The Caribbean:
The Jewish gateway to the Americas

Copyright © 1996
Copyright © 1996 Cox News Service

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao (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 soil.

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 of Willemstad.

"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 in 1763.

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 the hemisphere.

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 more.

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 in Spain.

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 world.

"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 Indies company.

"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.

International jousting with the Spanish Armada slowly turned the tide of European anti-Semitism, opening the way for enemies or victims of the Catholics in Protestant countries.

Anti-Catholic Oliver 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