Centuries of secret history

Mary Morris’s novel tells the story of crypto-Jews, whose descendants uncover their secret hundreds of years later.

A 16TH-CENTURY manuscript by Spanish-born Jew Luis de Carvajal the Younger is displayed at a museum in Mexico City last, 2017 (photo credit: CARLOS JASSO/REUTERS)
A 16TH-CENTURY manuscript by Spanish-born Jew Luis de Carvajal the Younger is displayed at a museum in Mexico City last, 2017
(photo credit: CARLOS JASSO/REUTERS)
Imagine you are a Catholic, as are all your neighbors, relatives and friends. You are so much a part of that community, you have never even thought about your place in it; it simply seems natural, a part of your being, as it has been for your ancestors for hundreds or even thousands of years.
And then – with the help of modern science – you realize all your unspoken assumptions are false. You come to understand that not all your ancestors were Spanish or Portuguese or Mexican Catholics; that before the 15th or 16th century, all your forefathers were Jewish; that some 500 years ago, people like you were given the choice of abandoning their religion and their people or becoming homeless; that many outwardly converted but were really crypto-Jews, trying to maintain their Judaism secretly and, when discovered, were tortured unspeakably and often murdered for their desire to remain true to their God.
This bombshell of a discovery has moved some Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans living in the Southwest to return to their forebears’ religion and their people through conversion to Judaism.
Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris tells the story of those modern community members as well that of their ancestors, Jews who had the great misfortune to live in Spain, Portugal and Mexico during those dark times of the Inquisition. Their prolonged spiritual and physical agony and degradation at the hands of those countries’ temporal and religious leaders is a shameful tale told here in a straightforward and chilling manner.
Morris, an accomplished storyteller, masterfully weaves together the tale of a small community of people living in a poverty-stricken backwater in New Mexico with that of their long-lost Jewish ancestors. The author has an exquisite sense of literary timing. In a wink of that proverbial eye, she is able to move readers from the depths of hopelessness to the brink of expectation. She flits effortlessly from the 15th and 16th centuries to the later years of the last century, combining historical figures with fictional ones.
The most notable historical personage is Luis de Torres, a convert to Christianity and a secret Jew who accompanied Columbus on his first trip to the New World and is the ancestor of the families living in Entrada de la Luna, their town in New Mexico.
Many of the people in the town had “family traditions,” such as lighting candles on Friday nights or not eating pork or shellfish, but they had no idea that such customs were Jewish, the remnants of their forebears’ way of life.
They did not know of their Jewish origins because after their ancestors came to found the town, they decided not to tell their children that they were secretly Jewish. They hoped that omission would protect them, since the Inquisition had come to Mexico from Spain. But evidence of their Jewish background becomes inescapable when a Jewish woman living in the area shows a resident that there are Hebrew letters on the gravestone of their town’s founder.
How the people in the town learned of their Jewish ancestry is fascinating and well-told, with the author skillfully using surprises and secrets to keep the reader’s attention riveted to the plot.
I won’t forget for a long time the depiction of the cruelty shown to the Jewish populations of the “Inquisition countries.” Their only crime was trying to continue to be Jewish, to follow the “dead law of Moses,” in the words of their Inquisitors. They were arrested, often beaten by the soldiers who came to detain them. They were taken to an Inquisition house where they were isolated, tortured and told they could live only if they confessed and implicated other secret Jews.
When they refused, they were burned to death at the stake in public, with the locals getting full entertainment value from the event. And, of course, as in every organized antisemitic campaign, the victims’ property was looted.
But it was not only physical torture and murder that demonstrated people’s disdain for their Jewish neighbors. To join Columbus’s crew, Luis de Torres walked to the town of Huelva. He was accompanied on the way by many Jews who had only days to leave Spain following the expulsion order issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. On the hillsides, hogs grazed. A year earlier, sheep and goats lived there but they had been slaughtered and replaced by pigs.
“This is how much the Spanish hate the Muslims and Jews. They have filled their pasture lands with pigs,” Morris writes. “They eat pork to spite them. If they invite Luis into their homes, they serve ham hocks and pig knuckles, ribs and pork butt and bacon just to see if he will choke at the sight of them. This will prove that he is still a Jew.”
In her narrative, the author bashes Spain, Portugal and Mexico for their treatment of those country’s Jewish residents. Of course, this is a novel, not history. And it is always a mistake not to differentiate between historical fiction and history. Nonetheless, with images as powerful as these in this book depicting the savage treatment of Jews, readers cannot help but be affected. 
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online