The Jews in the Caribbean
Edited by Jane S. Gerber
Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 2014. Hardcover. 409 pp.
Reviewed by Paulette Kershenovich Schuster
The title of this monumental edited collection of essays, The Jews in the Caribbean, is simple and straightforward, but the content is not. The subject matter is diverse and varied, and ranges from history, culture, politics, to race and Jewish identity, among many other interesting topics. The book is divided into seven parts with twenty-one chapters. In addition, the book contains an introduction, color plates, figures, maps and tables. There are twenty-three contributors listed.
Most of the chapters in this work were first presented at the international conference, "The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean," convened in Kingston, Jamaica, from January 12 to 14, 2010. In addition to these original papers, there are three invited chapters in this volume of the proceedings.
The chapters are written from a broad range of disciplines and socio-cultural perspectives, both theoretical/scholarly and creative (e.g., art, architecture, literature, and personal narratives).
In the introduction, the editor of this exceptional work, Jane Gerber, begins by offering a historical context and by explaining "the importance of transnational and interdisciplinary perspectives in studying the early modern period and its Jews" (p. 1). The purpose of the book is to explore the Jewish diaspora in the Atlantic world in general, and the Jews in Jamaica in particular. Gerber briefly compares tendencies and challenges in the existing scholarship regarding the Jewish experience in the Americas and in the Caribbean.
Gerber discusses the notions of culture and history within ethnicity, religious, communal, racial and identity discourses. She explains the beginning of Jewish life in the Western hemisphere and elaborates on the socio-economic role of the New Christians and their social integration in Portugal. Gerber also discusses the emergence of New Christian enclaves and settlements in Europe and in the New World colonies. She takes us through an overview of economic development, granting and denying of religious freedom, dispersal and demographic shifts, all leading to an openly Jewish presence in Jamaica. Gerber then provides an outline of the contents of the book.
The first part deals with the historical background of the Caribbean Sephardi Diaspora, focusing on those Jewish communities in the Dutch and British Caribbean. In the first essay, Miriam Bodian describes the roots and migratory patterns of the Western Sephardi diaspora. She looks at the levels of adherence to Judaism and also the roles of the kinship networks and economic viability.
Then Jonathan Israel explains the Sephardi trading system between 1630 and 1700. He considers Jewish participation in Caribbean commerce and trading systems, emphasizing the ties to Amsterdam and Dutch-ruled Curaçao, and the emergence of Curaçao as a center of Jewish commerce.
The last entry of this section is written by Noah L. Gelfand who offers an overview of the rights and privileges of the early Jewish settlements in the Atlantic world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His assessment is based on a myriad of factors concerning the Jewish community as an economically important group and how it was able to negotiate and conduct business while practicing the religion. He stresses the centrality of Amsterdam's Jewish community as a source of religious leadership.
The second part explores the authority and community in the Dutch Caribbean. It consists of three essays.
In "Amsterdam and the Portuguese Naçāo of the Caribbean in the Eighteenth Century," Gérard Nahon elucidates on the unequal networks linking the nations, people and material objects of the Caribbean with Amsterdam. He explores how and to what extent the Portuguese Jews of the Caribbean emulated the Amsterdam model, and then tried to replace it with a homegrown version. This practice led to a later model that would serve the North American Jewish communities, since many had families in either the islands and/or back in Amsterdam. Amsterdam became the head of a virtual federation mitigating everyday living situations mixed with religious services and the exchange of people, rabbis and goods, making for an interesting interplay.
In Chapter 5, Jessica Roitman discusses the ways in which the administration of the Dutch West India Company dealt with internal conflict and strife within the Jewish communities it managed. She focuses on the Sephardi community on the island of Curaçao in the mid-eighteenth century. However, Roitman pointedly argues that the efforts of the Dutch West India Company were hampered due to the inexperience of its appointed governor, lack of clear directives from the administration and internal divisions and power struggles among the Jewish congregants. Furthermore, she explores the overlapping judicial systems in the colony and their effects, coupled with issues of wealth and class within the Sephardi community.
The last essay, by Hilit Surowitz-Israel, builds upon the work of Paul Gilroy on "the dialectical exchange of the Atlantic and the unique negotiations of identity within the Atlantic world" (p. 107) by bringing together the hemispheric perspectives of the Atlantic world and American studies with Sephardi studies. By integrating Portuguese Jews into their greater historical context of the Atlantic world and the Americas, Surowitz-Israel argues that then the Jewish presence in the New World becomes less marginal. He also sheds light on the role and importance of the Mahamad [the board of directors of a congregation] in relation to the religious community and authority in the New World by analyzing three main documentary sources.
All of these essays complement each other as they survey different aspects of identity, conflict and authority within the communal structures placed in a transnational, intersectional and intercontinental context and framework.
The third part focuses on the material and visual culture of Jews in the British and Dutch Caribbean by presenting three interesting essays on art and architecture.
In "Jonkonnu and Jew: The Art of Isaac Mendes Belisario (1794-1849), "Jackie Ranston surveys the Jewish themes among other elements in the work of this Sephardic Jew who was also Jamaica's first island-born professional artist. .Belisario's hand-tinted lithographic prints are the only visual representation of the Jonkonnu masquerade in its fully evolved, creolized form. A Jonkonnu is an annual Jamaican Christmas masquerade, featuring a diverse mix of many traditions that included African cultures and European masquerade together with British mumming plays and Shakespearean monologues. Ranston evaluates other art pieces of Belisario, but her main focus is the Jonkonnu lithographs.
In her essay, Rachel Frankel focuses on three seventeenth-century cemeteries. Burials in all these locations ceased approximately two hundred years ago. Restoration projects have been underway since the twentieth century. She includes the texts of several tombstones in her study, which is composed of a drawing of a map of the cemeteries, complete inventory, photographs, transcriptions and translations of the extant gravestones. The information derived from the gravestones adds new dimensions to the understanding of the Jewish communities in the region.
Barry L. Stiefel writes about synagogue construction and architecture in the British Caribbean. He quantifies the population shifts of New World Jewry by using the dates of synagogue construction as signifiers. He also evaluates mutual influences among other synagogue construction projects in the Dutch, British and Danish territories. Gauging the historical context in which these synagogues were constructed is of utmost importance in understanding the changing roles and status of early modern Jews.
The fourth part tackles the difficult subject matter of Jews and slave society. In doing so, the authors in this section treat the subject of the relations of Jews and blacks in Caribbean slave society from various perspectives that highlight the richness, depth and breadth of this volume.
In Chapter 10, Aviva Ben-Ur analyzes the cultural heritage and identity of Euro-African Sephardi Jews of eighteenth-century Suriname. She studies the Jewish identity of enslaved and manumitted mulattoes who were the offspring of Sephardi Jews and their former slaves. She does so, by surveying naming patterns from tombstone inscriptions, wills and communal registers, oral testimonies combined with genealogical research and archives in The Hague.
In his entry, Karl Watson discusses the Sephardi Jews of Barbados in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He argues that due to various issues, such as religion, historical association, language and geographical origin, they had a distinct identity. Watson analyzes wills and records of Sephardi Jews which give evidence of the creolization of the Barbadian population and the familial interconnections among its Portuguese Jewish population. However, due to emigration and assimilation, their numbers dwindled and as a result they were unable to sustain their community into the late nineteenth century.
In "Sexuality and Sentiment: Concubinage and the Sephardi Family in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica," Stanley Mirvis examines the affective links between Sephardi men and their black or mulatto slaves or concubines and offspring. He does this through a close reading of wills and probate records in Jamaica. His research surveys social history and evolving family patterns within the larger society.
James Robertson studies an incident of Jewish treason that allegedly took place during the First Maroon War (1728-1738/9). This war was waged between Jamaica's self-emancipated former slaves and their descendants (the Maroons) and the colonial government. Robertson examines the confession of a captured Maroon agent, Cyrus the slave, which is included as an appendix to the chapter. He questions the legitimacy of this account and reconsiders the prejudices behind it.
Swithin Wilmot's "Jewish Politicians in Post-Slavery Jamaica: Electoral Politics in the Parish of St. Dorothy, 1849-1860" analyzes the social cleavages in Jamaica's society in the nineteenth century. Wilmot examines the ways in which the white Protestants perceived Jews as 'off-white' and as socially inferior. The issue of whiteness is still relevant in today's discourse on Jews and blacks. By examining voting records, Wilmot articulates that amicable ties were formed between blacks, coloreds and Jews in the Sunday markets in Kingston and other towns during the period of slavery. He shows how Jewish retailers and black sellers and colored artisans were able to build up on their friendships to create a solid electoral partnership in the first Jamaican elections after Jews were granted the right to vote.
The fifth part contains two entries which are devoted to reassessing the geographical boundaries of Caribbean Jewry. Eli Faber reconfigures the boundaries of early American Jewry, linking the Jews of London, Amsterdam and the Caribbean to the North American mainland. He uses family histories of long-familiar colonial American Jews in Jamaica.
Dale Rosengarten also uses family histories of long-familiar colonial Jews but in Barbados. He examines five familial case studies in order to understand the dynamics of colonial expansion and the patterns of Jewish dispersion. Rosengarten considers the roles Jews played in commercial and social relationships between plantations and ports, specifically between Carolina and the Caribbean.
The sixth part contains personal narratives that illustrate vividly the early cultural life of Jews in the Caribbean and the formation of the Ashkenazi diaspora in the region. In the first essay of this section, Matt Goldish depicts the adventurous life of Benjamin Franks, an Ashkenazi Jew of the seventeenth century. He traces Franks’ attempts at regaining his fortune following the great earthquake of 1692 in Jamaica and his role as a star witness against Captain Kidd in Bombay and London.
In "Daniel Israel López Laguna's Espejo Fiel de Vidas and the Ghosts of Marrano Autobiography," Ronnie Perelis analyzes the work of this Portuguese Jewish poet from Jamaica. Lastly, in this section, Josette Goldish presents the biography of a nineteenth-century Sephardi Jewish woman, Grace Cardoze from Danish St. Thomas. Her story has recently been discovered in Denmark in a cache of her letters (between the Cardoze-Delvalle family and Rabbi Simonsen of Denmark).
The last part of the volume, consisting of two essays, examines the formation of contemporary Caribbean Jewry.
The first deals with a study by Joanna Newman of Jewish refugees from Nazism and their resettlement in the British Caribbean. She concentrates her research on the Gibraltar Camp, an internment camp outside Kingston. Judah M. Cohen, in "Inscribing Ourselves with History: The Production of Heritage in Today's Caribbean Jewish Diaspora" closes this book. Cohen concentrates his analysis on the events celebrating the bicentennial of a historic synagogue in St. Thomas. These celebrations are part and parcel of similar projects around the world, attempting to salvage remnants of Jewish identity vis-à-vis historic synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.
The formation of the Caribbean Jewish diaspora can be understood as a conglomerate of groupings in different guises as: a Jewish diaspora dispersed under different European colonial empires; a Jewish body collectively bound by shared traditions and historical memories; and as a cross-relational entity which is constantly evolving.
Usually a work of this type, which uses conference papers as its base, aspires to stitch together various themes that will miraculously coalesce into one cohesive whole. This is not the case here. A thematic approach, rather than a linear chronological order; and the inclusion of a different range of perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches enriches the coherence of the book. This is a stimulating, thought-provoking and challenging collection that questions, explores and analyzes various aspects of the formation of the Caribbean Jewish diaspora.
Carefully written and well documented, this study is relevant not only to specialists in Latin American Jewish studies but would also be of particular interest to interdisciplinary scholars and researchers of Sephardic Jewry, diaspora and culture studies, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and to any general reader interested in acquiring a better understanding of Jews in the Caribbean, their culture and past.
From my point of view, this mammoth work is a huge undertaking and its analysis is truly interesting, since it illuminates the reader’s path to understanding the development of Jews in this region, as well as those factors and events that have shaped them. This book offers a skillful overview of the history and historiography of these Jews and their environments. It does not leave many questions unexplored, without reconceptualizing or analyzing them. It is without a doubt a valuable and important contribution.
Dr. Paulette Kershenovich Schuster received her Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and teaches at the Open University in Israel. She is the author of a book (2012), and her articles have been published in several countries in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Hebrew.