Descendants of Crypto-Jews in ‘Gateway to the Moon’
Gateway to the Moon By Mary Morris (Nan A. Talese, 352 pp. $27.95)
In the epic Gateway to the Moon: A Novel, Mary Morris follows seven generations of the de Torres family from 15th-century Spain to the hills of New Mexico in 1992. The saga connects the thread between the conversos and their descendants—poor, simple Catholics practicing strange traditions whose origins they no longer remember and who are beset with a yearning they don’t understand.
The drama begins with Luis de Torres—based on a historical character who changed his name from Yosef Ben Halevy Ha-Ivri after the Alhambra Decree ordered practicing Jews to leave Spain. He remains in Spain as a Crypto-Jew—keeping the Sabbath and avoiding pork in secret. Finally, fearing the Inquisitors who are burning his people at the stake, he flees Spain, accompanying Christopher Columbus on his voyage as his interpreter. Luis is not the only Crypto-Jew aboard the Santa Maria; sailor Rodrigo de Triano is another.
During a storm so severe he fears he will die, Luis recites the Kaddish and hears a response—from God, he thinks—of “shalom aleichem.” (But no, it was Rodrigo’s humorous quip.)
Although history records that the actual Luis de Torres perished in Cuba, Morris has Columbus’s converso concubine rescue Luis’s abandoned toddler son—born from a relationship with a Native woman—in the New World and bring him back to Spain; the de Torres family will grow from the young Benjamin.
Centuries later, we meet 15-year-old Miguel Torres, who is obsessed with stargazing in Entrada, a valley nestled in the mountains north of Santa Fe, where he lives. “He is hoping to find a moon. Not a moon that anyone else has ever found but one of his own,” writes Morris. Among the clues to Miguel’s Jewish identity are his mother’s Friday night traditions: She turns the Virgin Mary’s picture to the wall, blesses a pair of candles and serves a special chicken stew.
Gateway to the Moon’s stories of how generations of Crypto-Jews lived, loved and sometimes perished, all while maintaining their hidden roots, are compelling. On their voyage to the New World, Luis and Rodrigo speak Ladino to each other and on Friday nights they break bread and drink wine. Morris describes how “they whisper the same blessings that their families are whispering thousands of miles away. So far away that they have no idea of how they might cross this ocean
Alas, they never return physically, but for their descendants, the thread connecting them to their Jewish roots will help lead them home.
Amy Klein is a freelance writer living in New York City.
Leave a Reply