Sun, Sand, & Cemeteries

Uncovering Jamaica’s Jewish Past

In the great Caribbean melting pot, one group is largely overlooked: Jewish refugees who settled centuries ago. Their descendants are unearthing graveyards to reclaim a piece of history.

“Bless-ed Rise, Bless-ed Rise,” the three-syllable Rastafarian greeting echoed off rusted copper kettle planters lining the breezeways of our Jamaican hotel. It came from a fellow guest who lilted like an islander, yet looked like a Long Islander, so I felt comfortable asking this: “Why not say ‘good morning’?” “Ah,” he smiled up at the ceiling, as though this was the best question he’d ever heard, “Morning sounds too much like mourning.” Exactly like it, you could say. Only later, at the front desk, did I learn Jamaican Rastafarians have a thing about the dead. Luckily, he didn’t ask why we were there.

At the last minute, I’d joined a handful of volunteers, not to wade into the Caribbean waters, but rather into the past. We’d spend half the week documenting one of the island’s oldest Jewish cemeteries, and then launch an Indiana Jones-style adventure up the coast to find a hidden burial ground that we had good reason to believe was in a backyard in the sleepy town of Savanna-La-Mar.

Was its existence just another colorful strand of island lore, like tales of mysterious “duppies,” deceased spirits who haunt people in their dreams? Or would we uncover clues to a long-forgotten community? No matter. Focusing on the adventure made it easier to gloss over the unsettling fact that the first half of the week we’d be in downtown Kingston, one of the most notoriously dangerous places in the Caribbean.

Kingston is also home to the majority of Jamaica’s Jewish population, as it has been for centuries. Before the English arrived, Jamaica belonged to the Columbus family, (yes, that Columbus), who turned a blind eye to a community of Jews that, according to scholars, had been on the island since it was “settled” (there were already indigenous people living there) in 1510. They were refugees from the Inquisition, Jews who migrated to practice religion in the tolerant Dutch and English New World colonies. Some founded a synagogue in Recife, Brazil (now in ruins), then fanned out throughout the Caribbean. In addition to well-known historic Jewish sites in Barbados, Curacao, and St. Thomas, there were also once-thriving communities on Cuba, St. Kitts & Nevis, and St. Eustatius; yet, as in Jamaica, most historic evidence has been lost to generations of overgrowth and neglect.

Marina Delfos, unofficial caretaker of the Falmouth cemetery, near Jamaica’s tourist playground, Montego Bay, counts twenty-one known Jewish cemeteries island-wide, but believes there are still more hidden away. In a little over a year, her Jewish Jamaican Journeys Facebook page has emerged as a clearinghouse for people trying to piece together their fractured pasts. In a posted clip, a typical middle-aged beach vendor recites several generations of her ancestry, and proudly declares she’s from the Levite tribe. But she doesn’t look like the “Hannah Levy” any of us might picture. That’s the point.

Although she’d learned the Jamaican motto “Out of Many, One People,” Delfos realized she’d never been taught about the Jews who were one of the “ingredients” in the island’s famous gumbo of ethnicities. Once she started peeling the onion, she found layers of physical and anecdotal evidence; she’s discovered doorways with Stars of David on their transoms and has heard from more than one elderly islander, “My grandmother was a Jewess.”

Ainsley Henriques, a fourth generation Jamaican who recalls a time on the island when his family churned their own butter, baked bread, and substituted cassava wafers for matzoh, is certain of his ethnicity. One branch of his family came in 1745 to teach Hebrew, the others, to escape to what he calls a “safe haven” and economic opportunity. The de facto King David of Jamaica, Henriques is keeper of all things Jewish, from tabs on visitors to unofficial roll call at synagogue, and has been a one-man force in the effort to unearth, both literally and figuratively, Jamaica’s Jewish past. “I will continue to fight to retain and restore them,” he says of Jamaica’s Jewish sites, in a Bob Marley timbre coming, incongruously, from his Peter Boyle-like face.

He lured Rachel Frankel, a New York architect, to visit the island and hooked her by showing her its oldest Jewish cemetery, dating back to 1672, in Hunt’s Bay. “It was an outdoor archive, but with more than documents,” Frankel, who has the easy going air of a camp counselor, says. “There’s art in the way the cemetery is laid out. It tells you a lot about the community.” And what it told Frankel, now Vice President of The International Survey of Jewish Monuments, was that she had to return to document the established burial grounds, and to look for those lost to time and memory. She’s been bringing tiny groups—in our case, not even enough for a minyan (a quorum of ten)—to Jamaica since 2007.

Our work began in Kingston’s Orange Street Cemetery in the heat of the day. We locked the gate behind us, opening it only to use the bathroom in the Dickensian Fire Station across the street.

In searing temperatures that would send most people into the pool or the ocean, we plunged into our task. We paced off distances, marching over bricks and slabs, shattered as though a bomb had exploded, past hideously twisted rusted railings—evidence of generations of looting for precious building materials—then sketched the tablets, noting size, stone type, and edge depths.

Although the stones had been there for centuries, we were working at a break-neck pace. That meant abandoning my summer camp superstitions about not talking (or breathing) in or near cemeteries. Islanders have them, too: adults tell Jamaican kids their fingers will fall off if they point directly at a grave.

We’d guess at the significance of the stone carvings: did a book image indicate a scholar? Then nod at familiar last names: De Costas, De Cordova, and Lopez. Most stones bore inscriptions in English and Hebrew, the oldest stones, laid here from a different cemetery, also had long passages in Portuguese.

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As we rested in the shade of the sanctuary, David Matalon, a community member, joined us to practice a time honored Jewish tradition: “kibitzing” or, as it’s known in the Caribbean, “liming.”

“This is the future of the Jewish people right here,” he said, looking through the Star of David window bars, past pink blooms into the desolate cemetery, without irony. “If you don’t manage your past, how are you going to care for your future?”

On the third day, we boarded a comfy bus and peeled away from the city’s corrugated metal and oil drum roadsides to penetrate the lush backcountry and the distant past.

We pulled in at dusk to Alligator Pond, a tiny community within striking distance of Rowe’s Corner, a once-lost cemetery that Rachel’s group had documented the previous year.

That burial site looked like something out of a movie: a liana-draped jungle clearing reached by tramping up into a tunnel of bushes just off the road up unmarked stairs. It was difficult not to think of it as a womb, especially once I saw that many of the raised gravestones named children who had died in infancy, or before age ten.

The moon was nearly full that evening as we ate fish at a simple shack by the sea. All night, palm leaves clattered against the guest house’s slat windows, or was it the sound of duppies, angry we were going to try to find the graves?

In the morning, fueled by fresh fruit and anticipation, we thundered off to Savanna-La-Mar.

First, we visited a lawyer’s office, a contact arranged “Charlie’s Angels style” by Ainsley, and then relied on the coconut wireless: a woman in the office knew a woman who knew the woman who owned the house where, according to our copy of Barnett and Wright’s The Jews of Jamaica—our defacto Bible—there was supposed to be an ancient cemetery.

Rachel returned with directions, a name, and someone from the law office who could recognize the mystery homeowner. We pulled up to a building, and, minutes later, Ms. Williams, joined us. She seemed unusually cheerful for someone whose backyard was about to be lightly excavated.

She knew about the cemetery, she told us, as she directed us off the main road and down a narrow street. We stopped across from a two-story office building, and clattered out of the bus, with packs and tools, like the Partridge family arriving at a gig.

In my mind we’d be swashbuckling through jungle, but Ms. Williams’s neat house reminded me of my great aunt’s low-slung 1950s bungalow in East Rockaway. We traipsed past its awnings and two dogs in the shade of a water tower. A quick turn at a small stand of banana palms and cassava plants led us to a clearing and, then, back centuries.

According to our book, in 1768, a Jamaican named Joseph Da Silva bequeathed money for iron gates and an enclosing wall, a portion of which had still been standing in the 1930’s. There were no gates, just fencing, separating us from the men in an adjacent driveway, who stopped what they were doing to watch the strangers descending on their neighbor’s weeds. A large mound of crisp clippings dominated the rest of the yard which extended to a wood fence.

We fanned out and saw what might pass for Halloween lawn decorations: corners and fragments of weathered gravestones, sticking up haphazardly from a dense mulch carpet. As the ground under foot grew unusually lumpy, I worried I was stepping on tombs.

I heard only my breath and leaves crunching as I reached the rear wood fence boundary. There, low to the ground and seemingly held together by a tangle of vines and brush, I saw the crumbling remains of the wall that was older than the United States. It ran into a corrugated tin sheet boundary and a large genip tree. I looked back up the yard, everyone else had begun working. We had just a few hours to travel back through the ages.

Locals quickly joined the effort to help unearth the lumps and unveil first corners, and then entire slabs, of tombstones. To the distant thump of a car’s base and children’s schoolyard chatter wafting in on the midday breeze, our history lesson began.

With work gloves, shovels, and elbow grease, the lumps turned to stones and the stones told stories of the people resting there, undisturbed for centuries. Three more men popped into the yard. One said he’d heard about a cemetery. They helped demystify the riot of colorful fruits and flowers surrounding us: star apple, mangoes, yellow weed, and ackee trees, and then joined in.

Soon the only sounds were the clank of a shovel and thuds of dirt being moved. An intense burst of bird song seemed perfectly timed to accompany our quickening pace, or maybe these were, at last, those rumored Jamaican duppies, objecting?

As more stones became visible, despite the heat, I felt a chill.

“Sarah! I found Sarah!” a member of our group cried out. We stood still. The grave markers hinted at her story; our book filled in the details.

In the 1700’s, Sarah’s husband had corresponded with a merchant in Newport, R.I. (with the same last name) and told him his wife died giving birth to their ninth child on March 26, 1767. “Sarah Lopes wife of Abraham Lopes, 26 de Marco, 1767” was inscribed on the stone in Portuguese. Sarah and Abraham; even with no formal religious education, I recognized the significance of finding this pair. Had he stood in this very spot, thinking of his wife when he wrote that letter? Hundreds of years later, here we were, remembering her again.

We sprinkled flour on the other engraved stones and fragments to make their inscriptions easier to decipher, and the Hebrew readers translated. What needed no translation were the dates: October 3, 1780. Someone mentioned a hurricane. We whipped out our phones and Google-raced to the answer: in 1780, a massive storm had battered the region, along with a 20-foot tidal wave. The Savanna-La-Mar Hurricane then moved onto Cuba, killing more than 1,000, in total. It was one of the worst ever Atlantic hurricane seasons. The victims ages ranged from mid-twenties to mid-fifties, the elaborate stone design—an axe chopping a tree—symbolized their lives cut short. It was an appropriate metaphor; it was time for us to leave.

We worked quickly to record our discoveries. Our decades-old book listed only three complete stones and two fragments, yet, in a few hours, we’d uncovered five more. We’d come to find a hoped-for treasure, now we reburied it.

Standing in the heat of the afternoon, the frenzy of activity and our hard work behind us, the enormity and solemnity of what we had done seemed to sink in.

We formed a circle, and, as the wind tickled the banana tree palms and blew up through the breadfruit leaves, and a pair of white moths, or maybe they were butterflies, danced past on cue, we bowed our heads, volunteers and island neighbors together. And over the long-dead that we had uncovered and those we couldn’t know yet, in a circle of ten, only half of whom were Jewish—as far as we knew—someone recited the words of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and our blessing rose.