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Finding Lessons Between History’s Lines

In Barcelona, from which I’ve just returned, there stands an elaborate monument to Christopher Columbus, or Colom, as he’s known in those parts.

Inaugurated on the eve of the opening of the Universal Exposition of 1888, the monument links the fabled explorer to the Catalan city where, as legend had it, Ferdinand and Isabella first greeted him upon his return from his travels in 1493 — a tenuous connection, to be sure, but a connection all the same and one that many residents of Barcelona felt keenly in 1888 when the statue was unveiled.

Standing a mighty 197 feet in the air, the Monument a Colom is positioned in such a way that it faces the New World. At least that’s the idea. Local wits are quick to point out that, despite the noblest of intentions of the city fathers as well as the monument’s sculptor, Columbus actually looks in the general direction of Sicily rather than the Americas.

Embarrassing, yes, but faux pas like this one, which are committed in the name of public history, also enliven the historical record, underscoring the hold of the past on the present. As American Jews are poised to celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in the United States throughout 2004 with an elaborate series of exhibitions, lectures, concerts, conferences and film series, there are likely to be many similar instances where our reach of history exceeds our grasp, where exuberance trumps restraint and analysis plays second fiddle to self- congratulation.

But, as an earlier public celebration makes clear, things need not turn out that way. By paying close attention to how our forebears in 1892 participated in the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the New World, contemporary American Jews can avoid the pitfalls of celebratory historicism.

One hundred and twelve years ago, Americans marked Columbus’s arrival in the New World with great hoopla: An entire week was given over to parades, firework displays (“Niagaras of sparks and stars,” one newspaper called them), religious services, festive dinners and considerable speech-making, as well as the opening of the fabled World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In New York, whose public buildings were festooned with flags and electric lights, giving the city a “gala appearance,” the festivities culminated in the dedication of a triumphal arch, more than 160 feet tall, which was placed at the 59th Street entrance to Central Park in an area of the city now known as Columbus Circle.

Like other citizens of the republic, America’s Jews participated avidly in the proceedings. Synagogues held special services on Friday night or Saturday morning in which worshippers made a point of singing patriotic hymns while their rabbis made a point of fervidly singing the praises of Columbus.

(Eschewing chronology in favor of passion, Dr. Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu-El, for instance, even went so far as to liken Moses to the “Columbus of Israel” and the New World to Zion. “Here is that promised land which Moses saw from afar while standing on Mt. Neboh,” he exuberantly declared.)

Meanwhile, Minnie D. Louis, founder of the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, wrote a poem, “Our Harvest”; the members of the Educational Alliance put on a series of tableaux depicting the trials and tribulations of Columbus and his shipmates while the inhabitants of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum marched in formation down the city’s streets. “What a gay parade!” recalled the Jewish Messenger. “How bright the lads looked — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Indian, negro [sic].”

Eager to stand shoulder to shoulder with other members of the body politic, American Jews delighted in the opportunity to display their shared patriotism. This celebration, exulted the Jewish Messenger, “proved one fact… that it is not necessary for the various creeds to be one, provided they are one. Catholic, Protestant and Jew were thrilled by one common impulse — that of patriotism and affection for their native or adopted country and the ideals of citizenship.”

For all that, though, American Jews claimed a special kinship with Columbus. We do have “broad and general reasons” to celebrate the explorer’s discovery of the New World, but there are “peculiarly Jewish” reasons, too, remarked the American Hebrew, reminding its readers that the Jews were exiled from Spain just the day before Columbus set sail. “How imposing is that thought,” it concluded somberly.

Echoing the paper’s sentiments, Rev. Dr. H.S. Jacobs of B’nai Jeshurun allowed as how the celebration was far more significant to the Jews than to any other group because of that uncanny concatenation of events. Still other Jews such as Rabbi Meyer Kayserling proudly highlighted the fact that a number of coreligionists had provided Columbus with financial support as well as with navigational tools and maps and that several men of “Jewish stock” had sailed with him.

What American Jewish celebrants did not do in 1892 was to claim Columbus as a Marrano or a converso, let alone a Jew. Tempting as it might have been to trumpet Columbus’s putative Jewish pedigree — and with it, to herald their deep-seated connections to the New World — American Jews resisted that temptation. In a remarkable and wholly admirable show of restraint, they stayed well within the known bounds of history and steered clear of excess.

As we, their descendants, prepare to launch an equally exuberant and deeply felt round of celebrations and commemorations, we would do well to follow in their footsteps.


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