The For­get­ting Riv­er: A Mod­ern Tale of Sur­vival, Iden­ti­ty, and the Inquisition

By – April 23, 2012

A pow­er­ful mem­oir, The For­get­ting Riv­er tells the mov­ing sto­ry of the author’s quest to uncov­er her family’s secret her­itage. Car­va­jal was raised to believe her fam­i­ly hailed from Cos­ta Rica, and that their roots were deeply buried in the Latin Amer­i­can Catholic soil. But dur­ing her ear­ly adult­hood, when she leaves her Cal­i­for­nia home and moves first to New York, then to Paris, and final­ly to a tiny, cen­turies-old town in Andalu­cia in south­ern Spain, she begins to sus­pect that there is more to the sto­ry than she had been told. One clue at a time, she dis­cov­ers that her true her­itage is con­nect­ed to Jew­ish Spain, and that her ances­tors were forced to con­vert dur­ing the Span­ish Reformation.

As she unrav­els the thread of her fam­i­ly his­to­ry, she works with sci­en­tists to track her DNA and digs deep beneath the ancient beau­ty of white­washed build­ings to try to under­stand her own begin­nings, final­ly sat­is­fy­ing the crav­ing for belong­ing she has car­ried with her since child­hood. As she begins to under­stand and accept her her­itage, she gains the sense of place that has elud­ed her all her life.

Car­va­jal is a jour­nal­ist who under­stands the nuance and beau­ty of trav­el writ­ing. Com­bin­ing this gift with this high­ly per­son­al sto­ry, she cre­ates a book that shim­mers with enchant­ment, pulling the read­er into her life with gen­tle tugs on the heart­strings. What she calls hunt­ing fam­i­ly ghosts” will res­onate with any­one who has ever felt out of place where they were and dreamed of find­ing anoth­er her­itage just one lay­er beneath the one they had always accept­ed as the bedrock of their self-definition.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions

1. In the gold­en age of Span­ish lit­er­a­ture, the con­ver­so descen­dants of Sephardic Jews wrote with dou­ble mean­ings in sym­bols and codes addressed to oth­er con­ver­sos in the know. What are some recur­ring sym­bols, such as fire, that sur­face in chap­ters of The For­get­ting Riv­er?

2. The author strug­gled to piece togeth­er the frag­ments of her fam­i­ly’s secret ori­gins using what key ele­ments? What are the most defin­ing moments of your own fam­i­ly’s his­to­ry and is there a crit­i­cal miss­ing fragment?

3. When you study your own fam­i­ly tree, can you asso­ciate names of dis­tant rel­a­tives with a pic­ture, per­son­al­i­ty and a sto­ry? What are strate­gies you can use to bring the mem­o­ries and his­to­ry of your ancestors?

4. At one point a con­ver­so descen­dant who had guard­ed his fam­i­ly’s secret ori­gins answers a curi­ous rel­a­tive’s ques­tions by say­ing: Don’t ask. Think.” Do you have exam­ples in your own fam­i­ly where secrets were trans­mit­ted to gen­er­a­tions through non-ver­bal actions or sym­bols? What hap­pened when you asked questions?

5.The writer makes an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion to the south of Spain, feel­ing almost a mys­ti­cal tie. Some anusim or con­ver­so descen­dants have an expres­sion, say­ing the blood calls.” Have you ever vis­it­ed the home­land of your ances­tors? What were your reactions?

6. What impact did the DNA results have on the author’s search to reclaim her fam­i­ly’s hid­den iden­ti­ty? Have you ever test­ed your DNA and what impact did it have on your own view of per­son­al fam­i­ly history?