September 10, 2004
Curaçao's rich Jewish history
Community once financed New York, Philadelphia and other synagogues.
RAHEL MUSLEAH SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH BULLETIN
It's the sand that distinguishes Curaçao from most other
Caribbean islands. Not the soft, white sand where you'd expect it
on its 42 gem-like beaches but where you're most surprised
to find it: covering the floor of its 272-year-old synagogue, Mikve
Curaçao's Jewish community can, in fact, trace its history
in the sand. Its converso ancestors who fled the Inquisition in
Spain and Portugal for the safe haven of the Netherlands remembered
putting sand on the floor in Europe to muffle the sounds of secret
prayer, and continued the custom in freedom. The sand connects worshippers
even further back in Jewish history, to God's promise that Abraham's
progeny would be as numerous as grains of sand and to the Israelites'
40-year desert wanderings.
Curaçao, however, is no desert. Its sand greets aquamarine
water so clear you can see your toes (and many sea creatures, if
you're so inclined). Willemstad, the capital, boasts a deep natural
harbor that has made it a shipping and cruise centre welcoming 3,000
ships a year. The 38-mile-long, drumstick-shaped island, the largest
of the Netherlands Antilles, is just north of Venezuela, fortunately
outside the hurricane belt. On either side of St. Anna Bay, homes
and shops are painted a man-made tropical rainbow: bubblegum pink,
spearmint green, cobalt blue and a yellow as bright as the plumage
of the ubiquitous Trupial birds that cunningly steal sugar packets
from restaurant tables.
Punda (the Point), the older and main shopping area, and
Otrobanda (literally, the Other Side) are linked by a 116-year-old
floating pedestrian bridge supported by 15 pontoon boats, as well
as a higher span for vehicle traffic. The town is on Unesco's World
Heritage list; many of its buildings were owned by Jewish merchants
who lived upstairs from their shops and warehouses, and one gable
even retains the Hebrew date it was built.
The Jewish influence on Curaçao's development and economy
has been so dramatic that my non-Jewish guide, Vico Rojer, commented:
"I cannot separate my history from the Jewish past."
Settling in Curaçao
That past began in 1634, when the first Jew, Samuel Cohen, accompanied
Dutch explorers to Curaçao as interpreter and Indian guide.
But its history as a community dates to 1651, when the Dutch West
India Company allowed a Jewish entrepreneur, Joao d'Yllan, to recruit
12 Jewish families to colonize the island. The arid earth and meagre
rainfall did not support agriculture; instead, the settlers turned
to commerce. A second group followed in 1659, sefer Torah in hand,
said to be one of the 18 still kept in the synagogue's gleaming
mahogany hechal (ark). The current building, completed in
1732 and established as Mikve Israel (Hope of Israel), is
the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
The synagogue's elegant yellow facade contrasts with its simple
interior of thick coral and limestone walls, painted white, and
mahogany pews, tebah (bimah) and banka (bench for
synagogue officials and dignitaries). As in many Curaçao
buildings, the walls are stricken with a corrosive "cancer"
from the chemical salt called "salpetre" in the sea sand
and lime mortar used in construction. But blue windows let in a
flawless sky. Between four pillars that represent the matriarchs
hang four brass, 24-branch chandeliers in the Dutch dolphin pattern.
They are lit only on Kol Nidre and by special request for weddings,
since they require dismantling, cleaning and replacing. The lighting
alone takes two and a half hours.
In 1864, conflict between Orthodox and liberal congregants split
the Snoa, as the synagogue is lovingly called. The Reform group
established Temple Emanuel, but re-merged with its mother congregation
in 1964, when the island's Jewish population declined. As a compromise,
Mikve Israel-Emanuel affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement.
The imposing steepled Emanuel building on Wilhelmena Plaza now houses
offices of the Department of Justice.
An international hub
During Curaçao's glory days in the late 1700s and early 1800s,
the synagogue was known as the "Mother Congregation of the
Americas," financing and supporting communities in New York
(Shearith Israel), Rhode Island (Touro), Philadelphia (Mikveh Israel)
and throughout the Caribbean. Its members' generosity and courage
extended to aiding non-Jews as well: Mordechai Ricardo assisted
Venezuelan freedom fighter Simon Bolivar and his two sisters when
they escaped to Curaçao. The sisters lived in one of Ricardo's
houses, an octagonal building with a domed roof that is now a Bolivar
museum and special events venue on the grounds of the Avila Beach
Resort. Native products manufactured by Jewish merchants included
Panama hats (Maduro family) and Curaçao liqueur (Senior family).
In Scharloo, once outside the city limits, the Sephardim built magnificent
homes in the Spanish-Italian style. Economic decline and subsequent
emigration and intermarriage caused Curaçao's Jewish community
to dwindle from 2,000 at its height in 1790 to 400 people today.
Some of the homes have been renovated into offices and museums.
Some remain abandoned, their paint faded.
"We are still trying to maintain and keep what our forefathers
have done," said René Maduro, who served as synagogue
president for 18 years and traces his family to Portugal, 1608.
"But we are an isolated community fighting for its survival."
To offset the dearth of local simchot, the Snoa is enticing tourists
from abroad to hold weddings and b'nai mitzvah in its historic and
Ashkenazi Jews settled in Curaçao in the early 1920s, seeking
opportunity and escaping pogroms in eastern Europe. They set sail
for Latin America but got off in Curaçao, probably by mistake,
said Ariel Yeshurun, Israeli-born rabbi of the 63-family Orthodox
congregation, Shaarei Tsedek. Others joined the community after
the Second World War. The congregation meets in a house in the Mahaai
neighborhood and is anticipating the completion of its new building
by next summer. Yeshurun speaks impeccable English; he spent four
years in Toronto as a child and has a Kansas City-born wife.
Even the Sephardi Snoa holds mostly Ashkenazi services, conducted
by Boston-born Rabbi Gerald Zelermyer, who retired from the Emanuel
Synagogue in West Hartford, Conn., two years ago. A pipe organ from
1866, recently restored as a gift of the Dutch government, plays
throughout. The Torah service continues to be chanted in original
Curaçaoan melodies; Maduro recites the blessings for each
person honored with an aliyah in Portuguese.
Zelermyer's wife, Heske (Dutch for Esther), was born and
raised in Curaçao but had not lived on the island since she
left at the age of 16 to receive a European education in Holland.
She later moved to Boston, where she met her husband. "I'm
giving back to the people who brought me my wife," said the
rabbi. "I can understand and love her more because of my experience
Love of the island
No one is more passionate about Curaçao than Heske Zelermyer.
She attributes her love of the island not to her Curaçaoan
mother, who traces her family back 14 generations to the Capriles
family in Italy, but to her Dutch father, who was fascinated with
Curaçao's every corner. Zelermyer intersperses personal stories
with historical, geological and botanical trivia. One minute she
is telling you about the manzanilla tree, with tiny, edible-looking
but poisonous apples that warded off the French when they came to
conquer the island. The next minute she regales you with the tale
of her first known ancestor, a Jewish physician from Udine, Italy,
named Joseph Capriles, who begged for atonement in the Office of
the Inquisition in Malta for having converted to Islam, embraced
Christianity in Trieste, moved to Tunis, converted back to Islam,
made his way to Amsterdam and ended up in Curaçao as a Jew.
On the island's wilder western side, where she used to vacation
as a child, she points out Dividivi trees whose branches are flattened
sideways by the strong trade winds, the blue-tailed "blo-blo"
lizard and the varieties of kadushi cacti. She remembers imagining
the Christoffel Mountain as the back of a giant dinosaur and, even
at age 60, takes child-like delight in the spurts of crashing white
spray that shoot up like cannon-fire from the mouth of the inlet
called Boca Pistol.
Zelermyer, who speaks fluent Papiementu, the colorful, alliterative
and melodious local language, notes that Hebrew is part of the linguistic
mix that grew naturally from finding a means to communicate among
Curaçao's ethnic groups, now numbering about 50. Papiementu
is 70 per cent Spanish, flavored liberally with Portuguese, Dutch,
English, Italian, French, native Indian (the first inhabitants)
and Luango (the West African tribe that was imported to Curaçao
when it was a slave depot). "If a kid is poking his nose, you
say, 'Are you searching for chametz?' " she explained. "If
someone has a sombre face, you describe it as a 'kara di'Tisha b'Av.'
If something breaks, you say, 'b'siman tov.' " The oldest Papiamentu
document is a love letter written in 1775 by a Sephardi Jew. Most
Curaçaoans also speak English, Dutch and Spanish.
Preserving the past
Zelermyer laments the sickening juxtaposition of the Beth Haim,
the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere, with the oil
refinery behind it. The fumes have corroded the inscriptions and
carvings on the tombstones so that most are now unreadable. Faint
outlines of skulls and crossbones are still
visible, as are biblical scenes that match the deceased's name:
Mordecai on a horse on Mordechay Crasto's grave (1716), Jacob's
ladder on the grave of Jahacob Correa (1714). The oldest of the
5,000-plus tombstones dates to 1668.
Reproductions of several of the markers are displayed at the Jewish
Museum, adjacent to the Snoa, which features a wealth of ritual
objects. A silver wedding tray (1728) reflects a distinctive custom:
at the ceremony, held in front of the open hechal, the groom smashes
a goblet not by stamping it with his foot, but by throwing
it onto the platter at his feet. The brown ink of a Torah scroll
signals its age: it has been dated to 1320 and is said to have been
smuggled out of Spain after 1492. A black pointer is kept solely
for use on the fast day of Tisha b'Av. And then there's a silver
filigree hourglass, presumably to time the rabbi's sermon.
More mundane objects mirror daily life: shoe hooks for buttoning
and unbuttoning ladies' boots, a wooden form to set gloves back
in shape after washing, hand-embroidered handkerchiefs and mother-of-pearl
fans, the lace, flapper-type dress of a Curaçaoan lady of
society and the white dress and apron of a Yaya, the nanny almost
every Jewish family had. Family-tree posters tell the stories of
The Maduro family's lineage, on paper nearly 33 feet long, is kept
at the S.A.L. (Mongui) Maduro Library, a museum and reference library.
It is housed in Rooi Catootje, one of the plantation houses (landhuizen)
that dot the island. A "slave bell" outside was rung at
daybreak to summon the slaves to tend the sheep and cattle and to
work in the vegetable garden, orchards and maize fields. Slavery
was abolished in 1863, 10 years after Salomon Maduro bought the
house as a gift for his bride, Rebecca Coriel. It became the family's
"country" residence. Their son, also named Salomon but
nicknamed Mongui (nicknames were de riguer to distinguish children
and grandchildren from their predecessors, since they were usually
all given the same first names), was an avid collector of Judaica
and Dutch Antilleana. The library is now run by 84-year-old Ena
Dankmeijer-Maduro, Mongui's only child.
Artifacts and furnishings detail the Jewish Curaçaoan way
of life: a Japanese porcelain bowl in which all Maduro babies were
given their first bath; paper money that wealthy Jewish families
in colonial times printed themselves; a back scratcher made from
a real goat's foot, hoof intact; cases filled with black-and-white
family photos. One family member, George Maduro, was studying in
Holland when the Second World War broke out. He joined the Dutch
cavalry, was captured and died in Dachau. In his memory, the family
built a miniature "city" close to The Hague called Madurodam.
It feels like home
History aside, Curaçao offers many ways to enjoy the present,
like indulging in exquisite and eclectic cuisine. Restaurants often
oblige in preparing vegetarian versions of specialties like keshi
yena (stuffed cheese) or Indonesian rijsttafel (rice
table) if given advance notice. Rooms at the Avila Beach have kitchenettes,
allowing you to buy fresh vegetables and fruit at the "floating
market" and to cook up your own storm.
Many of Curaçao's residents and entrepreneurs have some Jewish
ancestry, even if they themselves are no longer Jewish. Jacob Gelt
Dekker, a Dutch businessman whose father is Jewish, built the Kura
Hulanda (Dutch Garden) Hotel and Museum from a dilapidated neighborhood,
turning 16 run-down homes into romantic Dutch Colonial hotel rooms
within walking distance of the Snoa. The anthropological museum
showcases African heritage and documents the slave trade. Herbalist
and author Dinah Veeris (Green Remedies and Golden Customs),
of black, Indian, Dutch and Jewish extraction, found wisdom in herbal
medicines. In her herbal garden, Den Paradera (the Place
Where You Feel at Home), guides explain the healing qualities of
indigenous plants and trees.
For Jewish visitors, Curaçao is indeed, a place where you
feel at home, its cultural diversity, natural beauty and Jewish
heritage spelling nothing less than Bon Bini, Welcome.
Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist and author
of Apples and Pomegranates: A Rosh Hashanah Family Seder. Visit