15 May 2009

Suriname: Shake a family tree

"Shake a family tree and a Jew falls out," is how Surinamese author Cynthia McLeod describes Suriname. She traces her heritage to Jewish ancestors.

“Every Surinamese has Jewish blood,” she tells Adam Rovner in his travel story in The Forward, describing his visit to Suriname.
McLeod explained that Jewish plantation owners kept slave mistresses with whom they had children. “There is a responsibility to acknowledge this history of slavery,” she continued. “American Jews don’t want to speak of this, but [Jews] did [have slaves] in Suriname; we can prove that.” Still, she added approvingly, “Other colonists came to get rich, while Jews came to make Suriname their home.”
Rovner is an assistant professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver, and translations editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.

The multicultural aspect of Suriname comes out as the author describes his visits to Shoarma Tel Aviv restaurant owned by a Hindustani, and an 18th-century synagogue with sand-covered floors.

The size of Georgia, but less populous than Atlanta, this former Dutch colony sits along the Caribbean coast of South America. The country is mostly covered by rainforest. It is green, empty and hot. Hot like sitting in a car with the windows rolled up on a humid summer’s day. Until the rains come. Then, an afternoon in Suriname feels like sitting in a car on a summer’s day with the windows down while going through a carwash.
Paramaribo - called Parbo - is the capital and became a major port from sugar cane. It was so promising that - in 1667 - it was traded by the Dutch to the British for New Amsterdam.

In the mid-1600s, Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition arrived via Holland and Brazil.

The Dutch granted the Sephardim an autonomous settlement, 35 miles upriver from Parbo, called Jodensavanne (Jewish Savannah), rich in sugar cane plantations and slaves. By the early 19th-century, following a few economic crises and slave revolts, the settlers moved to the city.

The political influence of its Jewish community was so great that Suriname (Dutch Guiana) was once considered a potential destination for Jewish colonization. Today, less than 200 Jews live in the country, but they once had a major impact.
The beautifully preserved Neve Shalom synagogue sits in the town center, next to the largest mosque in the Caribbean. Afro-Creole women wear Stars of David. Traditional Surinamese Jewish dishes — like pom, a kind of cassava root mashed with chicken, once eaten by plantation owners on Passover — have since become a national treat. Even Hebrew has found its way into Sranan Tongo, the local language, by way of former slaves. The word treefu — from treyf — still refers to taboo foods and behaviors. The legacy of Jodensavanne’s first settlers persists if you know where to look.
Rovner describes his journey to the the Jodensavanne cemetery, finding flat rectangular stones as in many Sephardic cemeteries and the foundations of one of the Americas' earliest synagogues, Beracha ve Shalom. He also locates the Jewish cemetery of Cassipora, where he and his friends hack their way in and out with a machete and a handheld GPS.
I make out two matching prism-shaped tombstones that jut from the undergrowth. Lianas obscure some gravestones, and gnarled roots crack others in half. The stones are wet, some covered in a layer of leaves and loamy earth. We pick our way among the graves until the GPS goes dark: The canopy is too thick to catch the satellite signals.
In Parbo at Neve Shalom's Friday nights service, Rovner meets Jewish community vice president Lily Duym, who claims descent from Isaac Abravanel.
The crowd of 30 or so congregants is white and black and brown, dreadlocked and balding, but everyone chants the prayers, singing out Hebrew verses to the empty balcony and roof beams overhead. As we file out and exchange Sabbath greetings, we leave behind our footprints on the sandy floor — traces of a presence more easily obscured than those left hundreds of years ago by the Jews now resting beneath the jungle in Jodensavanne.
Read the complete story here.


  1. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Severe geographic error. Yes, The Republic of Suriname participates in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Lots of political and economic links to countries actually in/on the Caribbean, but Suriname (plus the other former Guineas) are on the Atlantic coast of South America. It takes no imagination to determine that. Just look at ANY map of South America. BTW, I am also a very personal friend of Cythia McLeod.

  2. I know it is on the Atlantic Coast, but maybe The Forward's fact-checker didn't. The quotes are from the that story. On the other hand, most people without a direct and person connection to Suriname will say, if asked, it is Caribbean. Perception sometimes overrules fact :-)

  3. Anonymous10:27 PM

    I really do wonder on what you base your premise upon. Most people do not have a clue as to even the existence of a place called "Suriname." AND to what coast it faces without even ever glancing at any map or globe? Wild! Have a good day and, really, it is not so bad to be wrong sometimes. Be honest and allow it, and go on from there. We ARE speaking of actuality not perceptions. It is truth that must prevail, isn't it?

  4. Please don't shoot the messenger! You might want to write to "The Forward" at the article link to let them know and ask them to post a correction to their story.