El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin

Written by Ilan Stavans
Illustrated by Steve Sheinkin
Published by Basic Books

I find myself referring to El Iluminado much more often than I had expected to when I first read it -- who even knows what crypto-Judaism is? And furthermore, who cares what role it plays in the history of the Southwestern U.S.? To the latter question, I am not sure -- it’s an extremely specific topic. But to the former, I can answer, and hopefully pique your curiosity enough to make you care.

Crypto-Judaism is defined as the secret adherence to Judaism while publicly professing to be of another faith. This most often occurred because of anti-semitic societies who forced conversions upon their Jewish populations -- the best known one being the forced conversions of Jews to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. Though nominally Catholic, many of those forced to convert continued to practice and study their Judaism in secret, often to find themselves persecuted yet again, their professed Christianity put under the sharpest of microscopes. 

Many of the early crypto-Jews made the move to the New World to escape persecution around the same time as the Inquisition, but found they still had to keep things under wraps. Still, many forced converts valiantly persisted in passing Jewish traditions on to their children, who then transmitted them on to future generations -- as the provenance of the practices became murkier and murkier, descendants may not even have realized why they were doing things like lighting candles on Fridays and abstaining from pork. The persistence of Jewish tradition under the auspice of Christian practice is an impressive testament to the power of the Jewish faith in the face of persecution.

El Iluminado explores this profound and secret history under the guise of an academically minded mystery -- Ilan Stavans (the writer), playing himself, arrives in Santa Fe to give a lecture on Crypto-Judaism, only to find himself trying to solve a dastardly murder and locate an invaluable and mysterious manuscript about crypto-Judaism’s history in the region. But it’s really just a frame for a flashback story of the arrival of Jews to what would become, and the experience and persecution of a particular family. 

The flashback narrative is deliciously and dramatically historical, while the present-day framework is at once academic and pure pulp-- think The Da Vinci Code meets seminar on the Jewish diaspora. It’s a curious set-up, and an imperfect one -- but the historical story is compelling and the modern-day story is tongue-in-cheek enough to be fun. You almost wonder if Stavans  wishes his life as a writer, academic, and historian were just a bit more like the story he weaves.

Steve Sheinkin’s illustrations are a delightful compliment to Stavan’s story -- I first read his work in the little known but riotouslysilly adventures of Rabbi Harvey -- a series of books in which the titular Rabbi Harvey moves to the American Frontier and relates Yiddish fables, morality tales, and groan-worthy jokes in a cowboys and log-cabin setting. Sheinkin doesn’t do much with that setting, but the novelty of cowboy-cum-rabbi has been just enough to keep me chuckling for days, even years. I’m a little easy to amuse, I guess. 

But I’m most enamored of Sheinkin’s shaky, not-particularly skillful, but oddly expressive illustrations, which are at work in El Iluminado as well. El IIuminado’s illustrations are more precise - Sheinkin did some site studies on location in New Mexico, and it shows in the simple sense of place he evokes with simple colors and empty space. Furthermore, with characters that look a little bit like the baby in South Park, round-faced and flappy-mouthed, there’s a note of humor and humanity that make the characters relatable. Sheinkin’s illustrations are not for everyone, but they are right for this book, and bring a narrative briskness and brightness to illuminate (groan) dark corners of Christianity and America’s history.

El Iluminado is a moving family saga, an academic text, a Da Vinci Code (or more aptly People Of The Book) mystery. It really made me want to learn more about how Cryptojudaism has manifested itself over the centuries, and how it corresponds and interacts with modern global Judaism. It may not be for the broadest audience, but its a surprising story, loving told, touching on powerful concepts of time and family and faith and sense of place.