Old books, religious items burned in Corfu synagogue


Unknown vandals broke into the synagogue on the island of Corfu and burned books two centuries old as well as kipot and tallitot.

The break-in occurred at approximately dawn Tuesday, the second day of Passover.

Firemen arrived within minutes and prevented the fire from spreading after being alerted by a police patrol car that was stationed in the front of the synagogue.

The president of the Corfu Jewish community, Zinos Velelis, praised the quick reaction of the fire department and police.

“We never had such an incident or any incident for that matter before in Corfu,” he said. “We hope it is a isolated incident that the entire Corfu population will condemn.”

In its condemnation of the incident, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece said in a statement, “In contemporary Greece, society cannot allow or tolerate anti-Semitism, given that such attacks undermine our civilization, our dignity, our human nature, our democracy.”

George Petalotis, a spokesman for the Greek government, in a statement condemning the break-in called the destruction of sacred religious books “an immoral and outrageous act.”

About 60 Jews live on Corfu. Some 2,000 Jews lived there prior to World War II; only 187 survived the war. Jews have had a presence on Corfu since the 12th century.

Spectator – The Taboo Expressionist


The earliest recorded use of the word “tattoo” is found in descriptions of a Tahitian ritual, written by British explorer Capt. James Cook during a 1769 voyage through the South Pacific.

Tattooing is an act of indelible self-expression. As such, it serves as an ideal vehicle for Jill Ciment’s new novel, “The Tattoo Artist.”

The book tells of Sara, a shop girl on Manhattan’s Lower East Side who, at the age of 18, trades her Yiddish-speaking parents and their crowded railroad tenement for an artist’s garret shared with Philip Ehrenreich, her genteel, bohemian husband. Philip loses his family’s fortune in the Depression, and he and Sara, an avant-garde painter herself, are sent to Ta’un’uu, an island in the South Pacific that is celebrated for its intricate tattoos and carved masks, to collect its exotic bounty for a shadowy and rich German industrialist. But their ship never returns to the island to pick them up.

Not unlike Gauguin’s “Tahiti,” the couple’s accidental home is lush, with natives luminescent in their tattoo-covered bodies. When tragedy strikes, Sara takes up the tattoo needle as a source of solace. The ties to her New York life are relinquished, and replaced with a priest-like position as one of the island’s tattoo artists.

Ciment has crafted the survival story of a woman who draws herself a history and identity using the needles and inks of another people.

The island’s tattoo artists sing a prayer while inserting the needle that, like a Torah, must be read in portions. Instead of chanting the Ta’uu’nin stories, Sara “sang the only songs I remembered, the ones my father had sung to me about the storybook yeshiva on the windy Russian steppes or the little union girl who takes on the boss.”

Midway through “The Tattoo Artist,” Philip explains to Sara the reason she needs to leave their adopted island: “because it’s not real.” He is correct. Borrowing from cultures she knows and cultures she has researched, Ciment has invented geography, a simplified composite containing strains of Polynesia and the Jewish Diaspora. Yet it is exactly the un-realness of the mix and the beauty of Ciment’s borrowings that make the island worth visiting.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Ariella Cohen is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Nevis’ Jewish Past a Tropical Treasure


 

Savvy travelers in need of a getaway come to the Caribbean island of Nevis to relax at restored sugar plantations, like the Montpelier Inn, or the opulent Four Seasons. Celebrity visitors have included Michael Douglas, Oprah Winfrey and Princess Diana, who immediately fled to the island to relax after her breakup with Prince Charles.

Tourists soak up the sun on the island’s beaches and watch for whales, snorkel in the crystal-clear turquoise sea and hike its lush hills listening to the chatter of green vervet monkeys. Nevis is home to 10,000 people, and charming Caribbean gingerbread-style buildings along downtown Charleston’s tiny main street evokes the feeling of “Gulliver’s Travels” as tourists visit area shops and restaurants.

This Leeward Island destination, known as the “Queen of the Caribbees,” was also once home to dozens of hard-working Jews whose story makes up a little-known chapter of Caribbean Jewish history. It’s been centuries since a Jewish community has called Nevis home, but references to the “Jews’ School” and the “Jewish Temple” remain a colorful part of island folklore.

“Nevis has a remarkable story to tell of a community that used to be,” said David Rollinson, a local historian who conducts Jewish tours of the island. “The cemetery is all that’s left now and it continues to give us valuable insight into the lives of the Jews of Nevis.”

Sitting southeast of Puerto Rico, Nevis is the smaller sister island to neighboring St. Kitts (a 20-minute ferry ride), which tends to be more rough and tumble. Nevis is nearly 7 miles in diameter and was first spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. Columbus called the island Nieves, the Spanish word for “snows,” because the islands volcanic peaks reminded him of the snow-capped Pyrenees.

By the mid-1600s, Nevis’ sugarcane industry made it a Caribbean powerhouse. Sephardic Jews expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese were drawn to the island. And by the early 1700s, one-quarter of the Caucasian population in Charleston were Jewish.

The Colonial period brought about a synagogue, but the exact date of its construction is unknown. A school followed, which was attended by the non-Jewish son of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the island in 1757.

By the end of the 18th century, the sugar industry went bust and the Jewish families moved away in search of new jobs, leaving behind their stores and homes. The synagogue and school were closed. Today, the only visible reminders of that once-vibrant community are the 19 surviving grave markers in the Nevis Jewish Cemetery.

Scholars and archaeologists from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have long been fascinated with Nevis’ Jewish history. Funds from various organizations, like the Commonwealth Jewish Council, have been able to piece together a picture of what Jewish life was like from the clues in the cemetery.

Located on Government Road, a few minutes from the pier in Charleston, the cemetery stands in the middle of what once was the Jewish neighborhood. Grave markers, inscribed in Portuguese, Hebrew and English, date from 1650 to 1768 and bear names like Marache, Pinheiro, Mendez, Lobatto and Cohen. However, on some the writing is barely legible. Forty more burial sites, without markers, were identified some 20 years ago by a survey done on the grounds.

Rededicated in 1971 after a Philadelphia couple organized the cleanup and restorations of the gravestones, today the cemetery’s sacred grounds are carefully manicured by the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society.

“It’s a very emotional experience for people who come here,” said Rollinson, who watches as tourists quietly place stones on the above ground tombstones as a show of respect. “It’s an emotional experience for me, too.”

Across the street is a narrow vine-covered laneway the locals still call “Jews Walk” or “Jews Alley” which may have led to the Jewish school and kitty-corner from the cemetery is a typical Caribbean clapboard house that was built on the land where the synagogue once stood. Details about the school are sketchy but Dutch archives indicate the synagogue was built in 1684. Sadly, not an artifact has been recovered; historians believe the congregants took the valuables with them when they left the island.

Nevis’ library features some of the best local history books, including books on the area’s Jewish history, and offers the cheapest Internet connections on the island.

To the Nevisians, this area will always be “the Jewish neighborhood.” Some old-timers even remember their great-great-grandparents talking about the Jews who used to live there.

“It’s important none of us forget about those families all those years ago,” said T.C. Claxton, a British expat who has been driving a taxi on the island for 30 years. “Future generations have a lot to learn from this past.”

For more information about Nevis, visit