Jamaica: The House of Living Memory
Jamaican Jewish history is visible not only in Congregation Shaare Shalom but in the adjacent Jewish Heritage Centre (011-876-922-5931; email@example.com), where walls display images of generations of movers and shakers, art and ritual artifacts. It houses the Jamaican Jewish Archives, an outgrowth of Ainsley Cohen Henriques’s research on his family tree. He founded the Jamaica Jewish Genealogical Society in 1999; today, the database has 25,000 names. “It’s nice to have your children and grandchildren know who they are,” Henriques says. “I read that I was descended from a famous rabbi named Henry Pereira Mendes. I said…I must keep going.” His roots are typical: His first Jamaican forebear, a Hebrew teacher, arrived in 1745 from Amsterdam, followed by others in his Bellanfante family line. “I am properly mixed,” he says humorously. “English, German, Sefardic, Ashkenazi. My last name is Portuguese.”
In 2010, Henriques cochaired The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean International Conference, which brought 200 scholars to Kingston. Essays from the conference—on history, art, slavery, cemeteries, archaeology, architecture and religious authority—have been gathered in The Jews in the Caribbean (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization). It is edited by conference cochair Jane S. Gerber, director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Henriques also orchestrates an annual cleanup effort with the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions to inventory the island’s 21 Jewish cemeteries (only one is in active use). Led by New York architect Rachel Frankel, vice president for the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, the group has collected a treasure of historical, genealogical and iconographic information on aboveground stones with multilingual epitaphs. In January, they found a huge tombstone that may belong to a lost Jewish cemetery in the town of Lucea, a 20-minute drive west of Negril.
The Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery—its earliest grave dates to 1672—is just outside Kingston. Skull and crossbone imagery on its oldest stones may reflect early responses to messianism, Frankel notes on her blog (www.rachelfrankelarch.com). Others believe the imagery symbolizes piracy as a Jewish vocation (read the late American-born Jamaican resident Ed Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom—and Revenge).
The 19th-century Falmouth Jewish Cemetery, three hours northeast of Kingston, has a staunch advocate in Marina Delfos (www.facebook.com/JewishJamaicanJourneys), a tour guide with a master’s degree in arts and heritage management from London Metropolitan University. Delfos can tell you about the gravesites of Dr. Louis Ashenheim and Caroline Moss (Dr. Ashenheim’s grave lies adjacent to the grill-enclosure around Moss’s, above), Moses De Campos Carvalho, Rebecca Moralos, Alexander Bordeaux, David Lindo and Geoffrey Pinto. Although Delfos is not Jewish, she is passionate about Jewish history and the cemetery’s restoration.
“I am not sure where this connection to Judaism comes from,” Delfos says. “When I discovered 20 years ago that the oldest cemetery on the island was Jewish, I was fascinated—we are not taught our Jewish history in our schools in Jamaica. Over the last 15 years, I have read books that have contributed to my interest in Judaism.
“I wasn’t baptized or raised in any particular faith,” she continues, “and I find more and more an inexplicable connection to Judaism, the history, the traditions, the faith and community of a people. As I explore my spirituality, it is something I need to investigate and will be talking further with Rabbi Dana Kaplan on this.”