The Forgetting River: Journalist traces source of her hidden Jewish past

Every family has secrets, imparted to elders only in veiled whispers, concealed from children. In Doreen Carvajal’s family, the secret was her very identity.

Growing up Catholic in Lafayette, one of six children, she held fond memories of the nuns who taught her to read and the rituals of the church. She knew that her Costa Rica–born father could trace his family back to medieval Spain. However, until midlife, she did not suspect that her ancestors were most likely Conversos, hidden Jews expelled and dispersed at the time of the Inquisition.

“Doubt was my religion,” she writes in “The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition.” She will discuss her book Tuesday, Nov. 13 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

Doreen Carvajal 

There were no secret rituals, no smoking gun, no eureka moment. The clues were subtle.

“My grandfather hated the church. He used to make jokes about it,” Carvajal said in a video interview from her home outside Paris, where she is a reporter for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. “He never went to church, even when my father made his first Communion.” Her grandmother left instructions that she didn’t want a priest at her funeral, and a great-aunt went one step further, barring priests from her bedside as well as her memorial service.

In addition, Costa Rican cousins married cousins, and family burials were held soon after death, contrary to common customs. “There were hints along the way, but I didn’t look at them as a grand theme,” she said. “It’s a little bit like having a lot of Spanish tiles and you have to put them together to make a pattern, and I didn’t put them together. … I ignored the hints.”

Involved with her own life as a journalist, “I didn’t think of my family in the same way as I did a story,” said Carvajal, who started out at the now-defunct Concord Transcript and then the Contra Costa Times. Her career, which included stints at the L.A. Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, took her to Europe shortly after 9/11. When she and her family — French-born husband Omer Zeggane and daughter Claire — began vacationing in Arcos de la Frontera, a Spanish town in Andalusia with its own Jewish secrets, she became intrigued. Could there be a personal connection?

Serendipitously, after her great-aunt Luz’s death in Costa Rica, she received a note from her cousin that the family was descended from sefarditas, Sephardic Jews. Luz was the guardian of the family’s Jewish history; after her death, relatives found a bronze menorah in her bedroom.

The author’s great-aunt Luz (third from left, top row) was the guardian of the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of the Catholic Carvajals.

Captivated by the culture and history of Arcos, Carvajal wanted to write about Spain, but she didn’t know what her focus would be. At the same time, she was gathering material about her family’s roots, “but I didn’t think of it as a story,” she said. “I resisted it as a reporter. … I didn’t want myself to be the story. … I was used to being a detached observer.”

Nonetheless, discoveries kept surfacing and a story took shape: She discovered a 1437 church bell in Arcos erected by a Jewish artisan, bearing a cryptic message. At U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, she researched the Mexican Carvajals, some of whom were executed in the 1500s, accused of practicing Judaic rites. She attended Andalusian festivals, where heartfelt songs were reminiscent of the Kol Nidre. And she recalled messages from readers and colleagues that Carvajal was a Converso name, messages she had “constantly discounted.”

“Why did we forget that we were Jews?” she asked her cousin Cecilia.

“The older generation didn’t forget,” Cecilia said. “It was just something they didn’t talk about.”

The older women were the ones who remembered, Carvajal said. Her father knew little or nothing. In her family, as in Spain, probing questions about a Jewish past often were met by silence. The unspoken message was don’t ask, don’t tell.

In Spain, “I think it was a matter of survival,” Carvajal said. “People had a tendency to whitewash things that happened. … They don’t talk about negative things of the past, particularly the Inquisition.” Admitting to Jewish roots “is a private matter and you don’t bring it up.”

But uncovering secrets is what reporters do. Carvajal had her father’s DNA analyzed. She studied the history of Costa Rica’s Spanish émigrés. She interviewed Arcos’ town historian, who probed Inquisition records, explored the old Jewish Quarter and fought attempts to knock down the remnants of the synagogue. In Barcelona, she interviewed a Mallorca-born ex-Catholic who discovered his Converso roots, moved to Israel, converted to Judaism, and became a rabbi and emissary to Spain’s Conversos.

“Doubt is no longer my religion,” Carvajal writes at the end of the book. “I feel I’ve broken with the Catholic Church. The church left me,” she said, noting that she finds the Jewish community particularly receptive to her story.

She has attended synagogue services, but Carvajal is not Jewish — at least, not yet. “I have to find the right synagogue for me,” she said. “I’m kind of like a child at this point. I mix things up. I feel I have to read and study to make the conversion.”

Doreen Carvajal will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. (415) 567-3327 or www.jewishlearningworks.org/library.

“The Forgetting River” by Doreen Carvajal (304 pages, Riverhead Books, $26.95)

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].