“Jacobo’s Rainbow: A Novel” by David Hirshberg. Bedford, N.Y.: Fig Tree Books, 2021. 338 pages. $19.95.
Thousands of Spanish-speaking people, many living in the American Southwest, have been shocked in recent years to learn that some of their ancestors were Jewish. How they react to this news — some deny it, others seek out their Jewish roots — is one of the great human-interest stories of modern times.
This novel takes the idea of descendants of Jews living in New Mexico in a somewhat different — and, perhaps, less credible — direction.
The eight families living in the tiny town of Arroyo Grande, N.M., descended from families that were forced to leave Spain, lived in Constantinople for almost two centuries before migrating to Mexico in 1677 and then, to escape the widening jaws of the Inquisition, moved to the largely empty space of what was to become New Mexico.
Their long and arduous journey and final destination were Jewishly motivated. The people in the town lived as Jews — but in secret. Arroyo Grande has a church, with a camouflaged exit leading to an underground synagogue, where the townspeople worship.
The town was perfectly situated to keep secrets and outsiders away. “There were no telephones, electricity or paved roads. … No one had a social security card, registered to vote or served on juries. The truth is that Arroyo Grande legally didn’t exist. You couldn’t find it on a map, there were no records in the county archives, and we buried our dead without permits… .”
Despite its remote location, the fact that the townspeople kept their secret and their devotion to Judaism intact for 250 years is less than believable.
Nonetheless, the book is riveting, And about half way through the story is a credo — a statement of faith recited every Saturday night chronicling the journey of this community and, in a sense, of the Jewish people as a whole — which I found extremely moving.
The book tells the story of Jacobo Toledano, who lives in the town. He is the first person from his family to study at a university. Jacobo gets involved in anti-Vietnam War protests, is arrested, forced to enlist in the army, and sent to Vietnam.
I suspect the author has no experience living with the descendants of Spanish Jews. Yet, his account of their life seems so true.
The same can be said about the scenes in the book about Vietnam. For example, the author writes, in the name of Jacobo, “Death was all around us in the combat zone: the helicopter rides back to the base, the hospitals, the field barracks, the places where we’d meet with the chaplains … .”
And it wasn’t only the soldiers who were dying. When they entered the villages, the GIs saw the destruction and the graves “and received the hard stares from those who had never heard of Vietnamization, didn’t care about ideology, and knew nothing of the domino theory. We were the agents of death.”
Despite the seeming authenticity of the glimpses of that war, the author writes in a note at the end of the book that “the description of the action in Vietnam is made out of whole cloth.”
He may be even more interesting than the fascinating characters who inhabit the pages of his novel. On the book’s back flap we learn that David Hirshberg is a pseudonym for an entrepreneur “who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors.” Yet, right above his stated preference is his photo.
Whatever you think about all that, Mr. Hirshberg — or whatever his name— is an extremely imaginative and talented writer. His first novel, “My Mother’s Son,” which I reviewed in 2018 on these pages, was equally well written and satisfying.
For his sake, I hope he is as skilled a businessman as he is a novelist.
Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrants’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books), is available for purchase online.