The world has changed since I started school in 1892. We spelled the big town Alburquerque, and New Mexico was still a territory. And there was no Mystery Rock then. I didn’t work on the rock till 1910. Now, 1940, thirty years afterwards, they’re calling that slab of basalt “Mystery Rock.” I must admit it makes me laugh. At first, I was angry that people had discovered my work at all – it was mine. But discovery was inevitable, and now I get to watch folks decipher what they think is weird language and try to figure out why it’s sitting out in the wilderness by its lonesome.
In the beginning, there was just the desert. Undifferentiated desert. Which meant everything west of the Río Grande valley we lived in and farmed — Belén, Los Lunas (my town), Alburquerque, For me, “desert” meant “escape,” however temporary. I would wander out west for hours at a time, especially in the hot summers when there was no school. My mother worried about the Índios, the scorpions and snakes, and the outlaw Anglos, but I never came to any harm. Even back then, I had the feeling that I did not belong among people. Besides, exploring the area gave me a feeling almost of ownership of the vast expanse of sand and rock.
When I got a bit older, I was able to ride my father’s horse, allowing me wider and wider ranges of places to visit. And I did come across the occasional solitary Índio or Anglo, and even some of the animal dangers, though the horse usually warned me. By this point, however, my family was becoming concerned. Concerned for my future, I thought, but it was also a concern for the rest of the family. 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.
But my parents, surprisingly, came to my defense. “That’s not the only way,” my mother said. “José can become a priest.”
We attended mass only when we absolutely had to, and my father often had harsh things to say about the Catholic hierarchy. But he did not oppose mamá’s idea; in fact, he said, “Yes, maybe we could use such protection. Some of the other families have done this.” The brothers nodded; I was entirely in the dark.
My older brother David said, “It looks like we need to let José in on our secret.” Everyone agreed, so my mother said, “Our name is not Sánchez; it is Carabajal. If you go to seminary, you will learn about the Carabajals. 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. The people here don’t know about us, and if they find out, we will need protection. A priest would be very nice.”
It wasn’t as much of a shock to me as the family expected. I had always known that we carried something secret that the rest of the people in the valley didn’t know about, and now I knew what it was. And since I was carrying a secret of my own, it was good to have one I could share with my parents and brothers. Of course, I had almost no idea what it meant to be a Jew, and it seemed that the family’s understanding was also quite limited, other than that Jesus didn’t figure in to 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 mean attending mass more often and convincing the local priest I was worthy – maybe a difficult job, but I was going to do it.
So I attended mass “religiously” – it makes me laugh to say it – and 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 Sabaot,” because I could figure out Domine (Lord) and Deus (God), but what was that other word? The priest said it was “hosts” or “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 Sabaot is indeed a Hebrew word, and can refer to the stars in the heavens, as it does in Isaiah chapter 40, as well as armies, 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 out in our backwater. And he sent off a recommendation to the seminary that I was gifted enough to be admitted, even in spite of my provincial background.
The summer before I did go to seminary in Philadelphia, I sought out a special place in “my” desert where I could meditate and pray my own kinds of prayers. It was a hill far west of town, across the Rio Puerco, a hill covered in basalt rocks that had slid down over the centuries. One rock still 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 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, but in the end I got it, a copy small enough to hide when necessary but large enough to read.
In fact, I learned a lot in seminary, far more than the Fathers intended. One particular priest, an Italian named Modigliani, constantly mocked my southwestern origins. “You’re really Jews, you know that?” he’d say, implying that all southwesterners 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, including mine, all from Spanish-speaking places. He laughed and said, “I told you! There is no Saint Esther in the canon; that is a Jew holiday!”
The others were taken aback, and several spent the next few days looking up the canon of saints, only to find that the Italian was right. When I came across them the next week, they were in a quandary. Should they tell their families? Should they stop celebrating the day? Was it possible there was some Jewish taint in their family lines? I only listened. They decided to push back in class.
The next day, one student, Rafael Torres, said, “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 was forbidden, “but it happened. 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 last name is one of theirs? And Medina, Mendoza, Lara? You might as well call yourselves Carabajal!”
Rafael was shamed, as were the others. Except for me. I was laughing inside. Now I knew exactly what I had been sent to learn. Thank you, Father Modigliani, I thought. The others wanted to meet that afternoon, but for me it was time for another walk, if not into the brown desert of western New Mexico, then the still uninhabited green desert of West Philadelphia. When I got back, the others had concluded as a group to put an end to the Saint-Esther feast day when they got back home.
In fact, they did just that the next summer, petitioning the bishop of Santa Fe to publicize that the canon contained no Saint Esther, and that all feast-day celebrations for her should cease immediately. At home, I told the family the news. We knew that our holiday, Purim, would continue to be celebrated, not as openly, not as widely, but remembered just the same, and not only by our family.
Also that summer, I decided upon what I wanted to write on my rock, the Ten Commandments. And I knew now what they looked like in Hebrew; I even showed it to my parents. 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 basalt. My father said that there had been an earlier version of the alphabet that might be a lot easier, and I should postpone my work till I found it.
When I returned to Philadelphia the next fall, I discovered that a new college had sprung up, DropsieCollege, whose entire reason for being was the study of the ancient Hebrew language and its cousins. I saw a chart detailing the earliest versions of the aleph-beth, from the surrounding areas, Phoenicia, Edom, Moab, etc. These were stick-like, no serifs, no fancy curves. The chart was in a public hall, so 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 had to be careful not to simply drop them in the trash when I was done, instead tearing them up and discarding them a block or two away 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 approximate zeal and interest. I needed a lot of those long walks to maintain my sanity, and 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 was able to tell him truthfully that such long walks had been my custom all my life in the desert, and he let it go. Fortunately, on that walk I was not carrying any incriminating Hebraic evidence.
The following summer, I was able to begin the work. I started by incising shallow parallel horizontal lines into the rock so the inscription would not droop. Then, little by little, I was able to etch 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. And then I misspelled at least one word, zakhor, “Remember,” by putting an aleph into it.
That error made me feel quite 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 had to do so right then. The next morning, my parents went out with me by buggy to see the work. I was dreading it the whole way there, but when I showed them as far as I had gotten, they were overcome with tears when I read it out in Hebrew and Spanish. “I used to say 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 was able to use the Ladino 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 into Los Lunas and home. He was clearly very pleased.
Over the summer, my brothers came out to visit occasionally while I was working. My project seemed to increase my stature in their eyes, as someone not just the peripatetic dreamer they had known from childhood. I told them that I was not the first José to be called a dreamer; they did not know the story from Genesis, so I told them.
It turned out that there was not enough room for the entire passage as it is in the Bible, so I was forced to put in only the main part of, say, the long commandment about the Sabbath. But I already understood that any errors I might make were of small consequence beside the positive reality that now there was a Jewish inscription in this unlikely place. And I could feel the spiritual happiness increasing as I worked, a kind of happiness I 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 and easy for me to accept in just a few words. It wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I became acquainted with the work of an Italian artist with the same name, someone who is Jewish. So now I wonder what the Father might have discovered about himself.
I was given a parish in Albuquerque, provided I was willing to say mass from time to time in the SouthValley – as far as Belén – something I was only too happy to do, since it meant seeing my family. Some of my vecinos came back to serve local parishes in the southwest, but Fr. Torres was stuck in Arizona and, being from Santa Fe, he considered it hell.
I found the priesthood mostly a bother, not believing the words, especially cringing at the Good Friday liturgy against the Jews, but it gave me a lot of time to myself, and by this point that had become something I thoroughly relished. I made no move against my position until my parents’ death. Then I called my brothers – by telephone, that new invention – 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, of course, once I quit, and decided to put to good use my time with the Rock. I became a carver of gravestones. Most of them were also very Catholic, but I did them easily because they were for the individual mourners, not for the Church. And more than once, I can report, someone came to me whom I knew to be a converso like me, a hidden Jew, 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 at all, but they themselves insisted, “No cross, a book and two candles,” and I would accept the request, saying, “Gracias a Dío, gracias a Dío.”
This would bring tears to their eyes, and I sometimes would point them to “my” rock.
Sometimes my clients wanted to return the favor, and asked if they could introduce me to some marriageable woman, now that I was no longer a priest. I always demurred, as simply as possible; a woman’s company was not what I was looking for.
By 1933, the rock had been “discovered.” What was the writing on it? Who wrote it? Was it an extraterrestrial script? And when a Harvard professor said it was the Ten Commandments, their imagination went crazy – Were the Navajos the Ten Lost Tribes? Did ancient Jews make their way to New Mexico? My chiseling still looked new enough for any sane mind to reject those ideas, not to mention the caret. But I have said nothing about the matter, and don’t intend to.
The Anglos who have come by the region more and more wonder about our town, “Los Lunas.” Masculine or feminine, which is it? Locals, if they are so inclined, will let the visitor know that the town is not named after the moon, la luna, but after the family Luna who first settled the area. The locals shake their heads and cluck their tongues. “When will people start looking under the surface?” When indeed!