Calyp­so Jews

Sarah Phillips Casteel

  • Review
By – September 21, 2016

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. 

Discussion Questions