Recognizing the Jewish Hispanic legacy during Hispanic Heritage Month

According to a law passed in 1988 by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the month from September 15th through October 15th is known as National Hispanic Heritage Month, when people recognize the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans to the United States and celebrate the group’s heritage and culture.

Hispanic Heritage Month also celebrates the long and important presence of Hispanic and Latino Americans in North America, starting with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

However, few are aware of the vital legacy played by those with Jewish ancestry to America and Hispanic history and culture.

This contribution began from the very beginning, with many academics and researchers claiming that Columbus, known in Spain as Cristóbal Colón, was secretly a Jew, and they point to many factors including the fact that he was always openly reticent about his origins, was very close to many Jews, some of the traditions he kept, the language he used and the way he signed his name.

Famous Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal wrote in his book “Sails of Hope” that Columbus’ voyage was motivated by a desire to find a safe haven for the Jews in light of their expulsion from Spain.

This is partly suggested because Columbus’ voyage was not, as is commonly believed, funded by the deep pockets of Queen Isabella, but rather by two Jewish Conversos and another prominent Jew. Louis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez advanced an interest free loan of 17,000 ducats from their own pockets to help pay for the voyage, as did Don Isaac Abrabanel, rabbi and Jewish statesman.

Indeed, the first two letters Columbus sent back from his journey were not to Ferdinand and Isabella, but to Santangel and Sanchez, thanking them for their support and telling them what he had found.

What we do know for certain that Columbus’ voyage would have been impossible without Jewish expertise. The famed explorer used the nautical instruments perfected by Jews such as Joseph Vecinho , and the nautical tables drawn up by Abraham Zacuto.

There were a handful of Jews on that first voyage, including the interpreter Luis de Torres, born as Yosef ben Levi Ha-Ivri, who was sent by Columbus when they reached the Caribbean Islands on an expedition to explore the territory and make contact. As they thought they were reaching Asia, which many believed was the habitat of the ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’, when Torres happened upon locals he tried to communicate with them in Hebrew, making the ancient Jewish language the first spoken in the ‘New World’.

Luis de Torres
Luis de Torres

We also know that many of those on the subsequent voyages to the Americas were many secret Jews looking to flee the centers of oppression and Inquisition on the Iberian Peninsula; this is evidenced by the names that appear in the well documented passenger lists that were kept.

By the late 16th century, fully functioning Jewish communities were founded in the Portuguese colony of Brazil, the Dutch Suriname and Curaçao, Spanish Dominican Republic, and the English colonies of Jamaica and Barbados.

In addition, there were unorganized communities of Jews in Spanish and Portuguese territories where the Inquisition was active, including Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru. Many in such communities were crypto-Jews, who had to conceal their identity from the authorities.

As early as 1508, bishops in Havana and Puerto Rico informed Madrid that the New World was being filled with hebreo cristianos (Hebrew Christians).

Many moved or fled north into what is now the United States. In fact, the first Spanish subject known to have entered Texas from Mexico across the lower Rio Grande was Luis de Carvajal, governor of the Spanish province of Nuevo León in present day Mexico, who was convicted by the Inquisition of “Judaizing” (keeping Jewish customs) and died in jail a year later.

Around the same time so many Portuguese Crypto-Jews transmigrated to the Americas it became known as the Penetración Portuguesa, the Portuguese penetration. The first Jewish congregation and synagogue in the New World, Kahal Zur, which is still in existence, was founded in the first half of the 17th Century, when the Dutch briefly controlled parts of Northern Brazil and ensured religious liberty.

The Kahal Zur Synagogue in Recife, Brazil

The first group of Jews in the United States came from this community, fleeing as the Portuguese retook Brazil. In September 1654, 23 Jews landed at New Amsterdam, subsequently known as New York, and created the first community, today known as the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, a community which still retains the Spanish and Portuguese language for some of its rituals and prayers.

By 1776 and the War of Independence, around 2,000 Jews lived in America, most of them Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin. They played a role in the struggle for independence, including fighting the British, with Francis Salvador being the first Jew to die, and playing a role in financing the revolution, with one of the key financiers being Haym Solomon

President George Washington remembered the Jewish contribution when he wrote to the Sephardic congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in a letter dated August 17, 1790:

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

During the American Civil War, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews played leadership roles on both sides, with nine Jewish generals serving in the Union Army, the most notable of whom was brigadier general Edward Solomon (who attained the rank at the age of 29).

Other prominent Sephardic Americans included, Isaac Pinto, one of the signers of the Non-Importation Act in 1770, Benjamin N. Cardozo, famed American jurist who served on the New York Court of Appeals and later as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Jacob Raphael De Cordova, who compiled the first map of the State of Texas, Daniel de Leon, forefather of the idea of revolutionary industrial unionism, and Alexander del Mar, the first director of the Bureau of Statistics at the U.S. Treasury Department.

However, one can also discern a great trend among many Spanish and Portuguese Jews to contribute and help make their societies a better place.

Moses Elias Levy was one of the leaders of the abolishment of slavery movement, penning “A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery” in 1828. Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy, was instrumental in ending the naval practice of flogging.

Annie Nathan was an American author and promoter of higher education for women, her sister, Maud, was an American social worker, labor activist and prominent suffragist for women’s right to vote

Of course, one of the most poignant phrases which many say encapsulates the United States’ vision of itself, was written by Emma Lazarus in her sonnet ‘The New Colossus’ which were etched onto the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

However, more than the openly Hispanic Jewish presence in the U.S., are the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been forcibly converted and kept their true identities hidden and frequently subsequently forgotten. Nevertheless, many diseases only associated with Jews are being found among disparate Hispanic and Latino American populations, attesting to the fact that a significant portion of Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. have Jewish heritage and more and more are finding out every day about their true heritage, thanks to DNA and genealogical advances.

In fact, the more one studies Jewish and Hispanic/Latino history, one sees a very strong overlap that is largely unknown or unstudied by both communities. Nonetheless, the shared ties, culture and history between the Jewish and Hispanic/Latino community is something which is now coming to the fore, and this should be recognized and remembered during this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month and in the future.

About the Author
Ashley Perry (Perez) is President of Reconectar and Director General of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Communities. He was adviser to Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs from April 2009 to January 2015. He has also worked with several other government ministers, Members of Knesset and many of the leading international Jewish, Zionist and Hasbara organizations.