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Christopher Columbus

Rabbi Aiello
Kimberly Dyer


A theory to ponder following Rabbi Barbara Aiello's presentation at Limmud.

by Rhonda Spivak, March 16, 2012

During this year's Limmud conference, Rabbi Barbara Aeillo, gave a fascinating lecture about secret Crypto Jews of Southern Italy.

In that session, there was reference made to the theory that Christopher Columbus may have in fact been a Crypto-Jew or of Jewish descent.

I had never heard of this idea, and would have assumed that the name "Christopher" made it obvious he was a Christian, that is until I heard Rabbi Aellio, the descendent of Crypto Jews speak (Aeillo's grandmother used to go to the basement to light her shabbas candles and even continued to do so once the family moved to the United States, since "you never know').

Often Crypto Jews took on Christian sounding names as a way to conceal their Jewish identity, according to Aeillo, who has done extensive research into Jewish surnames. As she explained the Italian surname "Auitamichristo", which means "Help Me Jesus" is a Jewish surname, one taken on by Jewish families who had fled from Spain to Southern Italy. As Aeillo explained these Crypto Jews lit shabbat candles in a candelabra that had a shammash in the middle, would sound a ram's horn on December 31, and would put red strings on a baby's crib (in line with the Jewish tradition of the Kabbala). They would not eat milk and meat together "because it's not healthy" and those in the garment industry made vancalle's (scarfs), with blue and white stripes that didn't mix fabrics (to serve as talits). Aiello even brought with her a ‘vancalle’ which she said is probably "a vestige of the talit," and told the story of how an Italian woman who was a Crypto Jew filled her mikveh with water for donkeys to drink from it, so no one would know.

Aiello runs the The Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria, and hearing her speak made me want to go visit the Center and Calbria.
Now back to Christopher Columbus, and the circumstantial evidence that he was Jewish. A search on the internet shows that those who claim that Columbus could be Jewish refer to the fact that his choice to set sail for the New World on August 2, 1492, was the exact date ordained for the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Aparently, 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, and hundreds of thousands of Jews departed from Spain that day. English Jewish historian Cecil Roth noted the “coincidence” that 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.

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. Letters and journals attributed to Columbus are studded with references to Jewish scripture and dates from the Jewish calendar, and it is noted that Columbus selected many Jews and conversos -- Jews forced to convert to Catholicism to escape persecution -- as astrologers, navigators and translators in his crew.

Most historians agree that Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa, or modern-day Italy, yet Columbus spoke Spanish fluently, perhaps indicating that the Columbus family was originally from Spain. Spanish-speaking refugees were numerous in mid-15th century Genoa as Jewish families fled the Spanish Inquisition. It also is known that the family profession was weaving, a traditionally Jewish profession at the time, and that Jewish given names like Abraham and Jacob were common in the family of Columbus’ mother.

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 apparently 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.

Columbus is said to have used a unique triangular signature similar to inscriptions found on gravestones of Jewish cemeteries in Spain and South France. Most interesting is the fact that in the upper left corner of his letters to his son Diego, was the Hebrew letters "Bet Hey", which stand for the Hebrew blessing "Be Ezrat Ha Shem," or "with G-d's help."

There is a scholarly article by a Professor at Georgetown University entitled "Three Sources of textual Evidence of Columbus, Crypto Jews" worth a read

In it he points to evidence suggesting that Columbus married a Jewish woman and prepared their son Fernando for his bar-mitzvah. Columbus's 1503 report from Jamaica on the trip to America refers specifically to Fernando's having reached thirteen year's of age before joining his father on the trip.
The theory of Columbus being Jewish is intriguing to say the least. I will leave you with the thoughts of one blogger, Brad Hershfield:
..[I]f 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."


There is an extensive article on here in Ha'aretz

There is also good video about her and her work  which I recommend for those interested in the subject below:
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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