Torn between Mexican-Jewishness and American-Jewishness, Ilan Stavans traces the roots of ethnic struggle in his earnest, rewarding memoir On Borrowed Words. The subtitle reference to the four languages in his life Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and English sometimes seems more symbolic of the individuals in Stavans' life, who wielded an even greater influence in his development. Indeed, a long stretch in the early chapters of the book tells us more about them than about him. Bobbe Bela, Stavans' tough Yiddish grandmother; his father, an erratic Mexican actor; and Ilan's brother Darian, whose stutter and genius on the piano add up to an unsolved, anomalous personality, are given chapters to themselves in which Stavans seems more on-looker and analyst than participant.
In a Mexican Jewish family of Eastern European origins, Stavans was always caught between countries and languages. But the prolific author, who has been a National Book Critics Circle Award nominee, states flatly, I never learned to love Mexico and spends considerable time examining his ambivalence toward the country and its culture.
At 24, he moved to New York City to become a newspaper correspondent and to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Stavans tried Zionism and political activism (and perfected his Hebrew) in Israel, took in Europe (most notably Spain, where he reconnected with the Spanish language), but felt less than complete until he returned to New York.
The truth is that all these uncertainties and strained ambivalences are unimportant in the face of Stavans' one unswerving intellectual loyalty books.