The Jewish – Native American Connection
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. . . . . At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer. . . .”
The above quotation is taken from a description of the “original” Thanksgiving celebration written by Edward Winslow in 1622. Now let’s move forward almost four hundred years, when it came time for me to host a Thanksgiving dinner last year, I made a decision to create a historic menu based on authentic food consumed during that time period. I believe that food is not just for consumption, but can also be used as a means to educate, so my menu consisted of dishes that would have been eaten by Native Americans and/or English in the early 17th century. Appetizers included kippers & eggs and Wampanoag nasaump; entrées featured pheasant with apples & onions, and three-sisters’ sobaheg; two of the accompanying side dishes served were Yorkshire pudding and Navajo fry bread; and last, but not least, desert included Algonquian maple popcorn balls and sweetmeats – to name only a few of the dishes served. With each dish, I provided an explanation of what my guests were about to eat, along with printed information packets, and tried to have a discussion about the original Thanksgiving and how the modern traditions evolved. I also tried to interject information regarding the myths and truths behind the holiday (and to also set the mood, Native American and period music were played in the background). [Note: Although I went through all the trouble of researching and preparing this culinary experience, there were still guests that were “offended” that I had not served the traditional Thanksgiving meal.] In today’s article I intend on educating you a little bit about one of the most important staples of the early Native American diet . . . . corn (Heb: שֶׁ֫בֶר (sheber)).
Since this is a food blog, in case anyone was interested in the full menu, I have copied it below. In case you were wondering, the turkey was served over the Yorkshire pudding (but I did not tell anyone there would be turkey until it was served).
Ye Ole’ Thanksgiving Feast
Manchester Apple Toste
Kippers & Eggs
Pheasant with Apples & Onions
Three-Sisters’ Sobaheg with Faux Venison
Tsimshian Candy-Grilled Salmon
Vegetarian Cottage Pie
Salatts & Other Accompaniments
Dublin Soft-Boiled Potatoes
Fried Tostes of Spinnage
Tossed Leaf and Vegetable Salatt
Yorkshire Savoury Pudding
Baked Breads, Marmalades, and Jellies
Assorted Spreads (including Cactus Jelly)
Freshly Baked Scones
Navajo Fry Bread
Sweetmeats & Desserts
Algonquian Maple Popcorn Balls
Her Majesty’s Fruit Tarts
Indigenous Fruit Bowl
Imported English Spirits
Single Malt Whisky
Tea and Coffee
Water, Juice, and Carbonated Beverages
The land of Israel was described in Deuteronomy 8:8 as “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey.” These are called the shiv’at ha-minim (שבעת המינים), which is also translated as the “seven species.” These seven foods have intertwined themselves into Judaism and Jewish culture over the centuries. The Native Americans also lay claim to their own group of foods important to their own culture and survival (indigenous to North America) – maize (corn), beans, and squash. This group of foods is usually referred to as the three sisters. Different Native American Nations tell varying stories about the origins of the three sisters. Below, I have retold one of those tales:
There were three sisters that lived in a small village. Each day, they would help their mother to work in the garden around their hut. The oldest sister was very tall and strong and had long flowing golden hair. She did not like to wear moccasins, so her legs and feet were always getting sunburned, and all the hard work always made her hungry. The youngest sister was much small, thinner, and weaker, so she and usually needed help to perform her work or even stand up causing her to continuously fall down, however, she had a knack for cooking and happily made food for the family. The middle sister was short and stout, but she was a good fighter and could defend their home and the garden against unfriendly tribes, but she always wanted to eat. Although they were sisters, they always fought with each other and usually worked on different sides of the field.
The mother had a dream in which her three daughters appeared. Each offspring was represented by a different seed that grew into three distinct plants. The three plants grew intertwined, but instead of destroying each other, they made each other stronger. The next morning the mother told the daughters about the dream, and how they needed to work and help each other. The older sister would help hold the youngest sister up while they worked. The middle sister would help defend the family and their garden, and the youngest sister would help make their food and protect the feet of the oldest sister.
Heeding the lesson learned by this tale, the Native Americans planted corn, squash, and beans together in the same field. The strong corn stalks (oldest sister) hold up the beans (youngest sister), the squash (middle sister) helps keep the weeds away, while the beans help to feed the corn and the squash. They formed a perfect symbiotic relationship.
The Origin and History of Corn
Maize, or more commonly known to Americans as corn, is a large grain that is indigenous to Central America and has been used as a source of food for eons. The location of its origin is not exactly known, but drill cores taken from 200 feet below Mexico City showed corn pollen dating to 80,000 years ago. A 2002 study by Matsouka found that that corn was first domesticated in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico probably around 7500 BCE and gradually began spreading throughout the Americas. Evidence of corncobs were found by archeologists dating to 3500 BCE within caves in New Mexico. The planting of corn continued to spread throughout the remainder of North America by 2500 BCE. Corn eventually made its way to Europe by ship due to samples collected by one of the early explorers (experts believe that it may have been during Columbus’s second trip on his return from Cuba). The grain then spread throughout Europe, and ultimately throughout the rest of the world.
The word “maize” is derived from the word Taino word for “plant,” which they pronounced as maiz. The Taino were the indigenous people living in the Caribbean at the time the Spanish explorers “discovered” their lands. Maize is known by different names in different parts of the world. In North America (as well as Australia and New Zealand) it is known as maize and corn (which had been shortened over the years from “Indian corn”). However, in many countries corn generally refers to the main cash crop in that particular country or district.
Although we usually only visualize one type of corn (the yellow niblets on the cob or out of a can), there are actually seven different varieties: dent corn, popcorn, sweet corn, flint corn, flour corn, waxy corn, and pod corn. The yellow variation we are most familiar with in the U.S. is dent corn. [Fast Fact: The U.S. grows more corn than any country in the world, producing 40% of the world’s corn supply (over 350 million metric tons).]
Maize not only tastes good; it also provides a good source of B vitamins, niacin, thiamin, and folic acid. Besides being a source of food, it is also utilized in the industrial word and converted into bio-fuel, fabrics, adhesives, plastics, explosives, and other chemicals. Can you guess how most of the corn in the U.S. is used? If you answered with “food for humans,” you would be wrong; less than three percent is consumed by Americans. If you just said “food,” I will give you partial credit. Almost 45% of the corn grown goes for food, but as feed for livestock (5,250 bushels each year [Fast Fact: a bushel weighs 56 pounds]).
Are Native Americans the Lost Tribe of Israel?
Because of a television commercial for butter, whenever I think of maize, I make an instant visual connection with Native Americans [remember Mazola Margarine, 1976?], for whom we all owe a lot or there would never have been a “first” Thanksgiving. The Wampanoag people taught the new Pilgrim settlers how to live off the land and survive that first hostile winter. Besides laying the groundwork for this holiday, there may be much older connections (even older than Columbus (1492) or Eric the Red (10th century)) between Native Americans and people from beyond the Great Sea, including the Jewish people – there are claims that Native Americans may be decedents of one of the lost tribes of Israel.
At one time Israel was divided into Northern and Southern partitions, with the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin residing in the south and the remainder in the north. In 732 BCE, the Assyrians invaded Northern Israel dispersing the Jews living in that region. Some of the refugees were absorbed into Southern Israel, but many of the inhabitants (that were not killed or enslaved) were dispersed throughout the world – leading to the speculation that some may have managed to make their way to the Americas during this first Diaspora. There are a number of communities in Asia and Africa claiming a connection to the Lost Tribes, such as: Bene Israel (Pakistan), Bnei Menashe (Northeastern India), Beta Israel (Ethiopia), Lemba (Southern Africa) Igbo (Nigeria), and Pakhtun/Pashtun (Afghanistan/Pakistan), so why not decendents in the Americas?
In the first half of the 19th century, artist and journalist George Caitlin travelled around the American frontier studying and hoping to preserve Native American history and culture through his writings and paintings. During his expeditions he made several observations comparing the Native Americans and the Jewish people. Some of the similarities he observed including the facts that both groups are both monotheistic (the Native Americans prayed to a Great Spirit, and the Jews to their one G-d); they both believe that they are the favorite of their G-d; they had similar customs for worshiping (separate high priests, holy places, women do not pray with men, etc.); their wedding ceremonies; their preparation for war and in making peace; the way they went about mourning and treating the dead; their treatment of women within their society; and the ceremonies and conducting of feasts, fasts, and sacrifices, for which he wrote:
“In their feasts, fastings, and sacrificing, they are exceedingly like those ancient people. Many of them have a feast closely resembling the annual feast of the Jewish [P]assover; and amongst others, and occasion much like the Israelitish feast of the tabernacles, which lasted eight days, (when history tells us they carried bundles of willow boughs, and fasted several days and nights) making sacrifices of the first fruits and best of everything, closely resembling the sin-offering and peace-offering of the Hebrews.”
The claims that the Native Americans were of Jewish origin even goes back a few hundred years earlier, to when the Europeans first discovered that the land they were exploring was not India, and in fact a “New World.” As soon as word spread of inhabitants in this new land, the bible-centric Europeans formulated that these people must be decedents of the Lost Tribes spoken of in the bible.
Around the year 1640, a Spanish explorer named Anonio de Montezinos, whom is of the Judaic faith, told Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel (Chief rabbi of Amsterdam, diplomat, writer, and the creator of the first Jewish press) of his experiences in the New World. He told of an occasion when he tried to communicate with one of the Native Americans, and all of the languages he used failed. When he began speaking to a shipmate in Hebrew, the Native American, to his astonishment, began reciting the Shema (שְׁמַע), a Jewish prayer recited in Hebrew. When Montezinos began to poke around, he discovered that other people in this village were not only able to recite the prayer, but he found that many of their customs and rituals were very similar to those of the Jewish religion. The rabbi published this account in a book in 1650 entitled The Hope of Israel.
After spending forty years living with Native Americans, historian James Adair published the book The History of the American Indians in 1775, in which he spends a large portion of the treatise discussing the similarities between the “Indians” and the Jewish people. Even President Thomas Jefferson believed Adair’s stories, writing the following to John Adams:
A]ll the Indians of American to be descended from the Jews: the same laws, usages; rites and ceremonies, the same sacrifices, priests, prophets, fasts and festivals, almost the same religion, and that they all spoke Hebrew.
In 1830, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints, published the Book of Mormon, which is the sacred text of their faith. The book details the plight of a Jewish family travelling from Jerusalem to the Americas at around 600 BCE. This is only 130 years after the initial Diaspora from northern Israel.
In addition, throughout the last two centuries, there have been physical items found throughout the Americas that allegedly contain ancient Hebrew writing dating to hundreds of years ago. Some of the more “famous” of these articles include: the Bat Creek Stone, the Los Lunas Inscription, and the Newark Holy Stones. It must be noted that there is counter-evidence arguing that these items are fake.
Are Native American’s Circumcised?
Before you go around asking any Native Americans if they are circumcised, most of the evidence of Jews arriving in the Americas prior to Columbus has, for the most part, been disproved. There is evidence of prehistoric man living in the Americas, called the Clovis (named after its location in Clovis, New Mexico) almost 13,000 years ago. Recently, evidence of stone tools dug up in Texas (outside of Austin) has dated to almost 15,500 years ago. Given that the Assyrian Diaspora occurred more than 10,000 years after these settlements were active, it is fair to conclude that all Native Americans are not direct decedents of the lost tribes.
However, it is possible that Jews had begun to assimilate into the Native American population beginning in the late 15th century. Columbus had five known marranos on his first voyage to the New World. Marranos is a term used for Jews that converted to Christianity, two of which converted the day before the voyage (the term, however, is not complimentary, and translates to “swine” in Spanish). [Fast Fact: Luis de Torres was one of these converts and was believed to be brought along on the voyage as an interpreter because Columbus thought he may need someone who spoke Hebrew in case they met people of the Lost Tribe.] In subsequent voyages to the Americas by Columbus and for the other explorers that followed, many other marranos, those that were forced into anuism (אֲנוּסִים) – “hidden Jews” (those that were forced to convert to other religions to avoid torture or death) on these explorations. Some may have had opportunities to leave their exploration parties and became comingled into some Native American nations – then assimilated parts of Judaism through intermarriage and the sharing of customs and ideas.
In 1590, Luis Carvajal, the Governor of New Spain (currently the areas of Southwest U.S. and Mexico) and a marrano, was tried and convicted of practicing Judaism (along with other charges). Although he died in jail and some members of his family were executed, other members of his family and friends escaped into modern New Mexico and may have assimilated with the Native Americans.
There is scientific evidence that there may be a genetic connection between some Native Americans and Jews. A study published in 2012 (by the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv) discovered a connection in the BRCA1 gene between Ashkenazi Jews and Native Americans from Colorado, where the connection dates back about 600 years, which correlates to the time of the arrival of first Europeans to the Americas.
An Undeniable Native American and Jewish Connection: Persecution
Regardless of whether you believe that there is a familial connection between Native Americans and Jews, there is a cultural and societal correlation between the two, in that both groups have been (and still are) persecuted by many others, and are dispersed throughout the lands. Even George Caitlin, in the early 1800s sadly wrote:
The Indians everywhere, like the Jews, believe that they are the favourite people of the Great Spirit, and they are certainly, like those ancient people, persecuted, as every man’s hand seems raised against them – and they, like the Jews, destined to be dispersed over the world, and seemingly scourged by the Almighty, and despised of man.
During Thanksgiving, one should give pause to what a meal in 1622 meant for the future of the Native American people. It may not have been the only cause, but it did provide a foothold for the Europeans to gain yet another small stronghold in the Americas. We all know of the persecution of the Jewish people since the beginning of their religion. But we forget about the persecution of the Native American people in our own country. It was, in fact so heinous, that Hitler studied the practices and procedures used at the Bosque Redondo Reservation (where the U.S. Military persecuted and imprisoned thousands of Navajo and other Native American Nations during the 1860s) and used it as a model for his concentration camps.
The prosecution of Jews, however, brings me back to the culinary topic of this article – corn. Although corn is not a soul food in Jewish tradition, there is a dark side to the association of corn and Judaism. Just as Jews have been hated through the centuries, they have also been made the scapegoats to many of the ills of the world. To promote this intolerance, some countries had minted coins and medals depicting the Jew as the cause of famines and other maladies. In the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, usually during times of famine, various coins called “Corn Jude” (or “Korn Jew”) medals were printed and distributed in Germany depicting the Jew as the cause of their problems
Picture of a Du Korn Jude medal (Germany, 1694).
Photo used with the permission of Benjamin Weiss, www.historicalartmedals.com.
Was Corn Mentioned in the Torah?
Let’s turn back to a happier subject before we conclude – the food we have all grown up with – corn. Deuteronomy 13 reads:
וַאֲהֵבְךָ, וּבֵרַכְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ; וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי-בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי-אַדְמָתֶךָ דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ, שְׁגַר-אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹת צֹאנֶךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ.
Which translates as:
“and He will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee; He will also bless the fruit of thy body and the fruit of thy land, thy corn and thy wine and thine oil, the increase of thy kine and the young of thy flock, in the land which He swore unto thy fathers to give thee.” [emphasis added]
Depending on the translation, the Hebrew word dagan (דָּגָן) could be translated as corn, as above. Hopefully, after reading the above history of corn, you should be asking, how can corn possibly be mentioned in the Torah, a book written arguably over 3,000 years ago, when we know that corn did grow (or was even available) in the Middle East until sometime after the 15th century? The confusion came about due to a possible translation error during the early years of translating the bible, which translated the word literally as corn. However, the term degan also refers to any grain (as it is still known in many countries throughout Europe), so the original translation of the passage was more probably “thy grain, and thy wine, and thy oil.”
Hopefully this article sheds some light into the legend of Native Americans being the Lost Tribe of Israel, a little bit about the origins and history of corn, but also provides some appreciation for the interconnection and parallels between Jews and Native Americans, as well as everyone’s place in the broader history of mankind.
Although not a traditional Native American dish, I have decided to provide a recipe for a fairly simple corn soup, which is perfect for the cold of the approaching winter. For those of you that would like to try your hand at traditional Native American recipes, I would suggest visiting the Plimoth Plantation website, which includes instructions for a few easy to make authentic dishes.
- 3 Tbsp Margarine
- 1 ¼ cups onion (chopped)
- 2 ½ cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large to medium potato
- ½ tsp Salt
- 1 tsp Black Pepper
- 4 cups yellow corn
- ½ can red kidney beans
- 2 ½ cups vegetable broth
- 2 cups milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- Melt the margarine in a saucepan using a medium flame,
- Add garlic cloves, and chopped onions, then sauté until the onions begin looking golden (approx. 4 minutes)
- Chop up potato into 1/8ths, and place into the saucepan and cover for about 5 minutes.
- Pour in the kidney beans and 1 3/4 cans of the yellow corn.
- Add ½ tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper
- Pour in the milk and broth, re-cover, and bring to a low boil. Reduce heat to low. Cook until potatoes are soft (approx 6 minutes)
- Pour 3/4s of this into a blender. Blend until the mixture has a creamy consistency. Then pour back into the saucepan.
- Simmer the ingredients for approx. 5 minutes (taste & add salt/pepper to taste).
- Add the remaining corn, then continue to simmer another 5-8 minutes until soup is thickened.
Special thanks to Michael B as religious consultant in writing this article. Thanks again to Benjamin Weiss (www.historicalartmedals.com) for use of the images of the Korn Jude medal.
Keep on Cookin’
Chef Lon E.
Coming Up Next . . . . . Borscht, and the belt that borrowed its name.
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