Cambria Gordon’s family sabbatical in Madrid in 2016 became more than a time away from her native Los Angeles. Gordon felt her identity — as a writer and as a Jew — blossom. She launched into a journey of research and inquiry that led to the writing and publication of her new young adult novel, “The Poetry of Secrets” (Scholastic, February 2021).
The book is a journey into 1481 Madrid, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. The book’s 16-year-old heroine, Isabel, a poet and seeker of romance, is independent and artistic in a society that doesn’t tolerate free thinkers. Issues of faith and class are central to the story, and at every turn lurks the danger of the Inquisition.
Isabel and her family are New Christians, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, but who secretly maintained Jewish rituals. Also known as conversos or crypto Jews, they lived in constant fear of being revealed as Jewish, the penalty for which was torture and death by auto da fe — a public burning of heretics and non-believers, which could also include Muslim Moors.
“The Inquisition isn’t covered a lot in fiction for young people,” Gordon said. “It’s a very rich time in history that we don’t know a lot about.”
As Gordon learned more, she connected the dots between the Inquisition and the Holocaust, noting that both eras had anti-Jewish laws imposing social, professional and geographical restrictions. At the same time, she added, “there was an unspoken tolerance for Jews.” Jews had served in the royal family, they were physicians, “and so people turned a blind eye,” Gordon said.
Anti-Jewish sentiment, she said, was stoked by fiery speeches from clerics.
“Hitler probably read some of the tractates by these Dominican priests because the dehumanization and talking about Jews as impure, and that the country had to be cleansed, and the word marrano—which is pig, and is a pejorative for the conversos or even the Jews that didn’t convert—really I think Hitler drew on that. It was really amazing how similar it was, the philosophy.”
Gordon was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family, but after her father died, the man her mother remarried — her “second father,” as she calls him — hailed from a Sephardic family that spoke Ladino and produced dishes like borekas and fritadas.
“I had these phrases in my head and foods in my tastebuds, combined with my Ashkenazi upbringing and DNA,” Gordon said.
The romance with Madrid came from her grandfather, who had been in the city for almost a year producing “paella westerns,” the Spanish equivalent of Italy’s spaghetti westerns. She remembers him returning with a dashing moustache, bringing her a flamenco outfit, castanets and a pianeta, or hair comb.
“I was smitten with the culture,” she said.
When she arrived in Madrid for an extended stay with her family, most of the Jews she met were of Ashkenazi backgrounds.
“I thought, ‘Where are all the Sephardim? This is so strange,’” Gordon said.
On weekend trips to towns like Toledo and Segovia, she saw brass plaques in the shape of the Iberian peninsula on the ground, with Hebrew letters that spell out the word sefarad, or Spain.
“It was a tourist attraction, so Jews can go and say ‘Jews lived here once,’ but that’s it, the only remnant they have. There’s not a brick and not a building,” she said.
Struck by the palpable absence of Jews, she began her research, learning about the conversos and how some stayed in Spain while others went to Portugal. Trying to capture the physical spaces in which her novel is set, Gordon visited many churches. Echoes of Jewish life were harder to find, but a converso guide took Gordon to what she describes as “an underground cellar with a curved ceiling underneath a home. This is what I imagined Isabel to have,” with room to store the family’s wine and hide their Jewish observance from neighbors.
While the book is fiction, Isabel’s passion for poetry was inspired by real female poets from the 12th-15th centuries who wrote and spoke in Arabic but were Jewish. Her research, through the Cairo Geniza and the Jewish Women’s Archive, proved that, “women who were lettered and could read and write were real,” she said.
Food was also an important Sephardic influence for Gordon, who has added recipes to her website and Instagram, including the recipe for her grandmother Corene’s Spinach Fritada. Food also figures prominently in the book, because it was used as a weapon against the Jews by the Inquisitors. She explained that she found evidence authorities would see the absence of smoke from a chimney on Saturday as proof that the occupants were observing Shabbat, or would try to serve pork in an attempt to “ambush Jews,” she said.
“Weaponizing food is horrifying. Food should be a complete and utter joy,” she said.
Faith and religious connection is much more part of Gordon’s adult life and life as a parent than it was when she was young, she said.
“As I get older, I crave it more,” she said. “I seek out songs, spirituality, learning, the connections to the rabbinate and my history, I cling to it. Not sure why, I just love it. It feeds my soul.”
Gordon hopes that even though Isabel is 16 and lives in 1481, contemporary young and adult readers will all see themselves in the story.
“We can all identify with the longing to be free, with the longing to find who we truly are and live an independent life,” she said. “Those are universal truths and desires.”
“The Poetry of Secrets” explores Jewish-Christian love