By Charlene Neely
LA MESA, California — Looking for Jews in strange places, try the Caribbean islands for the last 400 years. Although little historical research has been done on the Sephardim of the Caribbean islands and the surrounding area in the past, there is a new growth of information thanks in part to the work of Josette Capriles Goldish, in her book Once Jews, Stories of Caribbean Sephardim.
The author is a descendent of one of these families, born in Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles and to a great extent her book is the story of several centuries of cousins. However, only a handful of these families are Jewish today, most are strong Catholics who acknowledge that their ancestors were Dutch Jews who settled on the small island Curaçao in the 1700s and over generations spread across the area. These families were descendents of Sephardim from Spain and Portugal who had fled to Amsterdam and established new lives.
Unlike their counterparts who fled to the colonies of Spain and Portugal and tried to remain hidden, these families willingly settled for adventure and future economic growth in the Caribbean islands controlled by the Dutch, Danish Virgin Island, French and British. They were never forced to hide their identities and established active Jewish communities.
The first part of the book gives the reader a rare personal glimpse of Jewish life at this time. The synagogue in Curaçao, Mikveh Israel, which remains a tourist attraction today, was established in 1732. The building seats 400 men downstairs and 200 women upstairs. By the end of the century there “were over 1500 Jews on this one island which represented some 38% of the white population.” This is when it seems that the community hit a critical mass. The rate of intermarriage among families (mostly uncles to nieces and cousins to cousins) meant that younger men went off the island to find brides, both Jewish and non-Jewish and established family trade centers on other islands.
Another factor was friction in the congregation over the Cantor from Amsterdam, Joshua Piza, who arrived in 1815. The Rabbi before had served the congregation for over 50 years. The Cantor “question” resulted in a historical division of the community which remained even after Cantor Piza went to St. Thomas. Cantor Piza had three wives in one year, the first two died and then he married 17 year old Hannah Sasso, born of a religious family in Curaçao. After the move of the family the stories of Hannah’s dedication to faith and running a trading business are astounding. The family grew in number and wealth. The Sephardim began to spread among the islands and little by little they married non Jews. They lost touch with their faith as Jews but never with their family ties with Curaçao. Over the generations both Jewish and non-Jewish members of these families would do business and have family reunions in Curaçao.
The book offers a personal glimpse of how difficult it was to be Jewish in Spanish controlled areas of the New World, when several families moved to Caro, Venezuela, and anti-semitic pogroms broke out. The families appealed to officials but in the end retreated back to the islands, and were later supporters and friends of Simon Bolivar who fought for Venezuelan independence.
Once Jews is, as its title says, stories of families which are carefully retold and recorded. Goldish’s work has opened new primary resources for historians of this community, which had remained mostly in the hands of these families.
However, the author never deals with the question of how these families were able to amass wealth so quickly. Slave trade was rampant at this time in the Caribbean, did this affect these families? The author stresses that the majority of these families were large, economically well off, well educated (mostly men) and accepted among the elite of the Caribbean and later Colombian and Venezuelan society although by this time they were Catholic. The author discusses this assimilation, fast even for Jews in relatively free societies, was it due to a lack of Jewish education, a desire for economic wealth and social/business contacts? Why did so few remain Jews and so many convert to Catholicism? Why do they use the phrase “I am Catholic, but I am Jewish” even to this day? What part of being Jewish is relevant to their lives?
Family histories in strange places around the world are fascinating and they can enlighten us about our own communities and our own future Jewish generations. As Josette Capriles Goldish remarks on the effect of intermarriage as it lessens the size of the American Jewish population, “Eventually, if this trend continues, the vicious circle of size and religious assimilation becomes undeniable and many once viable communities will, over time, disappear”. This is of course a question for all Jewish communities to ponder today.
Other books of this topic.
The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas, Mordechai Arbell (Author)
Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom–and Revenge, by Edward Kritzler (Author)
Internet site: Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Curaçao, N.A.
Commemorating 350 years of existence www.snoa.com
Neely is a longtime Jewish community educator in San Diego County