By Gabriel Lampert
Los Lunas, NM, June 1942
I hate arguments. If I lose, it makes me feel small. If I win, I can feel the other person’s hate. I’ve always run away from a fight. No one ever picked on me, mind you, maybe because of my height. But when the heat starts up and someone demands my opinion, I want to vanish. Many times I’ve done just that: I took a walk out into the desert that surrounds us. When I got old enough, I’d take the horse out west of town, scouting different areas, eventually settling on a rocky area beyond the Rio Puerco. The horse became accustomed to the spot: I could drop the reins and let her browse while I climbed through the rocks. Later on, I came to carve the Ten Commandments into one smooth rock, as my own sanctuary.
The world has changed since my youth. New Mexico was not yet a state. And there was no Mystery Rock, because I hadn’t carved it yet. Now, thirty years afterwards, I must admit it makes me laugh. At first, I was angry that people had discovered my work at all it was my special place. But discovery was inevitable, so now I watch folks argue about what they think is weird language and try to figure out why it’s sitting out in the wilderness by its lonesome. And of course I have no intention of wading into that.
My life began with desert. Which meant everything outside of the Río Grande valley where we lived and farmed. For me, “desert” meant “escape.” Even back then, I had the feeling that I did not belong among people, the arguers; the desert made me feel at home in the quiet expanse of sand and rock.
At some point, however, my family became concerned. Concerned for my future, I thought, but it was also a concern for their future, too. My brothers had married distant cousins who came to live with us, but I had no inclination to marriage. At a family meeting, the brothers were insistent that I marry. I never voice an opinion in this sort of discussion, but I did not understand why marriage was so vital. My parents, though, argued against my brothers. “That’s not the only way,” my mother said. “José can become a priest.”
My father made a point of not attending mass, even on days of obligation. A farmer always has obligations at home, and they usually included my brothers, so only my mother and I would go. Yet papá did not oppose mamá’s idea; in fact, he said, “We could use such protection. Some of the others have done this.” My brothers nodded, but I was entirely in the dark.
My older brother David said, “José, we have a secret.” My mother said, “Our name is not Sánchez; it is Carabajal. We are Jews, my family and your father’s both. That’s why we light candles on Friday night and have two loaves of bread, and wine. And why your brothers married those girls from Española. Our antepasados escaped the Inquisition in Mexico, but some relatives were put to the stake. People here don’t know about us, and if they find out, we will need protection.”
I said that there was no more Inquisition, especially not in the United States. My brother Fernando agreed. “But how many times,” he said, “do we have to depend on our neighbors, for clearing the acequias, or finding stray cows? Just like we do for them. But if they find out, no. Think of the nasty dichos you’ve heard about Jews.” Then brother Isaac added, “If you were a priest, though...”
I was surprised but not shocked. I had always known that we carried something secret that our neighbors in the valley didn’t know about, and now I knew what it was. And since, like most kids, I was carrying secrets of my own, it was good to have one that I could share with my family. I had no idea what it meant to be a Jew, though, and even the family’s understanding was limited, other than that Jesus didn’t figure into the belief system. I agreed to see if I could become a priest; I was glad to have a “job” to do for my family; it would make me an adult. It would also mean attending mass more often and convincing the local priest I was worthy — a difficult job, but I was intent on doing it.
So I spent a lot of time with the priest at our local church, being an altar boy. It was surprisingly easy to learn the Latin mass – surprising to the priest especially – and I made it clear I was interested in learning as much as he could tell me about where the words came from. I remember once asking him about Domine Deus Sabaoth, because I could figure out Domine (Lord) and Deus (God), but what was that other word? The priest said it meant “armies” but he knew it was not Latin and he could not make any more sense of it than that, guessing it must be Hebrew. Now I know that Tzeva’ot is indeed a Hebrew word, and that it can refer also to the host of stars in the heavens, as it does in Isaiah, Chapter 40, but neither of us knew that then.
This was my opening. I asked how I could learn more, and could I become a priest? A month or so after I asked, he told me there was a seminary back east where there were faculty who knew more than the priests in our backwater. He sent off a recommendation to the seminary that I was gifted enough to be admitted, in spite of my provincial background.
The summer before I began seminary in Philadelphia, I went to my special place where I could meditate and pray my own kind of prayers. One rock there stood mostly upright, and I resolved that, when I knew more, I would come back and write something to make this place truly my spiritual retreat.
And, in fact, one of the joys of seminary was learning Hebrew. Greek and Latin, too, of course, but the seminary was the only place, ironically, that a good Catholic could learn Hebrew. And the only place I could read a Hebrew Bible. Since we were in Philadelphia, it was easy to buy one from a Jewish bookseller. I had to assure him I had no evil intent –
I suppose my outlandish outfit put him off – but in the end I got it: a copy small enough to hide when necessary, but with letters large enough to make out.
I learned a lot in seminary, far more than the fathers intended. One particular priest named Modigliani constantly mocked Hispanics like me. “You’re really Jews, you know that?” he’d say, implying that all Spanish-speakers were of Jewish origin. Once he went even further: “All right,” he said, “how many of you celebrate Saint Esther’s feast day?” Several hands shot up from us southwesterners. He laughed. “I told you! There is no Saint Esther in the canon; that is a Jew holiday!”
My classmates were taken aback, and several spent the next few days looking up the canon of saints, only to find that the Italian was right. The next day, one student asked, “Isn’t it true that nuevos cristianos, the converts, were forbidden to come to New Spain? So how could your accusations be correct, Father?”
The priest agreed that emigration had been forbidden. “But it happened,” he said. “There was even an auto da fé in Mexico City in 1649, to burn out the Carabajals and their kind. So the Jews moved north, to Santa Fe and other towns. They’re still there, and some of you are their descendants. Mr. Torres, didn’t you know that your name is one of theirs? You might as well call yourself Carabajal!”
Torres was shamed, as were others. But I was laughing inside. Thank you, Father Modigliani, I thought. The next summer, the archbishop of Santa Fe proclaimed that the canon contained no Saint Esther, and that all feast-day celebrations for her should cease immediately. At home, though, we knew that Purim would continue to be celebrated, and by families like mine.
That summer, I realized what I wanted to write on my rock: the Ten Commandments. And I knew what they looked like in Hebrew. But the Hebrew of the books I saw was in a script that had too many serifs and varying widths of letters, too complicated for me to chisel into hard basalt, so I put my plan on hold.
When I returned to Philadelphia the next fall, I discovered that a new college had sprung up: Dropsie College, whose entire reason for being was the study of the ancient Hebrew language and its cousins. In the lobby I saw a large chart detailing the earliest versions of the aleph-bet, from around the Holy Land. These were stick-like forms, no serifs, no fancy curves. I brought pen and paper and copied it completely. In my dorm room, I sometimes wrote down Biblical passages in one of these ancient scripts. But I was careful not to simply drop them in the trash when I was done, instead tearing them up and discarding them a block or two from the seminary.
As for the seminary itself, I could barely keep myself interested enough to do the work, but a letter from my mother reminded me of my purpose, so I did my best to imitate zeal. I needed a lot of those long walks to maintain my sanity. Once Fr. Modigliani followed me. I discovered him, and he admitted that he wanted to know why I was literally straying from the path. I could tell him truthfully that such long walks had been my custom all my life in the desert, and he let it go. Fortunately, I was not carrying any Hebraic writing.
The following summer, I began to start carving, first incising shallow parallel horizontal lines into the rock so the inscription would not droop. Then, little by little, I was able to enter the Commandments. It was hard, and I made mistakes. In one case, I left out an entire line, and had to insert a caret and then squeeze the phrase in between two lines. Then I misspelled at least one word, zakhor, Remember, by putting an aleph into it. No one was there to reprimand me, neither Catholic nor Jew, and I hoped that God would forgive the error.
The mistake made me feel stupid, and when I got home that day, my parents knew something had gone wrong. I had not told them about the project, so I described it then. The next morning, my parents went out with me by buggy to see my work. I was full of dread the whole way there, but when I showed them how far I had gotten, and read it out in Hebrew and Spanish, they were overcome with tears. “I thought this was a godforsaken place,” my father said, “but now I know that no place is forsaken by Nuestro Dío above.” In this remote spot, he used the converso word for God, without the s of standard Spanish.
Since I had all my implements with me, they left me there till evening, when my father came back to drive me home. He was clearly very pleased. Over the summer, my brothers occasionally came out to visit while I was working. My project increased my stature in their eyes; I was not just the peripatetic dreamer they had known from childhood.
There was not enough room for the entire passage as it is in Scripture, so I was forced to put in only the main part of, say, the long commandment about the Sabbath. But by this point I understood that the errors I made were of small consequence beside the positive reality that now there was a Jewish inscription in this unlikely place. And I could feelthe spiritual happiness increasing as I worked, a kind of happiness I had rarely found anywhere else.
At the end of our time in seminary, just before ordination, Fr. Modigliani came to me to apologize for his behavior that first year. It was a very general apology, no specifics given. Much later, just a year or two ago, I became acquainted with the work of the late Italian artist with the same name, who was Jewish. So now I wonder what the Father might have discovered about himself.
I was an assistant at a parish in Albuquerque, and I was required to say mass from time to time in the South Valley as far as Belén, something I liked to do, since it meant seeing my family. Some of the other seminarians came back to serve local parishes in the southwest. Fr. Torres was stuck in Arizona and, being from Santa Fe, he considered it hell.
I found the priesthood a sacrifice, not believing the words, cringing at the Good Friday liturgy against “perfidious Jews.” At first I would simply flush the words from my brain, but the feeling became more bitter as the years went on. Still, being an assistant gave me time to myself, and those long walks became a necessity to make sure I did not get into an argument with some believer. I made no change until my parents’ deaths. Then I called my brothers by a newly installed telephone and asked their permission to resign my priesthood. I knew that Rome would not allow it, but I also knew they could not stop me. The brothers had moved away, far enough not to need my protection, and gave me permission.
I had to come up with a livelihood once I quit, and decided to put to good use my time with the Rock. I became a carver of gravestones. Most of the clientele were Catholic, but I did them easily because they were for the individuals, not for the Church. And more than once, I can report, someone came to me whom I knew to be a converso like me, and I altered the format of their stone to hint at that, by including a book and two candles, or by including a six-petaled flower. Sometimes, it was someone I did not know, but they themselves insisted, “No cross; a book and two candles,” and I would accept the request with “Gracias a Dío.” This would bring tears to their eyes, and I sometimes would point them to “my” rock.
Sometimes clients wanted to return the favor, and asked if they could introduce me to some marriageable woman, now that I was not a priest. I always demurred, as simply as possible; a woman’s company was not what I was looking for.
By the 1930s, the rock had been “discovered.” What was the writing on it? Who wrote it? Was it from another planet? A Harvard professor visited and said it was the Ten Commandments, and imaginations went crazy: Were the Navajos the Ten Lost Tribes? Did ancient Alexandrian Jews find New Mexico? My chiseling looks so new that any sane mind would reject those ideas. And the caret? Still I stayed quiet. Beyond my usual fear of arguing, I could see the rise of the Nazis in Europe being mirrored by increasing anti-Jewish sentiment here in the United States. I especially hated the constant public harangues of that radio priest, Father Coughlin; I would not even say his name.
In the fall of 1941, I was in Albuquerque and visited a favorite bar. A short, curly-headed young man from Baltimore was there, on his way west to report at a navy base. But a burly local man, even taller than me, was loudly badgering him: “Your damned Roosevelt is siding with the Commie Jew. If we go to war, it should be for white people. Lindbergh’s my guy.” He kept at it, getting increasingly worked up and closing in on the sailor: “You’re just a Jew yourself, aren’t you? It’s just like Father Coughlin said,” and then poked the young man hard in the chest. Coughlin’s name drove me out of my years of caution. Without thinking, I landed a punch to the big man’s jaw. The bully fell, unconscious.
We hotfooted out of the bar fast. I drove the sailor down to Los Lunas, and we exchanged stories, each amazed to hear the other’s version of a Jewish life. I even showed him the rock. He couldn’t read it at first, but took to it, and smiled as he ran his fingers over the etching. I must have mentioned my doubts about whether it, or my life out here, was of any lasting consequence. He was shocked. “Of course it is!”
At dinner, back in my home, he could not fathom how I had put up with the Church’s teachings for so long. I said my motto was, “Go along, get along.” He snapped back, “And you see how well that works!” I couldn’t answer; he himself was embarrassed and apologized.
He slept over, and I drove him back to the train in the morning. When I left him at the station, he asked for my blessing, the first person to want that in a while. I put my hands on his head. “The Lord bless you and keep you…” the priestly benediction.
I didn’t hear from him for months, and assumed he’d died at Pearl Harbor, but I got a note from him recently – a small one-sheet negative of a photograph, called V-mail. Yes, he had been wounded in the attack, but amazingly he’d been able to swim to safety. He heard my voice in his head the whole time; he was certain that it saved his life. “Never think your work has no value.”