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Ocean Pew

Though only a tiny fraction of what it was in the 18th century, Barbados’s Jewish community—and its 1750 synagogue—still stand proud

Alexander Gelfand
March 18, 2010
The interior of Barbados's Nidhe Israel synagogue.(Alexander Gelfand)
The interior of Barbados's Nidhe Israel synagogue.(Alexander Gelfand)

“Tell your father if he needs anything, I’m around,” said the voice at the other end of the line. “God bless, Alex.”

Its lilting Barbadian cadences belonged to Jimmy Altman, the man who has for the past several years served as my family’s consigliere in Barbados. A native Barbadian who splits his time between the island and Montreal, where my parents and brothers live, Jimmy advises us on where to stay and from whom to rent our cars during our group vacations. He also changes our foreign dollars for Barbados ones, which he calls lokshn—the Yiddish word for “noodles” sounding better, as nearly everything does, with a West Indian accent.

We came to Jimmy as we came to Barbados: by way of Alec Konigsberg, a Barbadian émigré who has practiced law with my father for decades. Both men’s families have been pillars of the Barbados Jewish community for generations.

“Barbados Jewish community” is not a phrase that I ever imagined I would utter. Nor is it one that many Barbadians—90 percent black, 75 percent Christian—have themselves heard. But there they are, 40 dues-paying members of Nidhe Israel (“scattered of Israel”), one of the oldest synagogues in the Western hemisphere. These tanned Hebrews are descended from European refugees like Jimmy’s grandfather, Moses Altman, who, in 1931, became the first Ashkenazi Jew to settle on the island. Moses arrived from Lublin, Poland, too late to meet the last practicing member of a much older Jewish community: Edmund Isaac Baeza, a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors came to Barbados from Recife, Brazil, in the 17th century.

The Sephardim of Recife had prospered in the sugar trade under Dutch rule. But when the Portuguese seized the city and introduced the Inquisition, they fled to friendlier shores, including the Dutch outpost that would later become New York and English-held Barbados, where they introduced such moneymaking innovations as wind-powered sugar mills. By the 1700s, they had helped transform the island into one of the “richest spots of land in the New World,” according to the Nidhe Israel Museum, a former Jewish schoolhouse built in 1750 from hand-cut coral stone.

Yet by the late 1920s, that once-thriving community had vanished completely, having succumbed to the twin forces of emigration and assimilation. All that remains of the first Barbadian Jews, aside from their Iberian surnames (Abrahams, DaCosta, Pinto), which were passed down through generations of intermarriage with Gentiles both black and white, are the synagogue and schoolhouse, a cemetery with headstones dating to 1658, and the oldest mikveh in the Americas, which lay buried for years beneath tons of mud and rubble until it was unearthed by an American archaeologist two years ago. (It has since been fully restored, its marble flagstones once again covered by a pool of crystal-clear spring water.)

“When I tell them that Jews brought cane to Barbados, most Barbadians are like, ‘What!?’ ” Celso Brewster, the museum manager, told me one brilliantly sunny day in Bridgetown. “They think it was the British.” A black Baha’i, Brewster was himself unaware that there had ever been Jews on the island until he began working for them.

By the time Moses Altman’s boat landed, Baeza had been dead for several years, and the synagogue had become a commercial property. Its Gothic arches hosted law offices, a warehouse, and a horse-racing club before falling into decades of neglect. “As a young man, I was never informed that building was a synagogue,” Jimmy told me. Instead, the Ashkenazim prayed in a modest home shul, the Shaare Tzedek. I happened across its hand-lettered sign while driving through the parish of Christ Church one afternoon; it was nailed to a telephone pole, just above a larger one for Foster’s Bakery, which produced the coconut bread I’d eaten that morning as I watched the sun rise over the Caribbean Sea.

When the Barbadian government threatened to raze the synagogue in the 1980s to make room for a new Supreme Court building, the Altmans raised $1 million from international donors to restore it, and another $1.5 million to build the museum. Plans are now afoot for a Jewish reference library and a reception center, and the synagogue once again echoes to the sound of Friday night services. It also hosts special events, like the bar mitzvah of a British boy that took place the day I returned to blizzard-bound New York with my wife and children.

Appropriately enough, the ceremony occurred during Shabbat Shekalim, one of the four “special Shabbatot” that precede Passover, and the one whose Torah readings describe the census that was taken of the Jewish people as they wandered in the wilderness. Each male contributed a half-shekel, the coins were tallied, and the proceeds were put toward the upkeep of the portable temple that the Israelites carried with them in exile.

Consider the irony: A foreign visitor celebrates his bar mitzvah on Shabbat Shekalim in a synagogue that was itself saved from the wrecking ball by a massive round of shekel-collecting; a synagogue, moreover, that is perched on an island at the easternmost edge of the Caribbean (no desert, but no Jerusalem, either) where the mere act of enumerating the Jewish population—800 Sephardim in 1750, 40 Ashkenazim in 2010, no Jews at all in 1930—reminds us of just how convoluted the history of our wandering people can be.

But it is the future, not the past, that most concerns some Barbadian Jews. Lounging by the hotel pool one day, Ellen Konigsberg, Alec’s younger sister and another transplant to Canada, described an Ashkenazi population that seems doomed to the same fate as its Sephardic precursor.

“Nothing, it’s nothing!” she said, making a zero with her thumb and forefinger when asked how today’s community compared with the one she’d known as a child in the 1950s. She could think of only three contemporaries who hadn’t either intermarried or left the island, and she added that a small group of conservatives refused to recognize as Jews the children of mixed marriages, a position she considers to be suicidal.

But who knows? The Jews of Barbados have peered into the abyss before and survived, if not entirely intact or unchanged. And their non-Jewish compatriots, who are known both for their laid-back attitude and their religiosity, have long been accepting, if not entirely aware, of the Jewish minority in their midst. “The Jewish people were always respected by the Barbadian people,” Jimmy told me, “because the Barbadian people are a very religious people, and they see Jews as God’s chosen people.”

The notion of the chosen has become suspect. But when you look at the warm, oceanfront exile into which the Jews of Recife and Lublin threw themselves—a land of sandy beaches and verdant cane fields; of rum and sugar, if not of milk and honey—it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the Jews of Barbados, at least, have indeed been favored by God.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.