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Columbus Day 2009: Was Christopher Columbus Jewish?

posted by Brad Hirschfield

The question of whether or not Christopher Columbus was Jewish has been around for quite some time. And while it may not yet (ever?) be solved, its persistence speaks volumes. In fact, there are spiritual lessons to be found in the stories of Columbus’ Jewishness which can benefit us 500 years later, whether he was or he wasn’t actually a Jew. But first, let’s review some of the interesting facts which point toward either toward Columbus having been Jewish, or from a Jewish family.

• There is evidence that Columbus spoke Spanish while still living in Italy, an unusual situation unless his family had originated in Spain. Spanish-speaking Jewish refugees from the Inquisition were numerous in the Genoa area.
• The form “Colón” which Columbus adopted as the Spanish equivalent of his last name was not the expected form (which would have been” Colom” or “Colombo”). It was however a common Jewish variation on the name.
Columbus was known to frequent the company of Jews and former Jews, among whom were some noted astronomers and navigators, as well as his official translator. Marranos (another term for Jews forced to convert) figured prominently among Columbus’s backers and crew. Throughout his life he demonstrated a keen knowledge of the Bible and the geography of the Holy Land.
• Columbus began the official report of his first voyage to America, addressed to Ferdinand and Isabella, with the following words: “And thus, having expelled all the Jews from all your kingdoms and dominions, in the month of January, Your Highnesses commanded me that…I should go to the said parts of India.” This is a strange fact to mention in this context, and it is not even correct: The order of expulsion was not signed until March 31st.
• The fact that the expulsion of Spanish Jewry and Columbus’ voyage coincided is telling. Even when Columbus was scheduled to set sail on August 3rd, he insisted that his entire crew be ready on board a full day earlier. August 2nd 1492 was the day that had been ordained for the last Jews of Spain to depart the country. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were departed from Spain on that dark day.
• When this coincidence of dates was first noted by the Spanish biographer S. de Madariaga, the English Jewish historian Cecil Roth also commented on the “coincidence” August 2nd 1492 coinciding with Tisha B’av, the Jewish fast of mourning. It was as if Columbus had arranged to remain on board ship for that ill-omened day, and to depart only afterwards. 4
• Columbus discussed particular dates and phrases unique to Hebrew people. When writing about the fall of Jerusalem, he said “the destruction of the second house,” referring to the Temple.

So, why does this all matter?


Beyond the pride which many Jews feel at being able to claim Columbus as a Member of the Tribe, there are real lessons to be learned from his story – spiritual lessons which can help all of us on our own journeys, even if they are not as historic.
First, if any of the stories of Columbus’ Jewishness are accurate, they remind us that we can be many things at the same time, and that having those multiple, even conflicting, identities can be a real advantage under certain circumstances. Columbus, according to the Jewish versions of his biography was a Catholic-Jewish-Spanish-Italian, and in all likelihood it was being all of those things at the same time which positioned him to be who he was. His boundary crossing identity was certainly pivotal historically, and probably psychologically, in propelling him toward a life of boundary-crossing.
Second, if there really was a connection between his decision to set sail in August 1492 and that day being on or about Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (a day classically associated with destruction and bad fortune for Jews), he figured out how to turn a tragedy into a triumph. That’s no small spiritual lesson for any of us.
Third, while the implications of his “discovering” the New World would takes generations to unfold, the shores upon which Columbus landed would turn out to be the healthiest, safest and most vibrant Jewish Diaspora communities in the history of the Jewish people. Columbus’ journey, like most of ours’ could not be fully appreciated within the context of his own time. He planted seeds which would take years to bear fruit. I hope that among the things people celebrate today is the fact that our own lives are like that as well.
Whoever Christopher Columbus was, and however he is remembered, this much we know: he was a boundary crossing explorer who drew on multiple identities and traditions in ways that empowered him to take incredible chances when others would not, see remarkable opportunities where others could not, and accomplish things big enough that their full implications were beyond anyone’s understanding. That is the stuff of spiritual greatness.



  • interpreter

    Christopher Columbus was a Christian Jew, like me.

  • Christopher Mohr

    Would you really want such an egotistical, self-righteous, and borderline dictatorial person being trumpeted as “one of your own”. Meh, you can have ‘im.

  • Gerald Goldberg

    Yo most historians agree that Columbus was Genoese.
    Christopher Columbus
    Christopher Columbus (1451 – May 20, 1506) was an explorer and trader, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Americas in 1492 under the flag of Castile (Spain). He had been searching for a new route to the Asian Indies and was convinced he had found it.
    He was probably Genoese, and his name in Spanish is Cristóbal Colón, and in Italian Cristoforo Colombo.
    Columbus claimed governorship of the new territories (by prior agreement with the Spanish monarchs) and made several more journeys across the Atlantic. While regarded by some as an excellent navigator, he was seen by many contemporaries as a poor administrator and was stripped of his governorship in 1500.
    Columbus is a controversial figure. Some – including many Native Americans – view him as responsible, directly and indirectly, for the the deaths of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, exploitation of the Americas by Europe, and slavery in the West Indies. Others honor him for the massive boost his career gave to Western expansion and culture. Columbus is often credited as the Discoverer of the Americas, because of his role in making 15th century Europe aware of their existence; it is his discovery that created the still-existing bonds between the continents. Obviously, Columbus was not the first person to reach the Americas, which he found already populated. Nor was he the first European to reach the continent, as Vikings from Northern Europe had visited North America in the 11th century. It was, however, Columbus’s voyage that marked the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas, and that linked Eurasia and Africa to the Americas.
    Early life
    Columbus was born around September in the year 1451, in the Italian port city of Genoa. His father was Domenico Colombo, a woolens merchant, and his mother was Suzanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a woolens merchant. Christopher had 3 younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo, and a sister, Bianchinetta. In 1470, the family moved to Savano, where Christopher worked for his father in wool processing. During this period he studied cartography with his brother Bartolomeo. Christopher received almost no formal education; a voracious reader, he was largely self-taught.
    In 1474, Columbus joined a ship of the Spenola Financiers, who were Genoese patrons of his father. He spent a year on a ship bound towards Khios (an island in the Aegean Sea) and, after a brief visit home, spent a year in Khios and, its believed that, that’s where he recruited some of his sailors from.
    A 1476 commercial expedition gave Columbus his first opportunity to sail into the Atlantic Ocean. The fleet came under attack by French privateers off the Cape of St. Vincent. Colombus’s ship was burned and he swam six miles to shore.
    By 1477, Colombus was living in Lisbon. Portugal had become a center for maritime activity with ships sailing for England, Ireland, Iceland, Madeira, the Azores, and Africa. Columbus’ brother Bartolomeo worked as a mapmaker in Lisbon. At times, the brothers worked together as draftsmen and book collectors.
    He became a merchant sailor with the Portuguese fleet, and sailed to Iceland via Ireland in 1477, to Madeira in 1478 to purchase sugar, and along the coasts of West Africa between 1482 and 1485, reaching the Portuguese trade post São Jorge da Mina at the Guinea coast.
    Columbus married Felipa Perestello e Moniz, a daughter from a noble but impoverished Portuguese family, in 1479. Their son Diego was born in 1480, and Felipa died in 1485. Columbus then met Beatriz Enriquez and the two had a son, Ferdinand, in 1488, but they were never married.
    The idea
    By the 1480s, Columbus had developed a plan to travel to the Indies (then roughly meaning all of south and east Asia) by sailing west across the Atlantic, rather than by going south and east around Africa. It is sometimes claimed that the reason Columbus had a hard time receiving support for this plan was that Europeans believed in a flat earth. In fact, that the Earth is spherical was evident to most people of his time, especially other sailors and navigators. The problem was that the experts did not agree with Columbus’s estimates of the distance to the Indies. Most Europeans accepted Ptolemy’s claim that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water (in fact, it occupies about 120 degrees, leaving 240 degrees unaccounted for at that time). Columbus accepted the calculations of d’Ailly, that the land-mass occupied 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus believed that one degree actually covered less space on the earth’s surface than commonly believed. Finally, Columbus read maps as if the distances were calculated in Roman miles (5,000 feet) rather than nautical miles (6,082.66 feet at the equator). Columbus concluded that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was 2,700 miles. In fact, the distance is about 13,000 miles, and most European sailors and navigators concluded that the Indies were too far away to make his plan worth considering. They were right and Columbus was wrong — but, ultimately, extraordinarily fortunate.
    First voyage
    Columbus first presented his plan to the court of Portugal in 1485. The king’s experts believed that the route would be longer than Columbus thought (the actual distance is even longer than the Portuguese believed), and denied Columbus’s request. Columbus then tried to get backing from Spain. After several years of lobbying at the Spanish court he was finally successful in 1492. The Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, and they received Colombus in Cordoba, Spain (in the kings’ Alcazar) and they agreed to have an expedition sent out to the West. About half of the financing was to come from private investors, which Columbus had already lined up. Columbus was made Admiral of the High Seas and granted an inheritable governorship to the new territories he would discover, as well as a portion of all profits.
    That year, on the evening of August 3, Columbus left from Palos with three ships, the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta. He first sailed to the Canary Islands, where he stayed for a month, and then he started the five week voyage across the ocean. He faked the logbook to make his crew believe they had covered a smaller distance than they actually had. There is still much discussion about which island he reached, but at least it is quite certain that it was one of the Bahamas (landing was on October 12, 1492).
    The Native Americans he encountered, the Taíno or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. In his log for October 14, 1492, Columbus drafted a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella concerning the Taíno:
    When your highnesses should so command, all of them can be brought to Castile, or be kept captive on their own island, for with fifty men you will keep them all in subjugation and make them do anything you wish.
    On this first voyage, Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba (landed on October 28) and the northern coast of Hispaniola. Here the Santa Maria ran aground and had to be abandoned. Columbus founded the settlement La Navidad and left 39 men.
    On January 4, 1493 he set sail for home and after a stormy voyage he had no choice but to land in Portugal. The relations between Portugal and Castille were poor at the time, and he was held up, but finally released. He reached Spain on March 15 and displayed the gold he had found as well as several kidnapped natives to the court. He also described the previously unknown tobacco, pineapple and hammock.
    He was received as a hero in Spain. Word of his discovery of new lands rapidly spread throughout Europe.
    Second voyage
    He left for his second voyage (1493-1496) on September 24 1493, with 17 ships carrying supplies and about 1200 men to assist in the subjugation of the Taíno and the colonization of the region.
    He laid his course more southerly than on his first voyage, first sighting Dominica, which is quite rugged, so he turned north, discovering and naming Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Antigua, and Nevis in the Lesser Antilles, landing on them and claiming them for Spain as he did the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He then went to Hispaniola, where he found his colonists had fallen into dispute with Indians in the interior and had been killed. He established a new settlement at Isabella, on the north coast of Hispaniola where gold had first been discovered; it was a poor location and the settlement was short-lived. He spent some time exploring the interior of the island for gold and did find some, establishing a small fort in the interior. He explored the south coast of Cuba but did not round the western end, thus convincing himself that it was a peninsula rather than an island, and discovered Jamaica.
    Before he left on his second voyage he had been directed by Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain friendly, even loving relations with the natives. However, during his second voyage he sent a letter to the monarchs proposing to enslave some of the native peoples, specifically the Caribs, on the grounds of their aggressiveness. Although his petition was refused by the Crown, in February, 1495 Columbus took 1600 Arawak as slaves. 550 slaves were shipped back to Spain; two hundred died en route, probably of disease, and of the remainder half were ill when they arrived. After legal proceedings, the survivors were released and ordered to be shipped back home. Some of the 1600 were kept as slaves for Columbus’s men. The remaining 400, who Columbus had no use for, were let go and fled into the hills, making, according to Columbus, prospects for their future capture dim. Rounding up the slaves resulted in the first major battle between the Spanish and the Indians in the new world.
    The main objective of Columbus’ journey had been gold. To further this goal, he imposed a system on the natives in Cicao on Haiti, whereby all those above fourteen years of age had to find a certain quota of gold, which would be signified by a token placed around their necks. Those who failed to reach their quota would have their hands chopped off. Despite such extreme measures, Columbus did not manage to obtain much gold. One of the primary reasons for this was the native susceptibility to European diseases.
    In his letters to the Spanish king and queen, Columbus would repeatedly suggest slavery as a way to profit from the new discoveries, but these suggestions were all rejected: the monarchs preferred to view the natives as future members of Christendom.
    More importantly, Columbus oversaw the establishment of the encomienda (trusteeship) system, by which Spaniards were granted exclusive use of Indian labor in return for converting them to Christianity; this policy amounted to enslavement of the local population. In some cases, Indians were worked to death; in other cases they died due to newly introduced diseases and malnutrition. Estimates of the pre-Columbian population vary enormously; see fuller discussion at Taino. Cook and Borah (see below) estimated the native population (Taíno) of Hispanola at the time of Columbus’s conquest in 1493 at 8,000,000, probably the highest estimate. In 1496 Bartolome de las Casas conducted a census after the conquest and initial impostion of the encomienda system, arriving at an estimate of only 3,000,000 Taíno. A Spanish census in 1514 records only 22,000 Taíno, and a census in 1542 recorded only 200. Columbus established his brothers as commanders of the settlements and left Hispaniola for Europe on March 10, 1496; they and other Spanish conquerors employed the encomienda system with similar results elsewhere in the Americas.
    Third voyage and arrest
    In 1498, Columbus left for the New World a third time, accompanied by the young Bartolome de Las Casas, who would later provide partial transcripts of Columbus’s logs. This time he discovered the island of Trinidad (July 31) and the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River, before returning to Hispaniola. Initially, he described the new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but later he retreated to his position that they belonged to Asia.
    Many of the Spanish settlers of the new colony were discontent, having been misled by Columbus about the supposedly bountiful riches of the new world. Columbus repeatedly had to deal with rebellious settlers and Indians. He had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him. A number of returned settlers and friars lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him of mismanagement. The king and queen sent the royal administrator Francisco de Bobadilla in 1500, who upon arrival detained Columbus and his brothers and had them shipped home. Columbus refused to have his shackles removed on the trip to Spain, during which he wrote a long and pleading letter to the Spanish monarchs.
    Although he regained his freedom, he did not regain his prestige and lost his governorship. As an added insult, the Portuguese had won the race to the Indies: Vasco da Gama returned in September 1499 from a trip to India, having sailed east around Africa.
    Last voyage and later life
    Nevertheless he made a fourth voyage, in 1502-1504 (he left Spain on May 9, 1502). On this voyage, accompanied by his younger son Ferdinand, he explored the coast of Central America from Belize to Panama. In 1502, off the coast of what is now Honduras, a trading ship as “long as a galley” was encountered, filled with cargo. This was the first recorded encounter by the Spanish with the Native American civilization of Mesoamerica. Later Columbus was stranded on Jamaica for a year; he sent two men by canoe to get help from Hispaniola; in the meantime, he impressed the local population by correctly predicting an eclipse of the moon. Help finally arrived, and he returned to Spain in 1504.
    While Columbus had always given the conversion of non-believers as one reason for his explorations, he grew increasingly religious in his later years. He claimed to hear divine voices, lobbied for a new crusade to capture Jerusalem, often wore Franciscan habit, and described his discoveries of the “paradise” as part of God’s plan which would soon result in the Last Judgment and the end of the world. In his later years Columbus demanded that the Spanish Crown give him 10% of all profits made in the new lands, pursuant to earlier agreements. Because he had been relieved of his duties as governor, the crown felt not bound by these contracts and his demands were rejected. His family later sued for part of the profits from trade with America, but ultimately lost some fifty years later.
    On May 20, 1506, Columbus died in Spain, still convinced that his discoveries were along the East Coast of Asia. Even after his death, his travels continued: first interred in Valladolid and then in Seville, the will of his son Diego, who had been governor of Hispaniola, had the corpse transferred to Santo Domingo in 1542. In 1795 the French took over, and the corpse was moved to Havana. After the war of 1898, Cuba became independent and Columbus’ remains were moved back to Spain, to the cathedral of Seville. However, some claim that he is still buried in the cathedral of Santo Domingo.
    Columbus’s National Origin: Subject of Debate
    There has been doubt about Columbus’s national origin. Although he is generally assumed to be Genoese, his actual background is clouded in mystery. Very little is really known about Columbus before the mid-1470s. It has been suggested that this might have been because he was hiding something – an event in his origin or history that he kept a secret deliberately. It has also been noted that he not only wrote flawless Castilian, but that he used the language even when writing with Italians.
    The issue of Columbus’s ‘nationality’ became an issue after the rise of Nationalism; the issue was scarcely raised until the time of the cinquecentennial celebrations in 1892 (see Columbian exposition), when Columbus’ Genoese origins became a point of pride for some Italian-Americans. In New York City, rival statues of Columbus were underwritten by the Hispanic and the Italian communities, and honorable positions had to be found for each, at Columbus Circle and in Central Park.
    Some Basque historians have claimed that he was a Basque. Others have said that he was a converso (Spanish Jew converted to Christianity). In Spain, even converted Jews were much mistrusted; it was suggested that many conversos were still practicing Judaism in secrecy, Another theory is that he was from the island of Corsica, which at the time was part of the Genoan empire. Because the often subversive elements of the island gave its inhabitants a bad reputation, he would have masked his exact heritage. A few others also claim that Columbus was actually Catalan, or Greek, or Portuguese.
    Its interesting to note also that there is a lot of speculation lately on his origin being from the island of Khios(or Chios) in Greece. The main point of this theory is that Columbus never said he was from Genoa but from the Republic of Genoa. The island of Khios was under the Genoese rule (1346 – 1566 AD), for the period of his life, and therefore it was part of the Republic of Genoa. A lesser known fact is that there exists a village named Pirgi in the island of Khios where to this day many of its inhabitants carry the surname “Colombus”.
    Perceptions of Columbus
    Christopher Columbus has had a cultural significance beyond his actual achievements and actions as an individual; he also became a symbol, a figure of legend. The mythology of Columbus has cast him as an archetype for both good and for evil.
    The casting of Columbus as a figure of “good” or of “evil” often depends on people’s perspectives as to whether the arrival of Europeans to the New World and the introduction of Christianity or the Roman Catholic faith is seen as positive or negative.
    Columbus as The Great Hero
    Hero worship of Columbus perhaps reached its zenith around 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus were erected throughout the United States and Latin America, extolling him as a hero.
    The myth that Columbus thought the world round while his contemporaries believed in a flat earth was often repeated. This tale was used to show that Columbus was enlightened and forward looking. Columbus’s defiance of convention in sailing west to get to the Far East was hailed as a model of “American”-style can-do inventiveness.
    In the United States, the glorification of Columbus was particularly embraced by some members of the Italian-American, Hispanic, and Catholic communities. These groups point to Columbus as one of their own to show that Mediterranean Catholics could and did make great contributions to the USA.
    Columbus as The Great Villain
    Friar Bartolome de Las Casas wrote of Columbus’s cruelties contemporaneously with Columbus – these texts were used to substantiate the “black legend” by which English imperialists justified their conquests through comparison with Spanish atrocities. However, it was not until the 1960s that Columbus increasingly became seen in the the U.S. as an example of what was and is wrong with European imperialism–conquest, exploitation, slavery, genocide. Some argue that the policies Columbus enacted as viceroy and governor of Spanish-occupied territories in the Americas between 1493 and 1500 meet the modern legal definition of genocide.
    Much criticism focuses on the continuing positive Columbus myths and celebrations (such as Columbus Day) and their effects on American thought towards present-day Native Americans. Official celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage in 1992 were muted, and demonstrators protested marking the anniversary at all. It was in this spirit that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez signed, in October, 2002, a decree changing the name of Venezuela’s “Columbus Day” to “The Day of Indigenous Resistance” in honor of the nation’s indigenous groups. (For more, see Columbus Day)
    References
    * Jack Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals, Autonomedia, 1992.
    * Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, Little, Brown and Company, 1991, trade paperback, 680 pages, ISBN 0316584789 (9 other editions available both in hardback and paperback). A biography sympathetic to Columbus, though not blind to violent acts by Columbus and his crew
    * Brian Fagan: Clash of the Cultures, AltaMira Press 1997. Presents a less-favorable view.
    * Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Columbus, Oxford University Press 1991. Scholarly work, careful to support all statements with sources.
    * Sherburn Cook and Woodrow Borah: Essays in Population History Volume I, University of California Press, 1971
    * John Noble Wilford and Ashbel Green, The mysterious history of Columbus :an exploration of the man, the myth, the legacy, Knopf, 1991, hardcover: ISBN 0679404767, trade paperback: ISBN 0679738320. John Noble Green(?) is a science editor at the New York Times.
    * J.M. Cohen: “The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches With Connecting Narrative Drawn from the Life of the Admiral by His Son Hernando Colon and Others”, Penguin Classics, 1992.
    * James Loewen. “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”. New Press, 1995.
    Black legend
    The Black Legend (in Spanish, leyenda negra) is the depiction of Spain and the Spaniards as bloodthirsty and cruel, greedy and fanatical, in excess of reality. This is contrasted with the White Legend ((in Spanish, leyenda rosa, which means rosy legend) and promoted an idealized view of Spaniards. Needless to say, the very phrase Black Legend is highly colored itself and not propitious for a neutral historical analysis except of folkloric perceptions..
    In English folk culture, The Turk traditionally had a reputation for cruelty to match the Black Legend.
    History
    Some of the most damning support for the legend comes directly from Spaniards themselves.
    In 1552, the Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas published his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias), a polemical and arguably exaggerated account of the excesses which accompanied colonization, in which he blamed Spanish brutality for the near-extinction of the indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola. Really, while the massive population loss in the Americas after 1492 was mostly the consequence of Old World diseases {smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus} to which the colonial populations had no resistance, violence, exploitation and the destruction of traditional social and economic organisation took a severe toll and undermined native peoples’ recuperative capacity.
    The book was extensively used by the Dutch during their war for independence from Spain, and taken up by the English in their own wars with Spain (see Spanish Armada). The two northern nations were not only emerging as Spain’s rivals for empire, but were also strongholds of Protestantism while Spain was the most powerful Catholic country of the period.
    Other critics of Spain included the fallen secretary to king Philip II of Spain, Antonio Pérez, who fled to England where he published libels against the Spanish Monarchy. The imprisonment and subsequent death of Don Carlos by his parent Philip II of Spain added to the legend. This event inspired an opera. Also, the Spanish-born pope Alexander VI became almost a mythical character, and countless legends and traditions attached to his name.
    The United States of America would have inherited the Black Legend from the British colonization of the Americas. Some people feel that the United States mass media and government have propagated it to justify United States actions against Spain or Latin American countries, as in the Spanish-American War or in the colonization of Philippines after the Philippine-American War. We can still see evidence of the Black legend in modern literature and movies, as in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.

  • Edward Collins

    Columbus was a genocidal fanatic who I hate and despise! I want to SPIT on his grave!
    He wasn’t even the first European in America. Leif Erikson and the Norse were here around 1000 CE.

  • amythe jew

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    Switcher Home > Jewish History > Was Christopher Columbus Jewish? Was Christopher Columbus Jewish?
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    Posted by Rabbi Yosef TroppercloseAuthor: Rabbi Yosef Tropper Name: Yosef Tropper
    Email: yoseftropper@closetotorah.com
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    About: Born, raised and currently living in Baltimore, I am developing my skills as a Rabbinical counselor and leader, under the tutelage of great Torah leaders. I studied in Eretz Yisrael for over five years at Yeshivas Toras Simcha and Mir and then at Ner Yisrael in Baltimore. I am a Rebbe at the New Baltimore Yeshiva, a school geared towards maximizing the student’s learning experience by providing small classes and interactive learning. I am also involved with outreach, mentoring and tutoring. I am sincerely grateful to all of the inquisitive truth-seekers, whom I have the privilege of learning with, for challenging me to fulfill what we learn. Thank you for helping me develop and clarify many beautiful ideas which are ultimately published here. I hope that you enjoy and I welcome your comments and questions. May we all grow together!See Author’s Posts (208)
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    Was Columbus Jewish?
    You Decide!
    This question is famous and grabs our attention. If you heard some alleged proofs but never had the time to examine them for yourself, this article is for you! I will try to show you the proofs and allow you to answer the question yourself once and for all.
    Throughout his life, Christopher Columbus never discussed his parents or relatives. We only know from a reference to Genoa that this was most likely his city of birth. He spoke Spanish eloquently. His family name was Columbo, the Italianized form of Colón. Colón was a Jewish name. A baptized Jew name Colón was reported to have been put on trial in 1250 in Southern France for performing Jewish religious rights. A Joseph Colón was among the leading rabbinical authorities of the fifteenth century. In Spain, the earliest trials of morranos (or conversos [a Spanish Jew who publicly converted to Christianity]) in 1461 ended in the burning of Thome Colón, his wife and his son. The list continues, causing us to suspect something based upon his name.
    Columbus asked the King of Portugal to entrust him with a fleet to search for a sea route to India by sailing westward since the earth was round. The King refused and so Colón went to Spain to try his luck with King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabel of Castille. In the summer of 1485 he arrived in Palos where he met a famous astronomer named Antonio De Marchena. Antonio became a strong supporter of Colón’s plans. It should be noted that Antonio was himself a morrano, and his own brother had been burned at the stake for becoming a relapsing Jew. Colón next moved to Salamana where he succeeded in getting the support of Diego De Deza, the powerful bishop who was personal tutor to Prince Juan, the Heir to the Spanish throne. Diego was also a morrano. He introduced Colón to the Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto, whose Tables and Almanac were to aid Colón greatly on his many voyages.
    In the same year, Colón approached Don Luis de la Cerda, Duke of Medinalceli, one of the wealthiest nobles of Andalusia. The Duke, who had a Jewish grandmother, was so impressed with Colón’s idea that he declared he would pay for the expedition from his own pocket. However, in order to build ships, the King’s permission was required, and it was not forthcoming. The Duke then wrote a personal letter to Queen Isabel and Colón was invited to present himself before the King and Queen. The audience took place at Cordova in May 1486. Colón stressed the possibility that his voyage would be useful in spreading the Christian faith and obtaining gold. Not thoroughly convinced, they appointed a commission of scientists to examine his plan. In 1490, the commission issued an unfavorable report. In despair, Colón went back to Palos, planning to leave Spain for England or France in order to offer his plan to the kings of those countries.
    Queen Isabel had not fully decided against Colón’s plans and her hesitancy led to the intervention of a group of influential Jews and morranos. Of all the names of the eight people involved, it must be noted that every one of them had a relative killed for performing Jewish rituals. In fact, two of them had the “Sanbenito” done to them. (The Sanbenito was a punishment where one was forced to appear publicly in a Sanbenito cloak and humiliatingly forced to swear never to practice the Jewish faith again.) They all saw the inquisition moving in. It is quite intriguing that Jews and morranos were the only people in Spain who came out in support of an undertaking whose object was to earn glory and wealth for the Spanish crown and to spread Christianity. Three of the men were Juan Cabrero, Luis de Santangel, and Gabriel Sanchez. Aside from their being conversos, these were not ordinary Spaniards. Santangel was a member of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Spain, as well as the King’s personal advisor. Juan Cabrero was Ferdinand’s intimate friend who had fought by the King against the Muslims. Gabriel Sanchez was the Chief Treasurer of Spain. They offered to finance Columbus’ project and it was accepted. Some scholars believe that Santangel and his associates were willing to finance Columbus in the hope of finding a new Promised Land to which they might emigrate and escape the pressure of the church.
    Based on the fact that Colón had first taken his plan to Portugal, then to Spain, and when Spain turned down his proposals, he was ready to turn to England or France, one must question the notion that he was moved by the desire to serve his country and the Christian religion! He obviously had an ulterior motive, a secret aim, which he revealed to none but a small number of morranos with whom he needed to convince the king. This all seems quite thought provoking. But there is more!
    On April 17, 1492 the king of Spain signed an agreement known as The Capitulations. It granted Colón the title which he so stubbornly fought for: “Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. Why did he want this title so badly? Perhaps it was because he did not want to be remembered by his Christian first name. We will discuss this further when we talk about his signature.
    In his writings, speeches and daily conversations, Colón often quoted the views of rabbis and other Jewish learned men. In a letter to the King and Queen in 1501, he wrote, “I maintained relations and have spoken with Jewish and other men of science.” This leads one to ask, if he was such a devout Christian, why was he so fond of the company of Jews, and especially rabbis!
    He would often compare himself to King David and Moses the Jewish leader. In many of his penned letters, his sentences and statements seem to be taken directly from Tanach, especially from Isaiah and Ezekiel. This leads one to ask, did Colón know the Bible in translation or the Hebrew as well? In 1499, the secretary of the King discussed a letter which Colón wrote to his brother which contained some “unknown characters”. The problem is, Colón supposedly only knew Spanish!
    He boasted that he was even related to King David. Some of his letters were described as written in an “unknown script” (perhaps Hebrew?), and it has been suggested that his unique triangular signature is similar to inscriptions found on gravestones of ancient Jewish cemeteries in Spain and Southern France.
    Colón was more driven by prophecy than astronomy. He compiled a collection of Biblical passages in his Libro de las Profecias, Book of Prophecies. It contained Proverbs 8:27, which speaks of the earth’s surface as being curved; Isaiah 40:22, the spherical earth; and the ocean currents in Isaiah 43:16. He would later describe his discovery of the New World as “the fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied, from Isaiah 24:15, “Isles beyond the sea,” (and Isaiah 60:9)”.
    A famous Columbus researcher, Jane Frances Amler, stated that her research concluded that Columbus was a converso. In Spain, even some converted Jews were forced to leave after much persecution; it is known that many conversos were still practicing Judaism in secret. The correlation between the Alhambra Decree, which called for the expulsion of all of the Jews from Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31, 1492, and Columbus’ embarking on his first voyage on August 3, 1492, (Interestingly, according to the Hebrew calendar, August 2 was Tisha’ah B’Av.) has been offered as support for this claim. Colón rushed to set sail as soon as he received permission. Perhaps he rushed because he wanted to find a new home for the exiled Jews. (Parenthetically, Columbus writes in his personal journal that his embarking was delayed for a few days as there was too much traffic of Jews being evicted to allow for him to set sail!)
    Discovery Channel’s Columbus: Secrets from the Grave purports that Columbus could not have been of Jewish descent because certain genetic markers characteristic of people with converso descent were not present in Columbus’ DNA. Many scholars have stated that this is inconclusive.
    Columbus employed peculiar dates and phrases unique to the Hebrew people. Instead of referring to the “destruction” or “fall of Jerusalem”, he used the phrase “the destruction of the second house”. He also employed the Hebrew reckoning of 68 A.D., instead of 70 A.D to date the event. A marginal note dated 1481 is immediately given its Hebrew equivalent of 5241, etc.
    Colón’s signature proves that he knew Hebrew prayers. His signature is found in two variants. Both are made of seven Latin characters arranged to form an equilateral triangle and below it, in one line, three letters and one word.
    The difference between the two is only on the lowest line. In one it reads “Xpo FERENS”, while the other reads “El Admirante”. Many attempts have been made to decipher this strange cryptogram (including some supposed talk of kabbalistic basis, but I could not find anything on this). None proved satisfactory until M.B. Amzalak of Lisbon succeeded in 1927 to unravel the mystery of the seven letter triangle. Maurice Davis of New York, managed to discover the hidden meaning of “Xpo FERENS” in 1933. In Colón’s time, in prayer books, they would abbreviate recurring words as an initial between two dots. Thus for example, the symbol .A. would be Hashem’s name of Ad’nus. In light of this, Amzalak suggests that .S.S.A.S. stands for: “Santo Santo Santo Ado-noy S’baot” – “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3). These are the words that the angels on high say about Hashem and we recite in the prayers Uva Li’tzion and Kedusha.
    As for the XMY, they are the Spanish letters which resemble three Hebrew letters. X equals Shin (both look similar). M equals Mem. Y equals Ayin. Handwritten they appear quite similar as you can see in the copy of his signature. He slanted the Y very much so that it looks like an Ayin without requiring much imagination. There are no dots because these letters represent nothing, rather they spell out a specific word, a word which begins a very fundamental Jewish phrase: Shin-Mem-Ayin – Shema. This is the first word of the affirmation of the Jews monotheistic faith: Shema Yisra’el Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, Hear O Israel that Hashem our God is One. Together, the seven letters stand for the Jews ultimate expression of faith.
    “Xpoforus” was a commonly used word, short for “Christophorus.” “Xpo” stood for “christo” and “forus” meant “bearer.” But Colón’s word is different. The word “Xpo” is separate, inferring that it may constitute the first letters of three separate words. “FERENS” means “carrier” in Greek. Its Hebrew equivalent is “No’say.” Maurice Davis therefore suggests that “Xpo FERENS” stands for: “Nosei Avon Va’pesha Vi’chata’ah” – “Forgiving iniquity transgression and sin”, the appeal for God’s mercy, which Jews repeat no less than thirty-two times during the prayers on Yom Kippur. Notice that there is a Colón (:) immediately before “Xpo FERENS.” In Hebrew the Colón means stop or the end of a sentence and in Spanish it means that there should be a surname, perhaps “Colón” before it. For Jewish readers it signifies that it should be read from right to left. This way reveals a secret Hebrew meaning, namely FERENS = Carries (Nosei), O = O’von, P = Pesha, and X = Chata’ah. He was begging God’s forgiveness for his formal adherence to the foreign religion. It seems that Colón used this signature to avoid using his Christian name and perhaps in hope that someday someone would find its hidden message and realize his true religion. As soon as the title “Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea” was given to him, Colón signed “El Admirante”, instead of “Xpo FERENS” in all of his letters except the ones sent to his son. In his will, in which he tells his children that his title is to be kept in perpetuity, he tells them never to omit the seven letter cryptogram and “not to sign more than El Admirante”. In other words, “don’t sign your Christian names!”
    We have copies of thirteen letters written by Colón to his son Diogo, from November 12, 1504 to February 24, 1505. On twelve of them, there appears in the top left corner as a monogram in cursive script, the two characters “Beis” and “Hei,” which are the initials of the Hebrew words “Baruch Hashem“, which pious Jews have the habit of writing on top of their papers. These twelve letters are signed with “Xpo” and the thirteenth letter, which doesn’t contain the cursive, is signed “El Admirante.” This is because the thirteenth letter was to be shown to the Queen, and it would have been foolish to show the Queen a document with Hebrew letters on it, or a signature with a disguised confession of Jewish faith.
    This peculiar sign or cipher, according to Simon Wiesenthal (1973), appears on all of those letters in the upper left corner. This cipher consists of two Hebrew characters “bais” and “hey”, which stand for baruch hashem, an expression used by Jews. The letters bais and hey are intertwined like a monogram.
    The right to use the title “Don” had been one of Colón’s demands from the very onset. He was extremely pleased when his request was granted. There could have been no other reason why he fought for this title so stubbornly, other than the fact that under a 1412 law still in effect, Jews were forbidden to call themselves “Don.” Perhaps he took silent satisfaction in his title, he had undermined them!
    Colón made many reference in his diary throughout his journey, that he felt that he had a mission from God. In his biography by his son, Fernando Colón, he writes that “the third motive the admiral had was the hope of finding some island and land of great unity whence he might the better pursue his principal design”. What was this “principal design”? Many times Colón expressed his hopes to be able to conquer Jerusalem.
    Before Colón set sail for America, the situation for the Jews was terrible. They were being thrown on trial and executed very frequently. If one was a false morrano, he would try his hardest to escape, because if he was caught he would lose half of his property and could be executed. The majority of the people who successfully escaped were the low-class citizens. The most prominent of the morranos, such as all of Colón’s largest supporters, wouldn’t stand a chance if they attempted to flee. Yet if Colón were to discover a distant land and be in charge of it, as he had demanded from the King and Queen, then this would be the perfect escape for the morranos, every one of the people who supported Colón. In a land distant from the Spanish crown, they would be free to move with their families and most of their movable wealth. There with the width of the ocean between them and no spies of the inquisition, they would set up new homes, under the protection of one of their own, a secret Jew like themselves, as viceroy, governor, and admiral, with powers to appoint and remove all officials with complete civil and criminal jurisdiction over them. When the time came, they would continue to push on west, until they reached Israel, then discard the foreign religious garbs forced upon them and openly return to their father’s faith.
    If indeed this was Colón’s plan, it is no wonder that he so carefully kept his Jewish identity a secret. For the Spanish morranos, Colón was indeed a man of destiny, a new “Moses” who would lead his people out of captivity. Hence their steadfast support of his ideas even though the “experts” doubted him. One of Colón’s most avid (Jewish) supporters had made an impassioned plea with the Queen and offered to lend her the money for the voyage. Also, Colón proposed, and the Queen finally agreed, to finance the voyage from proceeds from the confiscated property of the expelled Jews and the gold and silver from their synagogues.
    The day before Colón’s death on May 20, 1506, he signed his will, after his illness took a sudden turn for the worse, with the signature last used in 1492, “Xpo FERENS”. His last silent prayer for divine forgiveness.
    Colón may have failed to reach Israel, but he did lay down the foundations of a new home for a large number of morranos in his time. Although Colón never had the opportunity to confess his true religion, indeed it is his discovery that has lead to the vast amount of Torah and Judaism which is learned and practiced freely today. For that, whether or not I have you convinced you that he was Jewish, he definitely deserves some thanks!
    [Much of this article is based on a chapter by Samuel Talkowsky from “They Took To The Sea” (1964). The author wishes to thank Cha
    Reply to Jewish
    M. Hudson August 24th, 2009 at 19:11 | #2 Reply | Quote Thank you for revealing the hidden meaning behind his signature, I could barely read through my tears.
    Reply to M. Hudson
    Elianna August 24th, 2009 at 22:40 | #3 Reply | Quote Thank you! Your work is wonderful and greatly appreciated. I paused for a good cry. Amazing story of facts.
    Reply to Elianna
    shmuel September 14th, 2009 at 02:54 | #4 Reply | Quote fantastic article thanks. one could also add that colubus spoke castillian spanish ie LADINO. the jewish language of the times.
    Reply to shmuel
    Ruby January 19th, 2010 at 17:05 | #5 Reply | Quote Article is jam packed w/knowledge and unfolds the real reason why America was so blessed. Columbus had God’s blessing!
    Reply to Ruby
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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dorcie Lacy

    When I visited Israel, (1999/2000) My tour guide spoke of Columbus
    being a Jew. I also have visited his birth house in Genoa, Italy.
    When I was a child our history books were titled “The New World”
    and certainly the settlement of the USA did creat an end to the
    old world system. It was the end of the known world, today we have been to outer space (heavens) and made endless discoveries. Scripture are being fulfilled daily.

    The Jews have blessed the world. Abraham and all of his decendants are one, Jew, Moslem and Christian join with other Godly believers over the entire world. Let us all give “thanks” and realize that there is a Holy Spirit within us all and We are all truly made in the “image” of God. We know that we are His children when we experience His love for others within our hearts. “For God so loved the world ,,,, “

  • http://ChristianJewimpossible Leah

    You can be a Christian or Jewish you cant be both. Jews dont beleive the Messiah ever came and Christians beleived there was a Jesus. You cant be 1/2 Pregnant you either are or not.

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