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Foodie Lit
Sherry Ostroff's Expulsion

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.


At the same time as Ferdinand and Isabella had been convinced to fund Columbus’ expedition to find a new route to Asia (and what turned out to be the American continent), the monarchs defeated the Muslims, Moors, and decided to force their Jewish citizens to convert or to be expelled from Spain. There would only be Christians in España. The day Columbus and his crew left Spain was the exact Expulsion deadline that all non-converted Jewish residents had to be gone from Spanish soil. Thousands left, including Columbus’ navigator, who wrote his log in Hebrew. But that is another story.


With the force of the Catholic Church and the leadership of the fanatically cruel Grand Inquisitor Tomàs Torquemada, the King and Queen collected the properties and wealth of Spanish Jews and had men women and children tortured. They also attended the many Autos-de-Fé where Jewish and other Spanish citizens were burned alive.

Sherry Ostroff.webp

Despite these horrors, what is remarkable is that so many of those who were forcibly converted continued to practice Judaism in secret, notwithstanding the risk of torture and death. These conversos unceasingly practiced aspects of their traditions for 500 years, when the Inquisition ended. And even now. some Jews practice in secret.


The Inquisitors left hundreds of pages of records. Author Sherry Ostroff read the story of Abraham Seneor, advisor to the Spanish monarchs. A leader in the Segovia Jewish community, at the time of the Expulsion, the family unexpectedly converted. Sherry, using impeccable research (a process which she told me she loves), develops a story line that creates a plausible explanation for what we know happened. Another famous Jewish leader and scholar included in this novel is Isaac Abravanel and his family. The fictional link in the story is the engagement of Basseva, daughter of Abraham Seneor and Samuel, son of Isaac Abravanel.

Samuel warns Basseva of the influence of the coming Inquisition on their lives, despite their fathers’ positions of leadership and wealth. “Everyday the Inquisition strengthens and becomes more dangerous. …The same will happen here. It will become too dangerous. We must look elsewhere: Naples, Venice or Antwerp. …I know a voyage is perilous…. But I would rather leave while we have a choice.”  In both the novel and historically, the Abravanel family did not convert, fled Spain and later helped Jews out of countries where they were persecuted.


Secrecy became a part of Jewish lives in Spain, from their friends, neighbors and servants. Basseva notices a procedure on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, for prayer. The Church had closed all synagogues by 1492. “On the second floor of our house was a hidden room. It was accessible by 12 stone steps. Every Saturday morning, the same ten men entered through a back door. Their staggered arrival was done purposefully so as not to arouse undo suspicion from our neighbors. In the town of Segovia, and throughout España, everyone watched everyone.”  In all totalitarian systems, this secrecy causing lack of trust was and is used by the government to create a unstable and fearful lives.


In mixing fiction and fact, Sherry gives us the breadth and the details of the Inquisition, the fear, the betrayals, the mercilessness and the ruthlessness of the agents of the Catholic Church and the monarchy. She also gives us the beauty and happiness of the lives Jews had enjoyed in Spain for more than 1,000 years.


Sherry tried to give as much authenticity to the details of living as well and found that some of her literary needs were actually in existence. I loved this! “Extensive research often reveals historic surprises that fit neatly into my storytelling…For example, when  a secret room was needed…, I discovered that the old Seneor house in Segovia did indeed have a hidden room, a secret synagogue, at the top of the stair. The house is located in the Old Jewish Quarter, la calle de la Juderia de vieja and is now a museum.”


The Inquisition comes to a close in 1834, although its influences lasted much longer.  The Spanish government did not rescind the expulsion of the Jews until December 16, 1968. (2015 NJOP)


An interesting and perhaps karmic close to this era Sherry discovered in her research, “Tomàs Torquemada’s tomb was looted in 1832. His bones were removed and burned in an auto-de-fe. The reason is not known but it is satisfying nonetheless.”


So much delicious food is described in Expulsion. Sherry and I chose Flan, Basseva’s favorite dessert and one of mine as well. 

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