Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

The Jews in the Caribbean

Jane Gerber

The Jewish diaspora of the Caribbean constantly redefined itself under changing circumstances. This volume looks at many aspects of this complex past and suggests different ways to understand it: as a Jewish diaspora dispersed under different European colonial empires; as a Jewish body joined together by a set of shared Jewish traditions and historical memories; and as one component in a web of relationships that characterized the Atlantic world.

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The Portuguese Jewish diaspora was born out of a double tragedy: the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the forced conversion/expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1497. The potent combination of expulsion, Inquisition, and crypto-Judaism left people neither wholly Jewish nor wholly Christian in their identity. Subsequently many left the Iberian peninsula; some found refuge in the Caribbean, but succeeded in maintaining strong connections with Portuguese Jews in western Europe, the Ottoman empire, and the Far East and also forged ties with the surrounding peoples and cultures.

This book looks at many different aspects of this complex past. Its interdisciplinary approach allows a wealth of new information to be brought together to create a comprehensive picture. Part I sets the context, and also considers the relationship of Caribbean Jewry to the European trading systems; its special ties to Amsterdam and Dutch-ruled Curaçao; and the role of Jewish merchants in Jamaica's commerce. Part II examines the material and visual culture of Jews in the British and Dutch Caribbean, while Part III looks at Caribbean Jewish identity and heritage and their modern manifestations. Part IV contains archival studies that illuminate other subjects of importance—adventure and piracy, Jewish participation in a nineteenth-century revolt of black slaves and in the first Jamaican elections after Jews were granted the right to vote, and questions of concubinage and sexual relations between Jews and blacks. Part V moves from the local to the international, in particular the connection with mainland America.

In their diversity, the contributions to this volume suggest the many ways that the formation of the Caribbean Jewish diaspora can be understood today: as a Jewish diaspora dispersed under different European colonial empires; as a Jewish body joined together by a set of shared Jewish traditions and historical memories; and as one component in a web of relationships that characterized the Atlantic world. Defining it is no simple matter: like all diaspora identities it was constantly in flux, reinventing itself under changing historic circumstances.


About the editor

Jane Gerber is Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is past president of the Association for Jewish Studies. She is author of Jewish Society in Fez: 1450–1700 (1980); The Jews of Spain (1992), winner of a National Jewish Book Award; Sephardic Studies in the University (1995), and Cities of Splendour: Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews (forthcoming from the Littman Library). She has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, The Hebrew University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Jewish Theological Seminary and has lectured widely in the United States and abroad. She heads the Advisory Board of the American Sephardi Federation and serves on the Academic Advisory Council of the Center for Jewish History and the Academic Board of the Rothberg School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


About the contributors

Aviva Ben-Ur, Associate Professor, Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Miriam Bodian, Professor of History, University of Texas, Austin
Ainsley Cohen Henriques, former president, currently a director, honorary secretary, and editor and publisher of the newsletter, United Congregations of Israelites, Kingston, Jamaica
Judah M. Cohen, Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University
Eli Faber, Professor Emeritus of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
Rachel Frankel, Principal, Rachel Frankel AIA Architecture, New York City
Noah Gelfand, University of Connecticut at Stamford and Hunter College
Jane S. Gerber, Professor of History and Director, Institute for Sephardic Studies, Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Josette Capriles Goldish, Research Associate, Hadassah Brandeis Institute
Matt Goldish, Samuel M. and Esther Melton Professor of Jewish History and Director, Melton Center for Jewish Studies, Ohio State University
Jonathan I. Israel, Professor of Modern History, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University
Stanley Mirvis, Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Gérard Nahon, Directeur d'Études (emeritus) in medieval and modern Judaism, École Pratique des Hautes Études (Sorbonne, Paris)
Joanna Newman, Director, UK International Unit, Universities UK; former Head of Higher Education, British Library
Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Assistant Professor of Sephardic Studies, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University, New York
Jackie Ranston, researcher/writer specializing in Jamaican historical biography
James Robertson, Senior Lecturer in History, University of the West Indies, Mona
Jessica Roitman, researcher, Royal Netherlands Institute for South-East Asian and Caribbean Studies
Dale Rosengarten, founding director, Jewish Heritage College, College of Charleston Library
Barry L. Stiefel, Assistant Professor, Joint Program in Historic Preservation, College of Charleston and Clemson University
Hilit Surowitz-Israel, Department of Religion, University of Florida
Karl Watson, formerly Senior Lecturer, Department of History, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill
Swithin Wilmot, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education and Senior Lecturer in History, University of the West Indies, Mona



List of Illustrations
Note on Transliteration

PART I The Historical Background of the Caribbean Sephardi Diaspora

1 The Formation of the Portuguese Jewish Diaspora

2 Curaçao, Amsterdam, and the Rise of the Sephardi Trade System in the Caribbean, 1630–1700

3 To Live and to Trade: The Status of Sephardi Mercantile Communities in the Atlantic World during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

PART II Authority and Community in the Dutch Caribbean

4 Amsterdam and the Portuguese Naçao of the Caribbean in the Eighteenth Century

5 'A flock of wolves instead of sheep': The Dutch West India Company, Conflict Resolution, and the Jewish Community of Curaçao in the Eighteenth Century

6 Religious Authority: A Perspective from the Americas

PART III Material and Visual Culture

7 Jonkonnu and Jew: The Art of Isaac Mendes Belisario (1794–1849)

8 Testimonial Terrain: The Cemeteries of New World Sephardim

9 Counting the 'Sacred Lights of Israel': Synagogue Construction and Architecture in the British Caribbean

PART IV Jews and Slave Society

10 The Cultural Heritage of Eurafrican Sephardi Jews in Suriname

11 Shifting Identities: Religion, Race, and Creolization among the Sephardi Jews of Barbados, 1654–1900

12 Sexuality and Sentiment: Concubinage and the Sephardi Family in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica

13 The 'Confession made by Cyrus' Reconsidered: Maroons and Jews during Jamaica's First Maroon War (1728–1738/9)

14 Jewish Politicians in Post-Slavery Jamaica: Electoral Politics in the Parish of St Dorothy, 1849–1860

PART V Reassessing the Geographical Boundaries of Caribbean Jewry

15 The Borders of Early American Jewish History

16 Port Jews and Plantation Jews: Carolina–Caribbean Connections

Part VI. Personal Narratives

17 The Strange Adventures of Benjamin Franks, an Ashkenazi Pioneer in the Americas

18 Daniel Israel López Laguna's Espejo fiel de vidas and the Ghosts of Marrano Autobiography

19 'My heart is grieved': Grace Cardoze—A Life Revealed through Letters

PART VII The Formation of Contemporary Caribbean Jewry

20 Refugees from Nazism in the British Caribbean

21 Inscribing Ourselves with History: The Production of Heritage in Today's Caribbean Jewish Diaspora

Notes on Contributors



'The broadest spectrum of scholars and scholarship on this subject since the 1993 publication of Sephardim in the Americas, expanding that book’s US-centred focus with a global perspective . . . Highly recommended.'
J.L. Elkin, Choice

'This outstanding collection of papers opens a window into the world of the Portuguese Jewish diaspora in the Caribbean. Accompanied by illustrations, notes, and bibliographies, this work is essential for those seeking to understand the circumstances which led to the specific patterns of development, communal organization, and personal lie of the Sephardim in this region.'
Randall C. Belinfante, Interdisciplinary Journal of Portuguese Diaspora Studies

'This volume has many strengths, not the least of which are its wide-ranging scope, attention to new methods, inclusion of primary sources, and interdisciplinary approach to the field. One of the joys of the collection is the broad approach it takes to the Caribbean . . . The volume is similarly expansive in its methods. Some of the best of the essays in the collection lay out new theories and provide new archival sources . . . equally rich in its interest in a broadly defined approach to Jewish life. It includes essays that draw from religious, cultural, social, political, and economic history. Credit should go to the publisher for the book’s beautiful design and for its inclusion of not only rare translations of archival works but also the colour plates, black and white figures, maps, and tables that complement the chapters . . . the essays are strong and well edited . . . an innovative collection produced by both established and up-and-coming scholars. It will be invaluable for any scholar of Jewish studies who is seriously interested in either American Jewish history or Atlantic world history. The work should also be of interest not only to researchers but also to students of American and European history who want to learn new methods and theoretical models.'
Laura Arnold Leibman, Jewish History

'Monumental . . . The subject matter is diverse and varied, and ranges from history, culture, politics, to race and Jewish identity, among many other interesting topics . . . The chapters are written from a broad range of disciplines and socio-cultural perspectives, both theoretical/scholarly and creative . . . Carefully written and well documented . . . this mammoth work is a huge undertaking and its analysis is truly interesting, since it illuminates the reader's path to understanding the development of the Jews in this region, as well as those factors and events that have shaped them. This book offers a skilful overview of the history and historiography of these Jews and their environments. It does not leave many questions unexplored, without reconceptualizing or analyzing them. It is without a doubt a valuable and important contribution.'
Paulette Kershenovich Schuster, Sephardic Horizons