The island of Curaçao has made headlines in recent years for its proficiency in producing a rare and much sought-after commodity: Major League Baseball players. With more than fifteen having reached the big leagues in the last two decades, the island has yielded more talent per capita than anywhere else in the world—even the baseball juggernaut that is the Dominican Republic.
Curaçao, which sits some 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, has long had another claim to fame: Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest continually-used synagogue in the Western hemisphere. Consecrated in 1732 and modeled after Amsterdam’s great Portuguese Synagogue, the Snoa, as it’s called, conducts services every Friday night and Saturday morning in a sanctuary notable for its ornate brass chandeliers and sand floor. Despite the community’s dwindling numbers, it is the island’s biggest tourist attraction.
These two worlds—Curaçao the baseball incubator and Curaçao the Jewish hub—are not entirely distinct, particularly this week as another Jewish hub, New York, follows with bated breath as a young Yankee squad, led in part by Curaçao’s Didi Gregorius, defies expectations and inches toward the World Series.
“My predecessor was a huge baseball fan,” said Mikvé Israel-Emanuel’s current spiritual leader, Cantor Avery Tracht. “People told me that his sermons always had some sort of baseball analogy.”
The community, said Tracht, is a “very cosmopolitan” one, whose congregants travel widely and maintain multiple ties and allegiances—including when it comes to baseball.
“Remember,” said congregant David Maduro, “we have, what, 16, 17 players in the Major Leagues? When the Yankees play the Angels you have Andrelton Simmons on the one side and Didi Gregorious on the other. It’s like, ‘Which hat should I put on?’” (Maduro, whose father grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., said he “usually” puts on the Yankee hat.)
Articles about Curaçao’s baseball boom will often scour the island with an eye toward players’ old haunts. The island’s Jewish community doesn’t come up. But, for Maduro, this does not mean that it’s invisible to the island’s stars.
“If you would ask Didi Gregorius about Jews in Curaçao, he’s bound to say, ‘Yes: the synagogue in town.’ Maybe he wouldn’t know that we have a second one, 10 minutes out of town, where the Ashkenazi are, but he would know about the Snoa.”
Conventional wisdom holds that the secret to Curaçao’s baseball success lies in the coarse, pebbly earth that covers much of the island, including the infields of its baseball diamonds. Generations of reflexes have been honed by the unpredictable hops that can result from playing on such an unforgiving surface.
Jewishness in Curaçao may not be in the ground, though there are Jews who have adopted the local custom of burying a baby’s umbilical cord as a sign of being one with the earth. What is without question is that Jewishness is in the air—or at least in the language. The island has three official tongues: Dutch, English, and Papiamentu, a Portuguese creole that took form in the mid-17th century, when Sephardic merchants first found their way to the island. To this day, the language bears the mark of their influence. At the close of a wedding ceremony, when the glass is broken, the assembled will shout b’simanto, from the Hebrew b’siman tov, for “good tidings.” There are some who maintain that it’s a term even the island’s non-Jews will know.
And so, b’simanto Didi Gregorius, and may you remember that Jews from Willemstad to Williamsburg are rooting for you.