A Journey to Jewish Curacao

by Dr. Aviva Ben-Ur

Willemstad, Curacao — Even the casual visitor to the Mikve Israel synagogue cannot help but feel an instant sense of serenity upon entering the quiet courtyard that leads to the sanctuary. The azure stained glass windows come into view as you walk across a sand covered floor, like a thick carpet, toward a holy ark fashioned of carved mahogany. By the time you have visited the adjacent museum, with its relics and scrolls of medieval Spain, the afternoon has slipped by and only too soon the doors of the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere close for the day. Those sand covered floors leave you with a sense of all the silent history contained within its walls. Most of the forebears of today's Sephardic congregants were secret Jews or "marranos," from Spain and Portugal who fled the terrors of the Inquisition established in the 15th century. The floors of sand serve to remind the congregation of how its Jewish ancestors on the Iberian peninsula covered the floors of their makeshift prayer houses so that their footsteps would be muffled and the suspicion of potential denouncers would not be aroused.

On Curacao, where the first Jews arrived in the early 1650's, they found not only freedom of creed but also business and commercial opportunities that enabled the community to increase and flourish. Even today, one-third of the elegant boutiques and duty-free shops in downtown Willemstad, the capital, are Jewish owned. Despite their prosperity, the community did not forget the oppression and insecurity of their past, and it is therefore fitting that their synagogue, founded in 1651, should bear the name Hope of Israel.

Even though this Dutch Caribbean island, located 35 miles north of Venezuela, was a haven for the Sephardic community, it has not always provided for the historical preservation of Curacao's Jewish historical sites. The Beit Hayim cemetery, on a plain outside Willemstad, although it has survived as the oldest Jewish burial ground in the Americas, has not escaped the ravage of nature and industry. An oil refinery was built beside it, and so a good number of the once intricate tombstones, bearing Portuguese, Spanish and Hebrew epitaphs, are almost completely illegible, if not totally defaced by the devastating combination of fumes and sun, rain and wind. Yet those tombstones, which remain remarkably well-preserved, bear testimony to the creative ways in which survivors would perpetuate the memory of their departed loved ones.

The most common designs are depictions of biblical scenes related to the name of the deceased. On the tombs of males named Abraham, the Patriarch is seen contemplating the stars. Sometimes, the engraving will hint at the cause of death, such as a tree being truncated at it's root, symbolizing an untimely death, or a ship on stormy water, indicating the victim perished at sea. Mortality among women in childbirth was frequent. On the tomb of Rachel, wife of Yitzhak Pereira, the father is shown handing over the newborn child to another woman before the dead mother. Since the stones are unprotected and exposed to the elements and even to visitors trampling on them, there is much concern about their survival. Fortunately, the government of the Netherlands has recently allotted funds and hired experts who, according to community leader Charles Gomes Casseres, will recommend a preservation project to halt the corrosion process. Then the community will have to find a way to finance the project.

The new Jewish cemetery in Willemstad is dominated by elaborately carved tombstones, including figures of soaring angels or marble busts of the deceased. Those who recall the Jewish commandment against graven images of human figures may be surprised at the presence of human representation on these stones. Some people say the use of human figures is attributed to the assimilationist character of Jews of Sephardic background, their custom of full participation in society, even to contributing money for the building of churches. But scholars today recognize similar structures in old Ashkenazi cemeteries such as the one in Prague.

Scharloo, once the elegant Jewish quarter of Willemstad, is now in a state of deterioration. Many of the villas and chalets, however, still display the grace and majesty of times past. Built in the Dutch style of architecture that typifies the capital, many boast bright, lively colors such as aquamarine, maize and pink. Pauline Pruneti Winkel, a Protestant Curacaoan has authored an informative work documenting and illustrating the individual history of each house, the Jewish families who once inhabited them and their exuberant lifestyle.

Curacaoans, mostly of African or Dutch descent, speak Papiamento, a lilting language that harmoniously combines African elements, Spanish and Dutch, to name a few of its components, just as islanders themselves have mingled relatively conflict-free in the generations following the abolition of slavery in 1863. The island boasts a 97 percent literacy rate, and students can go on to university in the Netherlands, all expenses paid by that country. The prosperity of the inhabitants is evident.

Islanders are gracious and welcoming to tourists, whether they are potential customers or are lost and need directions. In addition to fluency in Dutch, many natives are proficient in English, Spanish and often additional languages such as French and German. While the local currency is the Netherlands Antilles guilder in florin, dollars are accepted almost everywhere.

The Jewish community, which today is composed equally of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, numbers about 600 out of a population of 140,000. The Ashkenazi synagogue, founded in this century by Jewish immigrants from Central Europe, holds its services in a house in Mahai, a suburb where Curacao's marvelous zoo is also located. I celebrated the Sabbath with the Sephardic congregation, which also welcomes those who wish to attend Friday evening or Saturday morning services. Rene Maduro, the congregation's president, officiates when Rabbi Peller, an American, is vacationing. Maduro explained that the synagogue made some changes in the late 19th century, including the installation of a mahogany organ, and has been known as Mikve Israel Emanuel since it merged with the Reform Sephardi congregation of Temple Emanuel in 1964.

Surprisingly, the congregation has adopted English as the language of worship, but certain prayers in Portuguese and Spanish, recited each Sabbath and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, attest to the Iberian ancestry of most everybody. The Sabbath prayer to the present queen of the Netherlands is still recited in Renaissance Portuguese. Following Friday evening services, there is an excellent opportunity to meet members of the congregation, who invite visitors and tourists to join in the blessing over the wine and hallah, or braided bread. They require only that men wear jackets and ties and women be modestly attired.

For the book collector and curiosity seeker, or just to stock up on postcards and mementos, a visit to Boekhandel Salas is a must. Originally opened by an old Sephardic family, the bookstore offers an impressive Judaica collection, including the authoritative "History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles" by Isaac and Suzanne Emanuel, a recipe book featuring Jewish island cooking, and a book commemorating the 250th anniversary of the consecration of Mikve Israel. Pauline Winkel's book is also available, or you can pick up "Let's Speak Papiamento" and learn some basics — "Con ta bai?" ("How are you?") and "Mi ta stima bo" ("I love you").

Each person I talked to characterized Curacao as a historical and present day haven from discrimination and claimed that today there is virtually no anti-Semitism on the island. Jossy Capriles, a nearly 80 year old congregation member whose ancestors first settled on Curacao in 1759, said that Mordechai Ricardo, a Curacao Jew, on two occasions gave refuge in his home to the South American Independence hero, Simon Bolivar. Capriles' aunt, a descendant of Ricardo, was the last person to live in the house, which is now a museum worth visiting. Capriles' daughter now lives in Boston with her husband and children. Although the sand covering the floor of the Mikve Israel synagogue recalls sad times in Sephardic history, an era which marked the definitive end of normative Judaism for Spain and Portugal, other associations are meant to come to mind as the white grains brush against your feet. The sand below and the celestial blue glass above are reminders of the biblical desert scene in which the children of Israel fled from Egyptian slavery, escaping from oppression to freedom. Finally, the sand floor also recalls God's promise to Abraham in Genesis XXII, 17; "I will multiply thy seed...as the sand which is upon the seashore...". For the Jews of Curacao, this is not only a legendary hope, it is a wish that their vibrant community, once "the mother of communities in the New World," will not be solely an historic memory. If Curacao once represented an oasis for secret Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal, often via Dutch occupied Brazil or the Netherlands, the island is now a welcoming haven for any traveler seeking an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Curacao offers the beauty of white beaches and turquoise wasters, with rich opportunities for snorkeling, scuba, all kinds of boating and water skiing. Its many fine restaurants serve exquisite Indonesian, French, Swiss, Dutch and other kinds of international cuisine. One popular spot, El Gaucho, flies in fresh steaks from the pampas of Argentina. Also, on any cafe terrace you can order a glass of Curacao Amstel, the only beer in the world made from distilled sea water, or sip some Curacao liqueur in a variety of flavors...Like other Caribbean islands, December through March is the most popular time of year, but with its many historical sites, constant sea breezes and harmonious, open atmosphere to people of all religions and colors, Curacao is a destination for any season.

Source: Reprinted here by kind permission of Dr. Aviva Ben-Ur. Originally published in the Jewish Advocate, Aug. 9, 1990; revised version of same article in the Boston Globe, Sept. 23, 1990