academic Studies Press), is such an exceptional book.
We first encounter the author in a photograph that was taken on the streets of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1937. He is a handsome man, dapper in his three-piece suit, his hat at a rakish angle, caught by the photograph in energetic mid-step. He appears to be wearing spats. We can readily understand why his translator calls him “the man I have grown to love.”
“It is because he had such a deep profound understanding of the human drama,” Blocker writes in her acknowledgments, “because he had such a deep affection for those near and far, and because he realized he had an important story to tell, an important addition to our narration of the human experience, that we have been given this piece of history in all its poetry.”
As the author’s last name suggests, Iolovitch does not trace his ancestry to the Iberian Peninsula. Rather, he was among the millions who fled Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century and the much smaller number who found refuge in places other than the United States. Growing up in Brazil, where he earned a living by teaching the violin before completing his law studies, Iolovitch began to speak out against oppression, both in his books of poetry (“I and Thou” and “Secular Prayers”) and in the novel we now have in English translation.
Iolovitch was known and admired in Brazil, but it was Blocker’s mission to bring his work to an English-speaking readership. She discovered him and his writings while serving in the U.S. Consulate in Porto Alegre; she befriended his adult children, who granted her access to his papers; she conducted in-depth research into his life and work. Her efforts allow us to enter deeply into Iolovitch’s book. In fact, Blocker deserves to be regarded as a co-author of the English edition rather than only its translator.
Although Iolovitch presents “On a Clear April Morning” as a novel, it is deeply rooted in history and his own life experiences. The story opens with the spring day in the Ukrainian town of Zagradowka when a colorful brochure began to circulate among the Jewish families. Published by the Jewish Colonization Association, the brochure suggested a new and more exotic destination for Jews seeking to escape from Russia — “a vast and faraway country” called Brazil. His father was especially enchanted by the cover illustration, which showed a bounteous farm where pigs dined on fallen fruit under the shade of the orange trees.
“From that day on,” writes Iolovitch, “no one spoke of anything else.”
Once embarked for the New World, the author recalls how 12 families shared a single cramped compartment, “like captives on a slave ship.” When the Iolovitch family finally arrived at the place where they were to settle as a farmers, the author is inspired the describe the scene in poetic phrases: “A great silence, slightly broken by the gurgling murmur of a nearby brook, by the doleful peeps of lost birds, and by the harmonic dissonance of buzzing insects and croaking frogs, rose from the ground, shedding a soft, deep and solemn peace over the melancholy loneliness of the fields,” he writes. “Finally, we were in possession of our lands.”
It’s an especially exotic version of the Jewish immigrant experience. These would-be Yiddish-speaking farmers were reduced to hunting for their own food, but the author’s father preferred to go hungry than to eat the flesh of animals that had not been slaughtered according to the laws of kashrut. At last, they fled the farm for Porto Alegre, where his father turned to selling fish in the morning and fruit in the afternoon. “Today is won,” he would say at the end of the day. “Tomorrow, God will have to help us again.”
Ironically, the author himself took his first job in a kosher butcher shop. But, like so many other Jewish emigrants to the New World, he saw that the younger generation was “gradually expanding the boundaries of their moral and intellectual emancipation.” Writing in the 1930s, and mindful of what was happening in Europe, he saw that kind of self-emancipation as a matter of life or death, even if it meant distancing himself from Jewish religious practice.
“But their complete liberation can only be attained when they assimilate with other races, mixing their blood with the blood of other peoples so that from this successive cross-breeding, from this progressive welding, can arise a happier future for poor humanity and generations free from unjust hatreds and absurd prejudices stemming from the concept of racial aristocracy — sinisterly created in the land of Goethe,” he declared. “Because, made of the same clay, all the peoples and races that cover the face of the earth are just different members of the great one and only human family.”
Marcos Iolovitch’s “On a Clear April Morning” is an especially exotic version of the Jewish immigrant experience.
At moments, “On a Clear April Morning” can be described as a Brazilian version of Abraham Cahan’s “The Rise of David Levinsky,” another novel that captures the experience of the Jews in the New World. At other moments, I was reminded of the characters who appear so often in the stories Isaac Bashevis Singer, earnest young men who are tormented by the temptations of the flesh and seek consolation in literature and philosophy. And the book is considerably enriched by the foreword, preface and afterword that appear in Blocker’s translation.
Yet, even with the enriching efforts of Merrie Blocker and other contributors to the English edition, Marcos Iolovitch is truly and fully himself, a writer who wins us over completely.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.