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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.