I’ve been reading a wide variety of books on my vacation: a book on the etymology of flower names, very appropriate since every day has its gardening component; a YA book on friendship; a poetic book on the history of a river and The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition by Doreen Carvajal. I’ve always had a passing interest on Conversos, those Jews during the Inquisition who outwardly adopted Catholicism while secretly practicing their faith. There appear articles every now and then about people, including priests, who uncover their unknown Jewish pasts.
Unlike the people in the articles, Carvajal, a New York Times reporter, seemed to know that her ancestors were Jewish but had a hard time proving it. Carvajal recounts her efforts to determine whether her ancestors, of Spanish descent who moved to Cuba, Costa Rica, and the United States, were indeed Conversos. These efforts included obtaining family histories, DNA testing, looking at Inquisition records and talking to everyone who might be able to help.
While the biological result was inconclusive, Carvajal’s spiritual result seems to lie in the Jewish direction. Along her journey, Carvajal recounts the torture perpetrated on one human by another because of religion, the long lasting impacts in Spain (some reaching into the twentieth century) of the Inquisition, her feelings towards the possibility of being Jewish having been brought up Catholic and her thoughts about what this might mean to her teenage daughter.
In the books and articles I have read, it seems that even in the twentieth century, there is some unexplained ritual practiced by Conversos that has its root in Judaiism and it is this, more than anything, that finally convinces Carvajal of her religious ancestry.
If you are looking for a satisfying conclusion to a spiritual search, The Forgetting River may not be your cup of tea. If you enjoy learning little tidbits of history or the historical root of some contemporary saying or action, The Forgetting River should interest you. Carvajal’s writing style is easy to read. Her journey was long and frustrating.
Two books of note on the subject: Incantation by Alice Hoffman is a personal favorite of mine. It is a wonderful, poetic book about Jews during the Inquisition and is in my personal library. Blood Secret by Kathryn Lasky, is mentioned in The Forgetting River as a book Carvajal gave to her daughter, talks about a young girl who discovers her family’s secret past. Both books are worth reading.