A recent conference on Caribbean Jewry tells the fascinating 500-year story of Jamaica’s Jews.

jamaica 311 (photo credit: Paul Foer)
jamaica 311
(photo credit: Paul Foer)
On a warm January evening, I am seated in a synagogue with doors and windows open to the palm trees outside. Such a scene might take place in the US only in Hawaii or Florida, but it is even odder that my feet are resting on a sand-covered floor as we welcome Shabbat. It’s not the typical service which I am used to and it’s not just because of the tropical surroundings, nor is it because of the hazan’s place on a stepped-up platform in the middle. Neither is it simply because of the balcony above or because of some of the melodies and chants are unfamiliar to me. But behind the wooden doors on the bima, Torahs rest in the ark, and despite the tropical surroundings and the unusual atmosphere, at least to me, the Torahs are the clear reminder that though somewhat different from my perspective, this is a synagogue.
Among the many synagogues that may have existed at one time or another during the past 2,000 years, only a few disappeared due to earthquakes and hurricanes. Although this is the only remaining synagogue in Jamaica, where I came for a conference on Caribbean Jewry, and its cultural roots go back to the late 15th century, the present structure that houses the United Congregation of Israelites goes back only about a hundred years. Sha’are Shalom (Gates of Peace) was rebuilt in 1912 after the 1907 earthquake destroyed the 1888 building. The first synagogue in Jamaica was built in Port Royal in the 17th century, and in nearby Spanish Town a synagogue was built in 1704.
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The clean, white building and its grounds are Dutch and tropical in appearance. The synagogue occupies a corner in an otherwise not-too-attractive section of the older part of Kingston, only 10 blocks or so from its rather decrepit and neglected harbor front. Surrounded by lovely grounds that include a cemetery and palm trees to shade the tombstones, it is the center of Jewish life in Jamaica. A small building next to the synagogue is home to the Jewish Heritage Center of Jamaica which houses a collection of photographs, documents and artifacts and was dedicated in 1999 by Ainsley C. Henriques of Kingston.
The sand-covered floor was the subject of many conversations and only a few synagogues are believed to have them. Henriques said that sand first is “to remind us that we are desert people. Second, that we may be as many as the grains of sand. Third, because it muffled the steps of our ancestors who worshiped in secret. And four – and perhaps the most important reason – the kids love it.”
Gerard Nahon, director emeritus of medieval and modern Jewish studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes of the Sorbonne, spoke in French as he asked conference attendees about the sand floors. “Was it to muffle the sound of steps in secret? Was it to remind us of the crossing of the Sinai? Was it mixed with sand from the Holy Land?”
At the oneg Shabbat, surrounded by the artifacts and many photographs of the Jewish Heritage Center, I joined the congregants around the table where food and snacks were spread out for the worshipers. It was pretty much like any synagogue oneg, except the informally dressed congregants were much better behaved and less pushy than the coreligionists more familiar to me.
But the food was definitely a new experience. There was a dish commonly referred to as calaloo, made from a tropical, leafy, water spinach, and then there was a dish prepared with salted fish, or what the Jamaicans call “sahlfeesh.” I enjoyed the ackee, a yellowish fruit that when prepared looked like what I imagine brains to look like, but I enjoyed its unusual, tangy flavor. Ackee and saltfish are considered to be the Jamaican national food.
For sure that was fairly unusual food for a Yankee such as myself, but before we partook of the repast, there was the traditional and familiarly blessed halla of course. And along with that, there was also something much more familiar, almost a comfort-food, or comfort-drink I should say, familiar to Jews pretty much everywhere. That was the Manischewitz.
But how did Jews ever get to the Caribbean, and especially Jamaica, where their presence continues after 500 years?
THE STORY of Caribbean Jewry was told at the conference that drew 200 amateur historians, scholars and, of course, Sephardi descendants of the earliest New World Jews to Jamaica. The conference’s popularity is a sign that we are understanding the expulsion and migration of Jews from Iberia as profoundly important and far-reaching as other, perhaps more widely known, narratives of Jewish and world history. This would include, for example, the exodus from Egypt or the dispersion to Babylon and throughout the Roman Empire. However, it is essentially a Sephardi narrative, and some suggest that may account for it not being as widely known as Ashkenazi history.
After centuries in Spain, the thriving Jewish community, which had lived relatively peacefully for centuries alongside Christians also under Muslim domination, was expelled when the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Despite the entreaties of influential once-Jewish “New Christians” close to the king and queen, the demands of the clergy won out and they ordered the Jews expelled. It was just the inevitable next step after rioting and increasing oppression which led to the Spanish Inquisition. On an August day in 1492, all Jews had to leave Spain, and that is where the story of the Caribbean-Jewish diaspora begins.
That same day, after anchoring offshore the previous night for some unknown reason, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to find a new passage to the Indies. He may very well have been a Converso Jew or a descendant of Jews who earlier left Spain. Columbus was the first European to visit Jamaica and had Jews with him, some submitting themselves to baptism only upon departing from Spain.
The famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal suggested in his book Sails of Hope that Columbus even had a secret plan to make the beautiful island a haven for Jews fleeing the Inquisition. While speculation has long swirled around his Jewish roots and his intentions for Jamaica, it is well-known that the Caribbean’s third largest island holds a special place for Sephardim. Jamaica was reserved for Columbus and his descendants and Jews were relatively secure there.
Whatever were Columbus’s intentions, when the British took Jamaica from Spain in 1655, the island’s Jews, many of whom lived in Port Royal, welcomed them and came out of the closet so to speak, free to live and worship as Jews. Historians say that Campoe Sabbath, who helped the British pilot their ships into Kingston harbor to rout the Spaniards, was a Jew from the island of Nevis. The two Jamaican-Spanish officers who greeted the victorious British may have been secret Jews. From that time on, Jamaica’s Jews have multiplied and prospered and have left their mark on the island by their involvement in commerce, politics and the professions.
Thus Jamaica is a fitting place for a conference designed to both further legitimize Caribbean Jewish studies as a field of scholarship and for Jamaicans, laymen, history buffs and Jews of all stripes to advance collective understanding of an aspect of Jewish history which may have seemed neglected. Some hope that Jamaica will be the springboard to recognizing and developing greater Caribbean Jewish heritage resources for tourism.
“THERE IS no doubt that the Jewish community is at the heart, the DNA of Caribbean history,” said Swithin Wilmot, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies, as the conference began.
Jamaica is among the oldest and is perhaps the longest continually active Jewish community of the New World. Other early settlements included Surinam, Recife in northeast Brazil, Curaçao and St. Thomas. Because of their linguistic and business skills and contacts with brethren in other merchant ports, Jews became active traders, sugar growers and in some cases, soldiers, slave traders and even pirates.
Jews established themselves in the notorious town of Port Royal, located at the tip of a long, narrow spit that creates the enormous Kingston harbor. Port Royal was the pirate stronghold during the golden age of the much romanticized yet brief era of pirates. Made famous in the film Pirates of the Caribbean and probably as the inspiration for Disney’s thrill ride of the same name, the portrayal of Port Royal as a bawdy, raucous town may not have been too far off the mark. An earthquake destroyed Port Royal in 1692 and most of the town remains submerged. However, the nearby Hunts Bay Cemetery on the mainland is evidence of the Jewish community that once existed.
On a sweltering and humid January day, two busloads of conference participants take a very bumpy ride into the less desirable backwater neighborhoods of Kingston to visit Hunt’s Bay Cemetery. Here, at the final resting place of some of the earliest Jamaican Jews, Philadelphian Eli Gabay shows us the grave of Abraham Gabay and wonders if the man might be an ancestor. Architect and historian Rachel Frankel, who spoke at the conference and is a leader in researching and restoring Caribbean Jewish cemeteries, takes the crowd around the tombstones with their inscriptions in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese. Some are sporting rather surprising chiseled images of skulls and crossbones. Were these inspired by the biblical Ezekiel? Did they perhaps have some relation to the flags of some of the real pirates of the Caribbean?
As I look at the ethnically diverse group, I wonder how many Jamaicans might have Jewish blood, perhaps related to those whose tombs we are visiting. The earliest tombstones go back to the 1670s. Another tombstone, of a child, shows an arm reaching from the sky with an ax chopping down a fruiting tree.
A crowd of locals, almost all young men with dreadlocks and T-shirts, gathers at the edge of the field to watch as we mull about the graves. These men have been “recruited” to protect the graveyard, or so I am told, but that’s a story best left to be explained by locals.
THERE IS much more to the Jamaican Jewish community and all of Caribbean Jewish history than what is found in cemeteries. A shift in the frame of reference was needed, for example, when I visited the private Hillel Academy, on a hill, in a lovely setting on the outskirts of Kingston. There were 700 students at what is supposedly a Jewish institution, named after the ancient sage who loved learning and teaching above all else. Yet as one Israeli attendee remarked, “We are visiting a Jewish school with no Jews.”
Actually there were supposedly about two dozen Jewish students, but if one were to get rabbinical, it’s possible that one would count even fewer “Jews” among them.
Then I thought back to the Jewish day school my children attended. It has shrunk from 60 to fewer than 40 students in the past few years, despite being near two major American cities and having the support of three synagogues from the major streams. Not only that, but many of those students were from intermarriages or even non-Jewish families, while the Jewish families might not be considered all that Jewish. Hundreds of years after once-secret Jews found themselves finally free of the reach of the Inquisition and openly lived as Jews on the Jewel of the Caribbean, why should we question who is a Jew, even if the island’s Jews don’t particularly look or sound like what our definition of Jewish may be?
From the people I met, intermarriage and intermixing at all levels seem to have reduced Judaism or “Jewishness” to a level that suits the Jews of Jamaica, who are Jewish because they call themselves Jewish, in whatever manner befits being Jewish to them.
It’s a question touched upon by Jerusalemite Mordechai Arbell, whose talk on “The Gradual Disappearance of the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Communities of the Caribbean” was widely discussed among the conferees.
“Throughout our long history, Jewish communities have been destroyed by persecution, discrimination, pogroms and genocide. In the case of the Caribbean, where in most places Jews have enjoyed equal rights (and in some instances special privileges), good relations with the local population, high social standing and a comfortable economic situation, we are witnessing a gradual disappearance of Jewish life.”
Arbell then asked, “Might one reach the bitter conclusion that equal rights and the lack of anti-Semitism and discrimination might be as dangerous to Jewish existence as persecution and murder? One is reminded of the words of Nahum Goldmann, the founder of the World Jewish Congress: ‘Where it is good for Jews, it is bad for Judaism.’”
Arbell, a native of Sofia, Bulgaria, served as Israeli ambassador in Panama and Haiti and was in charge of the embassies in Bogota and Seoul.
He lays out the reasons why Jews have slowly disappeared. In addition to the ease of assimilation, he points to how what he calls the “ultra-Orthodox approach and its behavioral modes created opposition among the younger generations and alienated them from communal Jewish life.” On the other hand, and not to be outdone by the Orthodox, Arbell also points to Reform Judaism with its roots in modernity and Germany. “The Reform movement introduced its own prayers and brought in its own religious leaders. Gradually, the Reform began erasing the Sephardi roots and traditions so dear to the Spanish-Portuguese communities all over the world.”
Arbell suggests that “neither found the right way to preserve Judaism in the Caribbean” but believes that “Jamaica and Curaçao have found the path between the two.”
The Holocaust and the destruction of links to older, established European Jewish communities took its toll. He also posits that the more recent arrival of Ashkenazim has also led to the withering of the Spanish-Portuguese Caribbean Jews. To a certain extent, newer Jewish immigrants “damaged the social standing of the Jews as Jews in society. The Spanish-Portuguese Jews were reluctant to be lumped with the newcomers, and some joined the non-Jewish upper social classes.”
Economic decline in the Caribbean and “Americanization” has also made an impact. Arbell writes that “Caribbean Jews saw the opportunities offered in the United States and after completing studies there preferred to remain. This tendency has drained the Jewish communities in the Caribbean of their younger generation.”
However, all is not lost, and Arbell concludes that “‘survivors’ in the Caribbean have the desire to remain Jewish coupled with the pride of belonging to the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish nation of the Caribbean, with its rich history and tradition. Lately, many useful steps have been made in this direction. This congress proves they will succeed.”
HENRIQUES OF Kingston was one of the driving forces behind the January conference, which he cochaired with Jane Gerber, professor of Jewish history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The fact that the conference attracted some 200 persons surprised Henriques, who said he would have been pleased had only 40 attended.
Now admittedly, Ainsley C. Henriques is not a particularly Jewish name, and if the C, which stands for Cohen, were not a dead giveaway, perhaps no one would guess that this man, who traces his ancestry back hundreds of years, is indeed a Sephardi Jew. He looks more Northern European than Semitic or Sephardi and Ainsley is a Dutch name, linked to the time when Amsterdam was a center of Jewry and Holland was a major colonial power.
He is even distantly related to brothers Moses and Abraham Cohen-Henriques, 17th-century pirates who are mentioned in the best-selling book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom – and Revenge by Ed Kritzler. There were indeed Jewish pirates poking around Jamaica and those tropical waters. Ainsley’s ancestral pair of brothers were among them.
“Jane and I discussed the idea about a year and a half ago. The concept took shape with the realization that one could not invite people to Jamaica for a day, so it had to be at least three days and then there were the problems of kashrut and the shomer Shabbat,” Henriques said. “So we decided that we would end it on Thursday to allow those who wanted to, to leave for Shabbat at home. And having run the two earlier Union of Latin American and the Caribbean Jewish Congregations conference in Kingston, I knew I could deal with the issue of kashrut.”
Kashrut was dealt with by working with accommodating restaurants and chefs at both the Pegasus Hotel, where the conference was held, and at the Spanish Court Hotel, where I and other journalists stayed, and some kept kosher. When the groups of reporters went out to restaurants, chefs happily allowed the observant members of our group to inspect the kitchen, cook certain items separately in double foil and otherwise allow meddling in their workplaces to serve the needs of even a small group.
That was how we observed a pleasant Shabbat in the Spanish Court Hotel with a motley group of Jews from the US, Israel and even an observant young man on a business trip from Panama we happened to meet at the hotel. And, how could I forget that we sat with one of the real stars of the conference – Benny Bwoy, the original Jewmaican, a Brooklyn-born observant Jew named Behn Goldis who sings reggae.
“Up to the Monday afternoon we expected maybe just over 100 including the locals. On Tuesday we had to add 75 chairs before we started and over 200 registered in all, beyond our wildest hopes,” Henriques told me.
The February conference may indeed be a watershed event in terms of turning attention toward the Caribbean Jewish world, but the once thriving Jewish communities are in danger of being lost. Indeed, it was a bit ironic that much of the conference focused on events of hundreds of years ago and heroes, artists and leaders who have long since died, as well as cemeteries.
It may very well be that in addition to some rather remarkable and still active synagogues spread thinly throughout the Caribbean, most of the historical artifacts probably lie underground, or buried under vegetation. Even so, there may be a great deal more to be learned from diaries, personal artifacts, ships’ logs and the like, if such resources can be gathered, but in terms of physical structures, cemeteries are probably the great historical resource. What would be learned if the remnants of Port Royal from beneath Kingston harbor were to ever be brought to light?
New York architect Frankel reflected on future historic work. “The conference helped me adjust my geographic lens, from understanding New World maritime routes to remembering the Sephardi communities of Martinique and Guadeloupe, all of which fleshes out the picture of settlement and expanse of New World Jews.”
Frankel has been encouraged by the success of the conference tocontinue her work with field documentation, inventory, preservation andpublic awareness of the cemeteries, synagogues and mikvaot as nationaland international heritage sites and the establishment of a regionalinventory of Caribbean Jewish sites.
Henriques told me that “the conference was really made by thepresenters” but he was quick to add that “one of the rewardingexperiences was the number of non-Jewish locals who were fascinated bythe history.”
What’s next? The Jamaican Jewish leader pondered. “Possibly a weeklongtour, maybe twice annually with a day of lectures and four days oftours, Jewish sites and recreational activities. The other expectationcoming out of the conference is the likelihood of some presenters doingmore research on our records and filling in our story more over time;this is the mitzva of the conference – if it happens and I believe itwill.”