The Origin Story of "Gateway to the Moon" by Mary Morris
Nearly 30 years ago my husband and I moved to New Mexico for a year. I had a contract to write a new book, and I also had a pinched nerve in my neck. I thought a year away was what I needed. Our daughter was only three at the time and in the afternoons when she was home from day care, we hired a baby sitter to play with her while we worked. I’m not sure how we found this young man, but he came from a fairly remote place. Once he learned that we were a Jewish family, he began asking us a lot of questions. Did we eat pork? We didn’t. Neither did his family, nor anyone else in his village for that matter. Did we light candles on Friday night? I didn’t, but I told him that my grandmother always had.
After working for us for a few weeks he mentioned, very timidly, that he thought his family’s origins might be Jewish. He had been raised Catholic. Everyone in his town was Catholic, and yet they kept these strange traditions, and no one really knew why. At the time I found this to be a curiosity. I didn’t realize that it would become my story.
It was around this time that a historian by the name of Stanley Hordes had begun doing research on what have become known as the crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Unlike other Jews who had actually converted to Christianity during the Inquisition, secret Jews had converted in name only. Though ostensibly Catholic, they kept up their Jewish traditions throughout the generations. As time went by, their descendants forgot that they were Jews. And in some cases their parents never told them because, quite frankly, it was safer that way. Yet they held on to their traditions without knowing why.
As the Inquisition closed in on them, many Jews and Muslims fled Spain and Portugal. And it is well-documented that a number of explorers and conquistadors during this period were secret Jews. Many went to Mexico, where they were relatively safe for years, until the Inquisition came there as well. Hordes believes that they began to make their way north until they came to settle in the remote hills of New Mexico, far from the inquisitor's prisons and torture chambers. Only in recent years has the story of these Jews come to light—and it became the backdrop for my novel, Gateway to the Moon.
It took me a long time to embrace this story. It seemed so far from my own story – as the grandchild of four Russian Jews. But it came to me slowly that I identified with this narrative. In some ways I, too, felt as if I had been a crypto-Jew. When I was born, not long after WWII, my parents were very interested in assimilating, and they named me Mary so that no one would know by my name that I was Jewish. And my mother, for reasons of her own, hated organized religion and turned her back on her Judaism. She used to joke that if the Jews had just accepted Christ as our savior, “none of this would have happened.” She couldn’t stand the Jewish holidays. We’d go to my grandparents' to celebrate them. And we always had a Christmas tree, so my grandmother would never come to our house when it was up. I know that this was very hard on my grandmother, who was Orthodox.
Anyway, my parents did whatever they could to assimilate, and I grew up knowing very little about Judaism. As a blue-eyed, freckled girl named Mary, I could easily have hidden my Jewishness. But late in my teens I decided that I wanted to learn about my heritage and understand my Jewish roots. In college I began to study Hebrew and learn whatever I could. I went to Israel, where I have family. My parents tried to hide all of this from me but I wanted to know. I think I identified with the secret Jews because, yes, I have for a long time felt as if I were one of them.
A few years ago, I was in Girona, Spain. There is a museum of the Jewish ghetto that I wanted to see. It contained fairly banal information, such as: Jews wear hats when they pray. Jews eat flatbread on their Passover holiday. Jews are good merchants. And so on. But the museum abruptly stops in 1492. Though I obviously knew the answer to this question, I asked the woman at the information what happened after 1492, and she looked at me blankly and said, “We haven’t gotten to that room yet.” Well I decided that I wanted to enter that room. Gateway to the Moon is the result.
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. "The Origin Story of "Gateway to the Moon" by Mary Morris." 18 September 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/bookclub/origin-story-of-gateway-to-moon-by-mary-morris>.