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Yiskor Columbus Day (Shemini Atzeret 5784 10/07/23)

Dear Friends,

We are all horrified by the monstrous and nefarious attacks perpetrated by Hamas upon our fellow Israelis. Every Israeli knows someone maimed, killed, or taken hostage in the last few days, and because of our closeness, we are only one or two steps removed from the devastation. We also feel attacked.

Celebrating the holidays this year was challenging. How could we sing praises to God when our brethren were being maimed? How could we dance with the Torah when our families in Israel were hiding in bomb shelters?

Nonetheless, many from our congregation showed up to pray and honor the Holidays, to say Yizkor for loved ones, and to cherish the Torah. We danced because we knew that in Israel, they could not. We focused our songs on the strength of the Jewish people and our belief that God would deliver us once more.

Last night, many MHJC members joined us at a quickly organized Israel rally for action and prayer at North Shore Synagogue. As this war is expected to be a drawn-out affair, there will be many more opportunities to cry, pray, and protest as one. Seek out the rallies and donate generously to Israel. Call and provide emotional support for relatives in Israel.

We can’t fight, but we have numerous ways of showing we care and making a difference. The Israeli, Jewish, and Community Affairs Committee has already sent one information-packed email; there will be more to follow.

With God’s help, Israel’s determination and grit, and our support, Israel will right this war. May God inspire both sides to create lasting peace.

R’ Neil

Below is the speech I gave for Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret.

If not for the barbaric attacks on Israel, this weekend would have been special in celebrating three holidays: Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and Columbus (Indigenous Peoples’) Day on Monday.

Other than catching a parade, most of us don’t do much to honor Columbus Day, especially nowadays, with all the controversy over the violence that he and his fellow conquistadors perpetrated on the native populations. Nonetheless, we owe him a great debt of gratitude. Like the great scientists of the Renaissance, he was willing to risk it all for his beliefs. He was the first to prove that the world was not flat and revealed two unknown continents. However, new information has surfaced that, as Jews, we are certainly in his debt.

We were all taught that King Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored the Italian explorer. Yet, that is actually not true. Instead, two Jewish Conversos and another prominent Jew sponsored Columbus. 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 Abarbanel, a leading rabbi and statesman.

In fact, 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., Columbus did not even speak Italian; instead, Castillano, a Jewish version of Spanish, which is similar to Ladino.

Recently, several Spanish scholars, Jose Erugo, Celso Garcia de la Riega, Otero Sanchez, and Nicholas Dias Perez, have concluded that Columbus was a Converso whose survival depended upon the suppression of all evidence of his Jewish background in the face of the brutal, systematic ethnic cleansing.[1]

This secrecy was so desperately needed because, at that time, Isabella and Ferdinand were expelling the Jews from Spain. Even Jews who converted to Christianity were not trusted. The Inquisitions were trials and tortures aimed against conversos who might secretly still have been Jews.

Columbus, known in Spain as Cristóbal Colón, signed his last will and testament on May 19, 1506, making curious and revealing provisions.

Two of his wishes – tithe one-tenth of his income to the poor and provide an anonymous dowry for poor girls – are part of Jewish customs. He also left money to a Jew who lived at the entrance of the Lisbon Jewish Quarter.

On those documents, Columbus used a triangular signature of dots and letters that resembled inscriptions found on gravestones of Jewish cemeteries in Spain. He ordered his heirs to use the signature in perpetuity.

Perhaps most revealing are 13 letters that Columbus wrote to his son, Diego. At the top left corner of twelve of them, the handwritten Hebrew letters ב’ה bet-hei, appear, meaning B’ezrat Hashem (with God’s help). Observant Jews have for centuries customarily added this blessing to their letters. No letters to outsiders bear this mark, and the one letter to Diego in which this was omitted was one meant for sending on to King Ferdinand.

In Simon Weisenthal’s book, “Sails of Hope,” he argues that Columbus’ voyage was motivated by a desire to find a safe haven for the Jews in light of their expulsion from Spain.

Scholars point to the date on which Columbus set sail as further evidence of his true motives. He was originally going to sail on August 2, 1492, a day that coincided with the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples of Jerusalem. Columbus postponed this original sail date by one day to avoid embarking on the holiday, which Jews would have considered an unlucky day to set sail. (Coincidentally or significantly, the day he set forth was the very day that Jews were, by law, given the choice of converting, leaving Spain, or being killed.)

So, very possibly, Columbus was a Jew, and his search was not just to find a shorter route to India but perhaps a new world as a place for Jews to live freely. For this, we, Jews in America, should certainly be grateful.

But what about the controversy?

We know that Columbus was a slave trader who colonialized America by force, a man who exploited the people living here, condoning violence. How should we judge him?

It’s not easy, though, to scrutinize heroes from ages past. Our tradition teaches that “there’s no one on earth who’s perfect, who does not sin.” Washington and Jefferson were both slave owners. Lincoln was not so much pro-emancipation as he was pro-saving the Union. And while FDR saved us from The Great Depression, he was no Jew-lover.

We need to take note that in Columbus’s day, slavery was not considered an evil; it was a fact of life. Back then, colonization was not a crime; it was the way countries functioned.

Perhaps Moses was teaching us this specific lesson in his closing words to the Jewish people:

זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר וָדֹר

“Remember the days of old. Consider the years of many generations.” On a simple level, these verses seem to be redundant. But Chasidic masters read it most beautifully: Yes, remember the old days, but at the same time, understand the changes made from generation to generation.

Times change, and our perspectives change. What might have seemed right decades ago may not be considered correct now. But heroes deserve to be judged by the standards of their times, not ours.

This is a good message for us as we remember our parents, grandparents, and extended family as we begin Yizkor. They grew up in different times, and parenting and discipline were done differently. Even though we may disagree with some of their actions, we should judge them favorably; they were surely trying their best.

So, let’s honor Columbus, not because he was a perfect hero, but because he was courageous, his intentions were noble, and, possibly, he enabled our current Jewish haven for us in America. Likewise, so did our previous generations; we’re comfortable and safe here thanks to their efforts. Let’s honor their intentions and remember them for the good.

Chag Sameach.

[1] Was Columbus a Secret Jew?

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