Who Knew?

Amer­ica’s First Jew

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By PJ Grisar

For all their clout in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion, the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria don’t ap­pear to fac­tor much into the Jew­ish-Amer­i­can ta­pes­try. But Christo­pher Colum­bus, a de­vout Ital­ian Catholic sail­ing at the be­hest of the king and queen of Spain, was cer­tain that, when he ar­rived in Asia, he’d en­counter de­scen­dants of the Lost Tribes of Is­rael. And since he an­tic­i­pated a ren­dezvous with Ara­bic and He­brew speak­ers, Colum­bus brought one along.

Luis de Tor­res was the first Jew in the Amer­i­cas, one of the first Western­ers to con­tact the na­tive pop­u­la­tion, and maybe even the first to de­velop a smok­ing habit when he was o†ered a New World nov­elty: to­bacco.

As de­scribed in Maria Rosa Monacal’s ‰ŠŠ‰ book, “The Or­na­ment of the World,” Tor­res left with Colum­bus’s first voy­age on Au­gust ‘, ’“”‰, a day after the Span­ish Edict of Ex­pul­sion or­dered the forced ex­o­dus of the coun­try’s Jews. He was born Yosef ben Ha Levy HaIvri be­fore be­ing chris­tened with his new name shortly prior to leav­ing: As was the case with many con­ver­sos at the time of the In­qui­si­tion, his con­ver­sion was prob­a­bly not a vol­un­tary act. While con­ver­sos were not sup­posed to be sub­ject to the per­se­cu­tion of the In­qui­si­tion, many saw it as their cue to split.

Leav­ing his na­tive land from the port of Pa­los, Tor­res was prob­a­bly not the only Jew on­board, though he had the high­est pro­file. Tor­res, who ac­cord­ing to a Haaretz ar­ti­cle on con­ver­sos in the New World served as an in­ter­preter for the gov­er­nor of the Mur­cia re­gion os Spain, was charged with be­ing Colum­bus’s trans­la­tor.

“Tor­res was sup­posed to be able to speak in Arab or He­brew and some other an­cient lan­guages,” Lau­rence Ber­green, author of “Colum­bus: The Four Voy­ages, ’“”‰–’œŠ“,” told me in a phone in­ter­view. “We laugh at it now be­cause it sounds so naive, but it gives you an idea that that was the norm then. That was what Colum­bus thought he might en­counter, and it also gives us a sense of how mis­guided Colum­bus was on all four voy­ages.”

On Novem­ber ‰, ’“”‰, Tor­res was sent in­land from Cuba’s coast to scout the is­land and con­tact the “Cubanacan,” a per­son of great power. Tor­res re­turned to the Santa Maria’s base camp on Novem­ber ž with re­ports of a vil­lage of ’,ŠŠŠ in­hab­i­tants that treated him and his com­pan­ion, Ro­drigo de Xerxes, as if they were di­vini­ties, touch­ing and kiss­ing their hands and feet and beg­ging them to stay longer. These peo­ple didn’t speak Ara­bic, He­brew, Ara­maic or Chaldean, or, for that mat­ter, Por­tuguese or Span­ish like Tor­res did, but they were able to com­mu­ni­cate with him through na­tive guides and even in­tro­duced him to some of their lo­cal cus­toms, which in­cluded drink­ing “herbs” and rolling cigars — a prac­tice, Haaretz re­ports, that Xerxes brought back to Spain, where he served time at the hands of the In­qui­si­tion for in­tro­duc­ing to his fel­low Spaniards to the vice of smok­ing. Be­yond these facts, drawn from pri­mary source records by Colum­bus him­self, we don’t know much about Tor­res’s ori­gins.

“With Colum­bus we know a lot, but still there are gap­ing holes. Con­ver­sos tended to want to dis­ap­pear and not iden­tify them­selves,” Ber­green said, not­ing that Colum­bus did know some­thing of Tor­res’s past.

“Colum­bus be­lieved him to be a re­cent con­vert to Chris­tian­ity… and there were prob­a­bly a bunch of oth­ers among the crew mem­bers, as well. His orig­i­nal name was be­lieved to be Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri (in He­brew, Joseph, son of Levi). As­sum­ing Colum­bus was cor­rect, and he prob­a­bly was, that would make Luis de Tor­res, to use his con­verso name, the first Jew­ish per­son to set­tle in the New World, be­cause he ac­tu­ally stayed be­hind. Colum­bus left him there at a small port.”

De­spite a fuzzy back­ground, Tor­res’s mem­ory is kept alive in a rather sur­pris­ing place: the Ba­hamas. In the city of Freeport, sand­wiched be­tween two churches, you can find the squat white stucco façade of the Luis de Tor­res syn­a­gogue, which laid its corner­stone in ’”§‰.

We’re not sure what be­came of Tor­res after Colum­bus left the pic­ture, though a pop­u­lar ac­count from Meyer Kay­ser­ling’s ’©”“ book, “Christo­pher Colum­bus and the Par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Jews in the Span­ish and Por­tuguese Dis­cov­er­ies,” sug­gests he stayed be­hind to achieve great wealth as a landowner. Ber­green thinks it’s more likely that he ended up dy­ing on a set­tle­ment on the is­land of His­pan­iola, maybe killed by the na­tives. Many Jew­ish sites like Haaretz and J-Grit (a so-called “In­ter­net In­dex of Tough Jews”) fa­vor the rosier pre­dic­tion and go so far as to give the Span­ish con­verso a role in nam­ing the North Amer­i­can turkey.

As leg­end has it, Tor­res saw the bird; think­ing it was a kind of par­rot, he as­signed it the He­brew name of that an­i­mal, “Tukki.” This story, like the re­ports of his find­ing for­tune in the New World, are al­most cer­tainly fic­tive. But Tor­res’s ex­pe­di­tion, though more than a cen­tury ear­lier than the Mayflower voy­age, does res­onate a bit with the Thanks­giv­ing story.

Tor­res’s mo­ti­va­tion for a life at sea was di†er­ent than that of many ex­plor­ers who yearned for for­tune, fame and dis­cov­ery — though maybe it was not en­tirely dis­sim­i­lar to one some­times as­cribed to Colum­bus.

“There’s a book, ‘Sails of Hope’ [by Si­mon Wiesen­thal], about how Colum­bus was some sort of con­verso him­self,” Ber­green said. ”I think that’s re­ally over­play­ing it, but I think what you can say is that he was go­ing for two rea­sons: for greed and also be­cause he did feel this re­ally strong re­li­gious im­pulse which sort of plays out with other peo­ple around him.”

Given the facts, Luis de Tor­res was a refugee of faith, and for that rea­son, we may con­sider him the first of the pil­grims.

The Span­ish con­verso may even have had a role in nam­ing the North Amer­i­can turkey.

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