The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner

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The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner

by Isaac Goldemberg


A novel set in Peru between 1923 and 1935; published in Spanish (as La vida a plazos de Don Jacobo Lernen in 1976, in English in 1976.


On his deathbed, a Peruvian Jew looks back upon his life and recalls the events and individuals of significance to him. Intermixed with his perceptions are those of his son, sister-in-law, ex-fiancee, and mistress, as well as chronicles of events in Peru and excerpts from the news journal Jewish Soul

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

One of the most vivid portraits of the world of early twentieth-century Jews in Latin America can be found in the fiction of Isaac Goldemberg. Goldemberg was born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother on November 15, 1945, in Chepen, a small town in northern Peru where much of The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner takes place. At the age of eight Goldemberg was brought to Lima by his father, and the boy immersed himself in the unfamiliar ways of the Jewish community there. At age 13 Goldemberg transferred to a dramatically different environment, a military academy in which he was the only Jew and had to defend himself from physical attack. After Goldemberg graduated from Leoncio Prado Military Academy, his father sent him to study in Israel. Goldemberg returned to Peru two years later but had no family left there and no viable means of support, so in 1964 he moved to the United States. Settling in New York, he would draw on his childhood memories to write The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner, a portrait of the Jewish immigrant experience in Peru in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Four centuries in Peru—the Jewish presence

Until 1915 religious toleration did not legally exist in Peru, since its constitution forbade the public practice of any religion other than Catholicism. Yet Jewish communities had appeared and disappeared in the land for the previous four centuries. The Spanish Inquisition, the tribunal assembled to prosecute heresy, had begun in 1492 to investigate Jews in Spain, who were forced to adopt the Catholic faith. Intending to keep the New World free of the “taint” of any Jewish or converso (converted Jewish) blood, Spain passed a law prohibiting either of these groups from immigrating to the Americas, but there were loopholes in the law. Crewmen on a ship, for example, did not have to show any special papers or licenses; neither did servants of voyagers. Since a good number of shipowners and captains were Jews themselves, they used these loopholes to assist mostly Portuguese Jews in making a new life for themselves in Peru, away from the hawklike eyes of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.

As luck would have it, the refugees did not escape the perils of the Inquisition in the New World, though. The Inquisition’s court was imported into Peru in 1570. Despite its vehemence in routing out Judaizers (practicing Jews), it found few offenders at first. The community of immigrant converso Jews actually divided into two groups, those who did and those who did not clandestinely practice the Jewish faith. Together the two groups made a place for themselves in the colonial economy, excelling in trade, growing prosperous, exercising much control in colonial commerce. Their success reinforced a positive stereotype about the acumen of Jews in commerce, which, however, did little to counterbalance the negative image attached to them (discussed below). The Inquisition began over time to rout out more Judaizers, and colonists panicked, thinking about the money or goods they stood to lose if Jewish merchants were burned at the stake. In August 1635 the Inquisition arrested 64 Judaizers, thinking that it had uncovered a so-called grand conspiracy. It took three years to conclude the trials, during which no evidence of any such conspiracy ever came to light. In the end the tribunal had 11 of the prisoners burned to death at the stake, including Lima’s most powerful merchant, Manuel Bautista Perez. They perished at a spectacular auto-da-fe, a public performance of the burnings designed to portray Jesus’s Last Judgement. On the designated day, garbed in special robes, the prisoners were led from secret cells in the House of the Inquisition to a large platform in Lima’s central plaza. Walking alongside them, friars kept exhorting the condemned to believe in Jesus Christ.

After this auto-da-fe the ferocity of the Inquisition’s activity against the Jews in Peru declined. Terrorized by the incident, the remaining con-versos either fled the area or conformed to surrounding society, finally disappearing altogether. But Peru’s anti-Jewish attitudes persisted, even without an identifiable community. The Inquisition came to an official end in Peru only in 1820, and even after that, traces of it remained in, for example, names of streets in Lima, such as Matar Judios (Slaughter the Jews) and Quemados (the Burnings).

Distinctions are made in Judaism between followers who hail from Central and Eastern Europe (the Ashkenazim) and those from Spain, Portugal, and North Africa (the Sephardim). The original converso community, the one that disappeared, consisted of Sephardim. Next to immigrate to Peru were Ashkenazim, or more exactly, German Jews. Arriving from Central Europe in the 1840s, they developed into a full-blown community with its own burial society and cemetery by the 1870s. Primarily male, these German immigrants were mostly merchants or engineers and were not particularly observant Jews. There were some intermarriages and some conversions, and in the end this community too died out. On the other hand, shortly after the arrival of these German Jews, a Jewish contingent from North Africa immigrated to the Amazon jungle in Peru, and this community endured. It would soon be outnumbered and overshadowed, though, by the next community to surface in Lima. From the late 1800s into the early 1900s, a rising tide of Jews from Eastern Europe made its way into Latin America, at a quickening pace between World War I and World War II. It is to this last group that the novel’s Don Jacobo Lerner belongs. Coming from the Russian Ukraine, Bessarabia, Turkey, and Poland, these Eastern Europeans were driven to immigrate for a mix of reasons, the most traumatic being an onslaught of deadly pogroms in the Ukraine. Those who fled to Latin America made their way mainly to Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay; only a tiny fraction immigrated to Peru, whose total Jewish population would not even exceed 6,000 by the time that the novel was written.

Pogroms—from the Old World to the New

An organized, officially tolerated massacre of Jews, the pogrom was far from a new occurrence in European history. Isolated incidents of such anti-Jewish violence harked back to medieval times, inspired in part by anti-Semitic stereotypes. The Jews, went one groundless accusation, used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes. They, not the Romans, went another unfounded accusation, had killed Jesus Christ. Actually the first Christian communities behaved in many ways like Jews, congregating in synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath, even in some instances practicing circumcision and observing the dietary laws. A faction of Christians, intent on wiping out these traditions, began to accuse the Jews of all sorts of crimes, including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Glassman, pp. 26-27). The accusations mounted until they developed into an exceedingly negative image of Jews, one that painted them as a devilish people with strange accents who exploited peasants, bribed judges, hoarded gold, demoralized women, and lured away Christians from the Church. The destructive consequences of this image waxed and waned over the centuries, culminating in a rash of about 2,000 pogroms in Eastern Europe between World War I and II, which ended with a vicious outbreak in the period from 1918 to 1920 (just before Jacobo emigrates from Eastern Europe in the novel).

Pogroms in the Ukraine progressed according to a well-established pattern. On horseback, Cossack soldiers would enter a small town, divide into groups of five or ten, and attack Jews on the streets, beating and sometimes stripping them. The soldiers would barge into one Jewish home after another, demanding a family’s valuables. After they were handed over, the soldiers generally destroyed the house and raped its women. Meanwhile, the local peasants waited on the sidelines. In their minds Jews were the enemy. Mostly tradesman and artisans living alongside the largely peasant communities, the Jewish busi-nesspeople represented the outsider who exploited the peasants. The peasants, who harbored this image, were primed to take revenge against their “enemy.” Once the Cossacks had done their initial damage, the peasants would make their move, joining in the looting.

In the early part of this century a horrendous civil war was taking place in Russia, bringing with it enormous disarray, giving peasants and Cossack soldiers alike license to kill and loot, and encouraging havoc. The Bolshevik communist party, whose leaders included a few Jews (such as Leon Trotsky), emerged victorious. Meanwhile, another unsubstantiated belief had begun to circulate: the notion that all Jews were communists. Order returned to Russia in 1921 with the Bolshevik victory, after which the pogroms came to a halt. A conservative estimate places their 1918-21 death toll at 35,000 (Jacobo, says the novel, bore witness to a 1919 pogrom; his friend Samuel Edelman’s uncle had died in a pogrom incited by Russia’s czarist soldiers in 1911). Mostly the Cossacks shot or bayoneted a victim to death, but they burned, hanged, drowned, and buried Jews alive too; scores of victims “were not killed outright but wounded and left to die” (Klier and Lambroza, pp. 299-300). To escape the living nightmare—alone, confused, and dispossessed—thousands of refugees crossed the border into Germany, then proceeded, with help of Jewish relief organizations, to make their way to the New World.

Argentina received the largest influx of Jews to South America in the early twentieth century, taking in nearly 40,000 between 1921 and 1925, when Jacobo Lerner immigrates to Peru. In 1923 Argentina began to restrict Jewish immigration, deflecting newcomers to Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and other nearby countries. Along with the early 1900s immigrants came the anti-Semitic stereo-types, including the misconception that all Jews were communists.

Argentines identified the incoming Jews with Russia’s revolutionaries. A pogrom erupted in an episode that has gone down in history as Semana Tragica (Tragic Week—January 7-13, 1919). Touching off the crisis was a strike by laborers against an iron works factory. Authorities moved in to crush the strike, workers were killed, and blame was deflected to the Jews. The government portrayed the strike as a Bolshevik plot, part of a revolution being fomented by a Jewish would-be dictator, Pinie Wald. Mobs of reactionary Argentines entered the Jewish neighborhoods of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, calling for the death of all Russian Jews. In a manner similar to that of outbreaks in the Ukraine—where that same year anti-Jewish violence erupted—the Argentine rabble rousers physically beat Jews in the Buenos Aires streets, stealing and burning their property in full view of the police. Estimates ascribe 850 to 1,000 deaths to the crisis, including non-Jews as well as Jews (mainly members of another minority, the Catalans, who also figured as scapegoats in the episode) (Elkin, p. 82). In light of these events, the fears of Jacobo’s friend in the novel, Leon Mitrani, that a pogrom would descend on the small town of Chepen in Peru does not seem at all unwarranted. Reference is made also to the depredations visited upon Jews by Germany in the early 1930s, when the Nazi party was preparing to kill all Europe’s Jews in the Holocaust of World War II. In the novel Mitrani hears that thousands of Jews in Europe are being dispossessed by Germany, driven from their homes, and mistreated in a manner reminiscent of the pogroms. He worries that the Germans will come to Chepen, an understandable if more farfetched fear, given his earlier pogrom experience.

Peddlers in Peru

In 1925, a few years after immigrating to Peru, Jacobo Lerner, dressed in a felt hat and dark coat, a suitcase full of trinkets on his shoulder, joins his friend Mitrani in the small town of Chepen. Jacobo has been a peddler and aspires now to open a store and stay put. In fact, 90 percent of the Jews who immigrated to Peru in the early 1900s began as peddlers, their long-range goal being to purchase a fixed place of business and give up life on the road. They contributed something of moment to Peru’s domestic economy. As yet, no part of the business community had made everyday items accessible to the large mass of peasants who did not have sufficient cash to buy them at a store. The peddler arrived at the peasant’s door with an assortment of necessities and other items—matches, scissors, razor blades, cloth, kitchen utensils, religious artifacts—which he sold on credit for a small downpayment and weekly installments. Thereafter, the peddler returned to collect his installments and sell more, taking as much as 100 percent profit, which was considered necessary and fair, given the high risk of doing business without any collateral, on the strength of only a promise. There were three levels through which a peddler might progress:

  1. klapper—a “door knocker,” who went on the road with his pack to individual homes to peddle and distribute wares;
  2. cuentanik—an accounts collector, who built up a clientele and made weekly visits to retrieve the sum owed him;
  3. clientelchik—a businessman who, after putting together a few hundred regular customers, hired newer immigrants as klappers and preoccupied himself with collecting on his accounts.

Since Lima was too small to support many Jewish peddlers, some branched out into the provinces, but life on the road was far from easy. Aside from the normal perils of a solitary, unsettled existence, the peddlers faced growing anti-Semitism. Exposed as forgeries in 1921 but nevertheless widely circulated in Europe and the United States, the documents called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion suggested that the Jews had set out to conquer all of the non-Jewish world. Newspapers capitalized on the sensationalism of the documents, despite the evidence that they were forgeries, and anti-Semitic tracts appeared that repeated the diabolical notions. Among these tracts was the International Jew put out by U.S. automotive maker Henry Ford; as early as 1927 he retracted the anti-Semitic charges, forbidding his name to be linked to them. But the damage had been done; they circulated in a cheap Spanish edition that made its way into Peru.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

An amalgamation of excerpts from the newspaper fewish Soul, chronicles of events in Peru, and a narrative told through the viewpoints of Jacobo Lerner; his sister-in-law, Sara; her sister, Miriam; his friend, Samuel Edel-man; Jacobo’s mistress, dona Juana Paredes; and his son, Efrain, the novel creates a portrait of the small Jewish immigrant community of the 1920s and early 1930s. Its tone is nonjudgmental, although the juxtaposing of the different elements creates moments of humor and irony.

Chronicles of events in Peru, such as the coup against President Augusto B. Leguia and warfare with Colombia, are juxtaposed to news excerpts in the Jewish Soul about a picnic, a theatrical event, and medical findings. Reaching into history, other items in the Jewish Soul refer to victims of the Inquisition. Still others dwell on the contribution of Jews to the exploration of Peru, declare that there is no anti-Semitism in Peru, and admonish readers to assimilate—“We embrace our new nationality. . . . Jew, become a Peruvian citizen” (Goldemberg, The Fragmented LifeofDon Jacobo Lerner, p. 34). Letters to the editor share lively opinions and delusions, predicting that the racial mixture of the Indian and Jew will produce a hearty, cunning new breed, in contradistinction to the example in the narrative of the physically and mentally troubled Efrain Lerner.

Written in discontinuous fragments, the narrative concerns the experiences of Jacobo Lerner, from his arrival in Peru in 1923 to his deathbed at the close of 1935. Separated from his childhood friend, Leon Mitrani, he unexpectedly finds him in Peru. At first Jacobo settles in Lima, where he begins his days as a peddler. Mitrani urges him to open a store in the small town of Chepen, assuring Jacobo that he will grow rich in a short time. Jacobo arrives to find that his friend has become a shell of a man, limping, old before his time, married to a blind woman—and a Catholic at that. But there is difficulty in finding a Jewish woman to wed; as their mutual friend, the traveling peddler Samuel Edelman asks, “Marry a Jewish woman? Fine. And if there aren’t any? How long must one wait?” (The Fragmented Life, p. 22). Still, Jacobo’s ambitions are to find a good Jewish wife—someone like his sister-in-law, Sara, whom he wishes were his—and to prosper. He is consigned, however, to a much grimmer fate. Jacobo has an affair with a local mestizo, Bertila Wilson; when she becomes pregnant, he flees. His reaction is both irresponsible and fearful; he is haunted by the specter of Mitrani’s vapid existence. She has a son, Efrain.

Jacobo becomes a traveling peddler again, never returning to Chepen. He joins his brother in Lima for a time, where together they run a shoestore. A year later the brother, Moises, swindles Jacobo and gets away with it. Moises continues on in the store and becomes the patriarch of Lima’s nascent Jewish community. Meanwhile, the deceived Jacobo takes to the road again, but life on the road is perilous, and ultimately he returns to Lima to stay. This time Jacobo invests in a brothel and prospers. With his financial success coming from such a scandalous source, he suffers spiritual deterioration and grows increasingly isolated. Jacobo takes a mistress, a Catholic woman, dona Juana Paredes, who perceives the goodness in him, his generosity to people in need. He almost marries his sister-in-law’s sister, Miriam, but the match is broken off by the interference of his mistress’s sister. Through the interior monologue of Jacobo and other characters, we learn that he feels conflicted about his son. At one point he asks his sister-in-law, Sara, to take in the boy—whom he himself never meets—but she refuses. Though admired by Jacobo, Sara actually reveals herself to be a mostly vacuous character.


In Lima, where the majority of Peruvian Jews live, the group’s I population totaled about 300 in 1917; it climbed to 1,500 in 1933, but this still amounted to a tiny fraction of the national population. In 1940 Peru’s first census of the century counted a total population of 7 million. Nearly half (46 percent) of the total were Indians and more than half (62 percent) still sustained themselves by raising crops or livestock.

What madness to have a son with an Indian woman! I really can’t let him into my house. What am I going to do with a boy who isn’t even one of our people? … It wasn’t enough that he got involved with her, he had to give her a son. . . . Now he wants his son to come and live with us! Maybe Moises is happy. Maybe that’s the only way he can get Jacobo’s money. And the community would speak so well of us if we take care of the child.

(The Fragmented Life, p. 117)

Jacobo’s mistress, Juana Paredes, offers to raise the boy, but Jacobo rages at the thought of his son being brought up in a non-Jewish household. Yet until now Efrain has been raised in the Catholic household of Bertila, receiving attention only from his religious Aunt Francisca and from the local priest, Father Chirinos, who attempt to raise him as a good Christian. Neither tells him the truth about who his father is or where he lives:

“. . . [I] s it true that my father was a Jew like Mr. Mitrani?”

“I only know that he didn’t believe in our Lord Juses Christ as every good Christian should.”

“Is it ture that the Jews killed Christ?”

“Yes. They tormented him on the cross, without mercy, until he died.”

Then I ran crying out of his room and out of the church, and I was still crying when I got home. I couldn’t sleep all night thinking of what Father Chirinos had said, and in the morning I asked my grandfather who my father had been, and like other times he told me not to bother him. . . .

(The Fragmented Life, p. 109)


Jewish mysticism teaches that it is possible for people, at some point in their lives, to be other than themselves. They are temporarily possessed by an outside soul, an occurrence known in mystical Judaism as dybbuk, from the Hebrew word for holding fast or clinging to something. In 1916, just a few years before Goldemberg’s novel takes place, the play The Dybbuk by S. Ansky was produced for the first time for Western and Jewish audiences. The play, which popularized the concept of dybbuk, featured a young bride possessed by a wandering soul and portrayed the effort to rid her of it, as dictated by mystical tradition:

RABBI AZRAEL: I am filled with profound pity for you, wandering soul! And I will use all my power to save you from the evil spirits. But the body of this maiden you must leave.

(Ansky, p. 110)

He decides not to ask questions of Mitrani, who has informed Efrain that his father is alive and well in Lima, because Aunt Francisca has told him that the Jew grinds up little boys and bakes them. Meanwhile, his mother, Bertila, takes little interest in her son. She travels alone to Lima to unload him on Jacobo, but he throws her out, refusing even to acknowledge Efrain as his own. Abandoned by his father and his mother, barely tolerated by his grandfather, and in time rejected even by his aunt and the priest, the boy endures extreme loneliness. In the end his sense of desolation borders on madness. Efrain winds up in a corner, conversing with a spider, which, in a wrenching scene, he gobbles up. His interior monologue nonetheless conveys information about other characters. Through his debilitating emotional isolation, as well as through the interior monologue of Samuel Edel-man, we learn of a riveting event that transpires in the town of Chepén.

Mitrani impresses the townspeople as crazy—he takes to ranting outside the church. One day, with Father Chirinos watching—Efrain spots Chirinos in the main square—they garb him in purple, place a crown of thorns on his head, and dub him King of the Jews. Dragging the purple-cloaked Mitrani into the street, the townspeople proceed to beat him, spit at him, stick him up on a cross and shove a lance into his ribs, leaving him there “with blood dripping down his body while everyone insulted him” (The Fragmented Life, pp. 126-27). Mitrani dies and Samuel Edelman has his body sent to Lima for a Jewish burial, but the coffin gets lost, an ominous event that portends trouble for Jacobo. Back in Lima, he begins to feel possessed by his friend’s wandering soul. Like Mitrani, Jacobo starts obsessing about pogroms and the coming of the Germans to his house. A rabbi treats him, managing finally to exorcise Mitrani’s soul and to reassert Jacobo’s sense of self.

Tradition teaches that possessions are never random. A wandering soul enters someone who is ripe to receive it, by invitation or because of a weakened state of mind. People with a tenuous hold on their sense of self are susceptible. In the novel, Jacobo certainly qualifies. After taking ownership of the whorehouse, he cuts himself off from the Jewish tradition that kept him anchored until then. Earlier, his friend, Edelman, had written to the Jewish Soul, advocating assimilation in Peru. Jacobo responded, disagreeing with Edel-man’s views. Assimilation, he warned in his own letter to the editor, threatens us; yes, we can adopt some Peruvian customs, but we must remain Jews in spirit, in religion, in tradition. Given this earlier vehemence, his subsequent abandonment of religious observance is indicative of a weakened soul indeed.

“On the night of the 17th of August [1935], Rabbi Schneider finally succeeded and the spirit of Leon Mitrani abandoned Jacobo’s body through the big toe of his right foot” (The Fragmented Life, p. 159). Two months later “Doctor Bernardo Rabinowitz shows up at the house of Jacobo Lerner to tell him that he, Jacobo, is going to die,” whereupon Jacobo has the “tangle of memories” that surface in the novel. It closes, though, not with his death but with the pathetic portrait of his son, Efrain, in chilling conversation with his compatriot in the corner, the only one the boy has to talk to—a spider (The Fragmented Life, pp. 164, 176).

Mixed messages

In the novel the Jewish Soul depicts the Jewish community of Lima as a very philanthropic, paternalistic society concerned about the welfare of all Jewish immigrants, while vehemently proclaiming patriotic adhesion to Peruvian nationality. Although the journal insists upon the social and economic contributions of Jews to Peruvian culture, the only evidence of integration found in its pages are exhortations to acquire Peruvian citizenship and accounts of meetings of the Hebrew Union where members sing both Peruvian and Hebrew songs and dance the Peruvian waltz. The novel’s structure lends itself to an ironic interpretation of the official attitude of the Jewish community.

In the Chronicles sections, news of Jewish social gatherings are juxtaposed with reports of major historical events in a period of political turmoil and economic depression for Peru. This narrative strategy suggests the isolation of the Jewish community from surrounding Peruvian society. For example, the Chronicles report the overthrow of President Leguia’s government by a military regime headed by Luis Sanchez Cerro and the drive to power of the populist leader Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre. These events bring the country close to a civil war as it experiences naval mutinies, assassination attempts, and a provincial insurrection. In the Chronicles, these political reports alternate with reports about the actions of the novel’s Jewish characters, such as Jacobo Lerner’s gift of a Sefer-Tora (a scroll of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) to the synagogue. Jews and Peruvians seem to live separate, parallel worlds.

The Jewish Soul touches on events in Peru only insofar as they relate to the Jews, including items, for example, on the persecution of Jews during the Inquisition and anti-Semitic propaganda in the Peruvian press. The integration into larger society promoted by the Jewish Soul appears illusory; through its mix of Chronicles, news items, and interior monologue, the novel shows the identity of the Jewish community to be rooted in European social, religious, and historical traditions with little participation in the larger Peruvian scene. The Jewish community of the 1920s and 1930s lives in its almost air-tight, isolated space.

Torn between two cultures

Jacobo Lerner never recovers from the shock of feeling lost and displaced and remains on the margins of two cultures: the Jewish and the Peruvian. He tries with out success to make a place for himself in Peru vian society as a Jew. His first cultural crossover occurs when he is in Chepen, a small town in northern Peru, where he has an affair with Bertila Wilson and sires a Peruvian son. Bertila’s father, who refers to Jacobo as “the Jew,” welcomes him as a prospective son-in-law because he believes in the stereotype of wealthy Jews, and his devotion is to money. But Jacob rejects marriage to Bertila, because he cares about his Jewish roots and membership in the current Jewish community of Lima:

He wanted to marry a Jewish woman and have many children. He wanted to live in the capital surrounded by all the luxuries that money could give him. He wanted to go to the synagogue with his friends, to celebrate religious holidays surrounded by his family and to see the bar-mitzvah of his sons. This order of things in his mind was what he leaned on to survive in a country where the way people lived was extremely strange to him. To stay in Chepen now meant giving up all this, to break with the traditional order of his family and his race, in short, to be swirled up in chaos.

(The Fragmented Life, pp. 71-72)

There is a defining moment in the novel when Jacobo spends a restless night in a hotel near Chepén. He stands at a crossroads—one path leads to Chepen and his Peruvian family. That he contemplates taking the path to Chepen is evident from a letter he writes to the Jewish Soul that night, arguing against the advice of his friend Samuel Edelman to assimilate into Peruvian society, insisting that, while some customs can be adopted, Jews must remain separate in spirit, religion, and tradition. In the end, Jacobo opts not to enter Chepen, to go in another direction that ultimately leads to his final disgrace—partnership with Abraham Singer in the prostitution business. The choice finally brings him financial security and a kind of adaptation to Peruvian society, but ironically it also prompts him to reject his Jewish origins:

He … had cut the umbilical cord that tied him to the universe. Not even in the nervous solitude of his own home did he fulfill his obligations as a Jew, which he had once considered the only source of order in his chaotic life.

(The Fragmented Life, p. 149)

Jacobo seems to reject himself for trafficking in prostitution, just as the Jewish community (represented by his sister-in-law) condemns him for the illicit business; his imminent physical death is preceded by this spiritual death. That Jacobo was not the only immigrant who felt trapped and miserable is suggested by othercharacters mentioned in the novel—the gambler Daniel Abramowitz, who commits suicide, and Lubin, who sets fire to his own store.


The Jewish school in Peru is named after the Marrano, or secret Jew, Leon de Pinelo. An important figure in Spanish colonial culture, Pinelo was a poet, theologian, and historian, who documented the experience of the Indians. The Inquisition discovered that in Portugal his family had been accused of practicing Judaism and one of his uncles was burned at the stake. The news threatened Pinelo’s safety in Peru, where the intervention of the Archbishop of Lima prevented him from being persecuted, allowing him to escape the Inquisition.

Sources and literary context

There are a few parallels between Efrain’s life in the novel and the life of the author. Both of them were born in Chepen to a Catholic mother and a Jewish immigrant father. In contrast to Jacobo Lerner, though, at the age of eight, Goldemberg was taken into his father’s house in Lima. There the son immersed himself in his new Jewish environment: “I began to ask myself who am I, what am I” (Goldemberg in Meyer, p. 301). Over the next ten years he read novels that stimulated thoughts and feelings in him about his mixed-race heritage. As a teenager he read the novel Deep Rivers (also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times) by Peru’s Jose Maria Ar-guedas about a boy struggling to reconcile the different cultural strands of his heritage: “This book by Arguedas,” Goldemberg has explained, “would be vitally important to me and would spur me to examine a similar problem in my own writings: the cultural and racial crossbreeding in Peru, incorporating history and myth” (Goldemberg in Meyer, p. 303). Other influential readings include Truce (1922), a collection of poems by Peru’s Cesar Vallejo about family and the search for lasting values in a changing world. In reference to The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner, Goldemberg has identified motivations for the writing of it: “Using autobiographical material, it brings together the most important experiences of my childhood: my early Catholic upbringing, the experience of exile, the clash between Jewish and Peruvian culture. … To a large degree, the story of the novel … is only a backdrop for the recreation of an experience that is at once historical and mythical: the Jewish exile” (Goldemberg in Meyers, p. 304).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Peruvian Jewry

Peru in the 1960s and 1970s still claimed a relatively small Jewish community compared to those elsewhere in Latin America:

Population of Latin American Jews *

*(1960s estimates)
(Encyclopaedia Judaica[New York: Keter, 1971], vol. 10, p. 10)

Peru’s Jewish population increased only slightly as the decades passed, numbering about 5,300 in 1972, nearly all of whom lived in Lima. Latin American Jewish communities of the time mostly consisted of middle-class families who led comfortable lifestyles and saw to it that their children received fine educations. In Lima, the children attended Leon Pinelo Jewish day school, Goldemberg’s own alma mater.

In other respects, there were changes in the profile of the Jewish community between the setting and writing of the novel. Only a few years after it takes place, in 1939, Peru outlawed peddling, and the Jewish community went through a transitional phase. Subsequent immigrants became wholesalers, importers, and laborers in the textile industry. Their children went on to study in universities, becoming engineers, physicians, and professors.

Relations with Israel have helped reduce the anti-Semitic notions that circulated in Peruvian society over the years. Peru has dispatched specialists to study Israel’s cooperative farming; Israel has sent irrigation experts to Peru to conduct experimental work in its desert. More generally, in Latin America as a whole—especially

“Image not available for copyright reasons”

in Peru and Chile—key members of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy have joined with organized Jewish communities to reduce the amount of free-floating anti-Semitism, which has, however, shown resistance to change. In the words of one historian, “the most active manipulators of anti-Semitic attitudes in recent years have been the cults centered around Nazi war criminals who found refuge in Latin America and Arab cadres who have forged a bond between Middle Eastern and Latin American guerrillas” (Elkin, p. 232).

The Jewish community of Peru in the 1970s still retained a separate identity. By then it consisted of three subcommunities: Sephardic, Eastern European, and a new set of German Jews who began immigrating to Peru in the 1930s. Each of the three subcommunities worshipped in its own synagogue under a separate rabbi, but they shared one cemetery and a Central Committee that organized them into a whole. In 1926 the Eastern European community formed a Hebrew union, the Union Israelita del Peru, which, beginning in 1931, published the monthly magazine Nosotros (transformed in the novel into the newspaper Jewish Soul).

In the late 1960s members of Lima’s younger Jewish generation showed a keen awareness of their roots. Michael Radzinsky, an Eastern European immigrant who had become a textile manufacturer, passed the reins of community leadership to Azi Wolfenson-Ulanowsky, a dean of the engineering school.

“I know,” said Wolfenson-Ulanowsky, “that I am assuming the leadership of a 400-years-old community. I know where the Inquisition tribunal stood, where our forefathers were burnt at the stake. … I … am now called upon to be the spiritual heir of these martyrs.”

(Wolfenson-Ulanowsky in Beller, p. 139)

Such a declaration bespeaks a strong Peruvian Jewish sense of self, a sense that, in the novel, escapes Jacobo Lerner, one of the immigrants stuck in the flux of an earlier formative era.


In the Times Literary Supplement (March 10, 1978), Michael Irwin faults The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner for its narrative complexity, warning that the reader must be constantly on guard to understand and relate the novel’s various fragments. He concludes, though, by heralding the work as an unusually promising first novel. In contrast, Lorraine E. Roses is full of praise for the fragmented style of the work:

The dual structure of the novel—documentary collage and narrative—permits [Goldemberg] to unveil the conditions of underdevelopment that, once again, push Jews to commerce in illegal traffic and dramatize the provincial Catholic fanaticism which goes hand in hand with hatred of any possible plurality. … In a more overwhelming way than Pedro Paramo or Artemio Cruz [see Pedro Paramo and The Death of Artemio Cruz , also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times], both of whom at one time enjoyed some sort of social position and the warmth of an emotional life, Jacobo Lerner symbolizes… sterility without redemption (Roses in Flores, p. 377).

—Jennifer Garson Shapiro and Joyce Moss

For More Information

Ansky, S. The Dybbuk. Trans. Henry Alsberg and Winifred Katzin. New York: Liveright Publishing, 1926.

Beller, Jacob. Jews in Latin Amenca. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1969.

Elkin, Judith Laikin. Jews of the Latin American Republics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 10. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1971.

Flores, Angel. Spanish American Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1992.

Glassman, Samuel. Epic of Survival: Twenty-Five Centuries of Anti-Semitism. New York: Bloch, 1980.

Goldemberg, Isaac. The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner. Trans. Robert Picciotto. New York: Peresa, 1976.

Klier, John D., and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Kristal, Efrain. “Goldemberg: a caballo entres dos culturas.” Huseo húmero 7 (Octubre-Diciembre 1980): 53-66

Meyer, Doris, ed. Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin Amencan Authors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Pike, Fredrick. The Modern History of Peru. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967.

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The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner

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