The Jewish Traveler: Panama
A bridge connecting Central and South America; a gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—this nation of sparkling natural beauty and thriving commerce has a prosperous and proud Jewish community.
Though boasting a relatively young Jewish community, contemporary Panama City—located at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal—is a particularly Jewish haven, where Jews have earned terrific career and financial success. And despite the intense security that visitors will encounter in planning trips to several of the capital city’s most prominent Jewish sights, in general, Panamanian Jewry operates as a full partner in many of the nation’s leading business ventures.
Panama’s claim to fame—its approximately 50-mile-long canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—remains a perennially popular cruise destination, with several major ship lines, including kosher options, making crossings throughout the year. But perhaps most interesting to Jews touring the canal is a relatively obscure historical episode many Panamanians of all persuasions profess not to know.
The episode is this: If not for the original, scandalous 19th-century French effort to create the Panama Canal, a case can be made that there well might not be the modern State of Israel.
While the possible Jewish ancestry of Christopher Columbus and cohorts—who sailed Panama’s Atlantic coast on the explorer’s last New World voyage—remains debatable, Jews escaping the Iberian Inquisition probably arrived in the area by the early 15th century. Conversos and Marranos followed in the 17th century. When, in 1698, Scots attempted to settle in the rugged Darién wilderness along the Atlantic, Jews were among those adventurers as well.
Originally, Panama was part of Colombia, which gained independence from Spain in 1821. With this new freedom came a handful of Sefardic Jews primarily from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, plus some Ashkenazim from Central Europe. While many assimilated, another wavelet, including both Sefardim and Ashkenazim, landed in Panama City in the mid-19th century, arriving with the railroad that connected the Atlantic and Pacific in 1855, and the California Gold Rush, which drew people who did not make it all the way West. More Sefardim came from the then-Danish St. Thomas after its 1867 earthquake.
In 1876, the first Jewish community was established, along with the first Panamanian synagogue, Kol Shearith Israel. Almost simultaneously, another Jewish cluster formed in Colón, on the Atlantic side of the isthmus; in 1890, Jews there founded Kahal Hakadosh Yangacob synagogue.
By the time the United States was finishing work on the canal, in 1911, a census indicated the presence of 505 Jews.
Membership in Kol Shearith Israel fluctuated for decades, with Jews either assimilating into general society or leaving the area. In 1936, an estimate put the Panamanian Jewish population at about 600.
By the early 1930s, the foundation of today’s current power core was established by Levantines, primarily from Aleppo, Syria, who had come to Panama City after World War I. They created the Israelite Benevolent Society and founded the Orthodox congregation, Shevet Ahim.
A third congregation, Beth El, the only Ashkenazic synagogue in Panama City, was formed to serve refugees from Central Europe at the time of World War II. Some of these new arrivals started banana plantations along the Costa Rican border to the north. Others landed in David, Panama’s third largest city, possibly named by Marranos.
Panama’s postwar economy was boosted in 1955 when money flowed in for the construction of the Inter-American Highway. But Panama’s political situation remained unstable. By 1968, a censorious, anticonstitutional junta had gained control, and Colonel (later General) Omar Torrijos Herrera became Panama’s leader. Shortly after he was killed in a 1981 plane crash, the Western hemisphere got its “first” Jewish president—Eric Arturo Delvalle. (His uncle, Max Delvalle Levy-Maduro, had served as president for less than one month in 1968.) Delvalle’s replacement was Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, ex-intelligence head and one-time operative for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Noriega consolidated the dictatorship of Torrijos and involved himself with Colombia’s drug cartels. The children of both Torrijos and Noriega attended Panama’s leading Jewish school, the Instituto Alberto Einstein. Stories persist that Jews were influential in circles surrounding both dictators—Noriego so involved with drugs and gunrunning that the United States invaded Panama in 1989 and jailed him. During the ensuing riots, many Jewish-owned shops were damaged and looted as a result of general vandalism.
The Panamanian Jewish population increased by almost 200 percent—to between 10,000 and 12,000—from the mid-1930s to today. In the 1990s, 1,000 Israelis arrived.
Jews today are leaders in several commercial enterprises, among them Jaguar, Porsche, Reebok and Nike franchises; major department and chain stores (including Conway, Stevens, Dorians and El Costo); various shopping malls; high-rise buildings dominating a considerable amount of the upscale Punta Paitilla skyline; and development of much of the land in the burgeoning neighborhood of Costa del Este.
Despite the Israeli influx, Israel had no ambassador in Panama from 2002 to 2005. Prior to that break, relations had been good. Panama voted for Israel’s establishment in the United Nations, and Israel reciprocated by sending Panama agricultural advisors.
Panama has recently experienced growth of its Arab population, Palestinians included. But Arabs have generally established themselves in Panama’s countryside, while the Jews are concentrated in cities. In the Colón Free Zone—the world’s second-largest free-trade zone, at the Atlantic gateway to the canal—Jews and Arabs appear to exist easily side-by-side.
Panama’s Jewish community is very insular; the sole explanation one community official offers is security. For admittance to any of Panama City’s synagogues, visits must be prearranged, and do remember to bring your passport. You might also be asked to verify your “Jewishness.” Try contacting either the community (011-507-300-2083) or the individual synagogues.
While demographics vary, it is estimated that 80 to 95 percent of Panama’s Jews are affiliated with the community; 80 to 85 percent keep kosher; 25 percent observe Shabbat; and 90 to 95 percent send their children to either Alberto Einstein or the Hebrew Academy Yitzhak Rabin.
Shevet Ahim (507-225-5990)—a mammoth building occupying virtually a full block—stands in the Bella Vista area at the intersection of Avenida Justo Arosemena and Calle 43. Topped by a monumental hanukkiya, it has a grand arched entrance, a large pair of Ten Commandment tablets and several wings of varying heights, vertically striped with stained-glass windows. The Sefardic Orthodox congregation runs one of two mikves in the city. On the street parallel to the synagogue’s main entrance is the Centro Cultural Hebreo de Panama, a community center (507-226-0869; www.cchb.com.pa).
Shevet Ahim runs a satellite synagogue—Ahavat Sion (507-265-1891)-—on Calle Juan 23 in the Paitilla section of the city.
The new Kol Shearith Israel (507-300-2080), which is liberal and progressive, is located at the corner of Costa del Este and Avenida de la Rotonda. The ivory-toned building’s sanctuary appears composed of cascading semicircles. It is adorned with two-toned clay Ten Commandment tablets, and the façade is topped by a largeMagen David.
Beth El (507-223-3383; www.bethelpanama.com), a small, attractive, 250-member synagogue in the Obarrio area on Calle 58 off Samuel Lewis Road, features a simple hall tastefully decorated with white walls and wrought-iron filigree. Panama City’s second mikve is on the premises here. Beth El is led by Chabad Rabbi Aaron Laine.
Hadassah International (212-303-8174; www.hadassahinternational.org) has a thriving presence in the city through its Hadassah Panama branch. The group has raised more than $1,500,000 for the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower now rising at the Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical Center in Ein Kerem.
Kosher food, plus other ritual accoutrements, can be purchased at what may be one of the largest kosher supermarkets outside Israel: Super Kosher, on Calle 56 (507-263-5254).
Among the city’s kosher restaurants are three run out of the Centro Hebreo as well as Darna (www.darna.com.pa) and Pita Pan (507-264-2786).
In some ways, Panama City will remind the Jewish traveler of Tel Aviv. From the flounce along its streets to its very skyline, so much is familiar it’s easy to feel at home.
One of the saddest but loveliest sights is the original—and only recently abandoned—structure that housed Kol Shearith Israel. A sprawling, Mediterranean-style villa of multifaceted ivory-shaded stucco walls and a red tile roof, with angular gables popping out from the main structure at seemingly odd spots, it stands in the Bella Vista neighborhood at the corner of Calle 36 Este and Avenida Cuba. A church group, Igelsia Evangélica, now owns the building.
Along the city’s main street, Via España, is the flagship department store of the Jewish-owned Felix B. Maduro chain (www.felix.com.pa).
Somewhat beyond, among a series of small shops extending along the grounds of the Hotel Panama, is the mola shop founded half a century ago by Israeli Flory Saltzman, the faded awning still proclaiming her name. Molas are the multilayered, multicolored textiles created by the San Blas Islands’ Kuna Indians. In addition to usual handicraft items, the Saltzman shop sells halla covers, talit bags and kippot.
Along Via Argentina in the El Congrejo neighborhood is a roughly triangular grassy plot known as Plaza Einstein. Upon it rests a monumental sculpted head of Albert Einstein.
Heading further toward the canal, along the Via Transistmica, stands a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. A sculpture of a lamp-like object apparently supported and pushed against with seeming force by primitive, stick-like figures, it commemorates the “Combatientes del Ghetto de Varsovia, April-1943.”
But for most, Panama’s main attraction is the canal.
The initial significant attempt, after Spanish efforts, to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans here was made in the late 19th century by France. Having succeeded in digging the Suez Canal, France thought that a canal in Panama would go as smoothly. But it was a fiasco. Apart from insurmountable logistical, medical and other problems, there was a financial one.
According to award-winning historian David McCullough, author of The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (Simon & Schuster), it is unlikely the entire story of the scandal surrounding the money-raising efforts will ever be known. But what is clear is that a lottery among the French populace was held to raise funds for the construction, and much of it was ill-used.
Among the small coterie controlling the stock was a Jew of German background, Baron Jacques de Reinach, a financier and man-about-town who had founded the Paris banking firm Kohn, De Reinach et Compagnie, which helped finance French railroad and military endeavors. He, in turn, was overshadowed—and possibly blackmailed—by another Jew of German origin, Dr. Cornelius Herz. Egged on by the devoutly anti-Semitic journalist Édouard Drumont using every means he could, a large section of the French public was convinced that the canal’s failure was the fault of Jews. This climate contributed substantially to the Dreyfus affair—which, in turn, raised the consciousness of the hitherto assimilated Theodor Herzl. This led to his passionate conviction that the Jews needed their own state. Ergo…the State of Israel.
Jewish connections to the canal continued. Although footnotes to its history, at least two should be mentioned: The Seligman family, New York Jewish financiers, were also involved with the French plan and subsequently would go to great lengths to justify their actions. And in the late 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter’s administration orchestrated the plan to put the canal under Panamanian jurisdiction, his chief negotiator was the diplomat Sol Linowitz.
Two additional relevant bits: A giant crane originally from Germany and bearing a still vaguely visible swastika stands in Gatun Lake (an American war spoil originally brought to California before transfer to the canal). And, at the Atlantic end, one can see a swath of the “French Cut.” Here the French began their catastrophic efforts. The cut is now being utilized for the canal’s widening.
Also, what’s generally called the Panama Canal Museum (507-211-1649;firstname.lastname@example.org) is of interest, not lastly because it stands in one of the city’s most colorful, if not always safe, areas—Panama La Viejo (Old Panama). Located in the main square among a colorful jumble of old Spanish-style houses, it displays, as one enters the second section, on the right, a photograph of the notorious Dr. Cornelius Herz and his wife. Here as well is a large mural featuring the United States’s return of the canal, with Linowitz featured prominently. Also on display, almost prophetically, are pictures of the Suez Canal’s dedication.
Beyond the museum, Old Panama teems with tourist attractions, including: Las Bóvedas (The Vaults), a promenade along the Pacific; Palacio de las Garzas, the presidential palace; the Teatro Nacional (507-262-3525;www.teatronacionaldepanama.com); and several restaurants.
Among Panama’s best-known Jewish families today—ones involved with commerce, politics, medicine and the arts—are the Mottas (Dr. Jorge Motta was recently noted for helping to diagnose and solve the country’s cough-syrup problem in 2006, when more than 100 people died from ingesting tainted medicine); the Maduros (a Maduro wrote one of Panama’s leading anthems); the Delvalles, of political fame; and the Mizrachis, well-known for import-export activities.
Arguably the most notorious Israeli involved with Panama was Michael Harari, a one-time Mossad agent who headed the team pursuing the Munich Massacre perpetrators. He was reportedly involved in gunrunning, drug-dealing, bodyguard-training and other undercover doings for Noriega.
If one cannot transit the canal, at least visit the Miraflores Locks, a short drive from Panama City. Its headquarters features exhibitions and photographs on the canal’s history. And from the observation area, ships flying the flags of the world can be seen gathering to make the crossing.
Additionally, the Colón Free Zone is an attraction for some. To get there, travel via the newly resurrected train running along the 19th-century route following the canal, which will give one an idea of some barriers faced by those constructing the waterway. Shopping in the free zone is a popular tourist pastime, but beware: Unless buying wholesale, prices are no more competitive than what one finds at discount stores in the United States.
Panama has influenced a fair share of novels, several involving Jews. Among these, and other general ones, is John le Carré’s satiric spy novel, The Tailor of Panama (Ballantine)—also a film of the same name. The Instituto Albert Einstein’s grand façade figures in the opening moments of both book and movie, but is now surrounded by an almost totally obliterating high wall.
Eric Zencey’s Panama: A Novel (Berkley) is a mystery pegged to the French canal scandal.
Douglas Galbraith’s The Rising Sun (Grove) deals with the Scottish attempt to colonize Darién.
And Bill Boyd’s Panama: An Historical Novel (Capital) covers America’s early canal involvement.
Panama’s national airline, COPA (www.copaair.com), runs one of the most efficient airlines currently operating. The Crystal Suites Hotel, at Via Brasil and Samuel Lewis Avenue (507-263-5111; www.crystalsuites.com), near the Jewish neighborhood’s heart, offers kosher facilities. Much closer to the city’s lively heart—and run with élan—is the Hotel Riande Granada on Calle Eusebio A. Morales, just off Via España (507-264-4900; www.hotelesriande.com).
Panama ranks right up there with Alaska as a popular cruise destination. Crystal Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and several other major lines offer routes through the canal. For a specifically kosher cruise, look into Kosherica (877-724-5567; www.kosherica.com).
For travels beyond Panama City, especially adventure, try the Ancon Expeditions of Panama (507-269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com).
Looking for a knowledgeable and personable guide? Contact Augusto “Gus” Villarreal (507-6672-1160; email@example.com).
Today’s Panama City appears cheerful and bustling, with fine dining and good shopping. Elsewhere, great beauty and bits of untouched wilderness are waiting to greet visitors. Given that the canal transit alone makes it worth visiting, Panama is a wonderful treat. H