Columbus & the Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Columbus Day

   “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.”

   Indeed it is true. Luis de Torres was not the only Jew who sailed with Columbus on the 3rd of August that year. Columbus’ navigator and his doctor were also Jews. All three and two more were Jews who underwent formal “conversion” to Christianity one day before the voyage began but were nevertheless viewed as Jews both by other Jews and by the Spanish Christians, who called Jews converted to Christianity “marranos”, meaning swine.

    Columbus included de Torres because de Torres spoke Hebrew. Columbus evidently believed or wanted to believe that he would meet Hebrew speaking Jews on reaching the other side of the world. Columbus believed he would find the “ten lost tribes of Israel” there and hence thought he would need a Hebrew speaker. It should be noted that the voyage of Columbus was financed by two Jews, i.e. Luis de Santangelo, chancellor of the royal household of king Ferdinand and queen Isabella, and Gabriel Sanchez, treasurer of Aragon, both “conversos”, of course.

    When de Torres had landed on Hispanola he saw a bird which he thought was a peacock and named it TUKI, the Hebrew word for that animal. We therefore call it turkey. Today Hispanola is divided into French speaking Haiti and the Spanish speaking Dominican Republic.

    De Torres eventually settled in Cuba and therefore became the first European settler of the New World, except for the Norwegians who had come to Newfoundland in 1000 only to disappear when their colony was abandoned for unknown reasons.

    As we have just seen, Columbus believed the legend of the “lost ten tribes”. This was believed by many people and is still current, although we know now that the ten tribes dragged into Babylonian captivity migrated all over Asia and left their culture with  numerous civilizations on that continent all the way to Japan. There are Asian peoples, mostly Moslems, who light candles on Friday night but do not know why this custom was taught them by their parents and ancestors. There is even a group of Japanese who drive a goat over a cliff once a year in a ceremony resembling that which we encounter in the Yom Kippur service.

    There is a good deal of speculation based on evidence that Columbus may himself have been the grandson of Jews. Here are some facts:

  1. Although born in the Italian city of Genoa, Columbus’ first language was Castilian Spanish. Many Jews went to Genoa after being forced out of Castile one hundred years before Columbus was born (the word “jeans” is derived from that city name as the Genoese sailors used to make trousers from sail cloth).
  2. Columbus wrote two small marks on the top of every letter he wrote. These marks resemble the two marks orthodox Jews still use in their letters. The two abbreviations come from the Hebrew words besiyata d’ishmaya, meaning “with God’s help” in Aramaic.
  3. Columbus wrote a great deal about Zion.
  4. He brought five Jews on his voyage, including his translator, navigator, doctor, surgeon and astronomer.
  5. On the very day that Columbus sailed for the New World, the Jews who had been expelled from Spain sailed from the port of Palos as well.  Columbus' diary begins with these words: “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 expulsion of the Jews from Spain benefited the royal couple immensely since they seized all of the property and money owned by the Jews. This was exactly the same thing which benefited the Nazis in 1939.

   It is certain that Columbus was not Jewish. It is however entirely likely that the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition led many “marranos” to make every effort to find a place where the Spanish empire had no power and Christianity was unknown. When, on August 3, 1492, the three ships of Columbus’ fleet left the harbor of Palos they saw the ships on which the Jews were leaving the country in which they had lived a thousand years. None could have known that Columbus’ great voyage would lead to the establishment of the present American Jewish community, the most blessed of all Jewish communities ever to exist in the Galut.

    Today, Spain is a small, unimportant European backwater. The U.S.A. is the world’s most powerful country. Is that a mere coincidence?

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).

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