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Judi's Journal

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Luis de Torris: First Jew in the New World

By Judi Siegal

The year was 1492. Not a good one for the Jews of Spain. The Edict of Expulsion had been signed by their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, and the word was “get out” (of Spain) or convert to Christianity. Many choose to leave while others hoping to keep their fortunes and families intact, remained in Spain and at least outwardly converted to the Christian faith. These New Christians or Conversos often practiced Judaism in secret. In time they were known as Marranos (a derogatory Spanish word for “pig”) or secret Jews. One of these secret Jews was Luis de Torres, Columbus’ interpreter and the first man of Jewish origin to settle in what is now Cuba.

De Torres was born Yoseph ben Ha Levy Haivri (Joseph, son of Levy the Hebrew). Before converting, he served as an interpreter to the governor of Muncia because of his fluency in the languages of commerce of those days: Aramaic, Arabic and Portuguese. In this capacity, he was able to communicate with the Arab, Jewish and Spanish communities dealing mainly with matters of business. When the Jews were expelled from Spain, his services were not longer needed so he decided to convert to Catholicism and was recruited by Christopher Columbus who thought De Torres’ abilities would be useful on a voyage on which he might meet up with Jewish merchants from Asia or perhaps with the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who certainly would be speaking Hebrew.

As history played itself out, none of the encounters ever occurred but de Torres did step onto the soil of San Salvador and brought back gifts of wood and tobacco leaves. Columbus, not knowing about tobacco, disposed of the valuable leaves.

Columbus set sail for Spain in January of 1493 and De Torres was among 39 men who remained on the island that is now Cuba. When Columbus returned later in the year, he learned that the whole garrison had been wiped out partially by internal strife and partially by an Indian raid in retaliation for the Spaniards’ abduction of Indian women. It has been noted that the Indians spoke of a man who discouraged the natives from converting to the Christian faith. It is believed that this man might have been Luis de Torres but it could have just as well been one of the other five secret Jews who sailed with Columbus which included Roderigo de Triana (first to sight land), Maestre Bernal, a physician, Roderigo Sanchez de Segovia, surgeon and Alfonso De La Calle, a sailor.

Many legends and romanticisms have grown up around the figure of De Torres. One has him addressing a crowd of natives in Hebrew, no less, while they were smoking tobacco through their noses. Still another legend has him discovering a bird that resembled a peacock. He named the bird, tukki, after the Hebrew word for parrot, which evolved into our famous dish served on Thanksgiving, turkey.

It was also said that he became a wealthy landowner and respected gentlemen in the West Indies. The Luis de Torres Synagogue in Freeport, Bahamas, is named for the famous man who sailed with Columbus and was the first European of Jewish origin to settle in the New World. And you can put that in your pipe and smoke it, on Columbus Day, of course!