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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?
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.
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.
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.