Visiting Mikve Israel, a Curacao synagogue in Willemstad, proved to be a fascinating education in Jewish history that offered many surprises. Feeling the sand under my feet instead of ice and snow was one of the main reasons I had come to the Caribbean island of Curacao in late February. But I hadn’t expected to experience that sensation in North America’s oldest synagogue.
I knew that Curacao held the dubious distinction of being the major slave port in the Americas in the 17th and 18 century, a hub from which more than a half-million enslaved Africans were sold on the docks and shipped to plantations in North and South America. What I had not realized was that Curacao played a pivotal role in another major movement of people from one part of the world to another, one that offered opportunity rather than oppression.
In 1651, Curacao’s Jewish Congregation was founded by twelve Sephardic families who came to the island seeking the freedom to practice their faith, as well as pursue economic possibilities. Rene Levy Maduro, a noted authority on Curacao’s Jewish history, explained to me that this band of exiles had taken quite a circuitous route.
Past President of Mikve Israel Curacao Synagogue Reveals History of Congregation
“The Sephardic Jews fled Portugal with the entrance of the Inquisition,” he said. "By coincidence, the Low Countries–-now known as the Netherlands and Belgium–-had around that same time won their 80-Years War against Spain and Catholicism by defeating the Spanish Armada. Being liberated from the Catholic kings subsequently allowed them to open their borders to non-Catholics. They assured the Jews that they would respect their desire for freedom of worship which had been forbidden by the Catholic kings.”
"And so, the Jews settled in the Low Countries, primarily in Amsterdam," he continued. "Subsequently, when the Dutch West Indies Company recruited colonists to settle on Curaçao, many of the Sephardim followed the Dutch flag as this guaranteed them religious freedom!"
Rene went on to explain that a charter from the Dutch granted the Sephardic emigrees the right to establish a plantation colony on the north shore of the Schottegat. Several more Sephardic Jews arrived from Portugal in 1654 and a final group of 70 families came in 1659, bringing with them a Torah scroll on loan from the Amsterdam community. Today, their ancestors are among the worshippers at Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere and the sixth synagogue of the island.
The Story Behind the Sand Floors of Curacao Synagogue
And the reason for the sand on the Synagogue's floor?
Rene, a past president of the Mikve Israel Synagogue congregation, explained that the sand is widely believed to be a reminder for the congregation of the persecution their forefathers in Spain and Portugal endured under the Inquisition.
In order to practice their faith, they established secret worship rooms in the attic of some of their homes, putting sand on the floor to deaden the sounds of their prayers should anyone enter the house, hear them and report them to the Inquisitor.
My husband Tom and I visited the Synagogue and several of Curacao’s Jewish heritage sites with Gigi Scheper, who has been involved with sharing this facet of the island’s history with visitors since 1982. That year marked the Synagogue's 250th anniversary and Gigi began helping out by giving tours.
In 1997, Gigi started working for Curacao’s only tour operator offering a Jewish Heritage Tour of Curacao to the Holland America cruise ships. She said the experience gave her an enhanced appreciation for her Jewish background and the religion in general.
More than 350 years after its settlement of Curacao, the Netherlands remains closely connected with the island--Gigi was actually born in Amsterdam. Her father worked for the Royal Dutch Shell Company as its security and fire fighting expert and was stationed in Holland for training at the time of her birth. The family returned to Curacao from Holland when she was eight years old.
Learning about Jewish Traditions in Curacao
With Gigi, we visited the Jewish Historical Cultural Museum, which is adjacent to the Curacao synagogue.
The Museum's two floors are overflowing with a diverse and colorful assortment of memorabilia associated with Jewish life in Curacao. Among the many items exhibited, a silver tray caught my eye–while at 200 years old, it more than qualifies as a museum piece, it is one that plays an active role in the community’s life. The Jewish traditional wedding ceremony concludes with the custom of the groom shattering a wine goblet; for members of the Mikve Israel Curacao synagogue congregation, this symbolic gesture is done in the Sephardic fashion, with the groom throwing the glass into this tray, which was made in Holland in 1728.
I learned that in other communities the glass is covered in a napkin and stepped on by the groom’s foot. The breaking of the glass recalls the destruction of the Ancient Temples of Jerusalem two thousand years ago and signifies the frailty of human relationships and the need to love and care for each other.
Museum Showcases Colorful Ketubahs
The Museum also showcased several colorful Ketubahs, hand-decorated in calligraphy. Ketubah means "written thing" in Hebrew; it is a special type of Jewish prenuptial agreement. Considered an integral part of a traditional Jewish marriage, a Ketubah outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom, in relation to the bride. Ketubahs are a significant popular form of Jewish ceremonial art and have been made in a wide range of designs, usually following the tastes and styles of the era and region in which they are made. The Ketubah on display in the Museum is from the Cardoze family, who arrived to Curacao in 1739.
We also saw two “Chairs of Elijah,” or circumcision chairs, one of which is more than 300 years old and still occasionally in use. Gigi explained that a basic Jewish law prescribed in the Bible requires that every son of a Jewish woman be circumcised on the eight day after his birth.
Coming Full Circle From Curacao Synagogue to Beth Haim Cemetery
Our immersion into Curacao’s Jewish heritage came full circle with our next visit. After an introduction to customs associated with life’s new beginnings, we learned about some of faith’s farewell traditions at Beth Haim Cemetery. Consecrated in 1659, it is the oldest Caucasian cemetery on the island and in the Western Hemisphere--as such, the site is also a Curacao National Monument.
We were intrigued to see that almost all of the gravestones featured elaborate engravings and as we slowly walked among the rows of crypts, Gigi explained the symbolism of each design. She pointed out a marker on which a pair of hands was carved, saying that the design denoted that the individual buried there was a male Cohen–the name associated with rabbis.
"The Cohens were the ones that were allowed in the Holy of Holiest in the Temple in Jerusalem," she said."They are normally buried at the outer corner of the cemetery--to enter a cemetery will then defile themselves in the eyes of God."
Gigi explained that according to the Torah, there are three types of Jews.
"In addition to the Cohens, there are the Levy, who are the helpers of the rabbis, and the Israelites, which are the regular people like me," she said.
Gigi said the other tombstone depictions can be divided into three categories. One type of engraving represents the Biblical name of the deceased; for example, the tombstone of someone named Jacob might depict the Biblical tale of the dream of Jacob. Another kind of inscription symbolized the profession of the deceased for example, a captain would get a sailing ship on his tombstone.
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Cemetery Monuments Rich with Symbolism
The third sort of monument engravings are allegoric scenes. For example, a woman who died in childbirth might have the Tent of Rachel depicted on her tombstone. The marker of someone who died before reaching 50 years old could have a tree being cut down by a hand and ax that appear to be reaching down from Heaven.
"The symbolism is reflective of the practices of Iberian Jews, as that was the original homeland of the Sephardim," Gigi said. "Such depictions on the tombstones are typical in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Majorca and even Prague. The Russian Jews also have something similar, they will use a black tombstone and place the picture of the deceased in the stone."
"I am embarrassed to ask this, but what exactly is the Sephardim?" I asked Gigi. "How are they different from Russian Jews?"
“There are by origin two types of Jews--Ashkenazi and Sephardic--and this has nothing to do with religion,” she replied. "The word Ashkenazi comes from the word Ashkenas meaning Germany in Hebrew and the word Sephardim comes from Sefarat meaning Spain in Hebrew. This means that the Ashkenazi Jews are Eastern European Jews, coming from Russia, Romania, Poland, Germany etc. The Sephardic Jews come from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco etc."
“During the Roman Catholic and Spanish Inquisition the Sephardic Jews were almost wiped out,” Gigi said. “The majority of the Jews in the world nowadays are Ashkenazi Jews, with pale skin and light-colored eyes and hair. The Sephardic Jews are darker in complexion with dark hair and eyes. To be honest, my face, neck and arms make most Ashkenazi Jews wonder if I am Jewish. Once they see my legs they know I am Jewish as they are very white compared to my arms.”
“In Curacao we have two Jewish congregations: the Sephardim, who practice Reconstruction Judaism, and the Ashkenazim, who practice Modern Orthodox or Traditional Judaism,” Gigi said. "The congregations differ in origin, melodies for the songs and also the food we eat. The chanting of the Torah is different. The Sephardic Jews will play music during services and the Ashkenazim do not. Ashkenazim do the service in Hebrew alone and Sephardics in English and Hebrew."
I had the opportunity to reflect on what a rich, unexpected lesson in diversity I was receiving in Curacao as we made our way to the next Jewish heritage site that Gigi would be sharing with us.
Plantation House Preserves Jewish Heritage of the Maduro Family
From the final resting place of those at Beth Haim Cemetery, we visited another historic site also created as a peaceful sanctuary. The plantation house “Rooi Catootje” dates to about 1820 and was originally known as “Rust en Vrede," which translates as "Rest and Peace." Now preserved as a museum, the house has been the property of the Maduro family since 1853, when S.E.L. Maduro brought it as a gift to his wife Rebecca Curiel from her parent’s estate. In 1954 the mansion hosted the gathering at which the “colonial” status of Curaçao and the other islands of the Dutch Antilles changed, becoming completely self-governing within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The mansion's location is similar to the placement of other plantation houses in Curaçao--built on the top of a hill in order to catch the last possible breath of a breeze. The site was also strategic in that it afforded a view of at least two other “Landhuizen," or plantation houses, which was essential for security, as it permitted the owners to send or receive word of impending threats. Also visible from the Rooi Catootje's front porch were the semaphore of Fort Nassau--these nautical signal flags communicated the movements of ships entering and leaving the harbor, of particular interest to a merchant such as Maduro.
Rene Maduro told me the Sephardim on Curaçao were mostly merchants, and as they grew in numbers throughout the decades, the group quickly expanded their trade horizons to the northern coast of South America, Eastern Central America, and the other Caribbean islands.
Curacao Synagogue the Mother of North American Jewish Congregations
"The Mikve Israel Curacao synagogue soon became known as the 'Mother Congregation of the Americas' since its members were financially well off and many of them traveled extensively to trade with neighboring countries," he said. "As a consequence, many Sephardic Curaçao families also emigrated to other countries nearby, among them Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Jamaica, etc."
Rene told me that the Curaçao Sephardic community numbered about 2,000 at the end of the 18th century. But the population has decreased significantly through emigration as a result of several factors, mostly for economic reasons, the fact that couples now have smaller families, and because children go abroad to study in U.S. and European universities and don't return.
"Our numbers have now dwindled to approximately 200 souls," he said.
I asked Rene what his heritage means to him personally.
“The history of the Jewish people throughout the ages, their struggles and their achievements against overwhelming odds, have shown me what can be accomplished with the will to do so," he said. "I am proud of that heritage and satisfied to be able to serve my people in whatever way I can."
Gigi also expressed her pride in her Jewish heritage--both locally and beyond.
"I am especially grateful to be allowed to tell the rich history of the Sephardic Jews of the island and thus help out my Curacao synagogue congregation, " Gig said. "I belong to the biggest family in the world, the Jewish religion. I know that wherever I might be and there is a Jew living there, I am welcome."
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