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Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Wendy Wippel

Any trivia buffs out there? Name two significant historical events that occurred in 1492.  The first is obvious: Columbus discovers the New World. The second?  The Spanish Edict of Expulsion.

Intriguingly, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel were responsible for both, funding Columbus’ voyage of discovery and issuing the Edict in the same month!  The Edict, under penalty of death, ordered all Jewish subjects to “depart and never  return”. 

Spain’s Jews descended from refugees from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD who  fled Israel into northern Africa, continued west, and ended up in Spain. Under Muslim rule, they had enjoyed relative security that produced a centuries-long golden age of Jewish thought. By 1492, however, the Crusades and the plague had stoked anti-Semitic feeling in Europe, and Ferdinand and Isabel had begun to fear the power of their wealthy Jewish middle class.

The monarchs also had a kingdom with strong religious divisions.  A significant Jewish population had long existed and Muslim forces had controlled Granada for 7 centuries. Ferdinand and Isabel’s marriage in 1479 had united Aragon and Castille; they now desired to unify the rest of Spain under one faith. The Muslim stronghold at Granada was finally defeated on Jan 2, 1492, leaving only the Jewish problem to resolve. Ferdinand, however, also wanted new lands to conquer for Spain. Enter Christopher Columbus.

It was actually accepted among European intelligentsia of the time that the earth was a sphere and that one could reach China by sailing around the back side; the problem was that no one knew how far it was.  Columbus, from a reading of an ancient Jewish text called 2 Edras, believed that the earth was six parts land to one part water. Convinced, therefore, that he could open up a trade route to the west and simultaneously make his own fortune, Columbus approached most of the courts of Europe for support but with no luck. All of them thought he had underestimated the distance.

The defeat of Granada changed Ferdinand’s mind. With little to lose and a possibility, albeit remote, of gaining ground on his European neighbors, Ferdinand summoned Columbus to Granada and told him to get ready to go. The Edict of Expulsion was also issued almost immediately, with August 3 set as the deadline.  Columbus prepared his ships. When August 3 arrived, ships sailed from nearly every Spanish port, and from  Palos de la Frontera on that dreadful day sailed three whose names are surprising familiar; Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.

Columbus had always been tight-lipped about his origins, and the sequence of events has led many to speculate that Columbus himself may have been Jewish. Intense pressure to convert to Catholicism had existed for centuries and many did, though most only outwardly. Converts (conversos) were permitted to stay. Conversos suspected of insincerity, however, were systematically executed by the Spanish Inquisition.

Was Columbus a crypto- (hidden-) Jew? We may never know. What we do know for certain is that his ship and the ones that followed it to the New World carried Jews for whom open practice of their religion now carried the penalty of death. How do we know?  Enter Stanley Hordes.

Hordes became the state historian of New Mexico in 1981 and began to hear stories about old New Mexican families.  One lit candles in the shed on Friday nights. One baked flat biscuits at Easter. One had a special set of knives to butcher sheep. All were good Catholic families, with no knowledge of why they followed these unusual practices.  “We were told not to eat pork because it would make you sick.” They always told us not to tell anyone about our traditions, but didn’t explain why.”

Hordes’ suspicions led eventually to genetic testing in one of the oldest parishes in Albuquerque, and of the 78 men tested, 30 were clearly of Jewish roots, carrying a set of markers associated with descents of Aaron himself!

Further research by Hordes documented the path of their ancestors. Many of Spain and Portugal’s substantial Jewish populations did take advantage of the escape route laid by Columbus. The first governor of New Spain was from a converso family, establishing a haven for his brethren thousands of miles from the Inquisitors. A satellite office of the Inquisition followed (established in Mexico City by 1580) and inquisitions against the “secret” Jews began again—forcing Jewish residents to move north to what is now Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The secrecy, however, had become part of the religious tradition, and for most, the reasons for their religious practices become lost.

Genetics is now revealing what time had concealed. For some, discovering their Hebrew heritage is unsettling; for many, however, it has felt like coming home.  Many of the recently revealed Crypto-Jews have embraced their Jewish heritage and are even returning to the land of their patriarchs to live.

Which is, by the way, fulfillment of prophecy. Jeremiah wrote that “My people have been lost sheep…They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place… But I will bring Israel back to his own pasture… declares the Lord. Jeremiah 50: 6-7, 19, verses that predict that when the scattered Jews return to Israel, among them will be Jews that had forgotten their heritage! Obadiah also prophesied that  “the exiles from Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the towns of the Negev”. Obadiah 1:20; the Negev, incredibly enough, is now home to a center for returning Sephardim..

Einstein once defined coincidence as God’s way of remaining anonymous. When God told the Jews that he would scatter them across the earth, he also promised that he would protect them so they would not be wiped out. (Jeremiah 30: 10-11) God provided his chosen people, in the year 1492, a way of escape.

You’ve probably heard that God never closes a door without opening a window. It’s true. Sometimes it just takes us another thousand years before we understand what window it was that God opened.

About Wendy Wippel

Last week: The Purpose-Driven Sheep

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