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Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Became The Jews In Jamaica

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello
Special thanks to Ainsley Henriques and Marc Goodman for their invaluable help with this piece.

The Spanish Inquisition was introduced in 1480. At its height during the reign of the devout catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, it was implemented as a result of their desire to make Spain one nation, united under one religion. All non-catholics (mainly Jews and Moors) were therefore termed heretics. They were also known as Marranos, (the Spanish term for 'swine') as well as Moslem 'converts' known as moriscos. The identity of their accusers were rarely revealed to them, and once arrested, the accused were not allowed legal counsel, subjected to unimaginable physical and emotional torture to gain confessions, and their properties were seized and administered first by the Crown and later by the General Inquisitor. 

By the late 1490s, however, King Manuel I of Portugal decided that Jews must be Christianized. They gathered in groups to leave for locations such as Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and the lands of the "New World" where they could practise their religion of choice more openly. 

1978: A group of Jews at worship in the Jewish Synagogue on Duke Street, Kingston. At the altar, Mr. Ernest deSouza, acting spiritual leader of Jewsih community in Jamaica, conducts the service. File Photo. 
Jamaica, where Columbus landed in 1494, was one such location. Jews of Portugese-Spanish ancestry first landed on the island some 40 years later in 1530. They made their homes in Spanish Town, then known as St. Jago de la Vega ­ the only operating town on the island at the time. After many years, groups of Jews approached their Spanish governor and requested permission to settle on the island. Permission was duly granted.

For the Jamaican Jews, practise of their religion and recognition of their identity remained a struggle under Spanish rule. Yet, genealogical records show Jews as having managed to live into their eighties and nineties. Jamaica's revered historian Edward Long described the Jews in 17th century Spanish Town thus:

"The Jews here are remarkably healthy and long-lived....I think they owe their good health and longevity, as well as their fertility, to a very sparing use of strong liquors, their early rising, their indulgence on garlic and fish, Mosaic Laws, sugar, chocolate and fast" (as quoted in Arbell, 2000, p. 29).

In addition to a Jewish market and a good number of Jewish shops, the Neveh Shalom Synagogue was established on Spanish Town's Monk Street in 1704. This place of worship largely serviced Jews of Sephardic (Spanish-Portugese) descent and so another synagogue was built in 1796 on Young Street to serve Jews of Ashkenazi (English and German) descent. The two Spanish Town congregations united in 1844. Many families had begun to relocate to Kingston as that town grew in economic and political importance. Today, the site of the Sephardic Synagogue and its adjacent cemetery replete with gravestones featuring names such as Henriques, De Souza, de Pass, Melhado and Nunes, lie largely in ruins, but the Neveh Shalom Institute, a foundation that exists to preserve Jewish Remains in Colonial Jamaica, has plans for its restoration. Archival work is already under way.

In 1655, following the English Conquest, Amsterdam Rabbi Ben Israel visited Lord Protector Cromwell and requested permission for Jews to settle in England (which Cromwell welcomed in the hope that the Jews would bring capital and mercantile knowledge). This implied permission in English colonies, which led to another influx of Jewish settlers to Jamaica from places like Amsterdam. All Jewish settlers had to be naturalized as British citizens and as such they were entitled to own property ­ a right denied to Jews in Medieval Europe.  

1984: Ainsley Henriques (right) conducts Solomon deSouza to install him in his seat as President at the annual induction of warden and directors of the Jewish community. File Photo. 
The Jews, many of whom were merchants and money changers, not planters, flourished in Port Royal. Trade between commercial centres inhabited by Jews such as Amsterdam, the Dutch colonies of Curacao, St. Eustatius and Saba, the Danish St. Thomas, Genoa, Venice, North America, London, Turkey and India was brisk. The ability of Jamaican Jews to speak Spanish also propelled their success in trade with Spanish America. Goods traded included pepper, cocoa, vanilla, pimento, cocoa and sugar. By the 19th century, some Jewish merchant families moved into shipbuilding and construction. 

Jamaican Jews were limited by law to ownership of two slaves only, unless they owned plantations, and few did. In addition, they 

were charged with only using Jewish indentured servants although this restriction was loosely imposed and therefore largely ignored (Arbell, 2000, p. 50). It should be noted, however, that the Jews, having introduced sugar cultivation technology to Brazil in the 1520s, are largely credited with doing the same in Jamaica circa 1530.

Sadly, there is little documentation of Jewish life in Port Royal, but earthquake survivor Edmund Heath's account of the infamous 1692 event, notes the existence of a Jew's street and synagogue which records locate on New Street running parallel to Cannon Street. The Jewish legacy in Port Royal also includes a cemetery at Hunt's Bay (Arbell, 2000, p. 20). During the 17th century it was not unusual to see Jewish families carrying their loved ones by boat across the harbour to be buried (www.jnht.com/kingston/jew_cem/html).

Most Jews who survived the 1692 disaster left Port Royal and joined their brethren in Spanish Town, Kingston, Montego Bay and other locations islandwide. In general, Jews tended to favour major towns, but in Jamaica they spread out all over the island. Ruins of Jewish cemeteries in places as far from Kingston as Savanna-la-Mar, Clarendon and Port Maria testify to this fact.

By 1700, although recognized as second-class citizens as a result of their religion, the Jews, generally prosperous merchants, are noted as having borne the weight of the majority of the island's taxes. It was not until the 1740s after the hearing of numerous petitions, that King George II lifted undue taxation on the community. Less than a century later, Jamaican Jews were given the right to vote and they quickly began to acquire local political power. By 1849 eight of the 47 members were Jewish and that year the Assembly decided not to meet on Yom Kippur. It was the first modern political body to do so (Miami Herald, 1999).

With the decline of Spanish Town as the seat of government and business, the Jews turned their attention to Kingston towards the middle of the 18th century. The first synagogue is said to have been built in 1744 (Arbell, 2000, p. 29), and perished in the Great Kingston Fire of 1882. Another, an Ashkenazi Synagogue, appeared in 1787.

It too, was subsequently lost in the great Kingston fire of 1882 and replaced in 1887. During the mid-end of the 19th century, groups of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews came together to found the United Congregation of Israelites and they built their own synagogue on Duke Street. In 1907, however, all synagogues and many other buildings were destroyed by the Great Kingston Earthquake. The Sharei Shalom Synagogue, the United Congregation Synagogue, was rebuilt on Duke Street in concrete instead of brick by Henriques Brothers in 1912. A dramatic sight, standing serenely in white, it is still in use today. Its floor, like that of only a few others in the Western Hemisphere, is made from sand to commemorate the idea that Jews were forced to practise their religion in secret ­ the sand muffles the sound of footsteps and leaves no trace of footprints. Other interesting symbols include the Ark of the Covenant and the two perpetual lights that burn on either side to commemorate the 1921 union between the two different Jamaican congregations, Ashkenazi and Sephardic.

Today, unlike in the past, where services and practice were largely Orthodox, the service is best described as Liberal-Conservatist, parts are read in English although some hymns are sung in Hebrew. "Bendigamos," however, is sung in Spanish. Part of a worldwide Sephardic tradition after meals, in Jamaica the hymn is traditionally on the night of Sukkoth, the holiday that marks the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

As 2005 approaches the Jewish community is preparing to celebrate 350 years of free religious practice in Jamaica. Today the numbers have dwindled to close to 200
practising Jews. However, that number would be much larger if it were a measure simply of religious bloodlines, as many Jamaicans are descendants of Jews although they do not officially practice Judaism.

Sources: Arbell, M. (2000). The Portugese Jews of Jamaica. Kingston: UWI Press. Curtin, M. (2003). "Historic Kingston churches ­ Some places of worship in the old city of Kingston," in A tapestry of Jamaica ­ The best of Skywritings. Kingston: Creative Communications, Ltd and Oxford: Macmillan Publishers. pp. 93-96. Depass-Scott, R. Spanish and Portugese Jews of Jamaica mid 16th ­ mid 17th century. In Jamaica Journal, 43, p. 91-100. Miami Herald. (1999, September 10). "Jamaica - A dwindling Jewish community celebrates Rosh Hashana." www.jnht.com/kingston/jew_ cem.html, www.sephardim.org/jamgen/BenZviBook.html, www.bibletopics.com/biblestudy/64.htm

Please note that starting today, the 'Pieces of the Past' series will appear on the first Monday of each month, instead of twice a month. Thank you for your support.

Well-known Jamaican Jews:
* Poet Daniel Lopez Laguna, 1635-1730, a survivor of the Inquisition who converted biblical Psalms into poems. A book of these poems, "Espejo Fiel de Vidas," The True Mirror of Life, was published in 1720 and holds the distinction of being the first book to be published in Jamaica under British rule.

* 19th century painter Isaac Mendes Belisario, whose famed "Belisario" prints of Jamaican characters are cultural icons, now featured on a series of Jamaican stamps.

* Newspapermen Jacob and Joshua de Cordova, who founded the "Gleaner" in 1833. Jacob went on to found the city of Waco, Texas.

* Ward Theatre architect Rudolph Henriques, a noted artist whose firm Henriques and Sons was awarded the
commission in a competition. The majestic landmark was built in 1912.

* Jorge Ricardo Isaacs, 1837-1895, author of Maria, considered the "national novel" of Columbia.

* Sir Neville Noel Ashenheim, a member of a family known as legal luminaries, served as Jamaica's first ambassador to Washington, 1960s.

* Richard Stern, the Hon. Ernest Altamont da Costa and Councillor Senator Hon. Eli Matalon, served as Mayors of Kingston in 1896-97, 1925-27 and 1971-73 respectively.

* The Matalon family, known as one of Jamaica's longstanding captains of industry and supporter of the arts.

* The first Jews to settle in North America as a group are said to have landed in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654 after having sailed from the northern Brazilian town of Recife via Jamaica. In Jamaica ­ still a Spanish island ­ they were kept under house arrest. They managed to escape and reach New Amsterdam where then Governor Peter Stuyvesant wanted them out. As a result of letters from Jews in Barbados and Holland, they were allowed to stay and they founded the Shearith Israel congregation, one of New York's first. It is slated to celebrate its 350th anniversary in 2004.

A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted August 04, 2003
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