Jamaica, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, has a fascinating Jewish history dating back many centuries. Here are eight little-known facts about the Jews in Jamaica.
1. Refuge of the Inquisition
Christopher Columbus visited Jamaica on his second voyage to the New World and in 1503 claimed it for Spain. The island was granted to the descendants of Columbus as a personal possession.
Challenging the Spanish Inquisition (which ordered the death of anyone practicing Judaism) in 1530 Columbus ‘grandson, Columbus’ grandson, allowed the “secret” Jews to settle on the island. These were Jews who, in spite of the Inquisition, continued to secretly practice Jewish rituals and secretly lead Jewish lives. In Spain, Portugal, and most of the colonies in these countries, the Inquisition persecuted them ruthlessly, torturing and murdering anyone who took part in Jewish traditions. However, Columbus prevented the Inquisition from operating in the new colony of Jamaica.
2. Return to Judaism under the British mandate
In the middle of the seventeenth century, when the Spanish authorities threatened to wrest control of Jamaica from the hands of the family of Christopher Columbus and impose the Inquisition there, the Jews of Jamaica mobilized. They wrote to the leader of England, Oliver Cromwell, and promised to help England to conquer the island from Spain. The English ships that arrived at the ports of Jamaica were received by Jews who promised their aid while England fought against Spain. In 1655, England began to rule Jamaica.
The Jewish community of Jamaica flourished. Not being forced to practice Judaism in secret, they formed a community, built a synagogue, and hired a prominent leader: Josiau Hisquiam Pardo from Thessaloniki. The Jews came to Jamaica from all over the Old and New World, from France and Great Britain as well as from Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Eighteenth-century historian Bryan Edwards pointed out that “Jews enjoyed practically the same privileges as white Christians,” at that time somewhat unusual in many countries.
3. Jewish Pirate
Antonio Vaez Henriques was one of the most prominent merchants in Lisbon and a secret Jew. In 1605 he was publicly tortured, along with 150 other Jews, for the “crime” of practicing Judaism. After escaping from Amsterdam, Henriques became circumcised, changed his name to Abraham Henriques Cohen, and publicly embraced his Judaism.
Henriques is remembered today as a gallant pirate, although the stories of his prowess are diverse. Apparently he became a soldier and spy for the Dutch navy and operated with his support. What is clear is that Henriques was associated with Sir Henry Morgan, one of the most feared pirates of the Caribbean.
Together, and with the tacit support of the English government, Henriques and Morgan sacked the Spanish colonies in the New World. His attack of 1628 against the Spanish Armada, in which they captured fabulous quantities of silver and gold, was the greatest robbery in the history of the Spanish fleet.
After a long career in piracy, Morgan was appointed assistant to the governor of Jamaica and forgave Abraham Henriques Cohen, who settled in Jamaica.
4. Closed on Yom Kippur
The Jews of Jamaica were long denied absolute political rights until around 1830 when their leader, Moisés Delgado, pushed the matter tirelessly before the British authorities in Jamaica. Finally, on July 13, 1831, the Jews received full civil rights and entered fully into the political life of Jamaica.
In 1849, eight of the 47 members of House of Assembly of Jamaica were Jews and the Assembly closed in Iom Kipur because many delegates did not participate. In 1866, there were 13 Jewish delegates, almost 25% of the Assembly.
5. White sand floors
As with a handful of other Caribbean congregations, the last surviving synagogue in Jamaica, Shaaré Shalom in Kingston, has a white sand floor. This unusual tradition dates back to the sixteenth century, when secret Jews tried to muffle the noise of their footsteps in the synagogues, covering the floor with a thick layer of sand.
Although Shaaré Shalom dates only from 1912, it is built following the traditional Spanish-Portuguese style. It is one of five synagogues in operation today that has sand floor (the others are in Amsterdam, Curacao, Surinam, and St. Thomas).
6. Artistic Prosperity
Some of the most treasured art treasures of Jamaica are the product of the Jews of that nation.
The Jewish writer Daniel Israel López Laguna was born in France around 1650 and studied in Spain, where he was arrested and tortured by the Inquisition. In prison, he consoled himself thinking of the Hebrew Psalms and decided that if he was ever released he would translate these eternal prayers into Spanish. Laguna eventually left prison and escaped to Jamaica, where he embraced his Jewish identity. His work Faithful Mirror of Lives containing the Psalms of David in Verse was published in 1720 and became a literary sensation.
Isaac Mendes Belisario, one of Jamaica’s most prominent artists, captured the life and customs of the Jamaican slave population. Here we see one of his works:
Jacobo de Cordoba
Two books written by a Jew from Jamaica helped put the modern state of Texas on the map. “The Texas Immigrant and Traveler’s Guide Book” (1856) and “Texas, Her Resources and Her Public Men” (1858) (Texas, their resources and their public men) were written by two brothers, James and Joshua of Cordoba, Kingston, Jamaica. The Córdoba brothers, who were among the first enthusiasts of the solitary star state, founded the city of Waco in 1848 and established the Texas Herald newspaper.
7. JEWISH JEWELS FROM JAMAICA
Kitchen writer Marilyn Delevante recalls having eaten sweets after the fasting of Yom Kippur in Jamaica. They were called dosses, which probably comes from twelve Portuguese, which means sweet.
This is the recipe for a traditional Jewish cookie from Jamaica that the Sephardic Jews ate in Pesach (Note: Ashkenazim Jews do not eat peanuts in Pesach, but this biscuit is delicious at any time of the year).
Jamaican peanut butter currants
170 grams of fresh ground peanuts
225 grams of white sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon
3 teaspoons mixed spice
8 ounces fine flour
Beat eggs and sugar until thick. Add the peanuts and spices and mix. Then add the flour and matzah mixture until a dough is formed.
With a spoon, place drops of dough on a baking dish and bake at 150 ° C for 5 minutes.
Remove the fountain from the oven and using the handle of a wooden spoon, drill holes in each cookie to be screwed. Then return the dish to the oven and continue baking at 150 ° C until completely cooked, about 10-15 minutes.
8. A kosher resurgence
Although the Jewish population of Jamaica has been reduced to less than 300 residents, in recent years there has been a kosher resurgence on the island, thanks to catering from Vered Maoz, who was born in Israel.
Although Maoz jokes that when her husband, a mechanical engineer, got a job in Kingston, she did not know where to look for Jamaica on the map, this mother of four very soon fell in love with her new home. She prepared elaborate Israeli dinners and Shabbat dinners and brought food when she visited the homes of her new neighbors. Soon the voice spread, particularly after Israel’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic tried his food at a party on Israel’s Independence Day.
Now Maoz runs his own kosher food business. In Jamaica there is no kosher meat, so your whole menu is vegetarian: pita, humus, burecas, tehina, tabule, schug, pickle pickles, vegetarian stuffed peppers and stuffed cabbage. Orders come from Jewish travelers and Jamaicans themselves, eager to enjoy the taste of Israeli-style kosher food.