Columbus' Interpreter

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The First Jew in America

Louis de Torres was the first Jew in America, which was named after Amerigo Vespucci.

De Torres came to Cuba with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Columbus asked him to come along because de Torres spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, French, Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese. Columbus believed he would reach Asia, where these languages would be spoken by the natives.

De Torres had been an interpreter for the governor of the province Murcia, which contained a large number of Jews.

The day before the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria sailed frm Lisbon on August 2, 1492, de Torres converted to Catholicism, since he would otherwise not been allowed to make the voyage.

 As soon as Columbus landed in Cuba, he sent de Torres to explore the island and find “The Great Khan” and all the gold reputedly located there. De Torres instead found an Indian village with 1,000 inhabitants and no gold. The newcomers were greeted in a friendly manner and saw how the Indians smoked tobacco.

There are several stories concerning what happened to de Torres thereafter. One story clams that he remained in the village and married several native girls, and that he was granted land and slaves. Later he was granted an annual pension by King Ferdinand of Spain, living a long and prosperous life in Cuba.

Another story claims that he and thirty-nine Spaniards were murdered by the Indians because the Spaniards had abandoned the native women.

It has also been claimed that the first word addressed to the natives of Cuba was in Hebrew.

Today there is one synagogue in the Bahamas, called the De Torres synagogue.

Author  Eric Ericson, in a book about the life of Columbus, claims that Columbus was a descendant of “Conversos ,” i.e. Jews who sought to escape persecution by the Spanish inquisition by becoming Catholics and then moving to Genoa in Italy. Ericson found that Columbus inserted Hebrew words and letters into the margins of his autobiography. Even if that means that Columbus was of Jewish origin, he was not Jewish but a devout Catholic.

Subsequently there were no Jews in the northern part of America, although some Jews had  settled in Recife, a province of Brazil when it was a Dutch colony. The Dutch were Protestants. However, in 1654 some thirty Jews fled from Recife because the Portuguese had invaded Recife and driven the Dutch out. The Portuguese installed the Inquisition. The Jews the  traveled all the way to the Dutch colony of New Ansterdam, later invaded by the Duke of York, who called it New York. There the first synagogue called Shearit Yisroel, “The Remnants of Israel,” was founded.

Shalom u'vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Gender, Sex, & Status (2019).


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