Book Review: Conversos, clinging to Jewish tradition

A historical novel tells the story of 15th-century Spain through the eyes of women.

A signed copy of the edict of expulsion from Spain in 1942. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A signed copy of the edict of expulsion from Spain in 1942.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“‘There are two kinds of anusim,’ she told me. ‘The ones who say, I give up, and the ones who don’t. The ones who don’t are called Judaizers, living outwardly as Christians but keeping to the old ways in secret.’”
A good historical novel is one that brings a past period to life for the reader. In the hands of a talented writer, a fictional story set in times gone by can recreate a world that no longer exists, bringing the reader into the lives and hearts of characters living long ago.
The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona is just such a book. Set in 15th-century Spain and Portugal, it is the story of Amalia, who grew up as one of three sisters in a Converso family – Jews who converted to Christianity to escape death but continued to keep Jewish practices secretly.
Amalia’s mother was determined to keep Jewish tradition alive in their home, despite all outward appearances that the family maintained to prove their loyalty to the church. During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Conversos, or anusim as they were called among the Jews, could lose their lives for secretly practicing Judaism.
As a small girl, Amalia snuck into the basement with her mother to light Shabbat candles, while her older sister, Susana, scorned her mother’s attempts to hold onto Jewish practice despite the danger of being discovered. Amalia’s mother took her with her to the river that served as her mikve, and taught her daughter the significance of the monthly ritual of immersion in living waters.
Although her mother died when Amalia was a young girl, the beauty of Jewish tradition stayed with her throughout her life. This was not true with her two sisters, who clung fervently to Christianity. Her younger sister, Luisa, eventually became a nun.
The story alternates between Amalia’s girlhood and growing-up years and 1492, when she is in her 60s and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella give the Jews of Spain exactly four months in which to leave the country. As the aging Amalia faces her expulsion from the land where her family has lived for generations, the story of her life unfolds from childhood to adolescence to motherhood, through love and loss, joy and despair.
Throughout her entire life, no matter where she was living, Amalia was faced with the challenge of remaining a Jew despite the multitude of forces working to remove all semblance of Judaism from her soul.
Amalia’s father, Vicente Riba, was a talented Converso mapmaker who followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
Her grandfather, Jehuda Cresques, had been forced to change his name to Jaume Riba when he was baptized against his will in 1391, and her great-grandfather, Abraham Cresques, had been a master Jewish mapmaker in 14th-century Spain. When Amalia was a child she loved to sit with her grandfather, examining the beautiful atlas he had created together with her great-grandfather.
At that time, Spanish and Portuguese explorers were searching for the bottom of Africa, and Amalia’s father was hired by royalty to design maps according to the latest discoveries. When her mother died and her father lost his hearing, Amalia, who spoke numerous languages, was chosen to live with him as his interpreter.
Her father’s work took them to Portugal, where she lived for many years until returning to Spain as an adult.
Corona deftly weaves Amalia’s personal story into the disturbing saga of the Jews of 15th-century Spain and Portugal. Amalia develops a close relationship with Judah and Simona Abravanel, who become her family during some of the most difficult years of her life.
If the name Abravanel sounds familiar, as you read the book you will realize why.
It turns out that quite a few of the characters in The Mapmaker’s Daughter are based on real historical figures, some more wellknown than others.
As Corona comments in the notes at the end of the book, the theme that connects her four published novels is the forgotten or under-appreciated women in history. The historical figures that appear in this book are almost all men; historical records do not generally tell the stories of the women, which is why we are lucky to have talented authors like Corona – who make their lives real through well-researched fiction.
Here, the author does an outstanding job of inventing the women who lived during one of the harshest eras in Jewish history.