25 July 2008

Jamaica: Sephardim, pirates and Rastafarians

A half-hidden Jewish legacy exists in Jamaica, according to an article in The Forward by Shelly R. Fredman.

An unusual resort perched on a spit of land that juts into the Caribbean Sea near Port Antonio, on the island’s resplendently green east coast, Great Huts is the brainchild and life mission of Dr. Paul Rhodes, who was born and raised in Brooklyn in a Jewish family. Rhodes is currently offering Jewish cultural tours, unearthing a rich and varied Jewish past mostly hidden from the typical Montego Bay tourist. Wander Jamaica’s farther reaches, and you will stumble upon Jewish islanders living idiosyncratic yet compelling versions of Eden.


Rhodes, who eventually left Brooklyn to settle in Washington, D.C., first came to Jamaica as a medical student. His love for the people of the island developed as he worked in the almshouses. “I was so moved by what I found there,” he said when I spoke with him in the spring. “The old people were so prayerful and spiritually robust.” In their hymns and chanting, Rhodes heard echoes of his grandfather. The elders’ sense of community reminded him of his boyhood summers spent at Makowsky’s bungalow colony in New Paltz, N.Y.
The story touches on Rastafarians and their Old Testament beliefs, including that they are descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel. Lions of David are all over the island, carved or painted, pointing to a past legacy. Eco- and environmental tourism is represented at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill, created by women who are daughters of Holocaust survivors.

The tours focus on 350 years of a Jewish presence dating to the first Converso who arrived with Columbus, and start in a Kingston hotel - the former home of an early Jewish Portuguese family named Matalone. In those days, the term Portuguese was synonomous with Jewish. There are indentations on the right upper doorframes where mezuzot might have been.

Kingston's one synagogue is the United Congregation of Israelites. The cemetery has 300 Jewish graves back to the 1500s. Some 50 bear the skull and crossbones.

Jamaica’s history includes a chapter on Jewish pirates, a long-forgotten partnership of Jews and pirates in the 15th century against their common enemy — the Spanish government. There are around 200 Jews living in Jamaica today, according to a figure cited by Ben G. Frank in his book “A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America” (Pelican, 2005). Most are intermarried couples with multiracial spouses, according to Frank.
Read more at the link above.

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