This Passover, let’s explore the Caribbean’s Jewish history

no image description available

Growing up in New York City, I was aware of Sephardic Jews, thanks to a family who moved next door to us. At first, I thought they were Puerto Rican, but our neighbors turned out to be Spanish and Jewish. I also knew some Black Jews of Caribbean ancestry when organizing in Harlem. The Smithsonian has some early photos of Harlem’s Black Jews:

It wasn’t until I was much older that I became friends with a Cuban Jewish woman, and learned a bit about the history of the Jewish community there.

So let’s start at the beginning.

The first practitioners of Judaism to arrive in the New World came with the Portuguese and Spaniards, in an attempt to escape vicious antisemitism. This 2015 story in the Times of Israel, by historian Esor Ben-Sorek, mentions some details of Columbus’ iconic journey that I was never taught in school.

In Spain [Columbus] was well acquainted with many “conversos” or crypto-Christians, Jews who had been converted to Christianity while secretly practicing Judaism. The Spaniards called them “marranos”, a derogatory term meaning pigs.


On August 3, 1492, exactly one day after the publication of the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Columbus set sail with three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Sailing with him were six “converso” Jews: Luis de Torres, his translator and interpreter, Maestro Bernal, a physician, 2 surgeons, Marco and Rodrigo Sanchez, Alfonso de la Calle, sailor and navigator, and Rodrigo de Triana, the sailor who was the first to sight land on October 12, 1492.

The maps and routes of the sailings were prepared by Abraham Zacuto, a professor of astronomy at the University of [Salamanca] and the only Jew among Columbus’ friends who did not convert to Christianity.

I was aware of conversos—forced converts to Catholicism. My parents had Puerto Rican friends who used to talk about how their families on the island had originally been “secret Jews,” though they all ultimately became Catholics.

This 2020 article from Arizona State University covers “Illuminating the history of Jews in the Caribbean,” a photo exhibit and book from photographer Wyatt Gallery and ASU professor Stanley Mirvis that explores the “history of the Sephardic diaspora.”

Q: What is a Sephardic Jew?

A: You may have heard that Jews are often referred to as either Ashkenazi or Sephardic, and that’s sort of a false bifurcation, but generally speaking, Sephardic was the Hebrew terminology that Jews used to describe themselves as being Spanish, and Ashkenazi was this term that Jews used to describe German lands and northern France. So that is why there’s this division now. It’s not a true division, and there are many different subethnicities based on your language, and that manifests in the different traditions that you have. But Sephardic and Ashkenazi are kind of the big ones.

Q: What were the circumstances of the Sephardic diaspora that led so many Jews to settle in the Caribbean?

A: Somewhere around 200,000 Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. This was one of the largest upheavals of people up until that time. In late medieval/early modern standards, 200,000 people is an enormous dislocation of human beings. It’s a major world event and it has extremely important ripples throughout history. Most of those Jews that left Spain went to Portugal and were forcibly converted to Catholicism but continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Then let’s skip ahead a bit: In the 17th century, a lot of these Portuguese converts were leaving Portugal and settling in new communities in Western Europe that were now open to them to live openly as Jews; cities like Amsterdam, Hamburg and later London. Around the same time, the Dutch and the English were pushing their reach into the Caribbean. Then in 1630, the Dutch take part of northern Brazil from the Portuguese. So a lot of the Portuguese converts – those who were living in the Portuguese world in Brazil who couldn’t openly be Jews – now ran to the Dutch to live openly as Jews. So in the community of Recife in northern Brazil, you have a really large Jewish community that emerges in the 1630s and ’40s, and this ends up being the seed community for a whole Jewish population in the Americas. Where it all starts to become a Caribbean story is in 1656, when the Portuguese conquer the Dutch in northern Brazil and kick all the Jews out. Just like in Spain back in 1492. So some of them crossed the borders into what is today Suriname and Guyana.

For an interesting and humorous look at a high-seas historical adventure, this five-minute video from Unpacked tells the story of Jewish pirates who were fighting and robbing a Spanish ship—as a bit of “payback” for the expulsion and forced conversion of the Sephardim.

From the video’s notes:

Long Before the Dread Pirate Roberts or Pirates of the Caribbean entered our consciousness, there were once Jewish pirates who sailed the seven seas and wreaked all sorts of semi-kosher mayhem across the Mediterranean. It’s kinda hard to believe, but in the Middle Ages there honestly were Jews who operated under the skull and crossbones. Taking on unforgettable names like “Great Jew” and the “Pirate Rabbi,” some indulged in the whole swashbuckling pirate life. Others took to the high seas as revenge against an oppressive regime. Of course, there’s those who say that most of the Jewish pirates served more as advisors to other leading (non-Jewish) pirates of the day. That might be true (watch the video to find out more), but don’t let the debate over whether they were privateers, buccaneers, pirates or smugglers spoil an awesome story about Jews who stood up to their enemies.

One criticism: The “skull and crossbones” found on Jewish graves in Jamaica had nothing to do with piracy, which was discussed in 2010 on the On The Mainline blog. The popular 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 self-proclaimed historian Ed Kriztler, is a fun read. However, many of his claims are riddled with inaccuracies.

On a more serious note, the history of Jews during colonization, as of other white Europeans, is also tied to the slave trade and plantations. Religious Studies Professor Stanley Mirvis—whose work was mentioned in the Arizona State story above—offers both critique and history in his book “The Gabay Dynasty: Plantation Jews of the Colonial Atlantic World.”                   

A recent slew of popular articles about Caribbean Jews aimed at encouraging tourism, exoticizing the Jew, or enlivening the imagination with stories of Jewish swashbucklers, have reinforced an image of colonial Sephardim as an exclusively merchant community. One author characterized the Jews of Jamaica as “successful gold traders and merchants,” a line that was repeated a number of times in other similar articles.1 While a statement like this is not inaccurate, it completely ignores not only Jewish planters but also poor despachados, physicians, metal workers, entertainers, and fisherman.

I believe that the reluctance to mention Jewish planters in popular magazine articles is rooted in an—understandable—twenty-first-century squeamishness over the reality that Caribbean Jews owned slaves. This is likely the case for example in an outlandish piece from the Jerusalem Post online magazine, “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean,” wherein the author acknowledged Jewish planting activity but qualified that fact with the bizarre falsehood that Jews who didn’t plant “were allowed only two slaves.”2 It is possible that this hesitancy to acknowledge the full scope of Jewish slave ownership is a polemical attempt to undermine contemporary anti-Semitic libels that contend Jews were overrepresented in the slave trade or overly abusive toward their slaves.3 If that is the case then those wishing to whitewash the image of the Jewish slave owner have ironically traded in a contemporary anti-Semitic canard for an eighteenth-century one claiming that Jews traded exclusively at the expense of planting. As one member of Parliament put it in 1753: “[Jews] are not likely to become great purchasers of land, for they love their money and can employ it to much better advantage in trade.”4

Aviva Ben-Ur, Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, published “Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society: Suriname in the Atlantic World, 1651-1825” in 2020 about this history in Suriname. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society explores the political and social history of the Jews of Suriname, a Dutch colony on the South American mainland just north of Brazil. Suriname was home to the most privileged Jewish community in the Americas where Jews, most of Iberian origin, enjoyed religious liberty, were judged by their own tribunal, could enter any trade, owned plantations and slaves, and even had a say in colonial governance.

Aviva Ben-Ur sets the story of Suriname’s Jews in the larger context of Atlantic slavery and colonialism and argues that, like other frontier settlements, they achieved and maintained their autonomy through continual negotiation with the colonial government. Drawing on sources in Dutch, English, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish, Ben-Ur shows how, from their first permanent settlement in the 1660s to the abolition of their communal autonomy in 1825, Suriname Jews enjoyed virtually the same standing as the ruling white Protestants, with whom they interacted regularly. She also examines the nature of Jewish interactions with enslaved and free people of African descent in the colony. Jews admitted both groups into their community, and Ben-Ur illuminates the ways in which these converts and their descendants experienced Jewishness and autonomy. Lastly, she compares the Jewish settlement with other frontier communities in Suriname, most notably those of Indians and Maroons, to measure the success of their negotiations with the government for communal autonomy. The Jewish experience in Suriname was marked by unparalleled autonomy that nevertheless developed in one of the largest slave colonies in the New World.

Historian Alex van Stipriaan reviewed Ben-Ur’s book for New West Indian Guide in 2022, describing her documenting the development of a no longer solely European-ancestored Jewish community in Suriname.

At first children of Jewish fathers and enslaved or free Black women were raised by their fathers in the Jewish faith. They were probably converted to Judaism because there were not enough White Jewish women and the men had to have lawful heirs. During the next generation there were enough Jewish mothers of color to shift back to the rule of the mother deciding Jewish identity. According to official sources at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, one in every 14 Portuguese Jews was of African origin. Ben-Ur is convinced that this is a significant underestimation and that “perhaps the majority of Suriname’s Jewish community by the turn of the eighteenth century would have been descended from an African mother” (p. 155).

These Eurafrican Jews, enslaved and free, did not have the same rights as White Jews. Since the founding of the Jewish community in Suriname in the early 1650s, a differentiation was made between those who had full rights (jahid/ jehidim) and congregants with limited rights. The latter were second-class Jews assigned to the back benches of the synagogue. Jewish men who married Jewish women of color were also degraded to the status of congregant. However, if their sons married White Jewish women for two consecutive generations they could recapture jahid status.

By the mid-eighteenth century Jews of color had become so numerous, so powerful, and so fed up with their limited congregant status (with some of their eminent members being given lesser positions in public ceremonies and funerals) that, in the early 1790s, they founded their own congregation and even their own prayer house. They obviously felt confident enough to go their own separate way. The Mahamad regents, not surprisingly, were furious and started legal prosecution of the initiators, though they also started to abolish all legal distinctions between White and non-White Jews.

Fast-forward a century-plus to the next wave of Jews to relocate from Europe to the Caribbean, right before and during the Holocaust.

Harriet Sherwood, writing for The Guardian, reviews Joanna Newman’s book “Nearly the New World: The British West Indies and the Flight from Nazism 1933-1945” in “Revealed: how the Caribbean became a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi tyranny.”

Several thousand Jewish refugees went by boat to Caribbean islands, including Barbados and Jamaica, in the run-up to and during the second world war. Their almost-forgotten story has now been told in a new book. Most wanted to reach the US or Canada, but could not get entry visas. In their panic to escape the march of fascism, they were forced to take what they could get. “It was a last-chance destination. The majority who ended up in the Caribbean lost members of their families who stayed in the Holocaust,” said Joanna Newman, author of Nearly the New World: The British West Indies and the Flight from Nazism 1933-1945.


British colonies in the Caribbean, such as Trinidad, 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. According to the Trinidad Guardian: “One of the physicians, a lady doctor, is now a midwife, another turned chemist, and a third one is a foreman in a local factory. A famous master-builder of Vienna is now looking for any kind of work. His wife makes a living by tailoring. A lawyer has become a canvasser, another a floor-walker, while a third is going to open a jeweller’s store.”

In Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, the refugees founded a synagogue in a rented house. They opened cafes and started drama and football clubs. The local authorities allotted them a section of the Mucurapo cemetery. Although many intended the Caribbean to be a temporary stopover, “they began putting down roots,” said Newman.

Professor Mirvis also details the history found at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Caribbean Islands and the Guianas.

During the years of the Holocaust, the Caribbean provided refuge to many Jews fleeing war-torn Europe. The British established displacement camps in both Trinidad and Jamaica that sheltered Jewish refugees. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Raphael Trujillo, agreed in the 1838 Evian Accords to admit 10,000 Jews. This racially motivated decision, to encourage greater white migration, gave rise to the Jewish agricultural settlement of Sosúa. But the migration resulted more than double the number of Jewish men in Sosúa than Jewish women (Kaplan, 136). Some of the settlement’s leaders feared that the project would not survive without more women. In the end, the lack of a sustained female presence in Sosúa contributed to the ultimate disappearance of the Dominican Jewish enclave.

As Caribbean Jewish communities engaged with the trends of religious reform in the mid-nineteenth century, more opportunities became available to women to express their ritual lives publicly. In 1844, the moderate reformer Benjamin Cohen Carillon included both married and single women in his confirmation ceremony for community members of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands (Philipson). In January 1963, with the merger of Curaçao’s two Jewish communities, the new bylaws stipulated that women would no longer be seated separately from men during prayer and that they would be counted among the prayer quorum (Emmanuel and Emmanuel, 1:506–12). Similar rules were adopted in Jamaica in 1979. Today, women are leaders in liturgical synagogue practices, often functioning in place of rabbis or cantors in both Curaçao and Jamaica where there are still active communities.

In the late twentieth century, Caribbean Jewish women were the guardians and curators of the Jewish legacy of the region. When the Dutch anthropologist Eva Abraham Van Der Mark set out to study Jewish society in Curaçao, including issues of racial belonging, she relied on women as her key informants (Abraham-Van Der Mark). In Jamaica, Marilyn Delevente, one of the most prominent leaders of the Jewish community, also became one of its most important chroniclers, dedicating her voice to preserving the Jewish legacy of the Caribbean (Delevante). Today, women, including many women of color, are found in leadership roles throughout the remaining active Jewish communities and heritage sites of the Caribbean.

Journalist Ryan Schuessler wrote for Hakai Magazine about the synagogue in Curaçao, which has become a tourist attraction. Schuessler interviewed René Levy Maduro, “a lifelong member of Curaçao’s Jewish community,” in “A Synagogue with a Floor of Sand.”

Sand covering the sanctuary floor in a Curaçao synagogue muffles sound, but speaks volumes to the history of Judaism in the Caribbean.

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel was built in 1732 by the descendants of Portuguese-speaking Dutch Jews who, in 1651, crossed the Atlantic as the Dutch empire grew, establishing the New World’s first Jewish communities far from the anti-Semitism of Europe. At the intersection of the Caribbean environment and Jewish identity, these settlers covered the floors of their synagogues with white sand, both to remind congregants of the 40 years the Jews spent wandering the desert in biblical times and also to pay homage to their Portuguese ancestors who, before finding refuge from the Inquisition in Holland, used sand to muffle the sounds of sacred prayers and songs. Today, there are just four synagogues that carry on the distinctly Dutch-Portuguese tradition of sand-covered floors. Willemstad’s Mikvé Israel-Emanuel has the largest congregation, with about 200 members. The others are in Kingston, Jamaica; Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands; and Paramaribo, Suriname (which, while technically being in South America, is considered a Caribbean territory). The sand-floor tradition is one of the last remaining manifestations of Dutch-Portuguese Jewish life in this area, but it is also a tradition that could hold the key to Mikvé Israel-Emanuel’s future.


Traditions born of Curaçao also include the unique attire—top hats and tuxedos with long coattails—worn by Mikvé Israel-Emanuel’s board and honorees on Yom Kippur. They carry the Torah around the synagogue under the flickering light of hundreds of candles sitting atop four massive colonial-era chandeliers. “It’s magical,” Maduro says. So entrenched is Curaçao’s Jewish community that the island’s local language—Papiamentu, a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and African languages—contains dozens of words of Hebrew origin.

As the community’s patriarch, Maduro is doing all he can to retain the history of the Curaçao Jewish community before it is forgotten. While he’s recording the traditions he recalls seeing as a child on the island, curator Myrna Moreno cares for the tangible heirlooms at the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum in Willemstad. Separated from the synagogue by a small tiled courtyard, the dimly lit museum holds the community’s rich collection of artifacts, including a 14th-century Torah made out of deerskin that was smuggled out of Iberia during the Inquisition and later taken by ship across the sea to the Caribbean. Its skin is now a dark, dry brown, and the inked Hebrew script is faded, but the distinctive Torah is one of the more popular artifacts in the museum, explains Moreno, particularly with tourists, many who come to Curaçao on cruise ships.

Ships built the past of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel; perhaps ships will also build its future.

Searching through YouTube, I couldn’t find very recent videos of active Caribbean Jewish communities—but I did find this very interesting look at Cuba, which though from 2018, accurately reflects what the situation is there, a Cuban Jewish friend confirms:

From the video’s notes:

A visit to Cuba reveals a tiny Jewish community, passionate about its history, holidays, and long heritage – Sephardim and Ashkenazi. Despite most Jews leaving after the revolution in 1959 and the US embargo, the community has sustained itself and gathered new members. Israeli dance is a draw for many

Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover to all who celebrate!

I’ll close with “Adom Olam,” from the group Madeira, performed in the Caribbean Hebrew “son” tradition. 

Join me in the comments for more on Caribbean Judaism and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.

Source link

By dreamer_live

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts