The Jews of Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Jamaica: A Tes­ta­men­tary His­to­ry of a Dias­po­ra in Transition

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By – August 27, 2020

In the name of God Amen I Judith Baruh Alvares of the parish of Port Roy­al in the island of Jamaica wid­ow being in an ill state of health but of sound mind… do make this my last will and testament.”

Jamaica was once home to a thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and its cit­i­zens have been giv­en new life by schol­ar Stan­ley Mirvis. As detailed in his The Jews of Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Jamaica: A Tes­ta­men­tary His­to­ry of a Dias­po­ra in Tran­si­tion, Jamaica’s Jews led lives that were both stark­ly dif­fer­ent and yet sim­i­lar to those of more well-known Dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ties. Large­ly built upon infor­ma­tion gleaned from last wills and tes­ta­ments between 1673 and 1815, Mirvis doc­u­ments how the Jews of Jamaica achieved great heights eco­nom­i­cal­ly, but were not per­ceived to be ful­ly white or ful­ly free; they were sub­ject to sus­pi­cion and vir­u­lent anti­semitism from var­i­ous stra­ta with­in the Jamaican social hierarchy.

Mirvis uti­lizes doc­u­men­tary his­to­ry to over­come the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by earth­quakes and fires that had destroyed the major syn­a­gogues in Kingston, Port Roy­al, and St. Jago de la Vega in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies. He vivid­ly por­trays the com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, their fam­i­ly dynam­ics, eco­nom­ic prac­tices, and ances­tral cus­toms. Many orig­i­nal­ly hailed from Por­tu­gal, some from Dutch Brazil, oth­ers from Europe (pos­si­bly from Lon­don’s Por­tuguese Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty), while oth­ers had already been liv­ing on the island under Span­ish rule, before it had been con­quered by Eng­land in 1655. Though they did not receive vot­ing rights until 1831 after an exten­sive lob­by­ing effort, many of the Jews of Jamaica uti­lized its rel­a­tive­ly tol­er­ant envi­ron­ment to reclaim their pre­vi­ous­ly lost Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, tran­si­tion­ing from cryp­to-Jews to rab­binic Jews, free from the Inqui­si­tion’s grasp. How­ev­er, despite efforts at full inte­gra­tion, both with­in Judaism and with­in Jamaican soci­ety, they remained, in Mirvis’ words: Being at one and the same time dias­poric and local­ized, both embed­ded and transcendent.”

The Jew­ish men of Jamaica served the required mil­i­tary ser­vice in defense of the island. A minor­i­ty of them owned plan­ta­tions and bequeathed their slaves to their descen­dants, though more typ­i­cal­ly Jews and free peo­ple of col­or formed a polit­i­cal bloc against white plan­ta­tion own­ers. At the same time, they also sought to pre­serve their unique tra­di­tions, often led by a hakham who had arrived from more Jew­ish­ly robust locales such as Ams­ter­dam. Despite the claims of a recent work attempt­ing to pro­file Jew­ish pirates of the Caribbean,” Mirvis argues only one Jamaican Jew, an Ashke­nazi dia­mond mer­chant named Ben­jamin Franks, is known to have joined a pirate crew (though he lat­er dis­avowed par­tic­i­pat­ing in any ille­gal activity).

There were base­less accu­sa­tions of malfea­sance, a thin veneer for Jew hatred. Groups of mer­chants, Mirvis informs us, pushed to exclude Jew­ish traders from full eco­nom­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion, stat­ing that Jews eat us and our chil­dren out of all trade … we do not want them at Port Roy­al … they have made Port Roy­al their Goshen,” an allu­sion to the Jew­ish enclave in bib­li­cal Egypt. For decades, despite an offi­cial pol­i­cy of reli­gious tol­er­ance, ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful efforts had been under­tak­en to install a tax sole­ly on the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. And in 1783, a drunk­en non-Jew­ish mob had to be dis­persed out­side of Yom Kip­pur ser­vices in Kingston. Like in so many oth­er times and places, Mirvis shows, the Jews of Jamaica fought for faith, free­dom, and fam­i­ly in the face of con­stant challenges.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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