A Hidden Gem : The Jewish Heritage of Curaçao
Curaçao is a small island (around 170 square miles) located off the north coast of Venezuela. Culturally diverse, with influences from Europe and West Africa, Curaçao is home to approximately 150,000 residents. UNESCO has the recognized capital city, Willemstad, as a World Heritage Site, and the brightly colored buildings are one of the country’s most recognizable features. Tourism is a key industry, and the island capitalizes on the concept of dushi, which means sweet, nice, or good.
Walking along the streets of Willemstad, you can find a Jewish influence all around you. At one time, Sephardic Jews made up half of the white population of Curacao, and today their presence is felt at every level of society. For example, the owner of the famed Senior Curacao liqueur comes from one of the old families, and many of the present businesses and buildings are owned by the descendants of the crypto Jews , like “Jews who practiced their religion secretly following the Inquisition.”
One of the most popular sights is the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which is the oldest, continually used, synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. But the Jewish influence on this beautiful small island goes much deeper than those walls.
A brief timeline of the Curacao’s Jewish history.
Curacao’s Jewish roots originated in Spain, when the country was still half Christian, half Moorish. Living among those two religions were Sephardic Jews. In 1492, the Sephardi Jews experienced a major attack beginning with The Edict of Expulsion. Along with the Moorish people, the Jews either had to leave Spain or convert to Christianity. The majority decided to flee the country to a place where they felt safe to practice their religion. Those who stayed behind converted to Christianity, but in many cases this was just for appearances — in between the safe walls of their home, the “Conversos” still secretly practiced their religion until the Holy Inquisition in Spain, which again targeted the Jews. To escape prosecution, many Conversos decided to cross the border and settle in Portugal, which at that time was still soft on Jews. At the end of the 16th century, the pressure on the Conversos in Portugal became too strong and again they had to seek a new place to call home. During the 15th and 16th centuries, many Jews left Spain and Portugal to live in Amsterdam, where freedom of religion was highly valued. This was their first tie to the island, as Curaçao would later become a Dutch colony. The colonization of the island led the first Jew, Samuel Cohen, to set foot on the island.
The first Jews on the island. It was July 29, 1634, when Samuel Cohen, a translator on board a Dutch ship, came to Curaçao as part of the country’s mission to seize the island from the Spaniards. The Dutch then used Curaçao as their naval base to attack Spanish fleets. After the Peace of Westphalia/Peace of Münster, the island was no longer of use and the Dutch contemplated leaving. But first, the West Indian Company (WIC) decided to check if there was interest among Dutch citizens to build a life on the island. The primary selling point they used was its agricultural business opportunities. It was in 1651 that the Portuguese Jew Joao d’Yllan accepted the offer being made by WIC. He promised to bring 50 settlers with him, but he only brought 12 and most of them were Jews. Joao had experience with agriculture, but he did not succeed as a farmer. Later, a larger group of Jews from the same congregation, led by Isaac da Costa, came to the island to start an agriculture business. He also failed to succeed and so they all moved to the city. With their connections and expertise, they started importing goods from Amsterdam and other harbor cities to sell on the island.
Rise of the community
As the Jewish community in Curaçao continued to grow, so did their wealth. To this day, many well-established stores in the city (and outside) are of Jewish descendants. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Jews started branching out into other industries. The families Jesurun, Naar and Maduro, released their own silver penny and started with the production and circulation of their own paper currency. The Jewish firm Maduro & Sons was also responsible for the demolition of the city walls of Willemstad. In exchange, they received part of the land that would be exposed after the demolishment. They were also successful in the shipping industry. S.E.L Maduro & Sons, a very well-known Jewish company, was responsible for building the first oil tanker that traveled from Maracaibo (Venezuela) to Curaçao. One of the notable influences of the Spanish/Portuguese-Jewish community in Curaçao can be found in the local language. Papiamentu — a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and African languages—contains dozens of words of Hebrew origin. Even the name island name, Curaçao, is possibly a derivative of the Portuguese word coração, meaning heart.
The Senior family
The Senior family was once part of a group of Conversos in Spain that eventually fled to the Netherlands and Brazil. Several sons of Mordechai Senior, who was born in Amsterdam in 1620, emigrated to Curaçao. Edgar Senior, founder, was one of the descendants of this family. Like many families on the island, they had an influential role. Together with his partner Haim Mendes Chumaceiro, Edgar Senior ran a pharmacy in the city called Botika Excelsior. This is where he first started producing the Senior Curaçao Liqueur, one of the country’s most famous exports.
The marks the Jewish community left on Curaçao, and continues to do so, are visible in every corner of the island. You can find it in the street names, the language, the buildings and industries like finance, shipping, the production of the world-famous Curaçao liqueur and so much more. A Curaçao without the Jewish community is pretty much unthinkable.
Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue, the Jewish Museum and Mikve
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue–often referred to as the Snoa, another term for synagogue—is the oldest surviving synagogue and Jewish congregation in the Americas. I had the privilege to have Mr. Renee Maduro, a lifelong member of Curaçao’s Jewish community who has spent four decades on the board of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel and 15years as its president.
Founded in Curaçao in 1651, the congregation’s original name translates to The Hope of Israel. The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue itself began construction in 1729, was completed in 1732, and has been in continuous use ever since. The synagogue is tucked into a quiet street in the Punda neighborhood of Willemstad, the historic capital city of Curaçao. Though it has an inconspicuous exterior, once you step inside, you’ll find rows of pews, towering chandeliers, and a shining mahogany bemah. I was particularly moved by the words emblazoned in Hebrew above the archway into and out of the synagogue courtyard, “Blessed may you be in your entrance” and “Blessed may you be in your departure.” Amen. On the right hand side of the black and white tiled courtyard is the historic synagogue building, where every Shabbat and holidays has been celebrated since 1732. As you walk around the synagogue, your feet sink softly into the floor of sand (it has about 8 inches of sand covering the entire floor imported from Suriname) which was done in the past to muffle the sounds of congregants praying, for security reasons, and with connections to the desert-wandering for 40 years and the sand symbolizes the promise God made to Abraham to multiply his seed “as the sands of the seashore.” I am glad they kept it that way, giving it a unique charm. Today, there are just four synagogues that carry on the distinctly Dutch-Portuguese tradition of sand-covered floors. The others are in Kingston, Jamaica; Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands; and Paramaribo, Suriname (which, while technically being in South America, is considered a Caribbean territory) and in the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam. The synagogue boasts eighteen Torah scrolls which are more than three hundred years old. Several go back to the 1400’s, which means that they must have come with the Sephardim who fled Spain in 1492 after the Edict of Expulsion.
Take a look at the pipe organ. It is a beautiful and powerful 150-year-old pipe organ and was a gift of the Netherlands government. Dress for warm weather as the shul have fans and no air conditioning and pick a breezy row to keep cool. Rene Maduro proudly tells us about the synagogue’s history, which includes the obligatory schism over religious observances. Mikve Israel was originally an orthodox synagogue, and a breakaway group built the rival Reform Temple Emanuel in 1864. Over time, the two groups have miraculously found a compromise and they re-united in 1964 to form the Reconstructionist Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel, in the original 1732 building. They are devoted to honoring their ancestors, their temple and their religion. Every Friday night and Saturday morning, there is an egalitarian Reconstructionist service in English and Hebrew, filled with worshipers with the sounds of the grand pipe organ that were first built in 1866 and restored shortly after the congregation’s 350 anniversary. A local from the Adventist church plays on the Sabbath so the congregants do not have to violate that aspect of Halacha. Though the number of Jews on the island is dwindling — Maduro estimates just 250 Jews between Mikve Israel-Emanuel and the Ashkenazi Orthodox Shaarei Tsedek — those who remain are committed to Jewish life. There is a Hebrew school and an active BBYO chapter. Extended families routinely share Shabbat dinners together. All take pride in the long history of their beloved snoa.
Today, Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is presided over by Hazzan Avery Tracht, who was born in Ohio and who has served as the synagogue’s spiritual leader since 2005. His baritone voice fills the snoa during services. Tracht is the latest in a line of American rabbis and cantors who have led Mikvé Israel. He previously was cantor at the Liberal synagogue in Amsterdam and his knowledge his the Dutch language serves him well in his new home. But it is surprising to hear the Mikvé Israel community speaking not in Dutch or Portuguese, but in Papiamento, the native language of Curacao. For most Jews, including those born and raised here, this is their first language.
As with other synagogues in the Caribbean, Mikvé Israel-Emanuel has become a venue for destination weddings, bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs, but mainly for wealthy families from the United States. The synagogue hosts about a dozen bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs annually, but it’s the cruise ship visitors who supply the most substantial boost to Curacao’s economy. In 2015, cruise ships brought more than 565,000 people to Curaçao and many of them went to see the Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue paying a $10 US fee to see its treasures. By sharing their beloved synagogue with visitors, Curaçao’s Jews offer a doorway to history, a place to reflect and a calm sanctuary in a busy world. It’s a humble site. Just enter, stand still for a moment and smell, hear and see history all around you. You can also check out the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, which contains information on the island’s Jewish community and history as well as artifacts such as old Torah scrolls and spice boxes, the oldest being a Torah scroll smuggled out of Spain in the late 1300’s. The museum occupies a two story building. It is quite small, easy to navigate, and houses a lot of interesting artifacts. One of my favorite exhibits tells the stories of the nannies of Jewish children. Known as “yayas” in the local Creole language, Papiamento, the Yayas were black slaves or former slaves who looked after the children of wealthy Jewish households.
They have circumcision chairs from the 1700’s. The 300-year old Jewish ritual bath or Mikveh at the museum entrance is an amazing piece of history in and of itself. This museum contains many historical documents, original clothing, WW2 memorabilia and an Anne Frank section. Another piece to notice is a huge silver platter which is bashed and battered. Unlike the Askenazi, or Eastern European custom of stepping on a glass during a wedding, the Sephardim of Curacao threw the glass into the platter, and the marks remain forever.
There were exhibits that refer back to the Dutch heritage and the original roots of the community back to the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews from Spain & Portugal. There is even a letter from George Washington. Family trees and photos were interesting. In case you don’t make it to the Jewish cemetery, they have some of the headstones here (replicas) which are quite unusual and beautiful. The museum may be small in comparison to most, but the quality of the exhibit is truly exceptional. A work of love, is the best way to describe this wonderful and permanent exhibit!
In the 1920s and 1930s, Ashkenazi Jews, predominantly from Central Europe, began arriving in Curaçao. Like their brethren in the United States, they took up as peddlers before becoming shop owners just as prominent as their Sephardic neighbors. The Ashkenazi immigrants established a social center and sports club and dedicated their own congregational building called Shaarei Tsedek in Scharloo in 1959.
In the 1980s, the congregation sold the building to move to a more suburban location, though its new building which features a stunning glass dome, was not completed and dedicated until 2006. Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun with his wife Ruhama lead the leadership of the shul for 11 years came until returning to Israel. Shaarei Tsedek continues to follow Asheknazi Orthodox customs, though Sephardi Jews attend too.
The community welcomed the new Chabad Rabbi Rafael Silver and his wife Chani (who grew up in New York and Paris respectively) and their infant daughter, Chaya. Rabbi Raphael and his wife run the synagogue with much enthusiasm and vigor and the community has embraced them dearly. They serve Shaarei Tsedek and cater to the needs of the entire Jewish population of Curaçao: Sephardic, Ashkenazic, the unaffiliated, tourists and everyone in between. The Silvers are already doing an amazing job of growing the Jewish communities on the island, and fostering religious growth among the residents and tourists.
For example, the Silvers have greeted over 70 Jews for Rosh Hashanah services and dinner, fasted and commemorated Yom Kippur with the Jewish community, and hosted the island’s first-ever “Sushi and Scotch” Sukkot party. Also many new programs have been initiated by Chani Silver such as: the first challah bake for about 20 Jewish women on the island, a “Mommy & Me,” a weekly lunch-and-learns, classes for both men and women and the first event of Chabad’s newly established Women’s Circle. This is due in part to “tourism that has expanded in recent years,” reports Rabbi Silver, “especially in the past year with more direct flights being added and the construction of an additional pier for cruise ships.” So the influx of Jewish tourists arrive in big numbers from all across the world”. He further added “We are trying to reach every single Jew, from the families who have been here for hundreds of years to the tourists who wander in, not knowing much about their Judaism. We are here for every one of them”.
We stopped by the Beth Haim Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery was established in the 17th century and is not only the oldest Jewish cemetery in Curacao but is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. The cemetery can only be visited by car and it is next to the refinery built by the Shell corporation. The first Jews founded Beth Haim in 1659 soon after arriving, gave it the customary Hebrew name of Beth Haim, meaning the House of Life. The name refers to the Jewish belief in the immortality of the soul. The holy terrain, with its 2500 above-ground historic tombstones, and many of these have been adorned with beautiful sculptures.The inscriptions on the gravestones are in Portuguese, Hebrew, Spanish, English, Dutch, French and there is also one in Yiddish. There are no inscriptions in Judeo-Spanish.
Unfortunately, the oil refinery which was built nearby has deteriorated many of the old stones. The last burials held in this cemetery were in the 1950s. At the far end of the cemetery are two white, non-descript buildings. One of them has two stories and is for the priestly Cohens who, for reasons of purity, are not allowed to have contact with the dead. Instead, they can climb to the second floor and watch the somber funerary proceedings through a large window. The other building is to accommodate an old Sephardic tradition. The coffin of the deceased, surrounded by seven candles, is laid on a bier in the center of the building and is circled seven times by mourners reciting psalms before the coffin is placed in the ground. One of the main recurring symbols is a hand with an axe that chops down a tree in its prime; the tree represents the life of the deceased. When a baby died (which one out of three did), the axe fells a flower and the grief is almost palpable across the centuries. Sometimes a person’s profession is remembered–like ships for merchants–and other times the dead person’s name is connected to his Biblical namesake. Replicas of some of the elaborate tombstones can be seen at the entrance to the Curacao Jewish Museum located adjacent to Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Punda.
There are dozens of tombstones in the Jewish cemetery, for instance, but they have nothing to do with pirates. “The skull and crossbones [may have] its origin in our past, when our ancestors became Christians following the Inquisition,” as Emlyn our tour guide explained. They are called conversos (converts), many Iberian Jews publicly converted to Christianity while secretly practicing Judaism before fleeing to the Netherlands and on to Dutch colonies in the New World, where they practiced their religion openly.
The newer, “modern” Jewish cemetery from 1880 called Beit Haim Berg Altena has above-ground neo-Classical tombstones over the graves and is much closer to Willemstad. Originally much smaller than it is today, Reform Congregation Temple Emanuel purchased and consecrated “Beit Haim Berg Altena”, for its own use after the split from the then Orthodox Mikvé Israel in 1864. Some twenty years later, Congregation Mikvé Israel purchased a large piece of land adjacent to the cemetery and started burying there as well. The boundary walls physically separating the Mikvé Israel and Emanuel plots were demolished of the two Sephardic congregations in 1964.
Explore the Country House Landhuis Bloemhof which is located on one of the smaller plantations of the island. The archives of the property have been well preserved and show that it was first sold in 1735, thus making the core of the building at least 270 years old. (The date of the original construction is unknown.) Exhibitions, lectures and creative workshops are ongoing in this inspiring ambiance surrounded by antique furniture. There is also a sculpture garden and a cathedral of real thorns being built. The building used to be a synagogue and also a Mikva (Jewish ritual bath) is on the property. Take a stroll in the natural park and discover Curacao’s flora and fauna. Visit the former Sculpture Studio of May Henriquez, who was a pioneer in the arts of Curacao, and made it possible for local artists to flourish.
A must see is the Cathedral of Thorns, a building-sized work of art by Herman van Bergen, that is being built here. The ‘Cathedral of Thorns’ will be a massive lighted labyrinth for visitors to walk through and experience an artistic journey that speaks of history, but takes life in a new and positive direction. The thorns represent the painful times of the past but the light shining through the woven walls illuminate a future honoring this history. Seen from afar, the walls form the profile of an Indian face from a now lost people and will also symbolize the control and exploitation of human beings during the period of Slavery.
A drive through the Scharloo area of Willemstad (the capital of Curacao) provides other glimpses into the Sephardic past. The multi-colored, wedding-cake-like mansions were owned by many wealthy Jews and white Protestants. In the 18th century, Curaçao was a bustling port, and shipyard owners were making good money. What to do with all that new wealth? Why, build mansions on the land next to the harbor, of course, so they could row to the nearby town center.
The neighborhood became a center for Curaçao’s Ashkenazi Jewish community — Jews originally from Eastern Europe who had migrated to the Caribbean and found great success there as merchants. And in the 19th century, these merchants began to compete to see who would have the most ornate and fabulous mansion.
The green mansion pictured above, for example, was built in 1916. It is called “The Bride’s Cake” The building now houses the National Archives of Curaçao. A curvy yellow mansion now houses the Maritime Museum, and a mint green house has become a hotel. The cost of maintaining the palatial residences became prohibitive in the last century and they were abandoned by their owners, who moved to suburbia. Today many have been restored and serve as offices for international companies and banks. This neighborhood of Scharloo is the spot for vibrant, historic architecture.
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To plan a trip to Curacao, contact the Curacao Tourist Board or log on to: https://www.curacao.com/en/
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch -New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Curacao Tourist Board