The Jewish gateway to the Americas
Copyright © 1996 Nando.net
Copyright © 1996 Cox News Service
(Apr 5, 1996 5:30 p.m. EST) -- The year was 1492.
It was the eve of
Christopher Columbus' Aug. 2 voyage to the New World and the Spanish
port was engulfed in panic by Jews desperate to flee Spain.
One of Columbus' Jewish
crew members was hurriedly converted before the voyage left.
Those still in Spain
at dawn faced a choice: convert to Christianity or face a slow
torturous death at the hands of the Holy Inquisition. When the
sun rose, not a single self-professed Jew remained on Spanish
The many who refused
to convert embarked on a worldwide search for religious freedom
frustrated in the New World by centuries of laws forbidding those
of Jewish ancestry to enter Spanish colonies.
For these Jews, known
as Sephardics, Curacao and other Dutch colonies in the Americas
were more than simply a port in a storm. They were the key that
unlocked a closed door to the Americas.
Today, the islands
that once served as a precious haven are scrambling to hang on
to their Jewish heritage, just as American Sephardic -- whose
largest colony of 110,000 is in South Florida -- are struggling
to pass on their language and traditions to the next generation.
"Jews from Curacao
not only kept the flame alive, they contributed to the spread
of Jews throughout America," said Rene Maduro, 54, the scion of
one of an old, prosperous Jewish family that owns banks and businesses
in Curacao. He is acting rabbi of its synagogue. "We are preserving
the cradle of Judaism in the Americas. This was the mother congregation
of the Western hemisphere."
Time has not been
kind to the Curacao Jews' historic 17th century Bet Hayim cemetery,
one of the oldest European burial grounds in the hemisphere. Its
gravestones' elaborate carvings are slowly being eaten away by
fumes from the smokestacks of a nearby oil refinery on the outskirts
"It's beyond repair.
There is nothing to be done," Maduro said, shaking his head.
The Jewish community
on the island has shrunk to less than 500 as youngsters go away
to college in the United States and don't come back.
"The numbers are dwindling.
Families are much smaller," said Charles Gomes Casseres, 75, a
leading historian for the Jewish community and a member of its
Council of Elders. "If you become too few you can hardly maintain
the institutions. It becomes much harder to survive."
What can never be
erased, however, is the legacy these families left.
Over the centuries,
wealthy Jewish shipping families from Curacao have donated millions
of dollars to build synagogues, schools and Jewish communities
from South America to Charleston, Rhode Island, Philadelphia and
New Amsterdam, now New York.
The Nephutsay Israel
synagogue in Newport still says an annual prayer for the Curacao
Jews in commemoration of their help building a house of worship
That is why for many
here, the Mikve Israel-Emmanuel synagogue of Curacao, a tiny cactus-covered
island ringed by kaleidoscopic reefs and some of the most beautiful
beaches in the Caribbean, is a symbol for a tradition that spans
Built in 1732, the
arching yellow Dutch building is the oldest synagogue in continuous
use in the Americas. Its congregation dates back nearly a century
The sand on the floor
of Mikve and the other old Caribbean synagogues is said to recall
Moses' flight out of Egypt. It also recalls the need to muffle
the sound of the feet of Jews meeting secretly under the Inquisition
The synagogue on windswept
Curacao is a lingering reminder of winds of tolerance that have
blown throughout the history of the Caribbean, where centuries
of multinational rivalries for tiny but lucrative islands left
behind a modern patchwork of colors, creeds and cultures whose
modern coexistence provides a striking contrast to an intolerant
"The Caribbean has
been a haven for Jews," Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book on the
region, "A Continent of Islands." "Caribbeans are accustomed to
diversity and, like other forms of racism, anti-Semitism appears
here only in subtle forms."
The Curacao Jews left
their mark in the Dutch West Indies, turning Willemstad into a
major hemispheric shipping center and even influencing the eventual
lingua franca of the Dutch West Indies.
The Jews, who had
spent several generations in Portugal, were the first Europeans
to adopt Papiamento, the language created by African slaves from
the tongues of Portuguese slavers, Dutch traders and West African
tribesmen. Like Haitian Creole, Papiamento may soon gain recognition
as the native language of the Dutch West Indies.
Jews reached Curacao
via Holland, which opened its doors to Sephardics after their
80-year war with Spain and welcomed Jewish settlers in the deserted,
cactus-studded West Indian islands Holland wished to control.
The first Jewish settler,
Samuel Coheno, reached Curacao in 1634, just after Dutch forces
wrest the island from Spain, on an expedition of the Dutch West
"The Dutch, of all
the European countries, have been extremely good to the Jews.
They've remained extremely tolerant and much more accommodating
than other European countries," said David Siman, president of
the Sephardi Association of Palm Beach County in Florida.
with the Spanish Armada slowly turned the tide of European anti-Semitism,
opening the way for enemies or victims of the Catholics in Protestant
Cromwell followed Holland's example and reopened England to Judaism
in the late 1600s.
Denmark also hosted
Jewish congregations who moved north from Holland and Germany
but restricted them and other foreign religious refugees to two
cities until the late 1700s. After that they were free to move
on to Danish West Indies colonies, like St. Thomas.
"This ethnic cleansing
was going on in Europe," Maduro said. "But after the 1600s these
northern countries began to look at Jews in a different way. They
began to bring them back in for economic development."
At the time Spain,
attempting to enforce Catholic hegemony after driving Moorish
conquerors out of southern Spain in 1492, required immigrants
to Cuba and other New World colonies to prove "cleanliness of
blood" by demonstrating no ancestors of Jewish or Moorish blood
for four generations.
The Dutch-Jewish bond
has lingered in the Caribbean.
Another member of
the Maduro family, George, a son of one of Curacao's wealthiest
families, was studying law at the University of Leiden when the
Nazis invaded Holland. He became a lieutenant in the Dutch cavalry,
was taken prison and died at the Dachau concentration camp.
In the 1960s, Dutch
diplomats helped arrange a Dutch commercial flight from Curacao
to spirit Jews out of Cuba, where a crackdown against religion
was under way. Many of them still reside in South Florida today.
Like most forms of
xenophobic intolerance, the demonization of non-Christians exacted
a high price from Spain.
While most of Europe
was being transformed by the Reformation, the Enlightenment and
the Renaissance, Spain's counter-reformation turned it into a
backwater deprived of the intellectual currents that nourished
advances in theology, philosophy and the arts sweeping through
the rest of Europe.
While European history
moved forward, Spain -- and many of its colonies in Latin America
-- was held back for hundreds of years.
"The measures against
secret Jewry led to a profound intolerance which prevented the
emergence of a real Spanish Renaissance," wrote Hugh Thomas, the
distinguished biographer, in "The Conquest."
Copyright © 1996 Nando.net