Six years ago my husband and I set out on an adventure in Seville. Through the expert guidance of Moisés Hassán Amsélem, we wound our way in and out of narrow, serpentine streets belonging to the city’s “Juderia,” Jewish quarter. With twists and turns we went through elaborate mazes and descended secret, sand-covered steps leading to hidden, underground rooms where Conversos – Jews who had converted to Catholicism but secretly practiced their faith – had prayed and observed life cycle events centuries ago. I felt the weight and potential hazard of silent protest.
Awe-inspiring and a lesson in life, the tour left me asking why aren’t Jewish children more aware of the Spanish Inquisition? A pivotal point in Jewish history, this massive expulsion led to a wide-ranging Sephardi diaspora. Moreover, as a centuries later descendant of Portuguese Jews who eventually made their way to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and over the generations assimilated into Ashkenazi culture, I am convinced that if you scratch the surface of most Ashkenazis, you’ll find a Sephardi.
Fortunately, the Jewish children’s book world has centered some of its attention on the Inquisition through several middle-grade and young adult historical fiction books. I couldn’t put down Anne Dublin’s A Cage Without Bars, an eye-opening story about the horrific, little-known chapter of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish children ripped out of the bosom of their families during the Inquisition, to be sent into slavery off the coast of Central Africa. I also found More Precious than Gold by Evelyn Mizrahi Blat; The Boy from Seville by Dorit Orgad; and The Secret of Carlos Romanus by Esther Kosofsky.
Happily, in the picture book world I was already familiar with the inspiring, award–winning books The Secret Shofar of Barcelona by Jacqueline Dembar Greene and The Key from Spain – Flory Jagoda and Her Music by Debbie Levy, both of which integrate themes relating to music in order to get meaningful Inquisition messages across. Still, after our tour with Moisés I felt something was missing from the Jewish children’s bookshelf.
Way back when I was a little girl, my father (who had a PhD in Jewish History from the University of Vienna) armed me with the knowledge that the deadline Ferdinand and Isabella set for Jews to leave Spain fell on Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew calendar. Moisés brought up that fact and reminded me of another one I had buried in the recesses of my mind – 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 write a historical fiction picture book for school-age children on Luis de Torres. Moisés 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. Luis de Torres – the first Jew to step foot in the Americas – was among them.
With antisemitism on the rise, I knew this was a story that had to be told. An article relating to the 2022 PBS series “Exploring Hate” notes that at the time of the Inquisition, Don Isaac Abarbanel, one of Jewish history’s most outstanding figures, compared the 1492 expulsion from Spain to biblical calamities. Born into an aristocratic Jewish Spanish family, Abarbanel first served as Treasurer to Portugal’s King Alfonso V, and then to Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Even though he fervently fought to prevent the expulsion, he too became a victim, eventually making his way to Italy where once more he served as Treasurer to a king. A brilliant man, Abarbanel was also a rabbi, scholar, biblical commentator, and philosopher. Above a copy of the Alhambra Decree, the Spanish expulsion edict, the article quotes Abarbanel writing that: “Jews’ fear in 1492 was unequaled since the exile of Judah from its land.”
Both apocalyptical events occurred on Tisha B’Av (as did several others in our history). To reinforce the devastating impact of the Spanish Inquisition on Jewish life and history, the above-mentioned article quotes the sixteenth-century chronicler Joseph Ha-Koehn insisting that his account of the Spanish Expulsion be read aloud every year on the Ninth of Av.
Two months ago my book Luis de Torres Sails to Freedom bowed on bookshelves across the English speaking world. It’s a work of historical fiction inspired by true facts. In it, as Luis boarded the ship on the eve of Tisha B’Av, a terrible storm hit.
Is that why Columbus postponed his journey? Who knows? I’m an author not a historian, and even they don’t know. What I can tell you is that my book illustrates the resiliency of the Jewish people because the way I see it, the sub-text of Tisha B’Av is Mourn & Move On. My hope this Tisha B’Av is that Jewish buoyancy will once again carry us through the troubled times Jews are experiencing – here in Israel and the world at large.