Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mapping the Western Sephardic Diaspora in the Caribbean

Laura Arnold Leibman

Deep in the Surinamese jungle lies the ruins of what was once the
prospering plantation town of Jodensavanne--Jew's Savanne.  Just past
the bricks that made up Beracha ve Shalom ("Blessings and Peace")
synagogue, are two early cemeteries--one Jewish (below), one African. 
Deeper into the forest lies a third cemetery, the Cassipora Jewish cemetery
All three cemeteries harken back to the sepulchral traditions of
ancestral homelands even as they adapted to changes in what it meant to
be Jewish. As such they are a good example of both religious continuity
and change within American religion.

View of Jewish Cemetery, Photo by L. Leibman 2008

Sephardic Pyramid Stones in 
the Jewish cemetery near Cassipora Creek, Suriname
Historic photo ca. 1860 from the
Jodensavanne Foundation Archives

Whereas the Creole cemetery employs what some have argued are African symbols (below), the Jewish cemetery of nearby Cassipora Creek (right)
features pyramid-shaped tombstones that echo those found in the
Sephardic cemeteries of London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, as well as medieval
Indeed though they are separated by a jungle and
ocean from their European analogues, Jodensavanne and Cassipora's Jewish
share many of their key features with Europe's Western Sephardic
cemeteries.  Both Cassipora and Jodensavanne's Jewish cemeteries for
example feature the striking symbol of the Hand of God, cutting down the
tree of life. This symbol can also be found not only in the Western
Sephardic cemeteries of London, Amsterdam, and Hamburg, but also in
those in Paramaribo, Jamaica, Barbados, and Curaçao.

View of the African "Creole" Cemetery, Jodensavanne, Photo by L. Leibman 2008

Some scholars believe the symbols at the tops of the wooden grave markers reflect African burial traditions.

Hand of God symbol of Tombstone in

Amsterdam's Ouderkerk Cemetery.

Photo by L. Leibman 2010.

What makes the "Hand of God" symbol (right) particularly interesting is
that it appears to violate the Second Commandment, which prohibits "any
likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth
beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Although the symbol
is occasionally imitated in the Ashkenazi cemeteries of the same
regions, the Hand of God symbol--like the pyramid stone brought from
Iberia and the use of biblical scenes--it is part of the distinctive
cultural legacy of Western Sephardic Jews.  Connections between this
early American plantation town and Germany's Jüdischer Friedhof Altona are an important reminder that before the mass migration of Ashkenazi Jews from Germany in the 1840s, German American Jews were just as likely to be Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) as Ashkenazi.  The presence of the three cemeteries also speaks to changes in Jewish communities and practice in Caribbean basin.

This past week I was in Hamburg, Germany attending a conference on "Mapping [the] Western Sephardic Diaspora in the Caribbean." 
The conference gathered scholars from the United States, Germany,
Netherlands, Suriname, France, and Israel and included presentations in
English, Spanish, and French.  Topics ranged from Intermarriage and
Adultery, to Itinerant Scholars, to Language and Literature, to the Poor
and Migration, to the Material and Visual Legacies. A portion of
one of these presentations is available online via open access as "Adultery Here and There: Crossing Sexual Boundaries in the Dutch Jewish Atlantic" by Roitman and Ben-Ur in the fantastic collection Dutch Atlantic Connections, 1680-1800Linking Empires, Bridging Borders (Brill). Like many of the conference papers, Roitman and Ben-Ur's work speaks to the fluidity of communal boundaries.

Roitman was not the only scholar to reference Suriname.  Indeed,
Suriname and Iberia served as the conferences' book-ends.  The opening
keynote by Aviva Ben-Ur (U.
Mass. Amherst) focused on religious autonomy in Jodensavanne, alias
"Jerusalem on the Riverside."  In contrast, the closing lecture by Yosef Kaplan (Hebrew
University, Jerusalem) brought us back to the Iberian legacy of
Caribbean Sephardim by featuring a biography woven from the inquisition
records regarding Cristobal Mendez, a seventeenth-century converso.
As Kaplan noted, Mendez moved back and forth across the geographic and
religious boundaries that divided Jews from Catholics.  The question of
boundaries and who controls them was an issue invoked by many of the
talks.  Moreover, Suriname and Jodensavanne became a key place in which
this conversation was staged, and it is worth asking why.

Pastoral vision of Jodensavanne ca. 1831, pre-fire.

As depicted by Pierre Jacques Benoit in his Voyage à Surinam (Bruxelles, 1839)

Jodensavanne was not only one of the earliest Jewish
settlements in the Americas, but also the only semi-autonomous Jewish
town in which Jews were allowed to design the town's layout and
features.  By the "end of the 17th century, approximately 575 Jews lived
in the flourishing agricultural settlement of Jodensavanne owning more
than 40 plantations and roughly 1,300 slaves" (
Although the town burnt down in the nineteenth century during a Maroon rebellion, the ruins
excavated since the 1970s include not only the synagogue but also the
aforementioned Jewish and African cemeteries.  In
addition, the ruins of the mikveh (ritual bath) were  discovered in October 2014. Images of the mikveh's remnants are available on the Jodensavanne Foundation's facebook page.

Beracha ve Shalom Synagogue indicated with arrow.

Jodensavanne, ca. 1800, by Hottinger. Collection of Edwin Drecht, courtesy of

View of Ruins of Jodensavanne's Beracha ve Shalom Synagogue. Photo by L. Leibman 2008

Today it is the combination of Jewish and African
traditions that makes Jodensavanne in particular and Suriname in general
such a rich place to study.  Jodensavanne highlights how slavery in the
Americas impacted Jewish religious practice and forced communities to
innovate. Suriname, for example, was home to Darhe Jesarim ("Way of the Righteous"), the first Afro-Jewish Community in the Americas. As Barry Stiefel
noted in his presentation, the rise of the "Siva" or brotherhood and
the establishment in the 1779 of a "godshuis" (church/synagogue) in
Paramaribo, corresponded with the rise of African American churches in
North America and the Caribbean.  Although the Darhe Jesarim did not
remain separate from the other Jewish congregations for long, Suriname
continued to be a place where Jews of color and people of mixed descent
could find a home.  My presentation on Proclaiming Race: Clothing and Manhood in the Sephardic Caribbean,
for example, featured the portrait of Isaac Lopez Brandon, a Barbadian
of mixed Sephardic and African descent who was born a slave and who
after being manumitted, came to Suriname in 1812 to convert officially
to Judaism.  You can read more about Isaac Lopez Brandon in my recent article in Heritage magazine.

Given this unusual and rich legacy, it is
not surprising that the town of Jodensavanne is in the process of
applying for UNESCO World Heritage inscription, as is Hamburg's
Jüdischer Friedhof Altona Cemetery.  To find out more about the
Jodensavanne Foundation visit them online or follow them on facebook.

View of Suriname River from Jodensavanne Pier, Photo by L. Leibman 2008

Distinctive Western Sephardic Pyramid Stone

in Hamburg's Jüdischer Friedhof Altona Cemetery

Photo L. Leibman 2014.

Distinctive Western Sephardic Pyramid Stone

Binding Of Isaac Biblical Scene

in Hamburg's Jüdischer Friedhof Altona Cemetery

Photo L. Leibman 2014.

Distinctive Western Sephardic Biblical Scene:

Rachel at the Well, in 18th Century Pastoral Dress.

Hamburg's Jüdischer Friedhof Altona Cemetery

Photo L. Leibman 2014.

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