‘The Silent Jews,’ Given Voice
Tue, 11/20/2012
Jewish Week Book Critic
Doreen Carvajal, raised Catholic but interested in her possible Jewish roots, visited villages in southern Spain where relatives
Doreen Carvajal, raised Catholic but interested in her possible Jewish roots, visited villages in southern Spain where relatives

Her name was the first clue. Over the years, people pointed out to Doreen Carvajal, who was raised Catholic, that her last name sounded like a name of conversos, Spanish Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition. Caught up in other ambitions, she didn’t pay much attention.

Carvajal grew up in California with rosaries and communion, and she was taught to read by nuns. She knew that her family on her father’s side had made its way from Spain to Costa Rica, where her grandparents were born, to California. She had a book tracing her father’s family for 11 generations back to Spain, but she had no idea why it left. Her parents didn’t talk much about their background, probably, she says, because they didn’t have much information to share. Another hint: her grandfather never attended church services and scorned priests. By the time Carvajal was interested in asking questions, her grandmother and aunt, who held the family secrets, were no longer alive.

While based in Paris as a reporter for The New York Times in 2003, Carvajal and her family traveled to villages in the south of Spain where her ancestors might have lived. One meaning of her last name is lost places. Her first trip to Spain was made to take a flamenco dance class, but her sense of family history and connection was aroused. She fell in love with Arcos de la Frontera and its spectacular views, and five years later she and her husband and daughter spent several months there. The whitewashed village clinging to the mountains is about 45 minutes south of Seville, on the frontier that once separated hostile Muslim and Christian groups.

Carvajal then shifts into investigative reporter mode, hunting for facts and chasing down sources about the town’s mostly hidden Jewish history and finding “some broken spiritual shards of myself and my ancestors.” What results is a poetic and powerful memoir, “The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition” (Riverhead).

Feeling a deep sense of longing, she writes that she is “drawn to the timeless rocks of Arcos: mysterious, unknowable, apart, and utterly haunted by what humans left behind, good and evil.”

This is a town with a Goya painting hanging in its 17th-century town hall and a cobblestone place, once known as Inquisition Lane, that led to gallows where secretly practicing Jews were executed in the 1600s. The church bells followed their procession. She writes, “The church bells were the pulse of all who lived along the steep lanes of Arcos with a throne on the ridge that gave the pueblo a haughty air of power and grandeur.” In her wanderings, she discovers that the bells of Santa Maria, which have chimed hourly since 1437 (by hand), were forged by a Jewish bell maker, who left a cryptic message on the bell relating to “God, suffering and freedom.” 

She finds symbolic and subversive connections to Jewish history in other unusual places, including paintings and music. She writes of saeta music, songs performed during Holy Week, that perhaps were reshaped by conversos. As a wink to others like themselves, they may have based these songs on synagogue chants, with similarities to 14th- and 15th-century versions of Kol Nidre. Their secret codes would no longer be to contemporary saeta performers who continue the soulful tradition.

Carvajal prefers the term “silent Jews,” drawn from the French, for those forced to conceal their identity, to words like marrano, derived from swine.

In doing research, she also searched through the meticulous Inquisition records kept by the Church, going through legajos, or handwritten files. She found an archive in Berkeley with the records of Inquisition trials in Mexico, documenting — in beautiful calligraphy — the secret Jewish lives of the Carvajal family in Mexico, who may have been relatives. The history of Costa Rica reveals clues as well: On Christopher Columbus’ fourth and last voyage toward Central America, he carried more than 50 converso families, and they landed on the shores of Costa Rica in 1502. As she continues to piece together information, she has her father take a DNA test. And she finds unexpected evidence when she rereads a letter from her grandmother. 

Her family’s most recent sojourn in Arcos included a stay at an old bordello that may once have been a Jewish home. Others have written works about resettling in European places, whether restoring a house in Tuscany, planting vineyards in Burgundy, or settling into a farmhouse in Provence. She came to “restore something less concrete: a discarded identity.” In an interview while she is visiting New York City, she laughs at the thought that Arcos might become a magnet for tourists, the way places in Provence have become, with published memoirs serving as guidebooks.

Her writing has a mystical edge: “Past and present is an illusion. Places, like people, keep their scars and footprints.”

About her own religious identity now, she says that it is still evolving. “I feel like the Church left me,” she says, particularly displeased about the way women have been treated. “I don’t feel like I’m a Catholic anymore.” She admits to feeling an inner spark of Judaism and wants to learn more, but feels that as an adult it’s like learning a new language. On Yom Kippur, she feels some resonance and has been attending a synagogue in Paris.

Her daughter Claire, who is 16, attends Catholic school, and while she’s interested in her mother’s research, she’s not ready to come along. The family now lives in a 300-year-old stone house outside of Paris.

As for her French husband Omer, the story has taken on an interesting twist. Omer, who was baptized a Catholic but is secular, understood that his father Mohammed has Muslim roots in Algeria, although he also heard that they were descended from the Berbers.  Curious about his background, he recently took a DNA test, which indicates that he may also be descended from Sephardim, and he isn’t altogether surprised. They plan to go to Algeria to pursue these clues.