Jamaica’s many colors

With one of the oldest Jewish communities in the New World, the island nation is looking to attract Jewish tourists

jamaica 311 (photo credit: Paul M. Sofer)
jamaica 311
(photo credit: Paul M. Sofer)
Eastern European countries have already created a successful cottage industry from Jewish roots tours, but now a new destination wants to get in on the act: Jamaica. While the Caribbean island has been home to considerably fewer Jews than other Jewish tourism destinations – even at its peak in the late 19th century, the community numbered only some 2,500 – the Jews who did arrive here, sometimes tempest-tossed, have a rich and intriguing past. And that past stretches back to the European colonization of the Caribbean, making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the New World.
Plus, when you are not sifting through the sands of Jewish history, you can run your fingers through the sands of Jamaica’s stunning beaches, which is more than can be said for the Czech Republic or Hungary.
Sand, in fact, is a defining feature of the country’s one remaining synagogue, a towering structure built in 1912 in the capital city of Kingston.
The floor of the Shaare Shalom Synagogue is covered with the fine substance, raked out neatly before services only to be quickly marked by the shoes of the congregants when they arrive to celebrate Shabbat.
The sand is not present due to the tropical location but, according to synagogue lore, in remembrance of the adversity faced by Jews during the Spanish inquisition. During that time, Jews are believed to have spread sand on the ground of their basements to muf- fle the noise while they worshiped in secret.
Many in the congregation trace their roots back to Spanish Jewry, though many have Ashkenazi origins or are Jamaican-born converts, making Shaare Shalom likely one of the most diverse congregations in the Americas.
Though it was once Orthodox, it is now a blend of liberal traditions. The prayer book is totally unique, incorporating many Ashkenazi and Sephardi aspects, a good deal of English and reflections of the melded communities’ past, such as a Portuguese prayer in remembrance of the hardships experienced under the Inquisition. The Inquisition and the 350-year history of the population form a common reference point for congregants, frequently finding its way into sermons.
Though there is no doubt that many of the present- day congregants come from the Sephardi tradition, when exactly Spain’s Jews first made their mark on the island is a little more muddled. The island history likes to note that unlike other Caribbean destinations controlled by the crown, Jamaica – lacking in precious metals – was given to Columbus by the Spanish monarch as a present for his good service.
Therefore, the Inquisition, which was enforced by the Spanish government throughout its colonies, was not rigorously enforced in Jamaica. It is quite likely that Jews came to the island during this period, though they would still have kept their observance hidden.
Until, that is, the British invaded Jamaica in 1655 and Jews were able to practice out in the open. And following the British victory, many Jews who had fled Spain for other European destinations, such as Ams- terdam, arrived in force.
Jews established themselves in Port Royal on Jamaica’s coast, working as traders, merchants and money-changers, and built a synagogue, cemetery and later a Jewish school.
There are also believed to be at least a handful of Jews who plied the nearby seas as pirates, an occupation that made more than a few Jamaica fortunes.
After an earthquake destroyed much of the fort town, Jews resettled mostly in Kingston, and soon became an inte- gral part of the economy and society.
Despite their affluence, however, they were not granted full civil rights until 1831. Once a law was passed in that year allowing them to hold office, they went on to fill positions including mayor, councilman and justice of the peace. By mid-century, nearly 20 per- cent of the 47-person House of Assembly was Jewish. The House even adjourned on Yom Kippur.
But just as traditional forces in Jewish history – flight from oppression, economic opportunity, family ties – brought Jews to Jamaica, as they did to other New World locations, they also pulled them away. The United States seemed to offer more possibilities, such as the gold rush in the mid-19th century. Economic interests later pushed many Jews out when a socialist government took over in the 1970s and sparked concerns among the affluent population.
Now, only a handful of Jews – 300 according to the most generous estimates – remain, and they share com- mon Jewish struggles, namely how to cope with assimilation and rampant intermarriage to ensure the continuity of their community.
THOUGH SHAARE Shalom still holds regular services and a small Shabbat kiddush, the number of regulars doesn’t exceed much more than a minyan.
And many of the most dedicated are older, without a strong new generation to take their place.
“We do have a future, but it’s getting gray,” says synagogue elder statesman Ainsley Henriques, whose own hair is disappearing but who has keen blue eyes that provide a window into the energy that keeps him, and through him much of the congregation, going.
He is committed to keeping this historic community alive, but it’s tough going.
Still, there a few hopeful developments, including the recent retention of a rabbi for the first time in 30 years and the fact that several non-Jewish spouses of community members and even a few non-affiliated locals have decided to convert. The composition of the congregation runs the gamut from Ashkenazi to Sephardi, from white to black, native Jamaican to Indian to Chinese.
Seventy-seven-year-old Marilyn Delevante, who has written a book chronicling the Jewish experience in Jamaica, including her own family’s (she and Henriques are second cousins), and guesses that she is only person on the island who keeps kosher, says that finally having a rabbi is a positive step – but might not be a big enough one.
“It’s a start in the right direction. Not to have a rabbi for 30 years is terrible,” she says. “Whether that’s really going to make such a difference...” she continues, her voice trailing off before finishing asking a question whose answer is likely no.
But even if the Jamaican Jewish pop- ulation is dwindling, the Jamaican tourism board hopes it can at least boost the island’s number of short- term Jewish visitors interested in exploring the community’s roots.
“It’s something that we should pro- mote,” explains John Lynch, director of tourism for the Jamaica Tourist Board. “It’s part of our heritage.”
He notes that the Jewish population was one of the oldest in the hemi- sphere, with only a handful of other places – Barbados, Curaçao, Recife, Brazil – having communities from the same era.
Still, he does concede that “it’s a niche market.”
Aside from the Shaare Shalom syna- gogue and cemeteries stretching as far as Montego Bay, the Jewish tourism stops are somewhat tenuous.
There are the remains of the Port Royal fort, whose small museum includes a case displaying a Shabbat candle holder. A featured sight in Kingston, which by and large is not a tourism hub, is the stately Devon House, that once belonged to George Stiebel, described in the home’s litera- ture as Jamaica’s first millionaire of modest origins. That same literature also notes that Stiebel, who made his fortune in mining in South America, had a German Jewish father. But the mansion, with its lovely verandas and storied antiques, has no discernible Jewish traces.
The National Gallery of Jamaica features works by esteemed Jamaican Jewish artist Isaac Mendes Belisario, whom the museum calls the first documented Jamaican-born artist. His premier works, however, don’t touch on Jewish themes.
In fact, he is prided for ground-breaking representations of the recently emancipated black population.
Yet all of these spots are compelling on their own, with their tangential Jewish connections just an extra layer of local color. And besides, after taking them in, you’re in Jamaica.
■ The author was a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board