Barbara Aiello

The Jews can save Columbus Day

Cristoforo Colombo changed the world with his voyage and sprinkled his correspondence with Hebrew

“In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two…”

Everyone can finish the first line of the famous poem with “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

The Columbus poem, whose official title is “The History of the U. S.,” was written by Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., a child prodigy whose mother pioneered the Natural Education Movement, an innovative pedagogy designed to make learning fun. Using rhyming couplets to remember important facts, little Winnie, Jr. penned the poem whose first two lines almost any American can recite.

But it’s not just Winnie’s poem that celebrates the famous explorer. Columbus Day was celebrated unofficially as early as the 18th century and finally became a federal holiday in 1937. Yet even though the poem ends with the disclaimer, “The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright,” a number of groups nationwide want the holiday abolished. Some would like to deep six Columbus Day and replace it with one that recalls that Native Americans were here first and didn’t need discovering, thank you very much.

Anthony J. Baratta, National President of the Order of the Sons of Italy in America feels differently. In a recent memo to OSIA members Baratta writes, “More than five hundred years ago, a strong man with an unmistakably Italian name took a world divided in half and made it whole. When Cristoforo Colombo crossed a huge, dark ocean, he joined the Old World of Europe to the New World of what was to become America. His voyage changed the world forever.”

Opponents would agree but not for the same reasons. For example, Nadra Kareem Nittle, in an article “The Argument Against Columbus Day,” writes “…the Italian explorer’s arrival in the New World ushered in genocide against indigenous peoples as well as the transatlantic slave trade.” Nittle and others feel the holiday should be abolished.

So as the argument rages on, I propose a solution. Since Columbus was most likely an Italian Jew, organizations that represent these two minorities could join forces and celebrate Columbus for the hero that he was – an Italian Jewish explorer whose devotion to Judaism impacted lives and saved many.

Yes, Columbus was Jewish.

In a 2012 CNN opinion piece, Charles Garcia summarizes what historians had long suspected and recently corroborated – that Cristobol Colon` was a secret Jew, a maranno, who worked to save his fellow Jews from the horrors of persecution brought on by the Inquisition authorities who were determined to rid Spain of its Jewish population.

Garcia tells us that, according to Spanish historians and scholars, among them Jose Erugo, Celso Garcia de la Riega and Otero Sanchez, along with British historian, Cecil Roth and linguistics expert Estelle Irizarry, Columbus wrote and spoke in Castilian Spanish or Ladino that was the “Yiddish” of 15th century Spanish Jews. Columbus used Hebrew words and phrases in his correspondence, among them a Hebrew blessing meaning “with God’s help,” that most Spanish Jews used as well.

But it was Columbus’ actions that merit the most praise. At the time that he set sail, Jews routinely suffered horrible persecutions at the hands of the authorities of the Spanish Inquisition. Under threat of arrest and torture, Jews were forced to accept Christian conversion. Those who refused were often rounded up, driven to the center of town, tied to posts and burned alive. Thousands were driven from Spain after their homes were looted their businesses burned and their livelihood destroyed.

In his book, “Sails of Hope,” Simon Wiesenthal wrote about Columbus’ motivation for his voyages. Ironically, Wiesenthal writes that Columbus ultimately wanted to stem the tide of Jewish genocide by finding a safe haven for his Jewish brothers and sisters.

October 12, 1492 is important for two reasons. Obviously that was the day that Columbus set sail. What is not as well known is that October 12, 1492 was also the exact same date that Spanish Jews were, by law, given the choice of accepting forced conversion, leaving Spain or, if they remained they could be arrested, tortured and eventually killed.

Charles Garcia concludes that “As we witness bloodshed the world over in the name of religious freedom, it is valuable to take another look at the man who sailed the seas in search of such freedoms — landing in a place that would eventually come to hold such an ideal at its very core.”

I agree. Columbus Day can be saved and given this man’s remarkable history, it seems that we Italian Jews are uniquely positioned to do just that.

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots