Lilian Gafni was born in Cairo, Egypt and attended the all-girls, non-denominational, French Catholic School of St. Vincent de Paul. While growing up, Lilian spoke Ladino (a mixture of Castilian Spanish and Hebrew words), a language spoken by Spanish Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Gafni writes with passion about the traumas of displaced Jewish populations because she once was attacked because of her religion. Her family fled to the newly formed country of Israel, where she had to adapt to a new life, country and language. Gafni seeks to give voice to the thousands of victims who have been brutally silenced through the ages due to their religion and personal history.
I am of Sephardic descent. That means my ancestors were Spanish Jews who left Spain to live around the Mediterranean during the infamous 1492 expulsion. I grew up speaking Ladino (a mixture of Castilian Spanish and Hebrew words) in my home. The subject of Jews being forced to leave Spain under duress always intrigued me. Why did these law-abiding Spaniard Jews had to leave a land that was their home for over a thousand years?
The more I learned about the Sephardim, the more I felt close to those exiles of long ago. What thoughts, fears, and hope did they feel and experience? How did they preserve their Jewish heritage in secret? How did they escape the Inquisition-or fall into its clutches?
As I put these thoughts on paper, a whole world opened up before me. The characters, the families and the individuals directly responsible for that exodus became real and spoke in their own voices. Then the characters opened a door for me to peer inside and discover their world.
The major character, Isabella Obrigon, a sixteen-year-old girl with a privileged life leads the story and connects all the players. I thought of how Isabella would look when it dawned on me: if her eyes saw the story, then her eyes were speaking to me. Her eyes had to be demanding, cajoling, supplicating--always leaving a deep impression. That's when I realized I was describing my mother's eyes! My mother, Rachel Palombo, was a most beautiful woman with emerald green eyes. She was reputed to have been more beautiful than Hedy Lamar or Elizabeth Taylor. I decided then that Isabella's eyes were going to be modeled on Rachel Palombo's eyes. The other characters were modeled on real men and women who lived in that time period. Only their names were changed. These characters were fluid, changing with the circumstances of those terrible times.
The story took on a life of its own as it developed. The characters spoke to me. Some of them pleaded for their lives, some of them risked their lives to protect others, and some fell in love under the most inauspicious of circumstances. In the end, these characters fought for their land, their livelihoods, and the futures of their families.
Two hundred thousand Spanish Jews made the fateful decision to leave Spain in 1492. Many others converted rather than face the unknown in other lands. Today, 50% of Spaniards and Portuguese have the DNA Jewish marker that proves they have Sephardic Jewish ancestors.