We are all familiar with the phrase “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” In elementary school, I was given a brief overview of Columbus’ life and “accomplishments.” He was an Italian explorer and navigator who sailed across the Atlantic ocean in hopes of finding a new route to India, only to “discover” the Americas by setting foot in present-day Bahamas. Columbus’ discovery of the Americas is significant and yet very controversial. While he found new lands for Spain, he colonized the land, murdered, and forcibly converted innocent and unwilling Native Americans to Christianity.
What I took away from these short lessons was that I have a day off of school each fall for a pretty unheroic American hero. This past Columbus Day, as I sat in my bed on October 12th, I struggled to find meaning in this national holiday. I wondered how, as a Jew, I can relate to Columbus Day.
My late grandfather, Victor Mendelsohn, literally sailed “the ocean blue” as well. In 1945, he boarded a ship in Europe and travelled the ocean for three weeks to come to America. His destination? Columbus, Ohio.
My grandfather was a holocaust survivor and came to America just as Columbus had. He was born in Ludmir, Poland in 1924 where he lived in a shtetl(a small Jewish village) with over 150 of his relatives. At ten years old, he was ripped from his childhood, forced into a ghetto where his mother would later die, sought refuge in a chicken coop for over a year, and eventually, miraculously, found freedom.
America was as foreign to my grandpa, as it was to Columbus. When my grandpa came, he only knew Polish and Yiddish, no English, and had no one to translate for him. The language barrier proved to be socially and culturally isolating. Similarly, Columbus didn’t understand the dialects of the Native people or their sacred customs and ways of life. With no effective method of communication, my grandfather wasn’t able to make friends or forge relationships. Unfulfilled, he left his first home, in Ohio, to venture to New York City in search of more. In New York, he was able to find fellow survivors who had arrived through Ellis Island and spoke Yiddish too. Years later, he followed his best friend, Abe, whom he had met in the displaced persons camp after the war, to San Francisco. Here, he started a new life and a family. While Columbus didn’t appreciate the differences of the Native Americans, my grandfather came to love the diversity of the Bay Area.
While my grandfather did not discover America, he did discover a new land where he could live freely as a Jew. Although Columbus Day is an American holiday, Jews can find common ground in the significance of finding new lands. Every Jew originates from Judea and Samaria, but because the Jewish people have been expelled from their homes, we each look different, have unique traditions, and observe different customs. I bring unique Polish melodies to Shabbat prayers, know Yiddish slang, and have a sacred matzo ball soup recipe. As Jews, we each have a special story of immigration whether that be to America or Eretz Yisrael.Air Jordan