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Caribbean Jewish Heritage

Posted by Caribbean World Magazine on 8 April 2021 | 0 Comments

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8 April 2021

It is easy to assume that Jewish culture in the Americas is confined to New York City with the United States the most important location of Jewish settlement. But the reality is the story has its origins in the palm-scattered Caribbean isles.

When New York was called New Amsterdam, back in the 17th century, the forefathers of all North American Jewry arrived there via the Caribbean, not direct from Europe. Most originated from Sephardic communities, prompting American Jewish historians to refer to this as the Sephardic period. Many had settled in Jamaica, Suriname, Cuba and Barbados, others had established business, synagogues and schools in Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, the Dutch Antilles, the French Antilles, St Kitts and Nevis and the Cayman Islands. Even Puerto Rico, where Judaism was once outlawed, had a secret Jewish population. In fact, during the whole colonial period, the combined number of Jews in the entire United States – from Newport, Savannah, Charleston and Philadelphia to the Big Apple – didn’t come close to the tally in Kingston, Jamaica where multiple large Jewish communities thrived.

Many of the Jewish refugees who arrived by boat in the Caribbean islands to flee the Nazis in the second wave of migration 1933-1945 were given little choice in where they were taken. At the Evian Conference in 1938, over 30 countries discussed the fate of refugees, yet few opened their doors. The Caribbean, however, was largely empathetic. Ships containing Jewish refugees often went from port to port, where they engaged in frantic negotiations to find homes for large extended Jewish families

The Jewish Jamaican history is rich and extensive yet remains a little known story, rarelyrevealed in popular literature, be it the arrival of the Jews in the 16th century and theflourishing 17th centenary settlements to the lasting legacy of the small but notable island presence today. It began in Jamaica in1530 when Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition and gains further momentum once Britain takes power of the island from Spain in 1655. Signalling an era in which immigration is welcomed, a staggering 18% of the Jamaican population is Jewish by 1720. Jewish communities flourished in Jamaica, centring on gold trade, sugar and vanilla plantations and even, occasionally, pirate and plunder - Moses Cohen Henriques, a Dutch pirate of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent,terrorised the Caribbean and eventually became advisor to the famous Captain Henry Morgan. 

Jews in Jamaica could hold office before the right was granted for Jews in England. Many joined the Jamaican Assembly, and in 1849 it even met for Yom Kippur and by 1866, 13 out of the 47 delegates were Jewish. However, despite integration and prosperity, many in the the Jewish community felt the full impact of the downturn in the economy at the turn of the 20th century, leaving to seek prosperity elsewhere.

All cemeteries have stories to tell, and those in Trinidad and Tobago are no exception especially the one on Mucurapo Road in Port of Spain. Here the headstones are etched with Hebrew inscriptions and adorned with the Star of David and bear surnames such as Marx, Schwarz, Falkenstein and Gumprich. Trinidad’s Jewish graves reflect the importance of the 600 Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe who sought sanctuary from persecution and violence on the island. Today, the evidence of Jewish life in Trinidadremains, most notably on every police car, policeman, and police station on the island, which has a Magen David, together with a hummingbird, in its insignia. The design is that of a British commander who came to Trinidad from Palestine. Placing a white star against a blue background for the local army symbol, switching the colours of what was to become The Israeli Flag, and adding a hummingbird later added for local flavour. It is uniquely Trinidadian as the only police service in the world that does not use its country's Coat of Arms as its official symbol.

Trinidad, as a British colony, had no visa requirements, merely charging a landing deposit. The Jews, many of whom had professional qualifications, arrived penniless but willing to adapt to a new life, helped by modest grants from refugee agencies to start new businesses. In Port of Spain, a synagogue was quickly established in a rented house and cafes, football clubs, schools and drama clubs were founded. Although many Jews intended the Caribbean to be a temporary stopover, they nonetheless began putting down roots with local islanders aware of the atrocities in Europe and sympathetic to their plight. Some, understandably, saw an echo of their own history of slavery in Jewish persecution.

Jews also settled elsewhere in the Caribbean here they often developed a hybrid identity, that often involved some interesting links between Judaism and local spiritual ideology. In Suriname, there remain some surviving Jewish businesses and cultural observationsfrom its lengthy Jewish history, which stems from the the 17th century. In Aruba, there are records of Jewish communities that date back to the 16th century and a synagogue that welcomes a joint congregation of worshippers blends both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions and The Jewish Community of Aruba remains at the heart of community life, publishing a monthly newsletter, Chadashot Beth Israel. 

In the Bahamas, the Jewish population is around 300 with the Luis De Torres Synagogue in Freeport, built in 1972, now part of local history. On New Providence Island in Nassau,a walled-off section of the cemetery is dedicated to Jewish graves with the city’s Nassau Jewish Congregation affiliated to the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean. A Chabad in the Baha Mar resort in the Cable Beach neighbourhoodholds a minyan every Shabbat morning while Jewish children attend the Nadal Hebrew School aged five to 13. Kosher food products can be found in local grocery stores and there are also a number of Jewish owned businesses. 

While the Cayman Islands, has a small year-round Jewish community, predominatelycentred in George Town on Grand Cayman Island, numbers swell when several dozen or more Jewish families arrive to snowbird on the island. In Cuba, Jews have played an integral part in community life since the earliest arrivals with Columbus in the 17th century. Cuban Jews were instrumental in the sugar cane business, shipping cane from Madeira to Brazil and transporting to the Antilles. In the tobacco industry, Jews were the first ones to use a protective cloth used to protect the plants from the sun and wind. - an innovation that is still used today. Despite around 90% of Cuba’s Jews fleeing the island after the revolution, Havana remains home to a sizeable Jewish community. During its height, more than 12,000 Jews lived in Cuba and, of that, 75 percent lived in Havana and the city still has synagogues and a Kosher restaurant. 

In Curacao, fewer than 350 Jews remain on the island today after a steady decrease in population attributable to the flight of the youth, who usually leave the island to attend an American university, and rarely return full-time. Nonetheless, the community still maintains one of the most historic synagogues in the world and is home to a fascinating Jewish Cultural Historical Museum. A well preserved collection includes the island’s most precious religious and cultural artefacts with many pieces still used today in the Congregation’s services and rituals.

The Dominican Republic positively embraced Jewish immigrants and their culture, promising the new arrivals a sanctuary from the “shadow of war, persecution, horror and death. ...”. Today around 500 Jews remain, of the 1000 who settled in the country (each family received 33 hectares of land, 10 cows (plus 2 additional cows per child), a mule and a horse, and a US$10,000 loan (about 174,000 dollars at 2021 prices) at 1% interesttogether with those refugees who opened businesses in the capital, Santo Domingo. The oldest Jewish grave is dated to 1826.

In the 14th century, Jews were first recorded living in Guadeloupe but aren’t believed to have settled in Martinique until the early 17th century. Jewish merchants and traders arrived on the island, prior to the French colonisation, along with the Dutch, and now have a large historic community in Schoelcher complete with synagogue, school and kosher market.

Though the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis are extremely small, they still have a rich Jewish history. At its height, the Jewish community in St. Kitts numbered between 75 to 100 people and constituted around 25% of the islands' total population. Some historians suggest that American statesman Alexander Hamilton, who was born in Nevis, had a Jewish father.

Jews first settled in the Virgin Islands in 1655, when it was under Danish rule, as traders in sugarcane, rum and Molasses. One of the first Jews in the Virgin Islands was Gabriel Milan, whom King Christian of Denmark sent in 1664 to be governor, the first of three Jews who have served as governors. In 1685, the Jews and Catholics were granted freedom of religion and about two centuries later, in 1850, the Islands’ Jewish population hit its peak, numbering 400 and making up half of the white community. After the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the number of Jews declined rapidly and, by 1942, only 50 Jews remained. Since then the community has rebounded and is roughly the size it was at its peak. Famous Jews born in the Virgin Islands include Frenchimpressionist painter Camille Pissarro.

In Puerto Rico, despite being officially forbidden from settling the island through much of its history, Jews managed to arrive as “secret Jews”, also called Marranos and Crypto-Jews. Judaism was prohibited by the Spanish Inquisition so it required great grit and determination to establish the Caribbean’s largest (at around 3,000 inhabitants) and wealthiest Jewish community in which all three major Jewish denominations are represented in San Juan, Ponce and Mayaguez. There are a number of synagogues, and kosher food outlets, with Hebrew schooling held at the Jewish Community Centre. Some notable Puerto Ricans of Jewish descent include David Blaine, Joaquin Phoenix, Freddie Prinze, Freddie Prinze Jr., Geraldo Rivera, Aaron Cecil Snyder, and Nina Tassler.