An historical tour through the Jewish Caribbean

Since 1995 I have led Jewish heritage cruises throughout the Caribbean Participants most often come with the traditions of Eastern and Central European Jewry We sail past some of the thirty plus inhabited islands of the Caribbean forming a graceful and lush archipelago (together with others sparsely inhabited) beginning with Cuba ninety miles south of Florida and extending to Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela

Many islands were once home to Sephardic Jews refugees from or descendants of those who suffered under Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions This region known as the West Indies is home to the oldest continuous Jewish presence in the Western Hemisphere One could argue that until the middle of the nineteenth century it was the most significant Jewish community in the New World A few islands like Jamaica Barbados Curaçao and the US Virgin Islands are still home to original settler families

When I first address a tour group as we push through the Caribbean Sea I always say:

“Welcome to the oldest continuous Jewish neighborhood in the Western Hemisphere”

This statement often sets the group abuzz American Jews tend to focus on the New World’s Jewish presence beginning with the great migrations of 18801920 Some are aware of the German migration of the 1840s Few if any have clear knowledge of the first Jews to settle in the Americas other than the famous group of twentythree who came ashore in New York (at the time Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam) in 1654

As we sail through the Caribbean I explain the history of these West Indian Jews with Hispanic names who spoke no Yiddish but rather the languages of Iberia as well as Ladino the special Spanish dialect used among themselves I tell them: “These settlers were expelled from Recife Brazil where they lived peacefully as Jews under Dutch rule for a quarter of a century When the Portuguese took the colony away from the Dutch in 1654 the Jews were in peril They were anusim or forced converts subject to the inquisition As such they faced torture and possible death because they had abandoned Catholicism”

It is difficult for many on the tour to comprehend this “How did they get to Brazil?” they ask I treat them to an overview of the history of the horrors of the Inquisition the anusim those who willingly converted and the flight to Amsterdam ’the New Jerusalem’ where they shed their forced and unwanted religion and began rebuilding a strong Sephardic culture under the auspices of a friendly Dutch government which allowed them to openly settle in their colonies as Jews”

Most tourists are impressed by what they see at Curaçao Barbados and St Thomas where there are old synagogues cemeteries and vibrant Jewish communities It is a graphic reminder of the tenacity of the Jewish people When they walk through the ancient graveyards filled with stones going back to the middle of the 1600s they linger to read the inscriptions marveling at the gorgeous carvings some depicting a deceased’s profession or station in life “How interesting” “Who were these people; what were they doing here?” they ask Their interest is genuine and many marvel at learning about these men and women who not only returned to the faith of their ancestors but were important contributors to the world economy with their milling and export of one of the world’s most important commodities sugar

I make my participants work I purposely bring them to the tiny islands of Nevis and St Eustatius They are difficult to get to; their airports can accommodate only small propeller plans We have to proceed by sea from the harbor at St Kitts to these islands Twenty or twentyfive of us jam into a small ferry or a work boat and proceed across the open sea As we pass St Kitts and bounce over a choppy sea I remind my group that they are now following the same routes refugee anusim followed centuries ago accompanied by their families and possessions There are no longer any Jews on St Eustatius or Nevis

On Britishoriented Nevis the local historical society highlights the island’s Jewish past and takes excellent care of the old Jewish graveyard We walk through the old cemetery reading gravestones written in Spanish Portuguese Hebrew and English Then we proceed to Jew’s Walk a lush leafy country lane flanked by a sturdy stone wall connecting the cemetery to the synagogue which disappeared so long ago I tell them that Alexander Hamilton was born on this island and that as a young boy he attended the Jewish day school It is a revelation Some of the comments I regularly hear are: “I never knew Or “How come I never learned about these people in Hebrew school?”

At St Eustatius a dependency of the Netherlands my tours are always greeted by the island’s governor as we alight from our boat at dockside Less than 3000 people live there but they have a fierce pride in Honen Dolim the old eighteenth century synagogue which was torched in 1781 (along with rest of the island) by the British navy during the Fourth AngloDutch War The Honen Dolim synagogue has recently undergone restoration all done with the efforts of the “Statians” (as the islanders are known) They maintain the old synagogue the cemetery and the mikveh in prime condition Long ago I prayed within its ruined walls with a group of fellow Caribbean Jews The chairs lecterns and food were provided by the accommodating Statians

It is a living lesson in the history of how the anusim lifted themselves from the depths of religious intolerance into freedom long before the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe came to America My group walks among the old gravestones marveling at the Hispanic names inscriptions and carvings unique to West Indian Jewish cemeteries and at the way they have been lovingly preserved by nonJews

No cruise ships dock at these outofthewayislands so the uniqueness of Nevis and St Eustatius is almost a secret Islanders always greet my tours warmly Relatively few tourists come here and the islanders make sure my groups leave with a new understanding of the pioneering role of seventeenth century Sephardic Jews in the Caribbean

I field many questions on the return to St Kitts I can tell that the members of the tour have understood the many things I have pointed out Some say they will read to learn more about these Jews when they get home I have made some impact After our cruise is over I return home to find requests for my books and some Jewish groups inviting me to lecture after learning about me from a member of the Jewish Heritage Tour

Harry A Ezratty is an attorney published author and noted lecturer who lives in Baltimore Maryland with his wife Barbara wwwezrazttylecturescom

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