Sunday, October 07, 2012

Terra Incognita

"Terra Incognita" by Libi Astaire ( is a remarkable book.  It was written after she stayed in Girona, the only city with a restored Juderia (Jewish Quarter) in Spain.  Based upon her research there she has constructed a novel about the descendents of Secret Jews that is both realistic and informative.   
The story revolves around the inhabitants of a small, obscure, isolated village called Sant Joan Janusz, near Girona in Catalonia. The  name of the village is ficticious (there was no such saint) and the village has no Church, which is unusual. Of course we realize that the families that live in this village are descendents of Secret Jews, known in Hebrew as Bnei Anusim, but many of them, especially the younger ones, have not been inducted into this secret, presumably because it was very dangerous to do so in the time of the Inquisition, and this fear persists.  They only know that there are certain unusual family customs, such as having a formal family dinner on Friday night, where they light a candle and raise it up inside the chimney where it can't be seen, and sitting on low chairs if someone dies and covering the mirrors, etc.  But, having had no contact with real Jews for hundreds of years they no longer realize that these are Jewish customs and believe they they are simply local traditions. 
The main protagonists in the story are two young men. Vidal Bonet, a local boy who went to New York and received a degree in Business Management and has returned to the village for the funeral of his grandmother.  He wants to build a resort called "Peaceland" adjacent to the village.  He is not at first worried that this will destroy the isolation of the village and lead to a loss of its peculiar customs. He is strongly opposed in this by his own grandfather, who wants to retain the isolation and all the traditions.
Chaim Greenberg is an American Jew doing his thesis project on the Secret Jews of Catalonia, principally motivated by a diary discovered in his Aunt's house that relates the story of how his family originated in Spain and were Conversos, Jews forced to convert to Christianity.  Later in the novel we learn the contents of this diary, written in old Spanish, how the Jews of Girona were forced to convert and how a son went to Saragossa to live as a Christian, but married the daughter of a wealthy New Christian family who secretly practised Judaism.  Then a new brutal Inquisitor is appointed there, who starts a reign of terror against all New Christians, former Jews, whether they were sincere or not, in order to enrich the Church and the State.  And how a group of young men of these formerly Jewish families plot together to assassinate this Inquisitor, but are unsuccessful and are forced to flee.  They flee to Girona (intending to cross the Pyrenees Mountains), but by endangering their own family they are all forced to flee into the interior, where they settle in an isolated and obscure place and found the village of Sant Joan Janusz. 
Some of them manage to escape by sea and via a circuitous route, spending many years in Salonica, they eventually end up in Kansas, where Chaim Greenberg finds the diary written by his ancestor.  As described in the diary and as a result of various events, a hidden syanagogue is indeed found in the village and then an old Torah scroll .  This and other events destroy Vidal's ambition, but leads him and Chaim, who realize that they are distant relations, to decide to visit Israel together.   


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