Thursday, January 6, 2011

500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean: The Spanish & Portuguese Jews in the West Indies

Some books are meant to be, and many are not. 500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean: The Spanish & Portuguese Jews in the West Indies, falls in the latter category; its title is somewhat inaccurate and misleading, its content is weak, and its presentation is faulty. 

The Caribbean Sea extends, East to West, from Barbados, to the tip of the Yucatan peninsula in southeast Mexico (South of Cuba); North to South, it extends from the Caribbean Islands, to the northern coasts of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama (A province of Colombia, Panama became an independent state in the Twentieth Century), Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and the eastern side of the peninsula of Yucatan, in Mexico (El Salvador is on the Pacific Ocean; as such, it is the only Central American country not on the Caribbean Sea). In spite of Spanish domination of these lands, all these countries have had a Jewish presence and history which in many, if not all, instances were an extension of the island settlements in the Caribbean. The Jewish history of these countries, not as old as that of the islands, is ignored. The main title is put aside and the subtitle, "The Spanish & Portuguese Jews in the West Indies," is in effect what the book tries to address. Yet, the author includes Suriname, which is far off the Caribbean Sea, on the mainland of South America, and the Bahamas which are not in the Caribbean Sea, at all, but the Atlantic Ocean. The explanation given for these inclusions is not strong enough to justify the exclusion of the other countries in the area where Jewish history is less known, but just as relevant and deserving of recognition. The Jewish communities in these countries are a result of trade and family connections to other Jews in the Caribbean Islands, other countries in America, and Europe. Jewish trade from Curaçao, 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, brought Jews to this country long before its independence from Spain: the coastal town of Tucacas hosted a Jewish community for about twenty five years, starting in 1693. Additionally, according to some Venezuelan writers, Conquistador Pedro Malavé De Silva landed in Borburata in 1569 with a crew of 300, and very likely among them, the first Jews to set foot in Venezuela. 

Many of the leading Jewish families in Panama came from Curaçao, as merchants and doctors; from Panama they joined other friends or relatives in Honduras and Nicaragua. Jews from Curaçao also settled the northern coast of Colombia. The author seems to have forgotten his own words, "While not strictly speaking West Indian, Central America has much Jewish history in common with the islands." (Preface, p. xii) It is in this quote where the truth of the misleading title is: the focus of the book is not "the history of [the Jewish] sojourn in the Caribbean Basin" (Introduction, p.vii), but the islands. 

Contrary to the quotes provided by Amazon, above, this book does not make "history come alive," nor does it, aside from the basic, standard, and overstated information on Luis de Torres, give any detail or information on the "crew members on Columbus' ships" who settled in the newly discovered lands. Aside from a few, well known, names casually mentioned, there is no informative or detailed account of how Jewish settlers became leading merchants in the "sugar, rum, and tobacco industries;" or "won civil liberties that became the standards aspired to by colonial North American Jewry." There is no detailed explanation how these civil liberties in the islands compared to civil liberties Jews were enjoying in Europe, and no explanation how they developed; and, at a time when Jews were settling all over the New World, why limit the comparison to just North American Jewry? In spite of a hint to these developments, and the ordeal to lobby "governments to be allowed to own land, farm, sit on juries, vote and bear arms to defend their homes and property" (Introduction p. viii), there is no personalization of the plight or success of these Jews, no indication of their religious and financial growth or loss, or how their European and American associations benefited them, or detracted from their success and goals. The reader can easily remove the name of one island and replace it with another and it would not matter much. It reminds me of a childhood book, "This is Jane, see Jane run...This is Spot, see Spot run...." Whether it is Jane or Spot, it does not matter, as long as someone is running. Every chapter follows the same formula: after a brief mention of the early period, the narrative shifts to the present and whether the congregation has survived, whether the synagogue is standing, or whether the cemetery is under proper care. It is not until the end of the book, the chapter dedicated to "The influence of Caribbean Jewry on early America," that some details, which would have made previous chapters more interesting, are given. 

In the Chapter dedicated to Santo Domingo, there is no mention of the first official burial of a Jew, Jacobo Pardo (1826), in the "Jewish Cemetery," a corner in the Cementerio Nuevo. Nor is there comment on how this cemetery came under the control of the English. Other relatives of this Pardo also settled in Santo Domingo and acted as Consuls and merchants with ties to Curaçao, Saint Thomas, United States, Colombia, Venezuela, and Europe. The author chooses, instead, to devote the space to Trujillo, and his failed attempt to help Jews during WWII. This is very worthwhile as a subject onto itself, and as part of this book, but not as a replacement of the early history of Jews in República Dominicana. 

The Chapter dedicated to Cuba offers the tantalizing comment, "...To settle here, Jews would of necessity have had to conceal their true religion. Such intrepid settlers who tried to do that, however, were often caught and dealt with harshly by the Inquisition..." (p. 95), yet, there is no information on those who succeeded in their concealment, or mention of names, events, or individual cases to illustrate the fate of those who fell victims to the Inquisition; more curiously, there is no information offered to justify why any Jew would go to these lands when conditions were so unwelcoming. In the same chapter there is mention of David Levy, a young man who, "with Castro's blessings," left Cuba for New York (1994) to study for college and the Rabbinate at Yeshiva University, but there is no follow up. The reader is left wondering whether Levy, once in New York, decided to defect, or to return to his homeland to fulfill his mission. This book, originally published in 1997, was revised in 2002, which would have given the author several years to find out what the outcome of Levy's journey was; or, considering the desperate situation of Cuban Jews, at least, offer a reliable update. 

"A grand picture merges, which by itself could be the subject of another book: the contemporary impact of West Indian Sephardim across their region...." (Preface to Second Edition, p. xii). Sadly, the grand picture never emerges; rather, this comment comes off as a self serving introduction to the other volumes planned for this trilogy. 

There are a number of mistakes which, as with all mistakes, at first appear to be of minor significance, but as they accumulate, the mistakes become a nuisance; all the more when coupled with awkward editorial choices. 

The Dominican Republic (p.115) is listed as the "western neighbor" of Haiti when in fact it is the eastern neighbor--República Dominicana occupying the eastern part of Hispaniola. Surinam, originally under English rule, was traded for New Amsterdam, from the Dutch. However one reads on page 19, "[T]he island's new rulers were reluctant to continue with the liberal policies granted by the English." The island in question is today's Manhattan; as such, the liberal policies were not granted by the English, who were just taking over, but by the Dutch, who had colonized the island, and part of the mainland as New Amsterdam. 

The inscription on David Lindo's stone in Barbados appears to be misquoted. As carved, the inscription reads "S.B.A.G.D.E.G.," to mean, "Sua Bendita Alma Goze De Eterna Gloria," (May his blessed soul enjoy (of) eternal glory), instead of "Sua Bendita Alma Goze De Gloria" (May his blessed soul enjoy (of) glory) as posted on page 67. The fact that the letters "D" and "E" in the acronym, are all in Capitals and followed by a period, indicate that they stand, individually, for different words and they are not to be read together as one: "de" (of). 

The book is small in size and pagination. Of the 197 pages, one third is dedicated to Appendices (19), Notes (26), Bibliography/Other Sources (10), and Index (6), which shed little light, new or significant information on what has already been mentioned, or that could not have been incorporated into the body of the book. Incorporating this information into the main text may have made the book more interesting. There is an appendage, Overview of Jewish Caribbean Settlements, which retells the information already given on when and who settled what island, and the status of that congregation, today. Another appendage, Historic Synagogues and Cemeteries in the Caribbean, is nothing more than a retelling of information already provided, and what little is new, could have been incorporated into the main body of the book. The last appendage, Jewish Communities in the Caribbean Not Historically Associated With the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, provides useful information on post 1900 Jewish communities. Regretfully, contact information for these organizations is not provided. 

The Notes section is inconvenienced by not having the names of the authors or their books fully written out with each notation; instead, this information is reduced to a few letters. This editorial choice forces the reader, interested in the origin of the notation, to search first for the notation, then search for the page that explains the abbreviations--in short, making the reader not want to trouble with the notations. Some notations are misplaced, as in page 7, which reads, "Fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, it was expected that [de Torres] would use these languages as the Admiral's voice before the rulers of the East." The corresponding notation (p.157) reads, "... a Sephardi from Barbados, brought the Caribbean tobacco culture to...." Even in this notation, the name of the Sephardi in question would have been appropriate, but it is not provided. Other notations appear to not have any relevance to the text as in page 98, Notation 7, "There has not been a permanent rabbi in Cuba for almost four decades," and the notation (p. 174) reads, "...In 1978, photographer Bill Aron made a trip to Cuba. His photographs were exhibited at the Pucker/Safrai Gallery...." The reader can only surmise there was mention of the lack of a rabbi in Cuba in the exhibition booklet, in which case, the mention of this should have been in quotes in the main text, and not as a notation. 

The book is easy to read in a few hours; the style of writing is simple, uncomplicated, and the large print is easy to read. The publisher may have chosen the larger than usual print to make the content of the book appear larger than it is. Over all, this publication is more appropriate for a young student than for a researcher, someone interested in history, or anyone looking to expand their general knowledge. In the Introduction (p. viii), the author makes a very casual reference to the content of the book as being an "overview of the essence...," which may be one way of explaining the book's blandness; however, this information should be made clear before the purchase of the book (to give the reader an option), and not after. This book should have been a page turner; the kind one cannot put down, the kind one cannot wait to finish reading the page in order to read what follows. Instead, it is a page turner in the sense that one cannot wait to finish it, in order to justify the unusually high retail price. 

The extensive bibliography makes one wonder why the author, Harry A. Ezratty, treated the subject matter as though it were the tip of an iceberg, instead of reaching for the substance underneath. Ezratty is well informed, he knows the subject, and he is very involved with and dedicated to the Jewish community; however, his treatment of this fascinating event, the migration of the Portuguese Nation to the Caribbean, and its will to survive, leaves much to be desired. 

At a time when information is so readily available on the internet, from any number of recognized publications, and from genealogical associations and databases, this simplistic "overview" is missing what it pretends to give: "500 years in the Jewish Caribbean."

D.A. Pardo-Rangel 2011
This article previously appeared on, 9 January, 2009

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