Columbus’ Story has Some Jewish Roots

Columbus JewishEvery American school child knows the famous couplet: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two; Columbus sailed the ocean blue”– commemorating the explorer’s arrival in the New World on October 12, 1492.

While Columbus Day is a federal holiday (observed the second Monday in October), not everyone is celebrating. Native American groups have long argued that the Italian explorer’s arrival in the New World ushered in genocide against indigenous peoples as well as the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Protests have gained more traction this past summer after the removal of Confederate monuments sparked riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. The subsequent removal of Confederate statues nationwide has emboldened protesters to demand the removal of monuments of Columbus, as well.

Vandals have destroyed or defaced Christopher Columbus statues throughout New York as well as in Boston, Baltimore and Houston in recent weeks. And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering removing the landmark statue of Columbus which had overlooked Manhattan’s Columbus Circle since 1892. Columbus Day itself is likewise being questioned. The Los Angeles City council voted last month to replace Columbus Day with “Indigenous People’s Day” even as Seattle, Albuquerque and Denver have already done.

Yet Jews may not want to discount the famous explorer without realizing the Jewish roots to his story. A lesser known adage has it: “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue; and his interpreter was a Jew whose name was Lou and that is true.” Luis de Torres served as Columbus’ interpreter, in part because he knew Hebrew. Columbus hoped to discover the 10 lost tribes of Israel in his travels. Columbus’ navigator and doctor on the ship were also Jews, and the trip was financed by three Jews, or conversos, who had converted to Christianity in order to serve in the royal household of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Few American school children learn that Ferdinand and Isabella released the Alhambra Decree earlier that very year, declaring that all Jews had to leave Spain by the end of July 1492! Columbus’ diary begins: “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery of the Indies.” The confiscation of Jewish wealth and property certainly afforded the royal couple sufficient funds to invest in exploration.

How uncanny it is that on August 3, 1492, while Columbus set sail with a number of Jews on board his own ships, he likewise witnessed countless ships taking away Spanish Jewish refugees from the only home they had known for thousands of year.

Who knew Columbus Day means so much more than appliance, mattress and furniture sales? Let us discover and think about some of the deeper and more controversial contexts of Columbus Day on our day off!

Shalom,    Rabbi Judy Chessin