“Calypso Jews” is what European refugees who landed in Trinidad after fleeing persecutions in the Holocaust called themselves. Focusing a scholarly lens on Jewish-themed writings about the Caribbean, Casteel shares the meldings of motifs and identity she discovered in both Jewish and non-Jewish works. Casteel is especially interested in depictions of the relationships between blacks and Jews, and lays the groundwork for that investigation in Part I by describing the first great migration of Jews to the islands after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492. Targeted excerpts show how writers working both from within the Caribbean as well as outside it have linked the Jewish journey of loss, survival, and hidden identities to that of their own people. The author also points out that this connection predates and offers a counterpoint to black – Jewish relationships in the United States.
Casteel builds a strong case for her thesis with Derek Wolcott’s poem Tiepolo’s Hound, in whichthe Nobel Prize-winning author parallels and contrasts his own journey from St. Lucia to England in the twentieth century with that of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, who traveled from St. Thomas to Paris and back to the island again one century earlier. A descendant of Marrano Jews, Pissarro himself never felt a strong Jewish identity. Wolcott speaks of the outsider experience he imagines both men had in Europe, and how their Caribbean roots influenced their art and psyches. He sympathetically connects the need for the painter’s family to hide their religion and leave their homeland to the wrenching of black people from Africa during the Middle Passage.
Jews may have been viewed as outsiders in the Caribbean, but Wolcott and other black authors also found limits to the analogy of shared status. With white privilege, some Jews found a place in the colonialist structure, doing business as port Jews or plantation owners. At one point, Wolcott criticizes Pissarro’s romantic portrayal of black people in his pastoral paintings: “we seem painless here.” This contrasts with fiction by authors with Sephardic backgrounds who sympathetically interweave the struggle of biblical characters with the black Caribbean poor or, like Cynthia McLeod of Suriname, depict fictional slave owners in Jewish settlements as exhibiting a wide range of both moral and cruel behavior.
Casteel’s discussion of the twentieth century is more diffuse. She presents memoirs from Jews in which Caribbean languages affect rhythm and literary style, but whose authors speak with acceptance or ambivalence, depending on their reception by different islands. Doubts are also raised by the Antiguan American Jamaica Kincaid, who sets a Jewish doctor beside a black working-class man in Mr. Potter. Both have been damaged by their experience of displacement, but neither can see from the other’s point of view. On the other hand, writers such as Caryl Phillips in The Nature of Blood use passages from Anne Frank’s diary to probe black victimization. In Achy Obeja’s novel Days of Awe, themes of national, cultural, religious, and sexual identity all challenge a young woman whose family members — who have hidden their Jewish identity even from her — leave Cuba for the United States.
Throughout Calypso Jews, Casteel makes a case for how hidden Sephardism has captured the imagination of culturally diverse authors post-slavery. The fullness and novelty of her research opens a fascinating dialogue on the intersections of black and Jewish relationships as revealed through Caribbean literature.
Sharon Elswit, author of The Jewish Story Finder, now resides in San Francisco, where she has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.