The Jews of Jamaica -- Then and Now
By Irwin M. Berg
In the summer of 2007 my wife Elaine and I joined a project sponsored by Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions to record the inscriptions of the tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Falmouth, Jamaica. I knew that Jews had settled in several regions in the Caribbean, but I knew nothing of the Jewish community in Jamaica. So the project attracted my attention.
Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, but mainly Portugal, settled in Jamaica beginning about 1530 CE to avoid the Inquisition that was making their secret lives miserable and dangerous. At this time, the island was a Spanish territory. In Jamaica they continued to profess being Catholic, but they were able more easily to continue their Jewish observances in secret than on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1655 the British navy sailed into Kingston, Jamaica, led by a Crypto-Jewish pilot, Campoe Sabbatha. Once the British conquered the island from Spain, the Jews came out of the closet and openly practiced their religion. Over time Jews from other Spanish colonies made their way to Jamaica and their numbers grew.
Although most Jews settled in Spanish Town and Kingston (on the southwest shore of the island), they lived everywhere in Jamaica. Their numbers were surprisingly large until recent times.
Year Number of Jews
The oldest Jewish cemetery in Jamaica is located at Hunts Bay, across the harbor from Port Royal, and midway between Kingston and Spanish Town. It was opened shortly after the British conquered the island in 1655. According to Mordecai Arbell in The Portuguese Jews of Jamaica, the tombstone inscriptions in the Port Royal cemetery are in Hebrew and Portuguese with some English. From what we saw in Falmouth and Montego Bay, Portuguese was soon forgotten in favor of English, and the use of Hebrew declined, albeit more slowly. By 1890 no readable tombstone in the Jewish cemeteries of Falmouth or Montego Bay contained any Hebrew.
Until the middle of the 19th century, Falmouth, the port nearest the largest and most productive sugar plantations, was the most important city on the northern shore of Jamaica. The numbers of graves in the Jewish cemetery suggest that there must have been a substantial Jewish community in Falmouth. We were able to read -- at least in part -- inscriptions on 78 tombstones, and there were indications of at least 35 more grave sites without surviving tombstones or with tombstones that could not be read.
The oldest readable inscription was of Isaac Simon, who died on January 17, 1815, at age 60. The next oldest was that of Lazarus Solomon, who died on November 21, 1822, at age 80. Between the years 1815 and 1849, there are 19 tombstones with names and dates. The average age at death during this period was 31.7 years, from the readable tombstones. The actual average age at death was probably several years less because we know of four infants who died during this period whose tombstones we could not locate or read.
From the decade between 1850 and 1860 there are 21 readable tombstones with dates. All the deaths during this period occurred on or between 1854 and 1959 -- the highest number of deaths during any 10-year period -- and the average age at death was 19.8 years, the lowest during any 10-year period. Some plague or other catastrophe might have hit Jamaica during these years to have brought so much loss of life so early to the Jewish community of Falmouth.
In the period 1861 to1900, there are 23 readable tombstones with dates. The average age at death was 53.9 years, with no infant deaths as far as we can determine.
In the 20th century, there are only 11 readable tombstones with dates. The average age at death was 65.4 years. The most recent tombstone in the Falmouth Jewish cemetery is that of Alfred Leopold Delgado, who died on December 21, 1944 at age 83.
The information on the tombstones corresponds with what we know about the history of Falmouth and of its Jews. The town was founded sometime around 1770 by the Barrett family, from whom the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was descended. The Jews who came to live in Falmouth were merchants and traders dependent upon the vitality of the sugar plantations surrounding Falmouth and upon international trade. Falmouth, once a wealthy town, gradually became impoverished when the international market for sugar began to decline early in the 19th century; when the slaves who worked the sugar plantations were freed in 1835; and when deep draft steamships replaced sailing vessels and found Falmouth harbor too shallow.
The Jewish cemetery is located on Duke Street, a short walk from the Anglican Cathedral and cemetery. It measures 124 feet by 83 feet. The names of those interned are mostly Spanish or Portuguese; the most common being DeSouza, Carvalho, Delgado, Nunes, DeLeon, DeLisser, Furtado, DeCasseres, Lindo (more about Lindo later), DePass, and Morales. Several decedents had biblical names such as Joseph, Solomon, Isaac and Simon. Did these families revert to their pre-conversion names as part of their return to their ancestral religion? Some names show an English origin: Morris, Moss, Tyson, Harris, Lyons, and Hart. It would also be interesting to know whether these names were the result of a name change, intermarriage, or an influx of English Jews. Lastly, there are a few clearly Ashkenazic names: Wetzler, Magnus, and Ashenheim. Dr. Lewis Ashenheim, who died in 1857, is the great-grandfather of Jamaica's first ambassador to Washington, Sir Neville Ashenheim. Today, according to Dr. James Parrent of Falmouth Heritage Renewal, there are no Jews living in Falmouth.
There were at one time two Jewish cemeteries in Montego Bay. Montego Bay is Jamaica's second largest city and at one time had a thriving Jewish community that has shrunk to a couple of families. The older of the two cemeteries has disappeared. What we know is that it closed for burials in 1898. The cemetery measured 120 feet by 90 feet. The ground was sold sometime before 1958, and it is now occupied by the Churches Corporate Credit Union. The premises were viewed in 1958 by Barnett and Wright, authors of The Jews of Jamaica Tombstone Inscriptions 1663-1880, who found only three tombstones in place.
When Elaine and I visited the premises of the Credit Union on Union Street there were no longer any tombstones. We made an attempt to locate them by contacting the current owner of the premises and the Jamaican Historical Society without success.
The earliest interment in the second Jewish cemetery of Montego Bay occurred in 1898 and the most recent in 1923. Measuring 138 feet by 100 feet, it is larger than the cemetery at Falmouth, with evidence of only 22 burials, of which 10 tombstones are readable. The names of those interred there include Solomons, Isaacs, Jacobs, Corinaldi, Magnus, Aarons, Reuben and Hart. Obviously, when the land was purchased and the second cemetery opened, a more fruitful future was anticipated by the Jewish community of Montego Bay than eventuated.
This cemetery also reflects what we know about the Jewish community of Montego Bay. It was not until 1845 that a synagogue was consecrated in Montego Bay, but according to Barnett and Wright the congregation declined during the 20th century. When the synagogue was destroyed by a hurricane in 1912, it was never rebuilt.
What can we learn about the Jews of Falmouth and Montego Bay from their cemeteries?
In Falmouth only 13 of the 78 readable tombstones had some Hebrew; a 14th had the Hebrew date of death in Latin letters. All 78, even those that had some Hebrew, were predominantly in English. Of the 13 with some Hebrew, only four were dated after 1860. None of the 10 readable inscriptions in the Montego Bay cemetery had any Hebrew. The tombstones show that knowledge of Hebrew, never strong during the 19th century, became even weaker over time and disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century.
All the tombstones of the Jewish cemeteries of Falmouth and Montego Bay (but one) face east. The explanation generally given for the practice of Spanish and Portuguese Jews burying their dead facing east is that, when the Messiah would appear in Jerusalem, the dead, without the need for turning around, would rise from their resting places and proceed directly to Jerusalem. This custom of burying the dead facing east is not followed by Ashkenazic Jews but was also followed by Sephardic Jews in their oldest cemeteries in Surinam and New York.
(My visit to the Anglican cathedral cemeteries of Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios as well as to the two oldest Church cemeteries in New York City - Trinity Church and St. Paul's Church - found that the graves in those cemeteries also faced east. Conflicting reasons are given by Christians for this practice.)
Until late in the 19th century, Arbell reports, Jamaican Jewish ritual and customs were Orthodox. In 1884 the United Congregation of Israelites was formed from a union of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations, and it continues to exist to this day. This congregation was an umbrella organization for Jamaican Jews from all sections of the island. Its purpose was to conform religious practice with a population that was no longer Orthodox and wished to adopt Conservative rituals and practices. In 1913, it introduced a prayer book which included an English transliteration of Hebrew prayers for a population that largely could no longer read Hebrew.
Most of Jamaica's Jews left for Britain, the USA and Canada between 1962, when Jamaica became independent, and the 1970s, when political unrest was widespread. This sharply reduced the island's Jewish population, which in 1957 numbered 1600, but by 1978 had only 350 remaining. This sharp reduction in so short a period seems to have lit a desire to survive among those remaining. In 1969 a Hillel School was founded by the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston as a secular private primary and secondary school.
In 1997 the Neveh Shalom Institute was founded to preserve the sites of old Jewish synagogues and other remains. In 2006 the Jewish community celebrated the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in Jamaica by inaugurating a Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center.
Today there is only one synagogue remaining in Jamaica. It is the 100 year old Shaare Shalom Synagogue, located at 92 Duke Street in Kingston, Tel: 1-876-922-5931, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, The floor of Shaare Shalom is covered with a layer of white sand. This tradition arose when secret Jews had to muffle the sounds of worship less they be discovered and denounced to the Inquisition.
One of our volunteers, Rachel Frankel, traveled to Kingston from Falmouth to spend a Shabbat with the congregation. About 60 people attended services on that Saturday morning. (The usual number does not exceed 20, and there is almost always a minyan with women being counted). Most of the service was in English. Men and women sat together. Some women wore a kippah (head covering) and a tallit (prayer shawl), and a woman read from the Torah. Many of the congregation were of mixed race -- Afro-Caribbean and Caucasian.
Being of mixed race is not new to the Jews of Jamaica. Slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1835. While the Jews of Jamaica were not owners of plantations -- where most Africans labored as slaves -- they did own slaves, and unions between Jews and slaves did occur. After 1835 intermarriage and other unions became so common that Dr. Lewis Ashenheim in 1844 predicted that the Jewish community of Jamaica was headed into extinction. John Bigelow, who traveled to Jamaica in 1850, a bare 15 years after slavery was abolished, had never before seen a black Jew. In his travelogue he wrote of his astonishment at the proportion of Jews who were "of all colors."
Some 250 Jews live on an island of three million, of whom 90% to 95% are of predominantly African origin. The United Congregation of Israelites is openly inclusive. It is openly willing to convert the non-Jewish marriage partner and is aggressively supporting intermarried couples who wish to raise their children as Jewish. The British periodical Jewish Renaissance has reported that although the rate of intermarriage and interracial marriage is high, the families of mixed marriages are choosing to bring up their children as Jews, whereas in the past Jamaican Jews who married out of the faith most often brought up their children as Christians.
Shaare Shalom, which has no rabbi, is led by Ainsley Henriques, a descendant of one of the oldest Jewish families in Jamaica. Henriques married Sheila Chong, a former Miss Jamaica, of half Chinese and half Afro-Caribbean origin. She converted to Judaism, and their children have been raised as Jews.
The cantor of Shaare Shalom is Winston Mendes-Davidson. In his late 40s, curiosity about his name led Winston to discover that his mother's grandfather was Jewish. This kindled in him an interest in Judaism and led to his conversion.
Through Kulanu, I was introduced to Jessie Brooks, who was born in London of Jamaican descent. Her great-grandmother was the child of a Jewish father and a black mother. She wrote to me: "This was not uncommon in Jamaica as you can imagine. It was the acceptable norm for men to live with common law wives and even have concubines. Many children fathered by Jews outside marriage were not always brought up as Jews but still had Jewish heritage."
Five years ago Jessie Brooks was introduced to Judaism by a friend and has since received an Orthodox conversion.
Conversion as a survival technique is becoming common not only in Jamaica but in several tiny Jewish communities of the Caribbean and Central America. Several of these communities have formed an umbrella group called the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean. These communities include Costa Rica, EI Salvador, Bahamas, Jamaica, Aruba and Panama, among others. These communities strive to maintain their Jewish identity as members migrate out or marry non-Jews. The converts are accepted under conditions that may not conform to Orthodox halacha (traditional Jewish law). In their desire to attract the children of mixed marriages, some permit the non-Jewish spouse to participate in the synagogue in religious activities.
When I visited the Anglican cemetery in Ocho Rios, I noticed a tombstone which had a large six-pointed Star of David. It was the resting place of Jack Ruby Lindo, who died on April 2, 1989. "Lindo," I knew from my work in Falmouth, is a common name among Jamaican Jews of Portuguese origin. The bottom of the stone contained the following inscription: "P.S. See you in Zion" One can speculate on what caused Jack Ruby Lindo to be buried in this manner, but a most likely reason is that he or those who buried him had some attachment to Judaism or some feeling of identification with Jewish ancestors. It is the goal of the United Congregation of Israelites to preserve to Judaism the Lindos of Jamaica. This writer wishes that it will succeed.