Nidhe Israel Synagogue is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (photo by Tasha Nathanson)
One of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere is in Barbados. I was living in Barbados, working on a Canadian agricultural development project, when I tripped over this unexpected fact. I knew that the real estate agent who helped me find housing – and who, not coincidentally, became my neighbour – was Jewish, but I had assumed he was an anomaly here, in the most eastern island of the Caribbean. This was not the place I had anticipated a Jewish story to unfold.
The neighbour, Steven Altman, is reasonably well known in this small place where everyone seems to know most everyone. But many of the islanders I met inserted the comment, “he’s Jewish” into any mention of him, which reinforced my impression that being Jewish was unusual here. The Barbados I encountered in the seven months I lived there is a place that runs according to racial categories and everyone seems to be categorized according to skin colour and place of origin. Even though I’m half-Jewish, I was the white Canadian woman at work.
Curiosity prompted me to board a crazy ZR van headed into Bridgetown one day to find out more about Nidhe Israel Synagogue. ZR vans are semi-unregulated transport vehicles built to seat about 10 passengers, though I’ve been in them packed with more than 20 fellow travelers. People squish in, pressing up against each other with infinite stony-faced endurance. The soca music is generally blaring and often the driver has the flag of some neighbouring island pinned to the front, indicating where he lived before ending up in Barbados driving the public bus route in a private vehicle. The cost is always exactly two Barbadian dollars to ride and the experience is totally worth it.
The Synagogue Historic District is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Barbados capital city of Bridgetown. Originally built around 1654, it was destroyed by an 1831 hurricane, rebuilt in 1833 and restored from 1987 through 2017. Constructed by Sephardi Jews fleeing Recife, Brazil, after that colony passed from Dutch to Portuguese hands, these arrivals sought the relative safety of British-controled territory. The Jewish community was able to practise their faith openly here even before they regained that right in England.
The refugees settled into housing on Jew Street (now Swan Street) and brought with them knowledge and experience of the sugar cane industry. For this, I raise a glass of fine Barbadian rum, as this accident of history resulted in a terrific local finished product. By the mid-1700s, the Jewish community was 800 strong, which was the peak of Jewish settlement.
The hurricane in 1831 was a disaster that destroyed more than just the synagogue, resulting in an exodus to the United Kingdom and the United States. By the 1920s, only one Jewish resident, Edmund Baeza, remained, holding the keys to the building. When he, too, left, the synagogue was sold and deconsecrated.
By the 1980s, the building was dilapidated, in use as a warehouse and destined for demolition, when a renewed Jewish community stepped in to begin the process of restoration. The synagogue officially reopened in April 2017, and it is a gorgeous, tranquil and instructive space.
When my neighbour Steven boasted that it was his family that was responsible for the resurgent Jewish community in Barbados, I filed away his comment with a few of his other questionable statements, such as when he had appealed for my company on the basis of needing someone to wash his laundry. Steven wasn’t even aware that I might take offence. Standards of male expression and behaviour are one of the more dubious cultural differences for a Canadian woman living temporarily in Barbados.
Despite my skepticism, however, the Altmans were indeed a primary element of the reconstruction effort and are longstanding pillars of the community, according to the plaques at the synagogue. Steven, when asked, wistfully described the tight-knit community of his childhood, drawn together to play games, fundraise for charity and visit each other’s homes, in addition to worshipping together. I grew to enjoy hearing Steven’s voice trailing out the windows of his home and through the tropical evening heat when he practised the prayers for services; it became a pleasant part of my experience of Barbados.
The second wave of Jewish Barbadians was Ashkenazi, mainly fleeing Europe, starting to arrive shortly after Baeza’s departure. My tour guide at the synagogue museum, curator Celso H. Brewster, described desperately seasick travelers bound for South America with skeins of cloth and other mercantile goods to start anew, stumbling out onto the solid ground of Barbados and refusing to go any farther. They set up shop in Bridgetown instead of continuing their journey.
As for Celso himself, he informed me that he was Baha’i but that he did have some Jewish roots as well. Those roots travel through his family line via a version of what was once a Jewish name, bestowed on a born-out-of-wedlock ancestor via a certain plantation holder with, shall we say, quite liberal application of his affections. I’ve heard various versions of this story from other Barbadians. Jews were not only merchants, but there were some Jewish pirates and, sadly, Jewish slave owners.
Nidhe Israel Synagogue and its grounds – which include the original mikvah, which was uncovered in 2008 to reveal a still-flowing spring; an extensive cemetery, as well as a museum – is a beautiful oasis for thoughtful reflection and learning.
The Synagogue Historic District is located on Synagogue Lane, Bridgetown, Saint Michael’s, Barbados. The museum is open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is free to enter the courtyard to look around; the entrance fee to the museum is $25 BDS (about $16 Cdn). To find out more, visit synagoguehistoricdistrict.com. Better yet, visit the synagogue.
Tasha Nathanson recently returned from a stint in the eastern Caribbean as gender equality and youth empowerment advisor on a World University Service of Canada project.