In Santa Fe, New Mexico young Jacobo loves visiting his grandmother — his Abuelita — though he is puzzled by her various peculiarities. Unlike everyone else, she never eats pork, she eats unleavened tortillas during Easter week, and she lights special candles on Friday nights and around Christmas time. When he questions these behaviors, her response is always the same — that “this is the way of our family.” Then he discovers that all of these practices resemble those of his new friend, a Jewish boy named David. How can this be so, Jacobo presses his grandmother, who finally reveals the family mystery. They are really Judios, Jews forced to publicly embrace Catholicism centuries ago. Abuelita is her generation’s secret keeper and now this responsibility passes to Jacobo, though he remains unclear as to his true religious identity.
This story, ostensibly simple, is told plainly by Sasso and illustrated beautifully with paintings appropriately evocative of the region. The addition of a glossary and recipe are also a nice touch. However, the subject of crypto-Jews is infinitely complex and far too difficult for the book’s intended audience. This very sophisticated tale might serve as an introduction for older children but the format, alas, appeals to young readers who will only be confused and perhaps even frightened. In point of fact, there is an element to this telling that is anachronistic and misleading, as those who are descendants of the conversos, the crypto-Jews, generally lost all knowledge of any Jewish heritage, traditions, or practices. Those who maintained residual Jewish practices such as lighting candles on Friday night are fascinating fodder for academic research, but are unlikely to appeal to early readers. For ages 7 – 10.