A Jewish journey to Jamaica
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A Jewish journey to Jamaica

The Atlantic diaspora: Forging a field

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Presenters at the conference included “the cream of the crop,” said Ainsley Henriques. Courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board

It’s the largest gathering of Sephardic scholars since the Inquisition,” said Ainsley Henriques, surveying the scholars, students, and others who had come to Jamaica to explore the history, culture, and identity of Caribbean Jewry. “I thought maybe 40 people would come.”

Conference coordinator Stan Mirvis was also surprised. “We thought the presenters would be talking to each other,” he said.

Instead, Mirvis and Henriques – co-chair of the Jewish diaspora of the Caribbean international conference held Jan. 12 to 14 in Kingston, Jamaica – found themselves facing some 200 delegates from the Caribbean, France, the United States, Israel, Italy, Germany, Canada, and other nations.

Reporter’s NotebookThe unofficial leader of the Kingston Jewish community, Henriques, whose family has deep roots in Jamaica, has been a director and/or officer of Kingston’s Cong. Sha’are Shalom for more than 30 years. He is also the secretary of the Union of Latin American and Caribbean Congregations, serves as honorary consul of Israel, and is a former chair of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. And these are only some of the offices he holds.

Henriques called the conference, which began with the traditional Shecheheyanu prayer, “another milestone on the journey to understand the Sephardic history of the Caribbean.”

To call the gathering eye-opening would be an understatement. As I learned more and more about the rich Jewish history of the Caribbean, and about Jamaica in particular, I was struck by the prescience of the tourist board’s slogan, “Once you go, you know.”

Indeed, had I not attended that conference, I would have had no idea that there is an elegant synagogue in Kingston, originally built in the 1880s and rebuilt in 1912 after it suffered severe damage in the earthquake of 1907. Or that a handful of Jewish youth continue to become b’nai mitzvah in that city each year. Or that Hebrew inscriptions and imagery abound on gravestones in local cemeteries.

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Students from Hillel Academy were invited to attend the conference. At left, Joseph Adam, a member of Cong. Sha’are Shalom. Courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board

Those who do know something about Caribbean Jewish history generally know only that there is a synagogue on the island of Curaçao. That is why the Jamaica Tourist Board is launching an intense initiative to stress the island’s Jewish heritage and why it imported journalists from all over the world to see it for themselves. Israel has already discovered Jamaica, as evident in the omnipresent Zim shipping company containers scattered around the island.

In the words of Swithin Wilmot, dean of the faculty of humanities and education and senior lecturer in history at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, “The Jewish community is at the heart of Jamaica’s history, in the DNA.”

If not much is known about the Sephardic or Atlantic diaspora, that may be because “there are no archives devoted to the Sephardic community,” said Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish History at New York University.

Very few families, communities, or institutions have kept or donated materials, she said, adding that “most people trying to write about it were frustrated” by the paucity of sources. If serious archives had been maintained, she suggested, “it would have entered the narrative.”

A second reason for the historic oversight was offered by Miriam Bodian, professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin.

The Sephardim “pioneered Jewish settlements where the Ashkenazim didn’t go,” she said. “But the scholars telling the story were Ashkenazim.”

Conference co-chair Jane Gerber, professor of Jewish history at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, pointed to a growing interest in Sephardic studies and “a commitment to furthering the understanding of Jews in the Caribbean.”

“We didn’t want to talk about the Caribbean in New York,” she said, explaining why Jamaica was chosen for the conference, which brought together “the most important scholars working today in the field.”

“We really did get the cream of the crop,” said Henriques, adding that virtually all the scholars invited to present at the gathering took up the offer. “It was the right people at the right place at the right time.”

Interestingly, at a conference marked by the delivery of high-level and sometimes dry academic papers – exploring topics from “Amsterdam and the Jewish nation in the Caribbean during the seventeenth century” to “The significance of New World Portuguese Jewish diaspora cemeteries” and “Sexuality and sentiment: Concubinage between Jewish men and their female slaves in late eighteenth-century Jamaica” – the word “magical” was used by several members of the audience, themselves scholars in the field.

“Learning more about the fluidity of religion and culture was magical,” said delegate Angela McNab, from the University of Birmingham. McNab, a black woman raised as a Christian, recently discovered Jews in her family tree. She has asked Henriques to help her uncover more about her background.

Laura Leibman, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., was equally excited, noting that the conference laid out “fields to be studied and questions to be answered.” And Annette Chana Cohen, docent at the American Jewish History Museum in Philadelphia, said, “Now I have more to say when giving tours.”

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From left, conference co-chair and community leader Ainsley Henriques; David Shields, deputy director of the Jamaica Tourist Board; Jane Gerber, conference co-chair and professor at City University of New York; and conference presenter Miriam Bodian, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board

Mirvis said the idea for a conference arose about a year ago during an informal meeting between Henriques and Gerber.

“We invited presenters that the three of us knew,” he said. “Basically, we e-mailed our friends.”

News of the conference was also circulated through an academic Website and by word of mouth. Ultimately, only three of the invited scholars were unable to attend.

Those who did come included Mordechai Arbell, a research fellow at the Ben Zvi Institute of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who had served as the Israeli consul in, among other places, Port-au-Prince and Panama.

Questioning why formerly successful Caribbean Jewish communities are gradually disappearing, the scholar posited that the lack of anti-Semitism may be as dangerous for Jewish survival as persecution – “good for the Jews and bad for Judaism.”

One local Jew, he said, told him that “the Holocaust broke us spiritually [and] the birth of Israel came too late.” In addition, he said, many Caribbean Jews, encouraged by their families, left the islands to study abroad. Many of them did not return, “draining the community of the younger generation.”

The more than 20 presentations – which will be collected and published in the coming year – demonstrated conclusively that the study of the Atlantic diaspora is both multifaceted and long overdue.

For example, Eli Faber, professor of history at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, talked about “borders as metaphor,” suggesting that the geographical boundaries of the colonial-era Jewish diaspora be redrawn, with North American and Caribbean Jewish communities forming a “seamless entity.”

Pointing out that the first burial in a New York Jewish settlement was of a merchant from Jamaica, he showed that not only were the two communities related through mercantile transactions, “but the Atlantic-wide network was an important foundation for the establishment of religious life.”

In 1728, New York’s first permanent synagogue applied to Caribbean Jews for funds. The Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island also got help from Surinam, Jamaica, and Curaçao. For some reason, said Faber, the islands were “far ahead of the colonies” in generating religious leaders.

The Atlantic connection affected family life, too, he said. Since merchants needed family representatives in as many locations as possible, Jewish traders traveled vast distances, often cementing commercial networks through marriage.

Tackling a different era, Joanna Newman, head of higher education at the British Library, pointed out that some refugees from Nazism fled to the Caribbean during World War II.

Noting the initial ambivalence of both the new immigrants and the West Indians, she said the refugees from Yiddish-speaking communities “considered it a way station to America.” That it was hard for them to find work is evident from personal ads in newspapers of that era, but some Jewish businesses did take root.

“It was a cynical exercise by the big nations to put Jews in far-flung places,” she said.

Henriques summed up the proceedings by calling the conference “the end of the beginning.”

“Hopefully,” he said, “the sharing of knowledge will enhance our tolerance and understanding of each other.”

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