Tami Lehman-Wilzig’s newest picture book, LUIS DE TORRES SAILS TO FREEDOM (Kar-Ben, 2023) illustrated by Oliver Averill is the story of a man escaping the Spanish Inquisition against the backdrop of Tisha B’av, a day of mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples. In the story, Luis is to set sail on a ship headed for the Far East. He and other Jewish crew members realize it is Tisha B’av, a day that should be honored, and it would be bad luck to sail. They try to convince the ship’s captain as they worry about their own safety. Tami has created a story that underscores the role of Jews in important historical times. The beautiful illustrations by Oliver Averill provide visual context that brings the story to life.
I’m so pleased to welcome Tami back!
How did you first learn about Luis de Torres and his story?
All stories relating to the Inquisition are a magnet for me. Learning about Luis de Torres is a byproduct of my interest in the Spanish Inquisition, which stems from paternal family lore claiming that we are descendants of Jews who fled Portugal in the 15th century, eventually landing up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I heard this from my father and aunts while I grew up in America, and again when I moved to Israel over 45 years ago from my relatives here. One cousin even claimed he had documentation to prove it, which he hid and took the whereabouts of that secret hiding place to his grave. Naturally, this has become a family joke, but it gives us a lot to ponder in terms of our roots.
How did you connect Tisha B’Av with the history of Christopher Columbus and Luis de Torres?
The answer is fascinating. To begin with, my father was a Jewish historian (PhD from the University of Vienna). Way back, he armed me with the knowledge that the deadline Ferdinand and Isabella set for Jews to leave Spain was Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew calendar. I subsequently read that fact in numerous books, journals, and websites, also discovering that Columbus was actually scheduled to set sail on that date but for an unknown reason postponed the journey by a few days. That was the Aha! moment that led me to discover Luis de Torres. I wanted to know if Columbus had any Jews on board, so I searched. Sure enough, I discovered that he had a handful of Conversos – Jews who had officially converted to Catholicism but practiced their Judaism in secret – as crew members. Luis, who was his official translator, was one of them. This allowed my imagination to run wild and write this historical fiction picture book. As an observant Jew, I know that throughout the ages Jews have always refrained from travel during the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, and certainly on Tisha B’Av itself. Because of the history of catastrophic events that happened on Tisha B’Av, it’s considered bad luck. So I created a storm scene, during which Luis explains the importance of Tisha B’Av to Columbus and asks him not to set sail. At first Columbus refuses, but then he changes his mind.
Can you share a bit about your research process for this book?
In addition to combing through numerous articles and books, six years ago my husband landed a sabbatical teaching position in Barcelona. You can imagine how thrilled I was with that opportunity. Whenever he didn’t teach we travelled “Jewish Spain” with several wonderful guides. It was the tour in Seville that really got me thinking about writing a book. Our guide took us down sand-covered stairways leading to underground rooms with sand-covered floors where Jewish rituals were observed. Sand was used to muffle the sound of footsteps so that pedestrians above wouldn’t hear any underground noise. I was so taken by this fact that I incorporated it into my story. And he led us through hidden mazes connecting buildings. Finally, he showed us copies of documents that were recorded by Columbus and stored in an Italian museum. One had the names of the Jewish crew members. There was Luis’ name.
Were there any interesting facts or anecdotes you discovered in your research that didn’t make it into the final version of the story?
Now you’re asking me to tread into politically incorrect territory. For over ten years I have heard rumors that Columbus was a Jew. I also know that today in America, among certain groups, Columbus is persona non grata as the father of American “colonialism.” As an American colleague said to me a few years ago: “Columbus is no longer viewed as an explorer. Today’s he’s an exploiter.” Our Seville guide claimed that letters written by Columbus to his sons have been discovered, and that on the top right-hand corner there is a secret code for ב״ה, which is an acronym meaning “With God’s Help” or “With God’s Blessing” that very often appears at the beginning of letters written by observant Jews. This guide gave us convincing arguments regarding Columbus’ origins, none of which has been absolutely proven. Consequently, they would never make their way onto the pages of my story. However, I do want to say this: none of us, whether we are Americans or Israelis, should rewrite history. Instead, we should understand historical contexts. “Wokeism” distorts history. My God, as Jews we’ve certainly suffered from more than our fair share of prejudice, but we live with it and put it into historical perspective in order to move on. I am sorry that many Jews don’t grasp this and instead opt to go with the latest intellectual fashion.
What were your thoughts when you first saw Oliver Averill’s illustrations?
In one word: MAGNIFICENT! Oliver is a true artist. His illustrations have so much soul. I love what he has done with my story, and I have told him so. I hope I will have the opportunity to work with him again.
Thank you, Tami.
Tami Lehman-Wilzig is an award-winning author of 14 picture books, including Keeping The Promise and Soosie, The Horse That Saved Shabbat. Born in America, she lives in Kfar Saba, Israel, with her husband, where she shares her love of stories with her grandchildren.