Newcomer from the New World

The Zedek ve-Shalom synagogue from Suriname in the Caribbean, brought to Israel.

May 26, 2010 14:53
2 minute read.
Zedek ve-Shalom Synagogue from Suriname

Synagogue from Suriname 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

This article was published in the June 7 edition of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to the Jerusalem Report, click here.

The 18th century Zedek ve-Shalom synagogue from Suriname is the latest addition to what will now be a “synagogue route” with three other complete synagogues from Germany, Italy and India. Ritual objects from each synagogue and its culture will be displayed within the synagogues and on the route.

Israel's Treasure Trove

Zedek ve-Shalom was brought to Israel in 1999 and underwent an extensive restoration. It is built of wood and is white on the outside while the interior consists of dark wood, brass lamps and a white sand floor, in the local style. Synagogue route curator Tania Coen says Jews from Amsterdam, descendents of anusim (forced converts from Judaism) from Portugal, were among the first white people to settle in the northern South American country in the 17th century (see Jerusalem Report issue….). They built their synagogue in Paramaribo in a style mixing Spanish-Portuguese, Dutch and local influences, and prayed in the Sephardi style. But in the time-honored Jewish tradition, immigrants from Eastern Europe opened another, Ashkenazi synagogue. “There was tension between them,” says Coen, “but the Portuguese were richer and more cultured and stronger, so eventually the Ashkenazi congregation faded out and started praying in the Sephardi style.”

When the community dwindled in the 20th century, it gathered in the Ashkenazi synagogue and Zedek ve-Shalom fell into disuse. The building and objects were subject to decay and robbery and the community asked the Israel Museum if it would take them for safekeeping.

As for the sand floors typical of all Caribbean synagogues, Coen says they have several explanations. “If you ask members of the community, they will say the sand reminds them they are still wandering in the desert like the children of Israel. A more sophisticated explanation is that it muffled the sound, to remind them they are Jews that were once forcefully converted. Some think it is a practical measure against fires or humidity and they just invented the explanations later.” The sand on the floor of the restored synagogue is made of local crushed stone. Visitors will stay on a wooden gangway and won’t step on the sand.

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