Kosher Bookworm

For the Jewish people, new world began in 1492


It is not unusual for a book’s title to include a year. 1776 and 1912 are among my favorites. They resonate deep meaning and so does the year 1492.

“1492,” subtitled “The Year the World Began,” by Notre Dame history professor Dr. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (HarperOne, 2009), details the numerous events that occurred in the year that, according to the author, changed history forever.

Among these events were those well-known instances like Columbus’s discovery of the Americas and the Spanish Inquisition. Other occurrences, not as well known, include events in China, Japan, and Korea, as well as religious changes in Italy and Russia.

Of prime interest to most readers of this newspaper are the events in Spain that led up to the Inquisition. The author gives special treatment to this major event in both Jewish and Spanish history, in a chapter titled “No Sight More Pitiful: The Mediterranean World and the Redistribution of the Sephardim.”

The author considers the spiritual and economic events that led to the destruction of the Spanish Jewish community, with speculation on the motivations of the Spanish monarchy and religious establishment. The events are viewed from both financial and social perspectives, both on the Jews and on Spanish society at large.

Fernandez-Armesto goes into great detail about the financial losses that the Spanish monarchy sustained in the forced evacuation of its Jews, and of the open pride they maintained in sustaining these losses in the name of their religious cause.

The author also discusses the religious motivations leading up to both the expulsion of Jews who refused to abandon their faith and the treatment of those who chose to adopt Catholicism while secretly adhering to some form of Jewish observance. The brutal handling of these Jews is given equal treatment.

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The author cites, citing Columbus’ journals, relates the ambitious goals that Columbus advanced to the Spanish monarchs — and this is something that should be of current interest, given events in the Middle East.

“By the 1490’s, Columbus … began to advocate encounter with and conversion of pagan peoples as part of the purpose of Atlantic exploration. And — if his recollections were right — he suggested to Ferdinand and Isabella that the profits of his proposed voyage could be diverted to the conquest of Jerusalem which, according to the Franciscans’ prophecies, would be the work of the ‘Last World Emperor’ and one of the events with which G-d would prepare the world for the apocalypse.

“The monarchs, he said, smiled when he said it. Historians have usually supposed that theirs was a smile of skepticism, but really it was a smile of pleasure.”

Even to Columbus, the issue of Jerusalem was a factor in his calculations.

In such a world, there to be no room for Jews. Thus both the inquisition and the expulsion were the only natural courses of action. That was the real legacy of 1492.

It should be remembered that the majority of Jews over the prior century chose to opt out of the Jewish faith, thus permanently marginalizing the Sephardic religious culture among Jews worldwide.

The author concludes this fateful and sad chapter in our people’s history with the following observation.

“In one respect, for Spain, the effect of their policy toward Jews was positive,” the author writes. “Spain derived a kind of bonus, in the form of the talents of former Jews who opted for baptism. The number of the converts exceeded those of the expelled. So much talent, so much potential has formerly enriched the Jewish community.

“Now, by effectively compelling conversions, the monarchs garnered that talent, forcing former Jews into the mainstream of Spanish life. Scholars have a tendency to seek converso origins for almost anyone of importance in Spanish culture in the 16th and 17th centuries; but the scale of the achievements of former Jews and their descendants in letters, learning, science, and the arts was formidable — out of all proportion to their numbers.

“Converted Jews were the alchemical ingredient that made Spain’s golden age.”

Consider this last sentence and learn a hard lesson. We Jews have physically, as well as intellectually, spent ourselves in 1492 in Spain, the enlightenment in France, and Germany centuries later and here in America today, out of all proportion to the population at large. We call that assimilation.

The bottom line is that nothing has changed. For Jews, 1492 was indeed the year that the world began. Read this book and you will find out why.

Previously published in 2009.