In Mary Morris’ telling, Christopher Columbus paces the deck of his ship long into the nights in 1492, looking out at the vastness of sky and ocean for navigational clues. On board is Luis de Torres, who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Spanish, Latin and Portuguese. Secretly, de Torres still practices Judaism, although he and his wife converted to Catholicism when faced with expulsion from Spain. In fact, Columbus took de Torres along as an interpreter who could negotiate with the traders he thought they would meet on their journey to the Far East.
What happens to Columbus, his voyage and subsequent “discoveries” is well-documented, but the fate of de Torres is not. But he was known to be a Jew. Morris imagines a trail of connections between de Torres and a young man named Miguel Torres living 500 years later. Torres, who grows up in the remote town of Entrada de la Luna in the remote hills of New Mexico, loves watching the night sky and its constellations. He dreams of leaving the impoverished town where everyone is related to everyone else, if you go back far enough.
Morris’ new novel, “Gateway to the Moon” (Nan Talese/Doubleday) — the translation of the name of the town — shifts back and forward in time and across generations, detailing the violent and tragic reach of the Inquisition and the traces of Judaism that endure. With compelling storytelling sprung from history, the book is reminiscent of Richard Zimler’s fine novel, “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.”
Some of Morris’ vividly drawn characters are based on historical figures, and others are invented. As new generations replace the old ones, men and women no longer have a direct connection to Judaism. Their ancestors’ hidden practices and traditions, though, have not disappeared altogether but become something akin to buried memory, or a phantom limb, the sensation that something that is missing is still there. Members of the community refrain from eating pork, but they don’t know why.
She includes courageous and powerful women — some drawn from history, like Dona Gracia Nasi. There’s a lot of violence and torture, and there are accounts of people secretly helping each other hold onto their Judaism, even in death. “I felt a responsibility to tell these stories. The torture was hard to write about — not emotionally hard but artistically hard to convey pain and suffering,” Morris tells The Jewish Week in an interview.
The reader will see traits that repeat over the centuries, sometimes skipping generations, and mysteries that unravel. A Jewish family from New York that moves to a nearby canyon sparks discoveries, when Miguel becomes their babysitter. When he joins them for dinner on a Friday night, he asks Rachel — an artist who believes that everything happens for a reason — if she lights candles every night. She replies she does so only on Fridays, and he says that his mother does too, as does everyone in the town.
For her character Elena Torres, a former dancer who grew up in Entrada, lives in New York City and is visiting Tangier, the taste of lamb stew with garbanzos in Tangier is transporting — it’s not that it tastes like something her grandmother might have made, it’s that it is exactly her grandmother’s stew.
“As a fiction writer, the idea of secrets and discoveries is very appealing,” Morris says.
Morris has written novels including “The Jazz Palace,” short story collections and works of travel writing. Her travel memoir, “Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone” is a well-read and much-shared classic. Her love of travel and creative spirit have inspired many women onto the road. When asked about what links all her books, Morris says that she’s particularly interested in the theme of home and away, and the transition between.
About 25 years ago, Morris and her husband and then-3-year old daughter moved to the outskirts of Santa Fe, N.M., from Brooklyn, for an adventure when their daughter was still young, and because of an inexplicable pain in her own neck. She had seen many doctors who couldn’t explain it and was urged by friends to try some alternative medicine, plentiful in Santa Fe, which cured the pain. Back then, she hired a babysitter who thought he was Jewish, and while she doesn’t remember his name, she remembers his face and the many questions he asked about Jewish practice and tradition.
While writing another travel book then, she did some research into crypto-Jews and found fascinating stories that she chronicled in her journals and then set them aside. A suggestion from her literary agent inspired her to pick up the story and do more research, including delving into the work of Stanley Hodes, the leading scholar on the crypto-Jews of the Southwest. She says that in the Southwest these days, about 10 percent of the population has some sort of Jewish heritage.
To explain the way she works, Morris says, “Research feeds the story, and story feeds research. Once I realized that Columbus had a Jewish interpreter and found details, the story opened up.”
“I take the seeds of what is real,” she says.
“I feel there are so many myths we have, like the Pilgrims were here first, that Columbus was a great explorer. He knew how to read stars, he didn’t know where he was going. I’m trying to tell a different version of the American myth.”
Was Columbus Jewish?
“I believe that his father was probably a converso, and his son married a converso,” she says. “There’s nothing definitive but a lot of people I respect say so.”
The novel is resonant with Morris’ own roots in Chicago. She says, “My parents named me Mary and my brother John, as if they didn’t want anyone to know we were Jewish. I barely had a Jewish education. I have spent a lot of my life trying not to be a secret Jew myself.”
Her grandparents came to America in the 1890s from Russia and spoke frequently of pogroms they witnessed and their fear of Cossacks. She feels most at home in the Mediterranean — she too tasted an unforgettable sweet and savory stew in Tangier — and thinks it’s plausible that the family left Iberia and ended up on the Black Sea.