A Thanksgiving table is set with traditional holiday favorites. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images)
A Thanksgiving table is set with traditional holiday favorites. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images)

Thanksgiving evolves, and my mind turns to the first Jew in the Americas

For many years now, people have questioned the meaning and legacy of the Columbus Day and Thanksgiving holidays. For me, the debate has been valid.

The challenge, however, has been preserving the good part of my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving — the watching of the Macy’s parade, the gathering of family, the over-abundance of once-a-year special foods, the gratitude and the joy.

At my house, the debate began on a culinary note with a “no turkey” at the dinner table request — make that mandate — from the ethical vegetarians of the clan. That was tough, but I complied.

But the “We hate the very idea of Thanksgiving. Pilgrims were evil exploiters. Let’s call the whole thing off” was a gut punch. Having everybody sit down for a sulk-feast around a vegan, plant-based roast was a massive buzzkill.

“OK, everybody,” I would chirp, “What are we all most grateful for this year?”

“That this meal is almost over?” muttered one young familial snark who shall go nameless, fiddling not so surreptitiously with their cell phone under the embroidered tablecloth.

Yet somehow the holiday tradition survived. It evolved. Family members continued gathering, started smiling again, cracking sarcastic jokes, elbowing one another. Texting at the table became permissible!

We all also started calling Columbus Day, observed on the second Monday of October, Indigenous Peoples’ Day — all part of honoring a richer, more complete and accurate story.

And now I’m belatedly learning about another name in America’s complicated founding story.

This one’s from our tribe, and I want to make sure he, too, has a place — and a plate — at our Thanksgiving table.

The man? Luis de Torres who has the distinction of being the first Jew to set foot — and settle — in the New World.

De Torres was born Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri. Like many Jews of the time, he became a Converso, forced to convert or die at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

Shortly after conversion, Torres left on Christopher Columbus’ first voyage, which began a day after Spain’s decree of expulsion ordered the forced exodus of the country’s Jews.

Columbus, thinking he would encounter Jewish merchants in his travels in Asia, hired de Torres (who spoke Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic) as his interpreter.

Scholars now believe de Torres was likely not the only Jew aboard Columbus’ ships and that several Conversos sought refuge from the Inquisition aboard the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

After stops on other islands, the explorers landed on the shore of Cuba. Once there, Columbus sent a two-man expedition inland to scout the island and contact the native inhabitants. One of the two was de Torres.

De Torres and his shipmate found a village of Native Americans, who were friendly. Returning to Columbus and base camp a few days later, de Torres and his partner reported smoking tobacco — giving them the dubious distinction of being the first Westerners to partake of that disgusting vice.

When Columbus’ ships returned to Spain two months later, 39 sailors, including de Torres, had stayed in Cuba.

De Torres’ fate is unclear.

According to the most likely account, when Columbus returned to Cuba 10 months later, the village was destroyed and its inhabitants, including de Torres, were dead. His widow, in fact, received compensation for her loss.

Whatever de Torres’ fate, countless Jews followed his path to the New World to escape the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition, although, sadly, Inquisition tribunals were later set up in the Americas.

Yet today his name lives on.

The only synagogue in the Bahamas, established in 1972, was named after him. And legend gives de Torres credit for naming the North American turkey. Reportedly, upon seeing the bird, he thought it was a type of parrot and applied the Hebrew name, tukki.

Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a fun Thanksgiving story, plus it adds our people to the holiday mix.

And for me, it’s doubly satisfying — since although I cannot serve turkey to my vegetarian clan, I can at least serve a tukki tall tale!

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She is a former resident Berkeley who now lives in Reno and can be reached at karen@muddling.me.