Tourists come to Curaçaoin the southern part of the Caribbean Sea to snorkel and dive in its turquoise waters, to lie out on the 30-plus sandy beaches as a constant breeze blows past, to marvel at Mother Nature as the ocean crashes angrily against the cliffs of Shete Boca National Park and to sample the famous blue Curaçao liqueur brewed from the skins of the island’s bitter oranges.
Willemstad, the capital city for the 150,000 people who call the island home, is a UNESCO World Heritage City. Its pastel colored grand houses — originally white until 1817 when the governor ordered them painted, as it was decided that the glare of the sun was bad for the eyes — sync perfectly with the island’s colorful culture that melds Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, African, Caribbean and South American influences.
Of the 765 historic buildings that span across the capital city’s districts of Punda, Otrobanda — literally “the other side,” as the St. Anna Bay divides the city in two — Pietermaai and Scharloo, a Sephardic synagogue is highly touted alongside the likes of the Governor’s House and Fort Amsterdam.
A small sign hangs on the corner of the light yellow building in the Punda district, directing tourists to the entrance of Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue and Museum, the oldest continuously used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
Visitors traipse through the doors to the complex under a Hebrew sign that reads “Blessed may you be in your coming.” On the right side of the black-and-white tiled courtyard is the historic synagogue building, where every Shabbat and major simcha has been celebrated since 1732.
Sephardic Dutch Jews settled in Curaçao, part of the “ABC” islands (Aruba and Bonaire are the others) near Venezuela, in 1651. They earned their livings as merchants primarily and built a soaring Sephardic-style snoa, or synagogue, set with rich mahogany pews anchored with four tall white columns inscribed with the names of the matriarchs and giant chandeliers hanging high above that can hold 144 candles.
Past the entrance to the much-chronicled synagogue, whose floors are covered in white sand imported from Suriname, is an iron gate. It leads into a smaller courtyard flanked by two smaller houses, which once served as the rabbi’s residence and mikvah house. Here is the entrance to the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum and the woman at its helm, Myrna Moreno.
Since she took over as museum curator in 2002, Moreno has ensured that the brainchild of Jessy Jesurun, a member of a prominent local Jewish family, preserves the past and tells the story of the Jews who remain on the island, most of whom attend the snoa, now affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement.
Walking around the two floors of the museum, which was dedicated in November 1970, she points to improvements she’s made during her 13-year tenure. Moreno has added new exhibit labels in Dutch and English, restored paintings and reformatted and expanded displays — her favorite is a deerskin Torah scroll from 1320, carefully stored upright in its own glass cabinet.
The biggest challenge, she explains, is coaxing locals to explore this aspect of Curaçao history.
“The cruise ship tourists, they come to the museum, but the local people you have to inspire, you have to teach them. There is a threshold — they’re scared,” said Moreno. “They say, ‘What are they doing in there? A church with sand on the floor? They must be doing strange things in there.’”
“I say, ‘No,’” Moreno said with a chuckle. “By catering the right things to them, the locals enjoy it and the tourists too.”
For the record, three official explanations are offered for the sand floors. The first is that similar Spanish-Portuguese synagogues found in the Caribbean, such as the St. Thomas Synagogue in the U.S. Virgin Islands, use sand floors to serve as a reminder of the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert. The second explanation offered is that many of the Sephardic ancestors of today’s congregants lived as conversos, secret Jews, in Spain and Portugal. Sand floors helped to muffle the sound of their worship to passers-by who might wish them harm. The final explanation offered is the sand symbolizes the promise God made to the Abraham to multiply his seed “as the sands of the seashore.”
A notable exhibit, she said, was one on the nannies of Jewish children, known as yayas in the local Creole language Papiamento. Yayas were black slaves or former slaves who looked after the children of wealthy Jewish households. Yayas were second mothers to the children and taught their charges Papiamento and about local wildlife and attended to the children’s daily needs.
Some members of the Jewish community worried about the controversy such an exhibit might attract, but Moreno found the response to be overwhelmingly positive.
“I was getting people from 80 to 85 years old coming with grandchildren,” said Moreno. “One lady said, ‘I was a seamstress for all these Jewish people, can I touch this fabric?’” referring to a yaya uniform displayed on a mannequin.
“Then another lady came and said, ‘I used to be a proud silver polisher for the Jewish families.’ That is the link I am trying to get,” said Moreno.
Clarita Hagenaar, an expert tour guide, directs tourists’ attention to the grand mansions of the Scharloo district of Willemstad, which was once home to wealthy Jewish families such as the Maduros and Penhas, whose names are still emblazoned on the sides of buildings in the capital city.
On the way to a stand that sells handmade local sweets, Hagenaar gestures to the corner of a busy intersection not far from the floating market where Venezuelans sell fish and fresh produce. There, she recalls from her childhood, tourists would come to town and make huge purchases from the Jewish-owned jewelry stores. So safe was the island that porters would carry the diamond-laden bags down the street to the ships without security escorts.
During the Jewish High Holy Days, Hagenaar continued, so many shops were closed that it was as if the non-Jewish locals were treated to an extra holiday. These days, Hagenaar said, a new wave of immigrants from China and India operate many of the shops downtown.
The Jews of Curaçao shared their wealth with other communities through- out the Americas, including congregations in Newport, R.I., Philadelphia, Caracas, Venezuela and Colon in Panama. According to information compiled by Michele Russel-Capriles, some of those congregations still say a special prayer for the Curaçao community on Yom Kippur.
Though the number of Jews on the island is dwindling — Moreno estimates just 300 Jews between Mikve Israel-Emanuel and Shaarei Tsedek — those who remain are committed to Jewish life.
Today, Hagenaar bemoans, the Temple Emanuel building is now a government facility where locals go to pay fines.
Not long after Temple Emanuel was founded, Ashkenazi Jews, predominantly from Central Europe, began arriving in Curaçao in the 1920s and ‘30s and like their counterparts in the United States, took up as peddlers before becoming shop owners just as prominent as their Sephardic neighbors. The Ashkenazim established a social center and sports club and dedicated their own congregational building called Shaarei Tsedek in Scharloo in 1959. In the 1980s, the congregation sold its building to move into a more suburban location, though its new building, round in shape with a stunning glass dome, was not completed and dedicated until 2006. Shaarei Tsedek continues to follow Asheknazi Orthodox customs, though some membership will attend the snoa too.
Sheila Delvalle-Seibald and her husband Morris Seibald (see sidebar, above) belong to both congregations. Morris’ grandfather, Selig Seibald was a founder of Shaarei Tsedek, while Sheila’s family has been members of Mikve Israel-Emanuel for seven generations.
When the two married some 40 years ago, there’s was considered a “mixed marriage” because of her Sephardic background and his Ashkenazic background. Up to the day of the wedding, Sheila told me, her future husband’s grandmother kept asking relatives, “Are you sure [Sheila is] Jewish? She doesn’t speak Yiddish!”
The couple’s three children refer to themselves as “Ashkefards” or “Porto-pols” — half and half. Morris, admittedly, prefers to spend Shabbat mornings at Shaarei Tsedek, and the couple alternates where they worship for the major holidays.
Every Friday night and Saturday morning, the snoa is filled with worshippers and the sounds of the grand pipe organ built in 1866 — the oldest pipe organ in the area and thought to be the second oldest in the Americas — and restored shortly after the congregation’s 350th anniversary in 2001 with a generous donation made by the Ministry for Interior and Kingdom Affairs of The Netherlands. Services are led by Cantor Avery Tracht. A local from the Adventist church plays on the Sabbath so the congregants do not have to violate that aspect of Jewish law.
Ritual objects housed in the museum are routinely used by the congregation. In a glass cabinet near the reception desk are ornate silver breastplates used for the High Holy Days and Rosh Chodesh. A silver chanukiah from 1716 is lit with olive oil during the week of Chanukah. Glass goblets are still smashed against a 300-year old wedding tray at the conclusion of nuptials celebrated in the synagogue.
Though the number of Jews on the island is dwindling — Moreno estimates just 300 Jews between Mikve Israel-Emanuel and Shaarei Tsedek — those who remain are committed to Jewish life. There is a Hebrew school and an active BBYO chapter. Extended families routinely share Shabbat dinners together. All take pride in the long history of their beloved snoa.
More information about the synagogue and museum is available at snoa.com. This trip was sponsored by the Curacao Tourist Board and Diamond Public Relations.