The sun always shines brightly over Puerto Rico, and on any given day, walking along Fortaleza Street in the Old San Juan district of the capital, one can usually find Gal Atya, standing in front of his skincare shop at Number 251. Here, Gal who hails from Afula, sells his products, known as “Forever Flawless.” He can spot, he says, visiting Israeli tourists, of which there are many coming off the cruise ships docking at this famous port.
“I came here on vacation and I liked it and I stayed,” he told me in an interview one hot, bright day on the island of Puerto Rico, which means “rich port.”
I can see why. Gal saw what others have observed in this lush tropical island of rain forests, mountains and sandy beaches, resplendent with a rich history and vibrant culture. And even if you have only a day or two, head, like most tourists do, to Old San Juan, where the streets are paved with cobblestones and surrounded by graceful rows of Spanish-designed houses reflecting the taste of the early settlers.
After disembarking from the largest cruise ship in the world, the year-old Harmony of the Seas (Royal Caribbean Cruises), whose total capacity is over 6,000 persons, it’s only a short walk to Old San Juan, a mile-square historic area centered just below Plaza Colon, near the end of Fortaleza Street, where I first met Gal.
I enjoy traversing the sensual byways of this section, which date back to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Ponce de Leon was the first governor of the island; his body lies in a marble crypt in the gothic San Juan Cathedral, built in 1540 on the site of an earlier structure.
Sauntering along under the hot sun (it’s about 28 degrees Celsius, even in January), I note that the area is an antique gem, a great shopping center. This is proved later when passengers return to the ship laden with shiny shopping bags from outstanding art galleries and high-end boutiques.
One comforting attribute of the area: there are enough sidewalk cafes to sip a café con leche, soft drink or bottle of water and eat a pastry. Everyone seems to be carrying a bottle of water; you don’t want to get dehydrated – or sunburned, for that matter.
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Mauricio Escobar, of Boynton Beach, Florida, a student at San Juan Bautista School of Medicine, notes the white sandy beaches in the Condado and Isla Verde sections, which boast luxury high-rise hotels.
He tells me that most people in the San Juan speak English, though less so outside the capital.
Again moving along Fortaleza Street, I stop at the gate of La Fortaleze, the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico and the oldest executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere.
Next, I taxi over to Castillo San Felipe del Morro (the El Morro fortress), which stands on a bluff overlooking the Bay of San Juan.
Built by the Spaniards between 1539 and 1787, it is the oldest standing fortress in the New World. It stood as the keystone of the city’s defenses in the time of the Spanish occupation and rises some 45 meters from the sea. Nearby is Fort San Cristobal, built in 1772 to safeguard the city from land attacks.
Puerto Rico itself looks like a bullet. Travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor called it “the beginnings of a new continent.” It has some 8,900 square kilometers of area and lies about 1,600 km. southeast of Florida.
Known as a stepping stone to the rest of the West Indies, the US mainland and Central and South America, the island’s population stands at about 3.4 million, of which 2.3 million reside in metro San Juan.
Columbus, who arrived here in 1493, named the island “San Juan.” Ponce de Leon christened the main harbor “Puerto Rico.” I learn that the names were reversed in the 16th Century. No one knows just how or why, and the “wrong names” endure.
Spain never really developed its colonies in the Greater Antilles, and around 1850, the desire for independence from Madrid grew. Then came the Spanish-American War, and Spain surrendered the island to the US in 1898.
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the US.
Some call it a “free-associated state.” Fierce debate rages as to its future status. Of its three major political parties, one is in favor of US statehood, one seeks to remain a commonwealth and one aims for independence.
On June 11, for the fifth time, Puerto Ricans went to the polls for a nonbinding referendum. They voted to become the 51st state of the US, though Congress must grant its approval.
Puerto Ricans are US citizens and can move to the mainland without immigration restrictions. They cannot vote for president, nor do they pay federal income taxes.
They can apply for welfare, and Washington foots the bill. The US also takes care of the island’s defense and foreign affairs.
Today, the Puerto Rican economy is in terrible shape, and at the beginning of May, the island went bankrupt. The New York Times wrote that it was “the first time in history an American state or territory had taken the extraordinary measure.”
Jewish settlement in Puerto Rico before 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War, was almost non-existent. Shortly afterwards, Jews began arriving. More came after World War I, and in 1927, 27 families made up the Jewish population on the island. The Jewish community really came into being during World War II.
At the beginning of the 21st century, there were about 2,000 Jews living in Puerto Rico. Today, there are about 1,200, according to Diego Mandelbaum, religious director of Shaare Tzedek Synagogue, a congregation affiliated with the Conservative Movement.
Since 2001, the economy of Puerto Rico has been in a downward spiral, probably causing Jews to emigrate. Now, however, according to Jewish leaders, recent Commonwealth tax laws, including special consideration for new residents, have brought Israeli and American businesspersons, according to Chabad Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, has lived on the island for 17 years and serves the entire Caribbean. He says current estimates of the Jewish population of Puerto Rico range from 2,500 to 3,000.
Most of the islands older Jews fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took over. Moreover, a large number of Argentine Jews settled here after that country’s great depression on 1998-2002 – though many have since emigrated to the US, says Mandelbaum. Most of the Jewish community’s young people head to the mainland for college; many remain there after graduation.
Shaare Tzedek, whose president is Jeff Berezdivin, offers a wide variety of Jewish education programs. It is located at 903 Ponce de Leon Avenue in the Miramar section of San Juan. A Reform congregation, Temple Beth Shalom, can be found at 101 San Jorge Street in San Juan’s Santurce district.
Chabad’s Zarchi is the only resident rabbi in Puerto Rico and is proud of the new, 1,060 sq.m. Chabad Center, including a mikva, at 18 Calle Rosa in the city’s Isla Verde section.
Tourists can sign up for Shabbat dinners there at Chabadpr.com/Shabbat.
Shaare Tzedek maintains a kosher food store. Chabad offers ready-to-eat food that can be eaten at the center.
In the final analysis, like other Jewish communities in the Caribbean, this one, too, is small, active and Zionist and has a good awareness of Judaism and a strong identity.Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press) and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing Company).
Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, twitter @bengfrank
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