Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book Review: The Columbus Affair

The Columbus Affair is the new mystery by Steve Berry. I picked up the book in the morning yesterday and finished it at 8pm last night. It was a fun, fast paced read surrounding the question of Christopher Columbus and Jewish history. OK, so how are these two ideas juxtaposed?

Well let me start at the beginning and why this book premise intrigued me. Forty years ago I read a book called Americans All. (No longer in print) It was stories of Jewish-Americans who had made significant contributions to the United States of America over our 400 year history. For an eleven-year-old who was the only Jewish child in her school that book was an amazing find. Now one of the stories was about Christopher Columbus.

The theory postulated that Columbus was a converso, or a secret Jew, who had been forced to convert to Catholicism during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. The book outlined how Columbus never referred to the New testament, the stain-glassed window in his cabin was a picture of a Star of David and in his journal the night before he sailed he referenced the expulsion of the Jews of Spain. Also the people that financed his voyage was not the King and Queen of Spain but other conversos who were looking for a safe-harbor for the Jewish community and his first mate was also another secret Jew who was fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. Interestingly as well, unlike what Hollywood told you, there was no Priest on board any of his ships. Very odd for it was the time of the Inquisition.

Now, as a child, and so unbelievably proud, I went up to the teacher to tell her what I had just read. In true ignorant and intolerant fashion instead of telling me that I should look into a little more or allowing me to feel proud of my discovery, the teacher ridiculed me in front of the entire class. Making fun of my book, my theories and the entire idea I presented. Her closing argument to me was "You believe what you want and I'll believe what I want." As you can tell, my disdain for members of the teaching profession did not start with those that were cruel to my autistic son.

Honestly, I am not certain that there wasn't some hint of antisemitism in the teacher's reaction. In fact if you look at some private reviews of the book on Amazon you can find some borderline antisemitism in the criticism as well. Some aspects of  human ignorance just don't seem to go away no matter how hard you try to fix society.

Meanwhile, to this day, in my family, whenever we want to make fun of someone's bigotry or ignorance, we turn to each other and repeat that teacher's statement. While she may have thought she taught me the fifth grade curriculum that year,  I learned a different lesson and one of greater import. I learned that no matter where you go or what you do in your life, there will always be one asshole in the room.

So we reach modern day and out comes this book by Steve Berry, who is known to take theories, historical papers, hints of mysteries and turn them into some interesting yarns. Considering my past history with the Columbus legend I just couldn't resist the book. And there it was in print, everything that I had learned so many years ago about Columbus and who he may or may not have been.

What ever you believe or don't believe about Columbus is of no import. If you are looking for a fun diversion with a little real history thrown in to boot, this is the book for you. No, not just about Columbus' voyages, but about Ancient Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish diaspora, the Holocaust with even a touch of Jewish mysticism thrown in for good measure. It is a story that comes full circle from ancient times to modern day politics.

I wish I could have told that 11-year-old-me about the reputable historians in the future who would believe just like she did....

Oh and by the way, we Jews, don't have to claim Columbus at all. In the end, that is fine and not really what compelled me to read this book. History may be full of questions about who Columbus was or was not, but one thing we can all agree upon is that in the end he was a real shmuck to the indigenous population of the Caribbean. His voyages actually brought about genocide and slavery for the native inhabitants. So quite frankly the Catholic Church can actually keep him if they still want him.

Qi en Pace,



  1. OMG. I am *shocked* by what your teacher said to a child at the time. Good for you for reading up and informing yourself. Not everything is as they like to neatly package in school textbooks. I'm very sorry for your experience, that's just horrible.

    1. Thanks. Sadly even today there are some teachers who quite frankly should not be teaching. I was lucky as I had supportive parents who balanced me dealing with such a moron for a teacher (because you just couldn't show disrespect for a teacher, that was the days of corporal punishment) and allowing me to explore and use my own mind.


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