Friday, April 20, 2018

Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris, a historical epic about the crypto-Jews of New Mexico

Where do we come from?  Focusing on the crypto-Jews of the American Southwest and their European ancestors, Morris’ (The Jazz Palace, 2015) enthralling saga ponders this question in both a genealogical and astronomical sense.

Seeking extra spending money, 14-year-old Miguel Torres, an amateur stargazer from a tiny New Mexican town in 1992, takes a job babysitting the two young sons of Rachel Rothstein, a lonely, restless artist and doctor’s wife. Full of typical adolescent preoccupations, and curious about his place in the universe, Miguel tries to serve as a positive role model for the boys while noting the odd familiarity of the Rothsteins’ Jewish traditions.

A parallel plotline follows the story of Luis de Torres, a converso interpreter on Columbus’ first voyage forced to conceal his faith. Magnificent characters with complex psychologies, including adventurous entrepreneurs and several courageous women, populate this generational tale of the Sephardic diaspora. Their lives alternate between periods of relative peace and persecution, since the deadly Inquisition is ever vigilant.

Over time, memories of their Jewishness vanish, though some traditions endure. The descriptions of culinary specialties are especially divine.

The story glides effortlessly between viewpoints and vibrant settings ranging from Lisbon to Tangier, the Caribbean, and Mexico City. With prose as clear as the star-strewn night sky, Morris’ novel explores people’s hidden connections.

I wrote this (starred) review for Booklist's March 15th issue. This was my first time reading one of Mary Morris's novels.

Some other notes:

- The title, Gateway to the Moon, is the translation of Entrada de la Luna, the New Mexican town where Miguel lives.

- There's an academic society, the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, geared toward "researching the history of crypto-Jewish and Sephardic communities around the world"; it has an associated journal.

- For other novels on this subject, see Daniella Levy's By Light of Hidden Candles and Kathryn Lasky's YA historical novel Blood Secret.

- Read more about the subject, the controversy, and the genetics at Smithsonian Magazine: "The 'Secret Jews' of San Luis Valley."


  1. I’ve heard of Luis De Torres, but not the crypto-Jews in Mexico- must chase this up! The novel sounds well worth a read.

    1. I hadn't heard of him before this novel - not sure how that happened! Ever since I read it, though, I've come across his name in multiple other places.

  2. Sounds like a great mixture of things I'm interested in - it's going on the list - thanks!

  3. I have never heard of crypto-Jews in the Southwest so I will have to check this book out.