Luis de Tor­res Sails to Freedom

  • Review
By – July 25, 2023

There has been a rel­a­tive­ly lim­it­ed range of pic­ture books about Jews in the ear­ly his­to­ry of the Amer­i­c­as. While some read­ers may be aware that Colum­bus him­self like­ly had Jew­ish roots, most are prob­a­bly unfa­mil­iar with the life of his nav­i­ga­tor, Luis de Tor­res. Born Yosef ben HaLe­vi HaIvri to Jew­ish par­ents who con­vert­ed under pres­sure, his knowl­edge of mul­ti­ple lan­guages earned him the atten­tion of Colum­bus. Tami Lehman-Wilzig and Oliv­er Aver­ill set de Torres’s remark­able sto­ry with­in the dou­ble con­text of glob­al explo­ration and Span­ish Jew­ish history.

Although the book is a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, it is based on essen­tial facts and oth­er­wise plau­si­ble assump­tions. While it can­not be proven, for instance, that de Torres’s fam­i­ly secret­ly prac­ticed Judaism, as recount­ed by the author, it is rea­son­able to sur­mise that they strug­gled to main­tain their iden­ti­ty as con­verts. Pages depict de Torres’s sis­ter light­ing can­dles on Shab­bat and his young nephew pre­sent­ing him with a sil­ver ham­sa charm. The deci­sion by de Tor­res to embark with Colum­bus is pre­sent­ed as a way out of his unfath­omably anti­se­mit­ic home­land. Averill’s pic­tures evoke the tragedy of 1492, when Jews were either expelled or forced to become Christian.

Colum­bus was con­vinced that de Torres’s abil­i­ty to speak sev­er­al lan­guages, includ­ing Hebrew, Ara­bic, and Ara­ma­ic, would be of use on his voy­age to the Far East. Of course, that mis­con­cep­tion was only one of many that the Admi­ral held about the actu­al des­ti­na­tion he would reach in the New World. There is a dra­mat­ic scene in which de Tor­res argues with Colum­bus, con­vinc­ing him to delay set­ting sail in order to avoid lead­ing on Tisha B’Av. Averill’s depic­tion of stormy skies is an appro­pri­ate metaphor for the dan­gers faced by de Tor­res and his people.

This engag­ing new book will be valu­able to young read­ers, offer­ing a new per­spec­tive on Jew­ish Amer­i­can his­to­ry and a series of world-chang­ing events. While some of the facts of de Torres’s life are not avail­able to researchers, the cen­tral truth is clear and impor­tant: forced to com­pro­mise his iden­ti­ty, an accom­plished man from a Jew­ish fam­i­ly strives to escape oppres­sion and find his place by way of a rad­i­cal­ly new endeavor.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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