My plane had just landed in Kingston, Jamaica, when a fellow passenger, perhaps sensing I did not look like a beach-bound tourist and that I just might be Jewish, asked if I was going to a conference. Eli Gabay, a lawyer from Philadelphia, was also on his way to “The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean Conference.” As we headed into Jamaica’s capital city, he told of his interest in Jamaican Jewish history and of restoring the island’s abandoned Jewish cemeteries. A Sephardi who speaks Hebrew, Arabic and Ladino, he learned that Gabays were among the earliest Jews in Jamaica, whose presence goes back to a visit by Christopher Columbus.
“I grew up with the knowledge of the fact that my family had been expelled from Spain in 1492,” Gabay told me. “As a child, I was fascinated by the stories of those Jews who escaped the Inquisition, prayed in dungeons below their homes and defied Ferdinand and Isabella. When the Internet became a tool for genealogical research over 10 years ago, a Gabay from Jamaica contacted me and we explored a common ancestry via e-mail.”
The potential Jamaican relative indicated that he was not Jewish, but that his family was originally of Spanish-Jewish descent, and that he was black in appearance. Gabay’s Jamaican story took an unusual twist with his arrival by airplane some eight years before we met at the same airport.
“I landed in Jamaica on a trip and the customs officer asked me if I was visiting my family. I indicated that I had none in Jamaica, but he told me that there was a large clan of Gabays up the street from him. This sparked my interest, and I began to read everything I could on the subject. I was amazed to learn that the Gabays from Spain were one of the pillar families in Jamaica,” Gabay told me.
This led him to wonder if they were his extended family, for they came from Cordoba, the same Spanish city from which his ancestors came. The Kingston phone book has columns listing many Gabays, in addition to Levys and Cohens, but the vast majority of them likely do not consider themselves to be Jews, though many almost certainly have Jewish ancestry.
“Eventually, I met with the Jewish community. I was accepted with open
arms,” said Gabay. “I participated in services in the synagogue, made
friends and went to see the oldest Jewish tombstone on the island –
that of Abraham Gabay. The sight of the cemetery in shambles broke my
heart. Here was a community that thrived for hundreds of years, and I
was sad to see the graves robbed of their marble and broken. I traveled
from Kingston to Montego Bay to see the cemetery there and found it in
bad shape. It was the dumping ground for the area.”
Gabay’s interest did not end there. “I hired locals and worked for two
days cleaning, painting and fixing what I could. Next, I traveled to
Lucia, a small town on the road to Negril, and did the same at that
cemetery. This began my adventure into the world of documenting these
type of cemeteries in Jamaica and doing what I could to repair them.”