Happy 4th of July!
It’s time to celebrate our amazing nation, and as we do each year, to remember some of the many Jewish contributions to the forming of this great country. We must always remember that the values of our Founding Fathers were based on classic Jewish values and teachings…. teachings and values that most of them were aware of and educated in.
Each year I feel it is important to remind ourselves about Jewish contributions to America, and each year I personally do research so that there is new information…so while some of the following may be a review, I anticipate that you will find new and exciting understandings of Jewish history and influence in this email…and some good fodder for conversation during this holiday weekend. I hope to see you at Shabbats Under the Park throughout this summer, and at High Holiday services in September (all gatherings will include appropriate social distancing, etc., so please register early), and that we all have a safe, healthy, and fun 4th of July!
Yes, it’s true…. Christopher Columbus was probably a Jew!
Jewish influence in the formation of this nation begins long before 1776, and includes Christopher Columbus himself. Here are just a few of the reasons that many historians believe that Columbus was a Jew:
The circumstances prior to the late 15th century were tough times for Jews in Spain. The majority of Spain’s Jewish population “converted” to Judaism after the pogroms of 1391. Many of these Jews converted in name only (leading to the Inquisition being established in 1481 to find out who was really still a Jew), and were called “conversos” or “marranos” (a derogatory term meaning “swine”). The conversos often took on “Catholic” names such as Jesus, Mary, and Christopher. They continued to practice Judaism in secret, letting their children know at 13 that they were really Jewish. Things got worse for Spanish Jews with The Alhambra Decree issued on March 31, 1492 ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castille and Aragon by July 31 of that year.
Could Columbus have been a converso? There is no real way to know as there weren’t birth certificates, etc. There are a number of theories that he wasn’t even from Genoa, but actually was Spanish (based on his fluency of the language in his writings, and his lack of fluency of Italian), but here are some of the hints that he may indeed have been a Jew
Modern Spanish scholars, such as Jose Erugo, Celso Garcia de la Riega, Otero Sanchez and Nicholas Dias Perez, have concluded that Columbus was a Marrano based on the large amount of clues to his background
There were two batches of ships that sailed from Spain’s Port of Palas on August 3, 1492: A batch of ships carrying Jews; and Columbus’ three ships setting for the New World. Although Coumbus’ voyage was originally scheduled for Aug.2, he postponed it by one day…possibly to be in the grouping with his Jewish brethren; and additionally because Aug. 2 was Tisha B’Av…a bad day for a Jew to start a long journey across the ocean
Columbus repeatedly made it clear that his great and passionate goal was the liberation of Jerusalem from the Muslims (CNN 5-4-2012)
In his last will and testament of May 19, 1506, he made a number of curious provisions that are clearly “Jewish” customs
Tithe 1/10 of this income to the poor
Provide an anonymous dowry for poor girls
Left money to a Jew living at the entrance to the Lisbon Jewish Quarter
On his final documents, he used a triangular signature of dots and letters that is similar to the inscriptions found in Jewish cemeteries in Spain. He also instructed his heirs to always use this signature in perpetuity. According to Cecil Roth’s book “History of Marranos” this was an anagram substitute for the Kaddish…allowing Columbus’ descendants to always say Kaddish for him without risking their lives.
What convinces me personally of his Jewishness is the following analysis by Estelle Irizarry, a Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown, has reviewed hundreds of Columbus’ handwritten letters, and concluded that his Castilian Spanish is actually “Ladino” when writing to his son or family.
In 12 of the 13 letters he writes to his son, he has the Hebrew letters beit and hey at the top left corner of the letters (ב ה), which stands for B’ezrat HaShem, “with the help of God”…something observant Jews write at the top of documents (such as our High Holiday Registration Packets). The one letter that he does not include this on was a letter meant for King Ferdinand
Influence in the American Revolution
Clergymen Samuel Langdon, Ezra Stiles, and John Witherspoon (the presidents, respectively, of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) all discussed revolutionary politics in biblical terms. (It was during Stiles’ tenure that Hebrew became a required class at Yale, and Stiles was deeply influenced by his friendship and study with Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal, from whom he learned the value of studying text in the original language.) The Yale Seal and Coat of Arms has Hebrew in the midst of it, Urim v’Tumim, a phrase meaning “light and perfection” which was carved in the ancient breastplate of the High Priest according to Torah.
But Yale is not alone in the nine original colleges of the colonies. Columbia:
Alexander Hamilton – the Jewish Founding Father
Although not mentioned by Lin Manuel Miranda, the vast majority of evidence points to Alexander Hamilton having a Jewish mother, being raised by Jews, and ultimately staying close with Jewish relationships throughout his life.
On the Danish colony of St. Croix, where before Hamilton was born, his mother, Rachel Faucette, married a man named Johann Michael Levine, who sometimes went by the name of Lavien, a Sephardic version of the name Levine. Both according to Jewish law and Dutch law of the time, Rachel would have had to convert to Judaism to marry Lavien (Lavien was not Hamilton’s father), who as a merchant…a typical profession for Jews of the time
Rachel and Lavien had a child, who was not baptize.
They had a bad marriage, and she was arrested for “whoredom”. When released, she left St. Croix and went to Nevis. She was never divorced from Lavien, but met James Hamilton, a Scotsman who was Alexander’s father
According to the Talmud, once someone converts, they remain a Jew, and their children (if the mother is Jewish) are Jewish
Not getting a divorce falls in line with the challenges she would have had in initiating a “get”
There is no baptismal record for Hamilton on Nevis
He was raised in a Jewish school; and it is doubtful a Jewish school would have accepted a Christian
Rachel kept the last name of Lavien until her death back in St. Croix in 1768, and was not buried in the Christian cemetery there. She was buried on the grounds of her sister’s home, a common practice for Jews as there was no Jewish cemetery on St. Croix
“He forges relationships with American Jewry that we don’t see with any other Founding Father,” according to Dr. Andrew Porwancher, author of “The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life”. Porwancher details that he defended Jewish rights in the courts, and that he put a Jew on the board of Columbia University — the first Jew on the board of any American college
One of the most important cases of his legal career saw Hamilton defending a French Jewish merchant, Louis Le Guen, in a New York court in 1800. As the case progressed, Louis Le Guen’s opponent’s lawyers resorted to crude anti-Semitism, accusing the Jewish merchant of age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes of being dishonest and lying under oath. Hamilton not only defended his client, he issued an eloquent defense of Jews in general: “Why distrust the evidence of the Jews?” Hamilton passionately told the court. Jews “once were...under the immediate government of God himself, and they were selected as the witnesses of His miracles and charged with the spirit of prophecy”. Hamilton won that case, in what was at the time the largest award in American history (ibid)
Hamilton never mentions church in his writings (other than political relationships between government and church), and never publicly took communion
Both Hamilton and his children had close Jewish friends, another sign that he was Jewish as most non-Jews of the time would not allow their children to associate with Jewish children. Hamilton was extremely close and collaborated in writing with Hazzan Gershom Seixas, the first and only Jew to sit on the board of Columbia until Cardoza in the 20th
The Founding Fathers
Most of the early leaders of our nation were not only conversant in Biblical knowledge, but many of them were knowledgeable and even fluent in written Hebrew. . Our framers based much of our country's structure around Torah teachings. The three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial are specifically modeled after the governing structure of ancient Israel: The Monarchy (descended from King David); Cohanim (descendants of Aaron the Priest and brother of Moses); and the Sanhedrin (the Great Assembly composed of the wise Sages of the generations who sat as judges of the law). The values of pursuing justice, cherishing freedom, and so much more are found both in Judaic teachings as well as the documents of our early leaders.
Many people do not realize how important Jewish history actually was to the members of the Continental Congress. Of the five men who wrote the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, three were additionally selected to create a seal for the United States. On July 4, 1776, the day that independence was declared; John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were asked to design a seal for the nation. Here, as much as anywhere else, we see the Jewish influence on our country.
Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted the Seal to include imagery of Moses leading the Exodus from Egypt, crossing the Sea, and G-d being present with them in their journey through the wilderness. Preserved in a note from August of 1776 in his own handwriting, Ben Franklin wrote:
"Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity."
Jefferson's ideal seal included not only this image, but an image of "the children of Israel being led in the wilderness by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night". The two were combined into the original proposed Seal below:
Although these images were not incorporated into the Seal that was ultimately chosen by Congress in 1782; it is clear how the imagery and teachings of our text directly influenced these architects of our nation.
Exercising our Religious Freedoms Today
Thanks to our Founding Fathers (and of course, God), we live in a nation where we are able to observe Judaism according to the dictates of our hearts. Each Jew in America has the opportunity to choose to participate in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and post-denominational communities; or to participate in all of them at different times.
With the recent challenges posed by the coronavirus, we have the additional option of participating via streaming and online services.
Here at Temple Ner Simcha, we are committed to being an inclusive community in all ways. For this reason, there are no mandatory financial charges; we have translations and transliterations for most of our prayers; and a comfortable space has been created no matter what your Jewish experience or knowledge base is. Because of the challenges this year, we are adapting our High Holiday services to allow people to be socially distant by having twice as many services (each one is shorter than previous years), and will be having the services and setting structured so that people can stay healthy. For those people who are at-risk because of health or age, we will be offering limited streaming of services as well.
Along with Cantor Glaser and our musical team, I am looking forward to sharing the holidays with you. If you have not yet registered, please go to https://nersimcha.org/high-holidays-2020/ to reserve your tickets. With our commitments as a community to joy and depth; I have no doubt that these will be meaningful services for all of us, and that we will all grow as individuals and as a community.
A Special Summer and Beyond...
Throughout the summer we will be having "Shabbat Under the Stars" services at Deerhill Ommunity Park jn Oark Park well as classes and special events. The park is large enough for people to be socially distant outside, and these services at the park are always especially fun and meaningful…with many people choosing to picnic before the services in the beauty of nature. Our next Shabbat Under the Stars is next Friday, July 10, and I hope to see you there to share the joy of celebrating the Sabbath in the beautiful setting of nature. Please check your email or the temple website (www.nersimcha.org) to stay up to date on all the wonderful programming of the summer.
Ner Simcha means "The Light of Joy". I hope to see you at the services as we explore that light more deeply, and renew our commitments to ourselves, our individual growth, and to our community. Again, if you have not registered for the High Holy Day services at the Canyon Club, please go to https://nersimcha.org/high-holidays-2020/ and register now....the lay leadership and professional staff are trying to plan the services as efficiently as possible, and early registration makes it much easier on everyone.
May you have a safe and fun 4th of July, and May your summer be blessed joy and light, fullness, growth, health, prosperity, and much fun!
Rabbi Michael Barclay July 3, 2020 11th of Tammuz, 5780