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 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
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.