Longtime journalist Doreen Carvajal, who has written for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications, is the author of The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition. The book examines her family's history.
Q: You write, "Doubt was my religion." What made you think your family's background was Jewish, and what was your family's reaction when you started looking into your history?
A: It was a very long, slow process, starting when people pointed out to me that Carvajal, was a Sephardic Jewish name. I didn't take it seriously when I was a young reporter. The Carvajal family had lived generations in Costa Rica in Central America and we were practicing Catholics. That was our bedrock identity —or so I thought.
But as I grew older and my family and I moved to Europe I started asking questions. Unfortunately, many key relatives had died in the meantime who could have given me vital information. I had committed a grave error, a lesson to everyone to start posing questions to older relatives right now.
And so I had to piece together information like broken Spanish tiles to find the patterns. It was just in the last few weeks that I finally discovered information that was my "Eureka" moment. It ended all my doubts about who I am.
Q: At this point, what is your own relationship to Judaism?
A: I would have given you a more ambivalent answer just a month ago, but now my path is clear and I want to start the process of formal conversion. I am looking for the right synagogue in Paris where I can start a course of study and immerse myself. I feel like a child, mispronouncing words, trying to shake hands with an Orthodox rabbi, worrying about where to stand or sit in a synagogue. There's so much I need to learn. And there is the delicate issue of my husband and daughter, 16. Both are very secular in their outlook. So I leave them to pursue their own path.
Q: What surprised you the most in the course of your research?
A: Several major surprises. The most recent discovery came just a few weeks ago when I decided to use a holiday vacation to dive deeply into the genealogy of my Costa Rican grandmother, Angela Chacon. I had always paid more attention to my father's male line on the Carvajal side and then hit several walls. So I took a fresh approach. I started exploring my grandmother's line, which I always assumed were descendants as well of Sephardic Jews.
I searched through baptismal records from Costa Rica that were scanned and posted online by Mormon volunteers. Those documents led me to new generations of great grandfathers and grandmothers, including a conquistador who had searched fruitlessly for El Dorado. There was much intermarriage among cousins, particularly among the early Spanish colonists in the 16th century, a sign of marrying among clans and people who could be trusted. Eventually my search led to Segovia, where my 16th great grandfather, Diego Arias Dávila, was the wealthy royal treasurer to Enrique IV, the king of Castile and Leon. Don Arias Dávila and his wife, Elvira Gonzalez, both had converted to Christianity as children in the 15th century in the tense years leading up to the start of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478.
They both died before the Inquisition started. But that did not protect them. They were tried posthumously by the Inquisition for heresy — secretly living as Jews. And their son, Juan Arias Davila — who was long the powerful bishop of Segovia — was also accused of heresy. Ultimately, the bishop retreated in exile to Rome, appealing for aid from the pope. He secretly removed the remains of his parents in Segovia and took them to Rome, fearful that inquisitors would dig up their bones and burn them in punishment in a public spectacle.
The Inquisition records offered detailed descriptions of their lives in testimony from dozens of witnesses. It was clear they yearned for their culture and their religion with Don Arias Dávila sometimes secretly wrapping a tablecloth around his head and singing a "responsum." His wife, Elvira, who helped fund one of the city's synagogues, left explicit instructions about how she wished to be buried: wrapped in "the Jewish fashion" in a hooded cape.
It gave me chills when I discovered that my 16th great grandmother, Elvira, had changed her name when she converted to Christianity. Her name was Clara, the same name as my daughter, Claire.
Q: You settled in a Spanish town, Arcos de la Frontera, to conduct your research. What drew you to that particular town, and what was its role during the Inquisition?
A: Some people pursue their genealogy in a very mathematical, structured kind of way. I pursued a right brain strategy, trying to reclaim identity by living with the past — the stones, the homes, the culture, the cuisine. In France, there is an aging therapist who has spent her entire life studying the psychology of genealogy. To understand the connections between generations, she urges people to live in "the ecological niche," of their families, to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, to study the history and economics of their times.
I chose Arcos de la Frontera because it simply called to me. It is a mystical town of white houses on a sandstone ridge partly surrounded by the Guadalete, named for the Greek river of forgetting. It is rich with history. Almost daily I passed one of the little plazas where Inquisition trials took place. Over centuries, neighbors turned on neighbors, reporting suspicious behavior that offered clues to secret Jewish lives. Cooking with oil for example instead of lard. Or refusing to make the sign of the cross.
I felt an emotional connection to the town that could not be explained. But again, as I pursued a more classic approach to genealogy, I discovered there was a family tie to the region. Some distant great grandparents did indeed live in Jerez de la Frontera, the closest town that was intimately connected to Arcos de la Frontera.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am writing the epilogue for the paperback version of The Forgetting River, which will be published in August. I regret that I didn't have some of this information earlier when I was writing my book, but I'm grateful I still have the chance to give a more definitive ending to my search.
Aside from that, I am gathering research on a book about genetic memories though it is still the early stage and it could take many different directions.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One more surprise, which makes me wonder about unconscious choices, including the choice of spouses.
In the summer I gave my husband a gift of a DNA test. He was born in France, the son of a Swiss mother and a French Algerian father who fled the colony to avoid a forced marriage. His father's name was Muhammed though he always used "Maurice." His children always insisted he was not Muslim though. They said the family was from Kabylie, a Berber ethnic group native to the north of Algeria, which included Christians and Jews.
Back came the DNA results. My husband's haplogroup is E1B1B, which is the second most common haplogroup of genetic characteristics among Jewish men worldwide, particularly among Sephardic Jews. The higher prevalence may be due to North African Berber converts to Judaism during the Muslim occupation of Spain.
When we examined the genetic matches (meaning they had common ancestors in the last 1,000 years) my husband had ties to people living in Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands and Eastern Europe.
Now we're planning trips to northern Algeria and to Segovia, Spain. The past keeps calling.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb