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Conversos, conversation, l’chayim in Jamaica

United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica.


JEWMAICA? Can it be? What do Jews and this famous resort country have in common? It all goes back to the familiar narrative of Jewish history. The story of the Jewish people is the story of cycles of diaspora and of new exiles within exiles.

The story of the Caribbean, specifically, of the island of Jamaica, is just such a chapter in this story — the chapter of the conversos and the beginning of the New World.

For hundreds of years, Jews lived rich, fruitful lives in Iberia. In the infamous year 1492 it all came to a screeching halt. Forced to either embrace Christianity, or be burned at the stake, many Jews adopted the Christian faith externally, but in secret continued to be the Jews they had always been, and were known as conversos.

Perhaps this double identity was successful at first, but in time the secret lives of most of these Jews faded into oblivion. Except for vestiges here and there, these Jews were lost in the mists of time.

As the Spanish Inquisition was raging, conversos were fleeing  Spain for their lives, looking for their next safe home. Many turned to other European countries, some migrated to the Middle East. But many joined the amazing opportunity of settling in the New World.

The Caribbean island of Jamaica was a gift to Columbus and his heirs for discovering the New World.

As it turned out, many of the Caribbean lands were settled and colonized by an influx of fleeing Jews.

SOME of Jamaica’s earliest settlers were Jews, or more likely conversos, who came from Portugal and Amsterdam. While Jews were not allowed into the Spanish New World, Jamaica was privately owned by a family who looked away.

The island of Port Royal, with its rich pirate history immortalized by the Disney film, “Pirates of The Caribbean,” was in fact a real island in Jamaica, the first place to be settled with Jews.

In fact, until the disastrous earthquake of 1692, and then terrible fires in 1704 and 1815 that burned Port Royal, including its synagogue, there was a thriving Jewish community.

After the fire the Jewish community migrated to Spanish Town.

Read also Tehilla Goldberg’s “Welcome to Jamaica

In the 17th century, as the power in the Caribbean shifted from the Spanish to the British, it was these new-to-Jamaica Jews, with their skills in finance and trade, who took part in economic leadership roles in the huge sugar trade, as well as in the shipping industry. A negligible minority of Jews took part in the slave trade as well.

The legend of pirates of the Caribbean includes some Jewish pirates. More accurately, most of these Jewish pirates were “privateers.” These were state-sponsored pirates, working for the British. Although the main motivation for these privateers was economic, a deeper motivation was to help the British take hold of Jamaica and supplant Spanish rule.

After the cruel ethnic cleansing Spain launched against the Jews, there was also the element of revenge. Conversos were all too happy to help bring down the Spanish rule in Jamaica.

IN the 1600’s, once the Jews settled in Jamaica and the British ruled, life for the Jews flourished, for the most part.

At first, it was off to a rough start. Jews were taxed by the British at a higher rate. British Jamaicans also felt the Jews took away jobs.

Quickly, though, things changed when the British realized the Jews were white (in those days considered an advantage), literate and skilled.

The British used these Jews as civil servants and needed them for economic purposes — to build what we would today call global trade. Because of the Jews’ dispersion after fleeing Spain, the Jews had contacts with fellow Jews in many far flung places. Developing the finance trade between Europe and the New World was the original social networking.

In 1834 Jamaica was the first country to abolish slavery. After that, everyone was pretty much accepted equally. Blacks or Jews were no longer considered inferior.

AND from Spanish Town, the Jewish community continued to migrate, this time settling in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica.

Where is the Jamaican Jewish community today?

The synagogue United Congregation of Israelites (UCI) that stands in Kingston, the only shul in the country, was built in 1912, after a second earthquake in 1906 destroyed two synagogues, the Ashkenazi Neve Shalom and the Sephard Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel.

In 1921, the two synagogues merged into the UCI, which today is the hub of Jewish life for a devoted core group of about 12 Jews who come to shul every Friday night.

Many of the members of the community are descendants of Syrian or Spanish Jews, while some are black Jamaican converts or “returnees” — Jamaicans who are descendants of Jewish families and want to reconnect with their Jewish roots.

The group of born and bred Jewish Jamaican’s trace their roots to the people buried in the Jewish cemeteries of Jamaica in Hunts Bay, Spanish Town or Montego Bay.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper shul without a few bonafide Israelis, would it? So there is the little Israeli chevra too.

United Congregation of Israelites is an elegant, bright, white structure of soft, simple gracious lines built in Tuscan style on a large corner, carved by pairs of long, narrow, arched windows all around, a white outdoor staircase at the side, and surrounded by palm trees.

Built in 1912, it almost has the look of a luxury private residence more than a house of worship, if not for the black Hebrew lettering naming the congregation.With the palm trees in the front of the bright crisp, white paint, you practically envision a waterfront behind the “house” with a boat attached.

The grounds of the open plaza encircling the back of the property, is a modern, artistic, manicured grid of concrete squares framed by clean cut grass between them.

Once inside, at the front is the synagogue centerpiece, the warmth and beauty of the enormous yet unadorned double door Renaissance-style arch of rich, carved, dark mahogany— the aron kodesh, the ark.

The synagogue architecture and style is inspired by the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

ALTHOUGH the synagogue structure is 100 years old, the community or congregation itself dates back over 350 years.

In homage to the founding conversos, the synagogue maintains an unusual feature, in origin a Sephardic custom, of a sand floor. The theory is that in Spain, when praying in secret, sand was scattered on the floor so as to muffle the sounds of footsteps.

Through the centuries, the Jews of Jamaica have integrated into Jamaican society and become part of its leadership. For example, The Gleaner, one of two national Jamaican newspapers, was founded by Turkish Jews who were in the printing business for generations, going back to Turkey. The first black prime minister of Jamaica identified as Jewish.

Joe Matalon, a born and bred Jewish Jamaican in his fifties, is a prominent Jamaican entrepreneur and real estate tycoon. While attending school at Brandeis and learning of Karl Marx, he embraced atheism and left a more traditional Jewish life.

His grandfather, a poor Syrian Jew known as a salt fish Jew— salt fish being a staple for slaves because it didn’t require refrigeration (today it is a delicacy) — left Damascus and on the way to Panama stopped off in Jamaica.

According to Matalon, the story of the decline of the Jewish community began already back then. As it turned out, his grandfather met and married his grandmother, a devout, local, prominent Jewish Jamaican woman, and instead of Jamaica being just a pit stop on the way to his destination of Panama, Jamaica became his permanent home.

Playing on the name of Seventh Day Adventist, Matalon jokes that he is a Seventh Day Absentist.

At one point his father served as mayor of Kingston.

Matalon says that to this day the Jamaican House of Assembly is closed on Rosh Hashanah. On passing random sites in Jamaica, one might find a Jewish symbol. Matalon mentions a law office with a Star of David carved over its entrance.

Matlan describes the struggle of Jamaica as that of class struggle, not racial struggl. Jamaica is class conscious, not caring about skin color or the shape of one’s eyes. Class trumps race. “What matters in Jamaica is how you talk, how you hold your fork. Whether you are Chinese or Indian, it doesn’t matter.”

MARILYN Delevante, MD, a Jewish Jamaican-born and bred woman, is the unofficial doyenne of the Jamaican Jewish community.

She is the author of The Knell of Parting Day, as well as the co-author, with Anthony Alberga, of The Island of One People: An Account of the History of the Jews of Jamaica, which preserves the fast disappearing story of the community.

The book seems to have been a labor of love, written by a woman with a sense of mission as guardian of history of the Jewish Jamaican story.

Marilyn, 76, tall with short, white hair, piercing blue eyes and a thoughtful, serious expression, is erudite, with a love for Israel and an interest in Jewish authors such as Elie Wiesel.

An 11th-generation Jewish Jamaican, she observes the tradition of kashrut. She says she wrote the book because if she didn’t much of the history would be gone. Aside from collecting material herself, she had family heirlooms, a gold mine of articles, pictures, stories and newspaper clippings which she wove into her informative, eye-opening book about Jamaican Jewish history.

seems deeply concerned about the future of Jewish Jamaica. After 30 years without a rabbi, the congregation recently hired a Reform rabbi, Rabbi Dana Kaplan. Marilyn hopes he will help turn the tide of the struggling community.



She says optimistically, “people don’t know what to do to be Jewish. Knowledge of Judaism is important because once you have that you can always increase observance and with a new rabbi it is a start in the right direction.”

But when asked what she thinks the future of the Jamaican Jewish community is, her face darkens.

“Not having a rabbi all these years is terrible. Whether a rabbi will make a difference or not, time will tell. Over the course of 30 years, [assimilatonist] habits form. It will be difficult to regain Jewishness.”

For example. she says, in Jamaica, “no rabbi would dream of speaking from the teiva (bima) against intermarriage because so many are intermarried. He would lose his job. His employers and directors are intermarried.”

“People are not nearly enough concerned with the question of intermarriage. People should be more concerned about it — I would say there’s no concern.”

Intermarried or not, Marilyn emphasizes how devoted the synagogue’s small core group is. “People drop by to services. They feel close to G-d when they are there.”

Three out of four of Marilyn’s grandchildren live in Jamaica.

One had a Bar Mitzvah at UCI.

Most Bnei Mitzvah at UCI, however, are not of locals; they are destination Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.

Just four weeks ago was the destination Bar Mitzvah of an Israeli who was born in Jamaica when, for business reasons, his parents temporarily lived there. The week before that was the Bat Mitzvah of the Bostonian granddaughter of the lay leader of the community, Ainsley Henriques.

Marilyn’s home feels Jewish. Not just because of the slanted mezuzzah adorning its threshold, or the fragrance of home cooking permeating the air that feels like Sabbath eve to me. Or because of the inspiration that Marilyn is in her strong clinging to Jewish tradition.

But because of the gallery of depictions of Biblical narratives covering the walls. I ask her about the paintings.

“These are art pieces by a Jamaican Christian, Carl Abrams, a Jamaican Christian of Jewish descent, a brilliant artist who made a study of Judaism and felt a connection with the prophets.”

A particular Jewish Jamaican pride is the seamless integration of the Jewish community with the Jamaican community.

The Biblical scenes Abrams paints come to life. In particular, I notice a very animated painting of Jonah and the whale. I had never quite pictured Jonah this way. I always think of him deep in the belly of the fish, but here, in fascinating interpretation, you see Jonah in process, standing just at the tip of the open mouth of the mammal, the viewer not knowing whether this is Jonah on the cusp of being swallowed, or after he is ejected, back on land.

For decades, Marilyn’s husband read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur in synagogue, so Abrams painted this Biblical scene as a gift.

THE pride and crown jewel of the Jamaican Jewish community is Hillel Academy. Founded in 1969 by a group of small Jews under the leadership of Rabbi Hooker, then the rabbi of UCI.

Hillel Academy is referred to as “the Jewish school.”

Is is a private school of stellar academic reputation. It is closed on all Jewish holidays. Otherwise, it is not especially Jewish. There is no Jewish curriculum or Jewish teaching in the school. It is not the Jamaican version of an American Jewish day school.

But to the Jamaican Jewish community it is Jewish in the sense that Jews value  education, and being educated is a cherished Jewish value. The school is their gratitude and contribution to Jamaica, a land with too few high caliber educational opportunities, a land that the Jewish community feels extremely grateful to.

As I turn to leave Marilyn’s home, I notice the Jewish key chain with tefillat ha-derech, the traveler’s prayer, dangling from the round, old fashioned key protruding from the keyhole. An image of the menorah is engraved on it too.

Driving back, I am surrounded by the shock of striking color that is Jamaica, the lush flowering and stunning vegetation, as the road weaves through gorgeous neighborhoods of red roofed villas, wide verandas and indigo purple bougainvillea climbing practically everywhere. A sad thought enters my mind: I hope I didn’t just meet one of the last Jews of Jamaica.

IF Marilyn Delevante is the  doyenne of the Jamaican Jewish community, Ainsley Henriques is the elder statesman. In fact, the two are cousins. They share great-grandparents.

Ainsley, too, is tall, fair skinned with white hair. Unlike Marilyn’s serious eyes, his are dancing, laughing. Ainsley is a walking library of history. But aside from being a general history buff, he is an afficionado of Jamaican history, and within that, an expert on Jewish Jamaican history.

His knowledge, as well as his charming storytelling, offer a potpourri of colorful vignettes. He sprinkles themthroughout the tour he gives of The Heritage Center, a museum like space attached to the synagogue. At his fingertips, he vignettes seem endless.

One was a typical Jewish geography conversation involving Harry Belefonte, possibly a descendent of conversos and even more remotely, possibly a family relation to Ainsley.

For a time, when he was a student studying in England, Ainsley lived with an Orthodox Jewish family, absorbing the intensity of Jewish tradition.

Also part of the minyan is an elderly Mr. Dweck, a Jewishly educated Jamaican, related to the large Syrian Dweck family. Mr. Dweck was raised in Jamaica before WW II, when the community was more traditional.

When Ainsley is asked pointedly about how he sees the current Jewish Jamaican community, he echoes some of Marilyn’s sentiments regarding the absence of a rabbi for 30 years. “We lost two generations. The young people here had no taste of Jewish life.

“We are trying everything we can to keep it going.”

Over the years, many Jewish Jamaicans moved to places like Miami, Panama, Mexico or Britain. Current Jamaican Jewish born UCI members have relatives in places like England, Miami and Panama.

The Jewish communities of Costa Rica, Cuba and Curasao and around the Caribbean, are related. Many families share the same surnames, having come to the New World under the same circumstances.

AINSLEY says, “The new rabbi is Reform and is interested in seeing some progressive changes in our prayer service and community, but we are holding on tight to our tradition.”

That one sentence sums up much of the complexity, uniqueness and elusiveness of the Jamaican Jewish community. It is impossible to classify in the usual American terms of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist.

Here is a community where many if not most, including the leaders themselves, are intermarried. Here is a community so small and diluted in Jewish observance that it is in danger of vanishing. Yet, and poignantly, here is a group of devoted Jews, made up of both black and caucasian Jamaicans, who feel they are clinging to the ways of their forefathers and are weary of making progressive, liberal changes to the prayer service. In their eyes, they are the traditionalists, holding down the Jewish Jamaican frontier.

Which in their way, they are.

This community is an organic melding of Jewish traditions, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, traditional as well as Reform, an amalgamation that developed over the years. A creation all its own.

For example: One of the cantors of the synagogue, whose angelic singing voice and deep kavvanah (intention) and faith were truly uplifting, is a Jamaican black woman who converted Reform. She holds an MA degree in clinical social work from NYU. After living in New York and being exposed to other streams of Judaism, and as time passed, she realized that her Jewish philosophy doesn’t align with the Reform movement. Studying musar on the Aish website, she is on a religious path that may land her as an Orthodox convert in the future.

Another example, the gabbai. He has the warm vibe of a Sephardi Jew. He is dark complexioned, a Sephardi heimeshe guy you could imagine a gabbai in any traditional synagogue. He is a kohen who proudly blesses the congregation with his palms protectively hovering over the congregation, his fingers spread into the three sections for the priestly blessing. He is married to a Catholic Jamaican woman. She agreed to raise their children Jewish and always brought the kids to synagogue.

This kind of family structure might not sound too unusual in some Reform temples. What is unusual here is how traditional this guy comes across, so it is a surprise to hear of his intermarriage. Also, in Jamaica, there is none of the usual, accompanying tension, anxiety or chip-on-the-shoulder that is sometimes associated with intermarriage or children born of a non-Jewish birth mother.

ON Shabbat, when the ark is opened, there is a deep, rectangular, pale yellow niche in the wall, lit up, illuminating a long row of velvety jewel toned coats threaded with metallic gold Hebrew lettering cloaking a long row of Torah scrolls.

It is a vision.

A touching custom of this congregation is for the one leading the services to humbly stand before all those Torah scrolls and pray, but not a formal prayer. It is more a sense of intimate talking, being in conversation with the Divine, sharing inner thoughts and personal requests, such as healing the sick or averting any other fear or threat, which on that particular Shabbat, was Hurricane Isaac.

It almost felt like I was hearing the private thoughts of someone standing silently, praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

Each request or thought began with an emotionally laden and beseeching, “O L-rd.”

The rest of the prayers were recited mostly aloud, in unison, in English. The usually lengthy silent Shemoneh Esrei was a truncated version of the traditional one  of 18 blessings. Magnificent melodies laced the entire service, in particular a moving Yigdal tune I had never heard.

THE Jewish hospitality of this community was second to none.

When our group was slightly late on Shabbat, the congregants did not begin until we arrived (I felt bad, but touched).

And the kiddush? It was so typical. If I just blinked, I might have missed that I was in Jamaica and not a shtibl on the Upper West Side of Man. The kiddush wine, in petite l’chaim glasses, pre-poured for everyone — just getting a whiff of it you know it is not sophisticated wine, but the one and only Shabbos kiddush wine, only Jews drink. OK, I’ll grant you that the pre-poured gesture was a special Jamaican touch you wouldn’t find in every shul. Then there was the Brooklyn bakery style sponge cake.

Most of all though, there was the signature of any good kiddush-the friendly schmoozing.On the one hand, it is sad to see such a rich past dwindle down.

On the other hand, it is inspiring to witness these caring and devoted efforts to hold onto and keep passing on the torch of Yiddishkeit. The problem is, though, in order to pass Judaism on, you need a viable, living Jewish tradition, and a next generation of Jews to be there to receive it.

Time will tell how the Jamaican Jewish story will ultimately unfold.

As for the secret converso Jews who were founders of the community, now the secret is out.

On your next vacation to Jamaica, I encourage you to visit and see for yourself the beautiful shul United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, to spend some time with Ainsley in the adjacent Heritage Center and, in general, meet this wonderful and unique group of fellow Jamaican Yidden for a l’chaim.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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