Friday, July 29, 2011

Road Trip: The Caribbean

Asked to detail the history of Jews in America, most people will start with Ellis Island, the Lower East Side of New York, and sweatshops.  But the first Jews in the New World were exiles from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497).  Some came directly to North America, others by way of the Netherlands, eventually settling in the Dutch Caribbean islands, establishing robust Jewish communities in Aruba, Curacao (its Mikve-Israel Synagogue dates from 1730, but the community goes back much earlier), Jamaica, Martinique, Suriname, S. Thomas and S. Croix.

Barbados’ Jewish cemetery is thought to be the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, dating from 1628.  The Jewish community there was formally established in 1654, and the synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Nidhei Israel, consecrated. 

Barbados bears the distinction of being the first British territory in which Jews obtained full political rights.   But from 1668 - 1802 the Jews of Barbados were subjected to discrimatory laws and confined to a ghetto. Following a hurricane in 1831, the Jewish community of Barbados began to decline.  By 1925 the last Jews had left the island.  The current Jewish community of Barbados (about 40 people) are the descendants of Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
 newly discovered mikveh in Bridgetown dates back to 1660.    

Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the face of the ten- dollar bill, was born in Charlestown, capital of the island of Nevis (then part of the British West Indies.)  Because the local church would not allow him to study in their school, he attended a Jewish school, where he learned to read Hebrew and French, maintaining a life-long reverence for Jews.  You can find out more about the Jewish community of Nevis here.

The presence of Jews on the tiny island of “Statia” was news to me.  The Jews of Oranjestad, whose community dated back to 1660, were wrenched from their homes in February of 1781, following Statia’s fall to the British.  The Honen Dalim shul, one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere (built in 1739,) was burned on orders of Admiral George Rodney.  It remained in ruin until 2001, when its walls were repaired.  Notches on the wall indicate where the floor of the women’s gallery once was.   The shul's twelve windows correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel. 

Synagogue Path connects the shul to Statia's Jewish cemetery, where we said a prayer for those buried there.  For a brief moment, we connected across time and space with Jews we had never met, but with whom we are joined soul to soul.

The Jewish community of Guadeloupe goes back to the late 14th century!  Guadeloupe was then part of Spain and its laws applied here, too.  Because of this, following Ferdinand and Isabella’s decree of expulsion, the Jews of Guadeloupe were forced to sell their cemetery to the local bishop, and many became conversos, living together in the ‘former’ Jewish quarter.  When Guadeloupe came under Louis XIV of France, conditions initially improved, but in 1658 France’s “Black Code” expelled them from the island.  Only in the 20th century did Jews start to trickle back, mostly from North Africa and France.  On our visit there we found a small but vibrant community with an active shul, school and kosher-store.  Young children and teens were in evidence, clearly involved and enjoying being Jewish!

Today, in addition to the Chabad Houses in Martinique, S. Thomas and S. Croix, you can also find us in Puerto Rico and S. Maarten! 
Bonnes vacances et bon Chabbat!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds cool. That Jewish cemetery in Barbados looks very interesting. I love visiting historical sites like these.