More Melungeons and Columbus Conspiracy Theories

Much ado has been made about a DNA study released last week that found that descendants of the Melungeons, those mysterious dark-skinned Appalachian mountainfolk, aren’t who they thought they were.

Or who I thought they were.

The study found genetic evidence that Melungeons came from the union of sub-Saharan African men and central European women—basically, the mixed-race offspring of black men and white women working as indentured servants in the first days of the American colonies—not the amalgam of Native American, Turkish and Portuguese genes that Melungeon Pride groups have come to herald as their ancestry.

While I agree with the Discover blog that other genetic lineages could have died out over the centuries, my theory that Melungeons were Portuguese Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition appears to have bit the dust.

However, my other favorite Jewish American conspiracy—that Christopher Columbus was in fact Queen Isabella’s favorite Jew and sent off to the New World in order to save his tushie—continues to gain momentum:


Recently, a number of Spanish scholars, such as Jose Erugo, Celso Garcia de la Riega, Otero Sanchez and Nicholas Dias Perez, have concluded that Columbus was a Marrano, whose survival depended upon the suppression of all evidence of his Jewish background in face of the brutal, systematic ethnic cleansing.

In his last will and testament, Columbus directed a ten percent tithe to the poor, specifically indicating someone in the Lisbon’s Jewish Quarter, and signed the document with a triangular cluster of dots—a secret symbol for Mourner’s Kaddish and perhaps a decree to his sons to recite the prayer for him after he died. Scholars have also concluded that Columbus wrote and spoke Castilian Spanish, from which the Jewish language Ladino derived. (Ladino is the Spanish Yiddish—do you think “Ay, Caramba” is the equivalent of “Oy, Vey”?)

Think it’s all meshuggeh? (That would be “loco” in Ladino.) Here’s the rest of Charles Garcia’s article.

Geez, Columbus Day is already crazy controversial; not sure I want to know what happens when you add a Jewish layer on that…


Digging in the (Internet) Dirt

efw-1I read about Southern Ohio’s Newark Earthworks in a recent issue of Newsweek, and I was so curious about this massive network of geometric mounds built by ancient North American inhabitants known as the Hopewell People that I went a’Googling.

It seems the Hopewell People built dozens of large-scale earthen mounds from 100 BCE to 500 CE, long before that douche Christopher Columbus decided to claim these parts. Some of the mounds correspond to celestial events like the 18.6 year lunar cycle, certainly enough to establish the scientific intelligence of these ancient folks. But how do archaeologists explain this giant chanukiah, mapped near the East Fork of the Little Miami River in 1823 by the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers? I guess you could say it’s an explainable coincidence that native Americans constructed something that resembles a ritual tool used by people halfway around the world to commemorate the miracle of oil lasting eight days, but even the shape above the menorah is clearly an oil lamp. Spooky, right?

Read on, because it gets so much weirder: Two artifacts, known as the Decalogue and Keystone, were uncovered at the Newark Earthworks in 1860. The Decalogue is a stone inscribed on four sides with condensed version of the Ten Commandments written in “a peculiar form of post-Exilic square Hebrew letters” with a figure that can easily be identified as Moses. The Keystone has the phrases “Holy of Holies,” “King of the Earth,” “The Law of God,” and “The Word of God” written in a more recognizable form of Hebrew. A few years later, two more stones were found, then lost, suggesting a trove of mysterious Judaica in the mounds — or a giant hoax.

There’s an enduring “Lost Tribe of Israel” theory that there were Jewish people in American long before the first Jewish settlers were kicked out of Spain and Portugal. The Maccabee’s revolt and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem took place in second century BCE, so it’s entirely plausible these early Ohioans were refugees of the Jewish Diaspora who knew the story of the oil and the nine-armed menorah, who laid tefillin and valued the Torah.

But such bubbeminze is generally dismissed by scholars, Jewish and not. After all, how would they have made it from Jerusalem to Ohio in 100 BCE, after all? You think international travel is a pain in the tuchus now, those Jews would’ve had it way worse than stale peanuts and a $25 charge for an extra suitcase.

But why would have some guys in the 19th-century go through the trouble of cutting stone to make elaborate forgeries, and how would they have accessed arcane information about Second Temple practices? J. Huston McCullough, a professor at Ohio State University, lays out all the evidence and comes down on the side that the Newark artifacts — including stone bowls found with the Decalogue — are more than credible – read for yourself.

Perhaps the resistance to recognizing the presence of Jews in America before Jesus was even born is too frightening, not to mention daunting — that’d be a whole HELL of a lot of history to rewrite.

Sarah Who?

saraharoeste Now that The Blind Eye, Marcia Fine’s prize-winning novel about Sephardic conversos fleeing from 15th-century Portugal, has found a publisher at AuthorHouse, the writer has discovered you can’t just quote song lyrics in a book willy-nilly without permission.

“Track down the singer and get the okay,” demanded her editor. Apparently publishers are more paranoid than doctors when it comes to being sued. So Fine (who, fine, full disclosure here, is my mother) has made phone calls, sent e-mails, faxed faxes and generally torn her hair out for the past year over trying to make contact with one Sarah Aroeste, whose song “A La Una” is excerpted in The Blind Eye.

Just when my mother was about to rewrite her whole darn book to accomodate taking out those unconsented lyrics, the phone rings and the caller ID flashes “Sarah Silverman.” Now why is that disturbed potty-mouthed girl from Comedy Central calling me? she wondered, and at the risk of hearing “I pooped” on the other end, answered the phone. Turns out it was the Sarah she was seeking, who’s adopted the more exotic stage name to reflect her family’s Spanish-Greek origins.

Aroeste’s music floats on funky, Latin-flavored jazz beats sung in Ladino, the fading language of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. She’s divine; listen here. She not only weaves a beautiful soundtrack, but performs a mitzvah by keeping the dying language of the Sephardic ancestors alive. Mom reports that Sarah Silverman/Aroeste apologized for not getting in touch sooner and admitted that the words to “A La Una” are so old that they’re considered part of the public domain, so no one needs permission to use them after all.

So this story has a happy ending — not just for an author published her fourth novel, but for you and me, because now we all know who Sarah Aroeste is and can adore her. A good excuse to brush up on the ol’ espanol, sì?

The Mosh Pit In Front of the Menorah

It’s official: The favorite song of the Yenta house this Chanukah season is this ska-flavored version of “Ocho Kandlikas” by Hip Hop Hoodios. (Wait just a sec for the beats to kick in. It’s available on the “Celebrate Jewish Hip Hop” collection from CraigNCo or downloaded here.)

It is my goal to lobby the music teachers of America to replace the oh-so-tired “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” on the playlists of every elementary school choral concert with this Ladino classic by 2009.

(Ladino is the dialect of Sephardic Jews descended from those ousted from Spain and Portugal; it’s to Spanish what Yiddish is to German. Marcia Fine’s latest novel, The Blind Eye explores this history that’s unfamiliar to so many of us Ashkenazic, Eastern European-descended folk.)

Also playing loud enough this week to shake the neighbor’s jingle bells are “Hannukah Swings” and CraigNCo’s super chill “Hanukkah Lounge”, the cream of last year’s music roundup.

But the Chanukah rockin’ doesn’t stop at home: We got it goin’ on during carpool with Radio Hanukkah on XM radio, channel 108! To hear “Sunrise, Sunset” and a klezmer power hour hosted by accordian mistress Annette Ezekiel from Golem is such a tonic for all those same twenty-five ubiquitous Christmas tunes bombarding us in stores, offices, hospitals, nail salons, hotel lobbies and all other public places. Honestly, isn’t time someone retired poor Brenda Lee already?

Meet Lazydork. Enjoy.

No, you can’t touch this Mexican Jew, but with a bathrobe as crusty as that, why would you want to? This video is a response to a YouTube celebrity named Lonely Girl, who’s been getting too much attention, according to Lazydork.

And I’m not sure if “lazy” is the correct appellation for this rappin’ dude because anybody who creates this many movie-related drinking games is doing something special with his life.

W Manages to Jesus Up Jewish Heritage Month

bagelPresident Bush has declared May as “Jewish Heritage Month,” proclaiming that

“Since arriving in 1654, Jewish Americans have achieved great success, strengthened our country and helped shape our way of life. Through their deep commitment to faith, family and community, Jewish Americans remind us of a basic belief that guided the founding of this nation: That there is an Almighty who watches over the affairs of men and values every life.”

Uh, thanks for the compliment, Dubya, but the congresswoman who worked so hard to get the proclamation through, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, took extra special care to leave the religious-y parts out of it:

“There will be no religious emphasis,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It will be purely cultural and educational, so we didn’t want it tied to any particular Jewish holiday.”

Leave it to the Jesus president to get all God-ish about “heritage.” The man couldn’t have eaten a bagel in front of the cameras and left it that? (Not to mention his wording: the Almighty watches over the affairs men, but the women are on their own? Don’t even get me started on that hypocritical “valuing every life” nonsense.)

This surely begs a round of the never-ending “Is Judaism a religion or a culture” game, but the Sephardic Jewish origins of America’s first settlers is so much more interesting, dontcha think?

I recently read Elizabeth Hirschman’s Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe In America, and according to her research, crypto-Jews may have been this country’s first immigrants. Though the book is a dry read for all of its scholarly references and academic charts, Hirschman (who thought she was a WASP until her DNA tests came back Jewish, although with a last name like that I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t have been a little suspicious) makes a solid case that the mysterious people of the Appalachians and their descendants (including Abraham Lincoln, Davey Crockett and Elvis Presley) can trace their roots back to the Jews of Spain and Portugal. She even supports the claim that these Jews and their similarly oppressed Muslim neighbors started the Baptist church. (More here and here.)

Perhaps somewhere in the “Jewish American Heritage Month” of May it would be appropriate to hear a bit more about the Melungeons, but this Ashkenazicentric society of ours has yet to reclaim the diversity of Judaism.

Happy Birthday, Presidents of Yore

lincoln memorialWho’s your favorite American head of state? (Really, there aren’t so many quality choices, are there? Either they get killed or some disgrace topples them, like Fatty Taft getting stuck in a bathtub.)

The baby boomers I know always say Kennedy, possibly for the nostalgia they feel for experiencing the tragedy of his assassination. Or maybe because the conspiracy theories are just too fascinating.

I’ve always been a Lincoln fan, myself. Even as a kid, I judged Washington to be a little too military for my tastes, though the whole-bandaged-feet-in-winter while fighting for independence tugged at my third grade heartstrings. And given the recent research of Honest Abe’s likely Jewish ancestry coupled with his wisdom, kindness and refusal to play in the pigpen with the other politicians of his time, he simple rises to the top of the 43 men who have lead this country. (Again, the pool of choices is seriously lacking.)

Even the rabbis hold up Abraham Lincoln, who made it a law that all people could live free, as their favorite: Rabbi Aryeh Clapper even says that if he could have the whole world learn one quote, it wouldn’t be from the Torah— it would be from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.

It’s a mystery who No. 44 will be come 2008, but let’s hope and pray that man or woman has half the integrity.

The Hidden Jews Of New Mexico and Beyond

No time to elaborate today, but the Seattle Times just published this article about DNA testing and how it has revealed an Albquerque reverend to be a descendandant of the Cohanim. The reverend then tested 78 relatives, 30 of whom had the same genetic marker of ancient Jewish priests. Full story.

A reader sent this link, the site of Nan Rubin, who broadcasted a series of radio shows about the secret Jewish history of New Mexico.

davey crockettAnd then there’s Donald N. Panther-Yates of Georgia Southern University and, who published this piece on crypto-Jews in Tennesee, Kentucky and North Carolina, including information on Jewish Native American chiefs (and there were many of them!) It’s a crazy long and at times convoluted read (plus some funky html issues), but there’s some amazing stuff there.

All this should keep all you crypto-philes busy for awhile!

*Photo of American pioneer and Jewish Melungian Davey Crockett c/o

The Jews of Appalachia

Do any of you remember the Lost Colony of Roanoke from elementary school? American history— as it was taught in public school in a red state— was never my bag, but the tale of an early settlement whose population vanished without a trace save one creepy word carved into a pole has stuck with me since third grade. The accompanying illustration to the lesson was particularly spooky: a group of frightened Puritan settlers dressed like Thanksgiving pilgrims before they were presumably kidnapped by the savages of the New World and forced to breed non-white, wild children.

melungeonBut what if those lost souls weren’t Mayflower WASPy-types bent on settling the New World in the name of Her Majesty, but a band of “religious castaways” who figured facing a wilderness and attacks by the natives was way better than pogroms and “ethnic cleansing” going on across the Atlantic?

Yep. The first American settlers were Jews. Continue reading

Who You Callin’ Whitey?

Carlton WatsonFrom PRNewswire: “Of the nation’s 6 million Jews, roughly 1.2 million, or 20 percent,
consist of African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Sephardic (of Spanish and
Portuguese descent), Middle Eastern, and mixed-race Jews.”

These statistics should help dissolve the Ashkenazic-centric notion that all American Jews have Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Minsk.

The findings are excerpted from The Institute for Jewish & Community Research’s new book, In Every Tongue, and include the following “forgotten” groups:

* Latinos now reclaiming their Jewish roots after their ancestors were forced into hiding during the Spanish Inquisition. Once known as “conversos,” they have recently coined the term “reversos.”
* Long-established communities of African-American Jews in many cities,
such as Chicago and New York, with their own synagogues and adjunct communities.
* Nearly 1 million spouses, children, parents, siblings of “official Jews”, many of whom, according to the research, “practice some Jewish customs and identify with Jewish issues.

This, of course, supports our conspiracy theory that everyone will eventually be Jewish, even by association, even if they don’t know it.

Photo c/o Black and Jewish Online Store