The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition
By Doreen Carvajal
New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin Group), 2012
Reviewed by Judith Roumani
This is a highly competent journalist's account of her personal journey in search of her ancestors' identity. Born in the United States, but with the surname Carvajal from Costa Rica, and with a family tradition of being from Spain, Doreen Carvajal, though brought up as a practicing Catholic like generations of her family before her, was intrigued by the idea that her ancestors might have been Jewish, that she might be related in some way to Luis de Carbajal, martyred in Mexico at the hands of the inquisition together with most of his family.1
She is intrigued by possibilities that her family never spoke about. Like a good journalist, she sets out a plan of investigation and interviews anyone who might remotely have some light to shed on the issue. She rents a house in Arcos de la Frontera, a steep whitewashed, Andalusian village perched on a hillside, because she suspects that her family may have come from the village. Once in Arcos, she meets walls of silence, taboos and inhibitions, among the local people, who are still imbued with a fear of speaking freely on many subjects, though both the inquisition and the oppressive Franco regime are long gone. Doreen Carvajal absorbs messages from the bells, from the ghosts, and from the wrenching saetas sung during the Semana Santa, through a kind of heightened poetic awareness of how the present is a veneer on the surface of the still living past in this village of many secrets.
Though investigation merges with poetic mysticism, her search makes for compelling reading. Investigative journalism has its limits when no one is willing to talk. The author's imagination fills in the gaps, imagining the lives of the Jews and conversos, the former Jews of the village, and how they must have lived under an atmosphere of suspicion and fear.
All through the book, we are waiting for a breakthrough discovery, some clinching piece of evidence as she sifts through old history books and records. The village of Arcos de la Frontera, despite the many relationships she develops there, never does yield any relevant secrets. The closest things to evidence of a Jewish past Carvajal finds are, back in the United States, some mementoes left by her deceased great-aunt from Costa Rica. The aunt owned a small menorah (perhaps a gift from her Jewish friends) and prepared a Catholic prayer card printed and ready to be handed out at her funeral, with a typically Jewish psalm, Shir shel yom ha-Shabbat. This was the aunt who had said once, "Somos sefarditas," and who, it dawns on the author, must have deliberately left this cryptic message in a psalm upon her death. For Doreen Carvajal, the pieces of the puzzle finally fall into place, and she now has proof that her ancestors were Jewish.
Such odysseys are reminiscent of several other books by descendants of crypto-Jews or conversos, such as Gloria Golden or Sandra Shwayder Sánchez2 who tell the stories of ancestors who in each generation, on their deathbeds, confided in their families, "Somos judíos." Now that the stigma and the fear have diminished, a few such persons are returning to Judaism, while many are simply adding a new and interesting dimension to the Catholic, Christian identity they are comfortable with.
Since Doreen Carvajal's book was published, in the fall of 2012, a new issue has come up: the Spanish government's invitation to Sephardim who have some proof that their ancestors came from Spain to apply for Spanish citizenship. Since the offer, about 6,000 Sephardim applied in the first month. Carvajal, along with other descendants of conversos, is requesting that this facility be extended also to themselves, thereby widening considerably the pool of potential new citizens of Spain. According to a recent report, the Spanish are considering whether to send the issue back to the Cortes for likely amendment to include also descendants of Jews.3 Identity politics and high drama thus surround a six hundred-year-old issue, melding expulsion and inquisitorial persecution. The suffering of the conversos under the inquisition was as much, or more, they hold, than the suffering of Jewish exiles from Spain. It will be interesting to hear the result of the government's new deliberations.
Carvajal's book is a fascinating experiment in a more personal and poetic kind of writing from an investigative journalist, and well worth reading.
1. See analysis of Sandra Berman's dramatization of the life of Luis de Carbajal by Sandra M. Cypess, in first issue of Sephardic Horizons, (1:1, Fall 2010), "Mexican and Jewish Identity in Herejía, Sandra Berman's Play on Luid de Carbajal and the Inquisition."
2. See Regina Igel, review of Sandra Shwayder Sánchez, The Secret of a Long Journey in Sephardic Horizons 2:3 (Summer 2012)