By Solmaz Barazesh
Five centuries after his death, Christopher Columbus remains a mysterious and controversial figure. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece all claim the celebrated navigator and explorer as one of their own, yet there are few accurate records pertaining to Columbus’ personal life and identity. Years of speculation suggest that most stories about him are probably based on legend. However, one theory seems particularly persistent. For many years, it has been rumored that Christopher Columbus was Jewish or of Jewish descent.
Proponents of that theory point to a variety of known details about the famous explorer, particularly his choice to set sail for the New World on August 2, 1492, the exact date ordained for the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Can we conclude that Christopher Columbus was Jewish?
"It’s an interesting story, although most of the evidence is circumstantial," said Tobias Brinkmann , associate professor of Jewish studies and history at Penn State. But the clues are certainly compelling, Brinkmann added.
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, Brinkmann said, and that Jewish given names like Abraham and Jacob were common in the family of Columbus’ mother.
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.
Despite these intriguing clues, said Brinkmann, there simply isn’t enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions. "The mystery will likely never be solved," he noted, adding, "We’re talking about events that occurred 500 years ago. I’d be surprised if there was any firm evidence."