History in the making

Dr. Lawrence Bell (left) and photographer Wyatt Gallery celebrate the Jan. 12 opening of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society exhibition “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean,” featuring Gallery’s photographs of historic Jewish synagogues in the Caribbean.

“Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean: The Legacy of Judaism in the New World,” a photography exhibit featuring architecture, woodworking and an evolving history, has opened at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in downtown Phoenix. With photos by Wyatt Gallery and text by Dr. Stanley Mirvis, the exhibit is an exploration of the history and culture of Caribbean Jews, a population that was of critical importance to the growth of the Jewish community in the New World. 

The story of Jews in the Caribbean is less well-known than other Jewish histories, with the study of Caribbean Jewry reaching academia as late as 1980. Prior to that, Jewish historical studies focused almost exclusively on Eastern European Jews, especially after the Holocaust. “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean” is an effort to correct the record and reconstruct this history.

The migration of Jews to the Caribbean has its roots in the 15th century. During the Spanish Inquisition, there was a mass movement of oppressed Jews into neighboring countries. Most of these refugees were conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity due to persecution. Many conversos found refuge in Amsterdam. At the same time, the Dutch East India Company had begun trading in the Caribbean islands, and Jewish settlers in pursuit of wealth followed as well. A significant amount of Jewish settlers were in the Caribbean islands, up to 6% of the colonial population. Jewish settlements rose and fell, such as the first completely autonomous Jewish city of Jodensavanne — Dutch for “Jewish Savanna.” The Caribbean was the center of Jewry in the New World, well after the establishment of the British colonies in North America. 

Photos of the grand synagogues in the Caribbean — along with their cemeteries — are the centerpiece of “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean,” which showcases the unique traits of these houses of worship, such as the floors of the synagogues, covered in sand. They also situate these historical buildings in a contemporary context, including the ongoing battle for preservation. Many of the synagogues are on islands with extreme poverty, where Jewish cemeteries have been looted for building supplies. The contrast between an ornate wood and marble temple and a cinder-block and blue tarp house encapsulates the larger financial and social struggle, to say nothing of the challenges presented by tropical storms. Synagogues and cemeteries have even been damaged by proximity to the islands’ massive oil refineries, whose fumes have eroded a substantial amount of the tombstones’ engravings.

The purpose of this new Arizona Jewish Historical Society exhibit is not only to display this extensive and fascinating history, but also to raise awareness of the preservation efforts, which are ongoing. The exhibit remains up until March 26, with events on the first and third Fridays of February and March. Admission is free. JN

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