A klug zu Columbus! Happy Frobisher Day!

October 9, 2017

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When, in their Lower East Side tenements and chained to their sweatshop sewing machines, our immigrant grandmothers were fed up with the arduous task of making ends meet, they would offer the following mild curse: A klug zu Columbus—A pox on Columbus (for having discovered America)!

It’s perilous, in the poisonous atmosphere of our American culture wars, to lobby for the demotion of one of our nation’s traditional heroes. With so much hatred swirling around the debate over the statues of Confederate generals, is it a good time to suggest dethroning Christopher Columbus? Nonetheless, I believe the time is right, and I even have a suggested substitute for the holiday on the second Monday in October:

In the circles I moved in as a child—American Jewish children and grandchildren of immigrants from Eastern Europe—we needed Jews who were great Americans. One of the favorite pastimes of our Jewish community back then, when we were far less sure of our American status than today, was to claim great Americans for our people. We didn’t have Babe Ruth, but we had Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg, and even better, our boy Sandy Koufax, who first observed Yom Kippur instead of pitching in the first game of the World Series of 1965, and then came back to win it all.

In this game of “contributions to America,” Nobel prize winners, great doctors, the inventors of the Polio vaccine, humanitarian lawyers, wise Supreme Court Justices, Medal of Honor winners, and leading actors were well and good. We put on skits honoring Haim Salomon—a leading financier of the American Revolution—and Emma Lazarus—the poet who gave us the words engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. We set these dramas to the music of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, Jewish boys from New York who helped create the sound track of American culture.

But the grand prize was to have Jews present at the very creation of what would eventually become America. We all learned that Columbus’ flotilla set sail just when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s expulsion edict against the hundreds of thousands of Jews of Aragon and Castile was taking effect. Which of his crewmembers were Jews desperate enough to escape the dreaded Spanish Inquisition that they would sign on as crew for a mission beyond the boundaries of the known world, into the realms where the cartographers wrote, “here lie monsters?”

Was a Jew Columbus’ interpreter, perhaps? Columbus’ navigator? Or, if not the navigator, then at least the author of the astronomical tables used by the navigator? We were happy to learn that Abraham Zacuto, the celebrated 15th century Jewish mathematician, was the author of the almanac that Columbus used. We thrilled to the story that Columbus saved his life by scaring the superstitious natives with his accurate prediction of a solar eclipse, knowledge he garnered from Zacuto’s book.

The grand prize was, of course, Christopher Columbus himself. We even speculated that maybe The Admiral of the Ocean Sea himself was a secret Jew…or at least, that he had Jewish ancestry?

All that was half a century ago. In more recent decades, you don’t hear many Jews seeking to claim Columbus as a Member of the Tribe. After all, who wants a man whom we now know to have been a notorious international slave trader, an architect of genocide?

The time has come to dethrone Christopher Columbus. Yes, he was the first…in a manner of speaking…if we ignore Leif Eriksson, the Viking who probably beat him by half a millennium! But he didn’t really get to North America. Hispaniola, Cuba, Virgin Islands…very nice, but with all the negatives attached to C.C., let’s look elsewhere.

I nominate Martin Frobisher!

Why Frobisher? He has lots of plusses in his ledger:

• He discovered Frobisher Bay in Canada. It’s not the USA, but at least its part of our mainland!
• On the strength of that discovery, our neighbors to the North actually honor him at the time of Columbus Day.
• In terms of religion, Frobisher beat out the Pilgrims by a full generation. He celebrated the first Thanksgiving on North American soil, expressing gratitude for his safe landing in Newfoundland.
• He was a defender of the English during the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Frobisher commanded the largest of the four squadrons comprising the English fleet. His ship, the Triumph, was often the focal point of the Spanish attack, but he acquitted himself well throughout the running sea battle. Seeing that the goal of the Spanish was to dethrone Queen Elizabeth and resume the persecution of Protestants. I, as a descendant of fellow victims of the Spanish Inquisition, have to root for the English, and for Frobisher in particular!

And so, I wish you Happy Frobisher’s Day! And, in the spirit of my Yiddish-speaking ancestors, A klug zu Columbus!

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel

Letter to the Editor