This being Columbus Day, it’s that annual time of year when Jews speculate about whether Christopher Columbus was Jewish. Now I know that Christopher Hitchens turned out to be both an atheist and a Jew, but I tend to be disinclined toward believing that someone given the most Christians of names is not at least nominally Christian. But if you’re looking to be convinced otherwise, the Rogue Jew gives a good rundown of the case of Columbus’ Jewishness (via Bloggish).
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield asks the more important question: Why should anyone care? He attempts to answer that:
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.
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.
Bottom line: Columbus accomplished something pretty amazing, and so it’s not surprising that Jews want to identify him as a member of the tribe. This is the reverse-Bernie-Madoff effect, which I previously discussed in a post about alleged Craigslist killer Phillip Markoff.
Then again, there are some Americans who think that Columbus was not such a great guy.
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