East by Southwest
The settlement was meant to be a kind of aliya (but in the Arizona desert), a place where they were going to live a new Jewish life. Forty years later, they could argue about how many lives they had rescued for Judaism (or had they?).
Forty years ago, Aunt Franny and Uncle Nathan packed up and left Chicago in an internal aliya. In a desert in southern Arizona, an oasis had been created that would become a thriving Jewish community, a community completely planned and self-sufficient. Here, Shabbat and holidays would be celebrated as fully and authentically as they might be in Mea Shearim.
I still have the brochure. Palm trees line the streets and there are enclaves of carefully grouped houses with verandas all around them so there’s always a place of shade. Arbors with grapes and wisteria link the houses.
Uncle Nathan was, even then, a fan of genetics. “We’re a desert people, we Jews,” he declared. “The desert is our genetic home.” He had spread this brochure out on our laden table—after the apples and honey of the Rosh Hashana meal. He and Franny were in my parents’ apartment, trying to convince all of us to go with them to that desert that would be made to bloom as our ancestral lands had, but with no war, no Arabs, no international hate.
My father had always considered his brother-in-law to be one local stop from lunacy. He dropped Nathan’s idea and stamped on it. The couples didn’t speak to one another again.
Franny and Nathan sold out and moved. Of course, it was a scam. The “planned community” was a series of roads going from nowhere to nowhere. The houses were nonexistent. There was no water, no electricity and no sewage arrangements. No palm trees—no trees of any sort. Angry and humiliated, most of the five hundred couples who had been taken in by this ludicrous dream cut their losses and left. Fifty stayed, broke or still clutching the illusion.
Among them, thank God, were some clever people. They built a generator and dug wells, and with the help of locals from Nogales and Sasabe, they imported desert-friendly flora and learned to master Israeli techniques of collecting every drop of rainwater that fell.
Years passed and we heard little from them—cards for Rosh Hashana. All of it was carefully upbeat. I heard that the community had had phone lines installed—well, one phone line. In 1970, every house had a fully functioning composting toilet.
My parents died without seeing Franny and Nathan again or hearing about the community, my father without changing his estimate of der mishugener.
The High Holidays came this year, and for no reason I can give, I called Uncle Nathan and begged pardon, in the name of my parents, for our silence, and asked to visit. We corresponded through the winter. They seemed guarded. I assumed it was some residual pride—shame over the old fight and that they had been living closer to the edge than I was and were afraid of my horror or my scorn, or that I would ridicule them to the rest of the family.
They met me at the Tucson airport, two weathered ancients, although I calculated that they were only in their early seventies. Their faces were cut into arroyos, their hair white and long under the broad-brimmed hats; they looked like twins, both stark as models of humanity rather than as individuals. They wore white muslin pants and long shirts. They wore identical necklaces.
Their embraces destroyed the stark image. “Ruthie! Ruthie! It’s so good to see you!” Their delight warmed me. How was Uncle Lou? How was Aunt Irene? How were Evan and Tonya? In college? Laughing and talking both at once in their familiar way, they bundled me into an old Land Rover and we headed south.
Highway to road, to hardpan, to track. The car had no air conditioning. The bone-bare land baked. There was no relief from the emptiness except a rim of far distant mountains. At last, they said, “We’re here.”
The development had been named in lofty Hebrew, Gan Tikva, and this was so stated in faded and flaking letters in Hebrew and transliteration on an entrance arch.
“Nobody calls it that any more,” Franny waved dismissively. She spoke in a low, pleasantly roughened voice. “In fact, we never did. The highway goes straight into Mexico, and we’re right on the border, but we don’t exactly know where the border is. We call our community Blanca Tierra.”
I don’t know what I expected. The scammers’ layout must have been on a grand scale. Roads went off in all directions. In breaking the tough ground cover, the “developer” had caused it to erode into impassable ridges and gullies. Only one track was drivable, and up this we went, over a hillock to a cluster of whitewashed adobe houses built to one of three patterns, grouped all around a very large square. Everything looked rationed, one tree for each house and that no higher than the roof; ramadas at each north side. They were wicker affairs that reminded me of sukkas before their decoration.
We were coming up on the settlement, maybe fifty yards away, when Uncle Nathan stopped the car. I thought his delicacy was perfect. We had been driving for almost three hours, and I was stiff and needed to stretch. I also needed a restroom, but the land offered only cactus and spiny bushes, no cover at all.
“No one’s coming,” Aunt Franny said. “Go behind the car. We’ll take turns.”
So we did. They were carrying the ubiquitous water bottles of the American Southwest, so we got to wash up.
Yet, I still felt a guardedness, looks passing between them, expressions changing when they looked away from me, replaced too quickly with smiles that didn’t make it to their eyes. I saw how uncomfortable they were, but I didn’t know the source. They weren’t moving toward the car doors.
“What is it?” I asked, as the discomfort mounted.
“Are you sure you want to stay here?”
I was flummoxed. We had just done all that travel without spotting a single house that showed habitation, no less a town with a motel. “Isn’t there room for me with you? Remember, I live in Colorado. I’m used to water shortages.”
Again those looks. Then Uncle Nathan took a breath. “We’re living Jewish history here,” he said. “Look around you.”
I looked. There was desert and semidesert—cactus, Spanish bayonet, yucca, low hills, land more stable than the Gobi or Sahara, but empty and open under the vast white sky, ablaze even in May. It was then I saw Uncle Nathan was wearing tzitzit under his shirt. He had tucked in the fringes when he was at the airport. “Are you afraid I won’t fit into an Orthodox home?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” Aunt Franny said, “it isn’t that. It’s that we’re living Jewish history.” I was about to ask what they meant.
“You have to promise,” Uncle Nathan said.
“Yes,” Aunt Franny repeated. “You have to promise that you won’t…”
“Betray them to the Inquisition.”
The silence wasn’t silent. It ricocheted with the pop and snap of insects at work, the commentary of millions of life spans lived small, at ground level, in the mid-world. I waited in disbelief to find a word that wouldn’t be an incredulous guffaw. I must have shaken my head, because we all got into the car and went up the gentle slope to where the houses were clustered.
On the way up, Aunt Franny told me that here she was called Penina and Uncle Nathan, Natan. I looked around. The place was spare to the point of perfect Zen, not a grace note or decoration, not even chilis hanging red from a rafter against the white of a house. The gardens were behind the houses, under some kind of water-saving mulch. The people must be living on retirement and Social Security money; I couldn’t imagine thirty-five or forty residents sustained by the limited harvests available.
As the car stopped in front of one of the houses, I thought I saw faces peeping from around corners and out of the uncurtained windows, but when I looked again, they were gone. Here came four people walking toward us while Natan was unloading my baggage and a number of bags and bundles he had picked up on the trip. No other vehicles were present; we had come in The Car.
They were all old, dried and brown, white teeth, white shirts and pants, straw hats, guarded smiles, the flick of measuring eyes. All were men. Introductions. Their names were Hebrew, the ancient way: Israel ben David, David ben Joseph, Joseph ben Chaim, Chaim ben Jehudah. Later, I would hear their shortened names: Izzy, Jossi, Chai, Dudi.
The community was lucky, I was told, that among the forty-seven residents was a dentist, an agronomist, a tailor (I had to bite my cheek), an electrician and an almost doctor. I would meet the women later, women who wove and spun and sold those products and cactus jelly. “And oh, yes, there are many talents among the crypto-Jews.”
Marranos? Here it was again, time torn apart and stitched back crazily. Natan had unloaded The Car and showed the men a list of what he had bought, which they all remarked on, and then he said, “Let her see—let her see the place.” They went into a huddle and came up with a decision. We would wait awhile. We would have supper.
Blanca Tierra wasn’t a kibbutz—many of those houses were shared by two or even three couples: Natan and Penina shared with Dudi and two widows, Ayala and Tamar. “And the crypto…?” I asked, trying not to laugh.
Ayala looked as though such a question was as ordinary as one about coffee or dessert. “They prefer to stay together. They share the house at the end of the row.”
“Weren’t the Marranos the people living in medieval Spain?” I asked, getting annoyed at the game they were playing.
They all grinned at me. “So we thought,” Penina said, “but let Izzy tell it. People are coming to see you and he’s the one who was chosen. It was one of our special moments here, a proof, really, evidence.”
That sundown in the desert revealed to me beauty I hadn’t expected to see. The light poured warm honey on every small bump of land, stick, spear or spine at its western face or edge. What wasn’t blessed with that light lay in a rich well of shadow. Here there was no flatness, but a sense of full dimension, of the depth of everything, its roundedness, and when the light went, there was a shimmering luminescence that breathed out as the desert gave up its heat. I was sitting in the ramada with Natan and Penina, watching it all. We stopped talking as the changes moved. I had been getting them up to speed on the cousins and my Uncle Ben and Aunt Ceil. I told them then that I understood, at this moment, what was sacred to our people about sundown, and why it began the day instead of ending it.
Looking up the dusty street we saw a small group of people slowly moving toward us. The air hung in a magical silence that made me feel rapt and waiting. I was the audience. The delegation stopped before the house, and at a signal from Natan, came past to the ramada. I saw that they each carried a little folding chair on which they sat inside on the packed ground.
As we sat, the darkness took over and I realized that he and all the others were losing their individual faces in the quickly dying light. Penina brought out some tea, herbal. I would have turned it down anywhere else, but here it fit and tasted right. Izzy’s voice was to my left.
“We came here,” he said, “and there was nothing. For a while, well, we almost fell apart, but we looked around and saw the desert and we all knew that we once lived in deserts, so we got tents and we—it was fitting to do what our ancestors did in the old days. We made things, we sold what we could make, tchotchkes in the beginning, stuff we picked up in the desert—cactuses, cactus jelly, rain sticks, all that. We got gifts from relatives, we used everything we could, retirement money, Social Security, and we stayed. Except in the rains we did most of our cooking outside, so we expanded our tents and lived O.K. in them.
“One day, I was in our tent making one of these chairs we’re on, and the ground beneath me fell in. Yes, a big hole opened up, and I fell into it, and I heard voices under me, and then there was someone swearing at me, a man. His arm was broken. The man and I struggled our way up the sides from the hole and there were others, too. I heard a woman. As soon as I was up I ran and got everybody and we came back and saw they were trying to go back down. We called to them. They were talking in Ladino.”
I could barely control myself. Who of all these people knew Ladino or had ever heard it spoken?
Izzy went on. “We all decided that they must be crypto-Jews—you know, the Jews that escaped from Spain during Ferdinand and Isabella. They were all blown here by the Inquisition and they hid, Jews so secret that all signs of them were lost. They learned to hide behind Christianity, to cross themselves, like they were doing, calling on the virgin when they really meant the Torah. Once we were convinced that they were Marranos, we started cheering for them and we invited all of them to come up and we toasted them l’chaim and we all drank some of that cactus beer that Shura makes.”
I sat so still that I could feel my breathing. I knew this ramada was used as a sukka during the holiday. I knew that the sabra, the cactus fruit, was harvested in its season as it had been for all our years in the deserts. I also knew that desperate and persistent Mexican Catholic immigrants had built a tunnel, God knows how long, to cross the border and that they had had no idea at all that they would come up in Izzy’s living room and be taken for people whose only memory of a rich and special past might be a throb of DNA.
A woman’s voice, Ayala’s, came from the now dark: “They built these houses. Many of them come and leave. If they want to go, we drive them to Tucson and set them down in front of the synagogue. Some rest here for a while, and some remember how good it is to be Jewish and they stay. Five have stayed. They’re older. Of course, they have to learn the Hebrew they lost, and we have to teach them the prayers they have forgotten.”
“And the Inquisition…,” I murmured.
“The Inquisition men were here, twice. We never told them about people coming up through Izzy’s floor. They wouldn’t have believed it. In any case, those people were gone years ago.”
Her statement brought me up short. “How long have you been a way station for immi…crypto…?”
“Jaime—we had to tell him his name was originally Chaim—came up in 1985.”
“It was 1983,” a voice from the dark said. “I remember because it was the year I had to get my glasses.”
“How many have come through here?”
Everyone had a number to contribute. The estimates ranged from 100 to 600, all crypto-Jews, many of whom carried ancient amulets, hai necklaces and Hamsas, pictures of mezuzas and menoras saved and inherited secretly down through the generations from the 1500’s. Some of the escapees produced lineages back to the families of Mendoza and Mendes, Seixas and De Sola.
I wondered who had passed those words back, given the instructions, tutored and shaped this small but constant stream of Mexican immigrants: wear this, sew that, buy this, make that.
“And the ones here now, what are they like?” I asked.
“You’ll meet them tomorrow,” Natan said.
How could I wake these sleepers? God knows there were worse dreams than the one they were all dreaming.
The inhabitants of Blanca Tierra began to leave. We hugged. Tomorrow, I would meet the “crypto-Jews” and when I left would betray no one to the Inquisition and Naturalization Service and would have dreams of men in polyester suits morphing into men in cowled habits.
Leaving the ramada to stand alone in the star-encrusted darkness, I thought about God’s prophecy to Abraham: I will make you like sand, like stars. He had fulfilled the prophecy. We have been spread like sand, windblown over the earth, and like stars, some of whose bodies may be extinct but whose light continues to shine.