Abueli­ta’s Secret Matzahs

Sandy Eisen­berg Sas­so; Diana Bry­er, illus.

  • Review
By – August 3, 2012

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.

Etta Gold, RJG, MLS, is librar­i­an of Tem­ple Beth Am in Mia­mi, FL, and an active mem­ber of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries.

Discussion Questions