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Welcome to Jamaica

View from Mystic Mountain, Ocho Rios, JamaicaBEFORE last week, the closest I ever came to Jamaica was standing on the concrete subway platform at the subway station in Jamaica, New York. The contrast could not have been more striking as I crossed the threshold to the hip and cosmopolitan Spanish Court Hotel in (New) Kingston, the capital of Jamaica.

Spread out below the rise of the Blue Mountains fringing Kingston, the soundtrack to this city is the musical reggae beat of legend Bob Marley. Because of the prevailing high crime and murder rate that plagues the reputation of the city of Kingston, I was expecting and waiting for the tense atmosphere in town to rear its ugly head. But it never came.

True, I was there in the tourist bubble for just a few days, and surely, the heartbreak of desperation in the eyes of little children begging that I encountered was very tough. But instead of tension and hostility I encountered the warm hospitality and friendliness of the  Jamaican people that charmed me.

The Jamaicans are celebrating their fiftieth year of independence from the British. Aside from the purples, reds, and greens flowering all around, in a carnival-esque feel, everywhere you go in Jamaica there are swaths of yellow, black and green color blocked fabric draping the city, expressing the pride of Jamaica’s flag.

I  learned that the national motto is “out of many, one people.” This embracing  of diversity was indeed palpable.

I CAME to visit with the Jamaican Jewish community. It is a community that grew over 350 years ago out of the arrival of converses from Spain, Portugal and Amsterdam.

When I walked into the United Congregation of Israelites and davened together with them on Shabbos in their beautiful shul, one of the last in the world to have a sand floor — in homage to the conversos who would pray in secret, hence the sand floor to muffle the sounds of footsteps — I personally experienced this motto of “out of many, one people.”

I understood it is not just a platitude. Race is a non-issue in this country. The organic flow between caucasians and blacks in the Jewish community is as natural as the sun rising.

This congregation is a congregation of Jewish-born Jamaicans, converts to Judaism and what they call “returnees.” Returnees are Jamaican people whose ancestors were Jewish, whose connection to and continuation of Judaism were broken over the generations. The returnees have felt a calling back, and so have returned.

Read also Tehilla Goldberg’s “Conversos, conversation, l’chayim in Jamaica

Many of them trace their roots to Jewish family members buried in the Jewish cemetery. Spanish surnames like “Rodriguez”and “Henriques” are Jewish names.

Because of the assimilation that took place over the years, the conventional wisdom in Jamaica is that a high percentage of Jamaicans are descendants of Jews.

CULTURALLY, a traditional Jamaican food that many families have on Saturday is called “Saturday Soup.” It is a thick stew that is simmered for hours.

Sound familiar? Right — that is what I thought, too — the traditional Sabbath dish of cholent. And that indeed is the theory, that Saturday Soup is a cholent derivative that stems from a Jewish tradition that today has become a part of Jamaican culture.

There is a consciousness and awareness of Sabbath in Jamaica.

Seventh Day Adventists are a critical mass of the Protestant population in Jamaica.

Walking to shul on Shabbat, alongside a yarmulke-clad, identifiable Jew, I suddenly hear the word “Jews!” pierce the air. As I turned my head to the other side of the street I see a Jamaican man sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, smiling, his hand up at the side of his head, signing “respect!”

A few steps later another Jamaican man passing me by on the street greeted us with: “Happy Sabbath.” The feel of the street I got in Jamaica was not only one of tolerance of Jews, but something new: a sense of philosemitism.

A SENSE of humor seems to characterize the Jamaicans. On a hike in Ocho Rios (called Ochi by locals), at the stunning Dunns River Falls, where rung after rung of smooth wide rock creates the illusion of nature’s staircase with waterfalls gushing over it, at one point before turning you around to be thrown backward into one of the pools of water, the guide says, with a mischievous twinkle in the eye: “Now here is where we baptize you.”

Or, at Mystic Mountain, where there is a little water fall and naturally formed pool, I saw, before ascending the ride up, the most pristine, crystal-clear water I have ever seen. Perfectly transparent.

There, as you are going up the gondola ride, is an absolute paradise of flowering lush trees and plants. Huge orange and yellow butterflies float by as you pass all shades of the color green, from emerald to lime, and wild passion fruit and almond trees. You hear the rising song of deafening cicada’s and feel the mist on your skin, all against the backdrop of magical, jaw-dropping beauty of gemstone, azure ocean coastal views.

The proximity of the sea wraps its cloak of serenity and tranquility around  you.

AMONG other attractions, at the top is a super fun bobsled ride through the rainforest named for the debut of the Jamaican national bobsled team of runners, who first gained fame when competing in the Calgary Winter Olympics of 1988. This story was the inspiration for the motion picture “Cool Runnings.”

Upon leaving the bobsled ride, you will walk through a delicate hummingbird garden with the little birds flapping their wings ever so quickly, creating a mirage of constantly shifting shadows. The birds, like little hovering helicopters, are suspended in the air around sweet nectar feeders.

After being dropped off by the gondola at the bottom, we pass not quite a glass slipper, but a lone, bowed, white, kitty heeled shoe. The gondola operator turns to us with a laugh in his eyes:

“Yours? What, you are not Cinderella?”

Wherever I went, the Jamaicans were friendly, putting a smile on your face.

It wasn’t just the people, the road signs were often entertaining, too. Here’s a sample of one to discourage the sometimes scary speedy driving. “Slow down! Don’t Hurry to Eternity!”

And the food? Even the food is playful. Listen to this:

The popular soup is called pepperpot. The ingredients? Scotch bonnet pepper and callaloo. Now if that doesn’t sound like culinary poetry or the verses to a nursery rhyme, I don’t know what food does. (There is also paw paw sherbet, and tie-a-leaf dessert, but then again there is the jerk spice, so perhaps that cancels out the cuteness factor.)

Clusters of grapelike little green fruits, called guineps, are tucked into paper rolled cones and sold just about everywhere. And in a land flowing with good rum, I sipped my first rum punch.

YOU are going to kill me for this one, but the Jamaican spiders are beautiful, too.

In Ocho Rios at Dolphin Cove I encountered a big thick feathery tufted spider with striped orange and brown legs suspended in the air at the center of its gorgeous web that hung between two trees. A strong yet delicate and beautiful perfect spiral web of silken golden threads sparkling in the sunshine. You could see the intricate, woven design strung between the two tree trunks like fine sparkling golden necklaces. It was a masterpiece.

After seeing that first spider, you notice them everywhere. Aptly, they are called the golden silk spider.

For the longest time, I have dreamed of swimming with the dolphins, and now I finally got to.

In person, the dolphins are just as adorable and sweet a creature as you dreamed them to be. The perpetual smiles on their faces bring a certain feeling of emotional joy that, in the moment, feels like pure happiness. Dancing and singing with Misty the Dolphin, holding onto her fins and being pulled by the dolphin, swimming and then of course signing off with that sweet affectionate kiss on the cheek, I was smiling from ear to ear.

Frolicking in the water with the dolphins was incredible, but next time, I am going for the swimming with two dolphins option where they propel you into the air by their noses and you fly across the water like Superman. I’m ready!

DRIVING through the snaking roads complete with hairpin turns in the mountain parishes of St. Ann and St. Catherine, just a regular journey from beachy Ocho Rios to Kingston, is magnificent. The varied topography of both mountains and water, plus a striking rush of color is quite a sight, no wonder it feels like Jamaicans live in outdoors.

On this ride of sweeping views, one passes gracious old villas of pink, turquoise or yellow, white bungalows and little wooden boarded up hovels of “spice pubs” or “pudding stops” hugging the road with clusters of bananas hanging by a string at their side; clothes lines strung between trees with random laundry flapping in the gentle breeze, goats roaming here and there, and, from time to time, the unhurried Jamaican people walking along the roads covered with mismatched, clashing patterns of inexpensive umbrellas overhead, the poverty of the scene transformed by the glistening of the rain.

This textured kaleidoscope into the two-layered Jamaican reality of prosperity and poverty is the foreground to the verdant and nutritive green jungle backdrop.

THERE is so much lore to the place too, you know, the whole pirates of the Caribbean thing. Believe it or not, back in the 1600’s, the very first place the Jews settled was in Port Royal. And yes, there were a few Jewish pirates, too.

A long weekend visit is definitely too short, plus I need to go back to get my hair braided Jamaican-style. Everyone, including the Spanish Court Hotel, as well as the palatial Jewel Dunns River Resort and Spa, was so gracious about accommodating my dietary kashrut needs. I think a destination Passover in Jamaica doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Yeamon, Jewmaica!

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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