Sometimes the push of family history is an author’s greatest writing prompt. While I am not directly related to Luis de Torres, my paternal family lore connects me to him and encouraged me to write Luis de Torres Sails to Freedom.
I will never forget the day my father told me that our ancestors were Spanish Jews who had fled the Inquisition. Our original family name was not Lehman, but Esperanza! I wanted to know everything: their first names, how they escaped, the journey that they mapped. The fact that he didn’t know the answers enabled my imagination to go wild. A sense of secrecy and adventure carried me into adulthood, which is why I enthusiastically said “yes!” six years ago, when my husband was offered a 6-week visiting, lecturer position in Barcelona. All of Spain would be at our fingertips, allowing us to follow the Jewish trail. True, I would not obtain specific facts about my ancestors, but I could get a feel of Jewish life during the Inquisition. And what a feel it was!
In city after city, we found Jewish tours. Some brought us down hidden, sand-covered stairs leading to rooms where prayers were conducted in secret, life cycle events observed. Others took us through a maze of camouflaged tunnels forming underground neighborhoods. Danger lurked in every twist and turn. Back in Barcelona, we met Spanish Conversos (secret Jews), who showed up at synagogue every Shabbat on their journey back to Judaism. They told us about the strange customs their families practiced and how they traced their roots back to 15th century Spain.
I could feel my long lost Sephardi blood come to life. When one tour guide gave a spellbinding, fact-based talk on Columbus and his handful of Jewish crewmates hidden below deck Tisha B’Av eve, I had an Aha! moment and the kernel of a story was born on Columbus’ translator Luis de Torres, a Converso and the first Jew to step and stay on North American soil. After all our touring, some of the scenes were already etched in my mind. Luis and I had a connection, and that bond became one of my most inspiring writing prompts.
Tami Lehman-Wilzig is an award-winning author of 13 published Jewish content picture books, and three more on the way. Her books include Keeping the Promise, Passover Around the World, Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles, and SOOSIE, The Horse That Saved Shabbat.