‘Feel the rhythm’ of Jamaica’s Judaism [PHOTOS]

The first thing you notice at Shaare Shalom Congregation in Kingston, Jamaica is the sand on the floor, softening the sound of your footsteps as you take your seat. You bend down and let the grains, smooth-gritty, run through your fingers. Is there some meaning in it, a reference to the 40 years the ancient Israelites wandered in the desert? 

Hurricane season is in full swing, so it’s hot and humid, with occasional thunder, the tail-end of tropical storm Isaac passing by; but inside the stately chapel, it’s comfortable: The large windows of the 100-year-old building are wide open, and overhead fans keep the place airy. 

There are 40 worshippers, and it’s a diverse group: Most are white, some are black, others are shades in between, as well as one of Asian descent. This feels natural for a country where most of the population is non-white, where there’s been a mingling of ethnic groups, and where marriage, or at least romance, between different races has been going on for hundreds of years.

Shaare Shalom Congregation, also known as the United Congregation of Israelites, is the last active synagogue in Jamaica. Its services seem familiar yet exotic, like the congregants themselves: a mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Orthodox and Reform, English spoken with that distinctive Jamaican lilt, and prayers sung beautifully in Hebrew by a man and woman, both of African descent.

In the social hall next to Shaare Shalom’s sanctuary, Ainsley Henriques, 74-year-old doyen of Jamaica’s Jewish community, proudly points to an exhibition of centuries of Jamaican Jewish life. Displays show contributions made in commerce, art, politics, journalism, medicine and law.

Henriques says that nowadays, there are only about 250 people left on Jamaica who self-identify as Jews (less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the island’s population). Their numbers are dwindling, and on occasion it’s hard to put together a minyan, but Henriques and others in the community emphasize their determination to keep Judaism alive in Jamaica. 

For one thing, Shaare Shalom has brought in a new rabbi, after 33 years without one. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, a 51-year-old American Reform rabbi, has ideas intended to attract younger people: a bar/bat mitzvah program, nature-adventure activities for young families, informal social gatherings for young parents. And more plans in the works.

Henriques says the community is also being revitalized by Jamaicans who have discovered their affinity to Judaism, like the two cantors: Winston Mendes Davidson, called Winty, a 66-year-old doctor and public health official who converted after learning of his Jewish roots (Mendes, his mother’s family, is a venerable Sephardic last name in Jamaica); and Marie Reynolds, who was brought up Christian and discovered her love of Judaism while living in London.

As charming and moving as Shaare Shalom is, it’s unlikely that a Jewish tourist, even an observant one, would go to Jamaica only for the Jewish sites, or would remain in Kingston — in the southern part of the island — during the whole vacation. 

More likely, a typical tourist would go to the northern shore, spending time in those places whose exotic names — Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Runaway Bay — evoke images of rum drinks with little umbrellas, spectacular white-sand beaches, warm Caribbean waters, lush foliage and estates where legends like Noel Coward or Errol Flynn cavorted to their hearts’ content.

Over the years, Jamaica has gone through well-known phases. To mention a few: piracy (including Jewish pirates); the laid-back lifestyle of Negril on the western part of the island during the 1960s; and Rastafarianism, spear-headed by the late reggae icon Bob Marley. 

Modern Jamaican resorts have moved well beyond those notions. The country has developed eco-tourism activities, thrilling adventures and pleasant diversions aimed at appealing to a wide range of tourists: college students, singles, families and couples of all ages. 

You can take a chairlift over the treetops, steer a bobsled down Mystic Mountain (on steel rails, not ice), or glide down the rainforest canopy on a zip line.

Swimming with and getting kissed by a dolphin (no joke) may be on many people’s bucket list, especially when that dolphin is a frisky adolescent female named Misty; but much more heart-thumping is the hike up Dunn’s River Falls. 

Wearing only a bathing suit and water shoes that grip the wet rocks (you can rent them there), you start at the bottom, where the waterfall empties out into the Caribbean, and climb up the slippery boulders, heading up toward the waterfall, with occasional dips or slides into deeper pools. Depending on your fitness level, it can take from a half-hour to an hour to get to the top, where you’re rewarded with a waterfall shower.

Ocho Rios tourism offers quiet moments as well: birds of exotic coloring pecking at seeds on your palm, hummingbirds with spectacularly long tails, panoramic views of the north coast. 

It also offers jerk chicken and other local delicacies by the shore, in the moonlight, with other tourists as well as Jamaicans. A country that’s an island paradise for tourists and cruise-ship day-trippers is still mired in thatched-roof poverty for too many residents; but Jamaicans’ radiant smiles seem genuine and unquenchable, whatever their economic reality. 

A Bob Marley lyric comes to mind: “Forget your troubles and dance. Forget your sorrows and dance. Forget your sickness and dance. Forget your weakness and dance …”

Wherever you go in Jamaica, local music is always playing, from Harry Belafonte to Toots and the Maytals to a steel-drum band. And if you start to dance, people will smile at you. They might even join you. They understand: Forget about whatever you left back home and dance. 

Still, there was a mystery to be solved: the sand on Shaare Shalom’s floor.

There’s plenty of evidence that Jews have been in Jamaica since the mid-1600s. For example, the oldest of Jamaica’s Jewish cemeteries, at Hunts Bay, west of Kingston, has been explored by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, which found a gravestone with Hebrew and Portuguese writing. That gravestone is dated 1672. 

But because of family lore, Jamaican Jews are certain there were Jews in Jamaica before that, as far back as the 1500s, when Spain controlled the island. Spain had brought the Inquisition to the New World, so if there were Jews in Jamaica in the 1500s, they wouldn’t have expressed their faith openly. When worshipping together, they would have quieted their footsteps. 

“The sand on the synagogue floor goes back to that time,” Henriques said, “when it was important for Jews not to arouse suspicions. Once the British took over in 1655, Jews could practice their Judaism openly.” 

And practice openly they did. They built synagogues and schools and a great deal more; they’ve been involved in every aspect of Jamaican life. But now, because of assimilation and intermarriage, because the core membership is aging and many Jamaican Jews have chosen to live elsewhere, the Jewish community is struggling to maintain its identity and integrity.

It’s working … for now. But who knows what lies ahead?

So after you’ve had your fill of rum drinks and spa treatments and glides over the rainforest canopy, you might want to check out Jamaica’s Jewish life while it’s still there. Like some other disappearing communities in exotic locales, it may not be around forever, mon.

Roberto Loiederman’s trip was sponsored by the Jamaica Tourist Board. 

Shavuot 5768: Praise for the scroll

In a knowledge world ruled by books and pages and digitized memory, why do Jews hold onto the scroll?

As Shavuot (with its focus on receiving the Torah) begins, I must ask: Could it be that rolled along together somewhere in our minds with the love of Torah is the love of scroll?

We are fascinated with book forms that when opened, extended, unfolded or unrolled change shape before our eyes. In the scroll, we have a form that can also expand our minds.

Though the scroll is used in other cultures and religions, it remains a distinctive Jewish form, distinguishing it especially from early Christian writings that used the newer form—the Roman codex, or book, to record their writings. It is our handmade, not mass-produced form passed from generation to generation that we read, study and honor.

Seeing the words of the Torah scribed in perfect columns makes us think of a book. But as the parchment unrolls without a beginning or an end in sight, we think of a journey. You find your place in a book by turning the pages, moving through paper by the numbers. With the Torah, you turn and turn and move through place and time.

Grab on to the wooden spindles to which the Torah is attached, the etzai chaim. As your hands and arms move, you also move through time, places, names and law. As you cross the Red Sea, you cross the sea of context as well. As you scroll, and the portion is chanted, the physical action moves you inside the story: the sea parts, you hurry through, and are saved and ready to sing as you reach the other side.

Consider that in the Torah when the Ten Commandments are given, they are written on two tablets. From a book designer’s point of view, the tablets are two pages—a spread. Form-wise this is perfect—attention is focused only on the two tablets; nothing more is needed.

Yet the Torah is not contained on a series of tablets or pages, it is on a roll. So where is our attention directed?

Open the Torah scroll to a single column and that is what we see. Open it two columns, three, four, and our attention suddenly opens to the entire beautiful calligraphic panorama before us.

As time passes the scroll becomes more modern. As an information system, the scroll is a forerunner to many of our modern information systems that also work by revolving mechanisms: computer hard drives and DVD players. We scroll down our computers only reluctantly, hoping what we need is in the opening screen. But unlike the monitor, the Torah scroll encourages us by its form to scroll across—to continue to read, visualize and, week after week, make the journey’s end.

Our brains are wired mostly for visual experience. It‘s a visual system that is ready for more. As you scroll through the Torah, names and places pass by and the mind makes connections. The scroll encourages the particular form of Jewish study that requires skipping from passage to passage, and from book to book. (So, add Web surfing to the claims of Jewish invention). The form helps the mind hold together as one the words, the verses and parashot from throughout the Torah.

For those whose task it is to the find the place in the Torah for their congregations, the scroll can be a curvilinear calendar, the position of the reading being associated with season or date. Many of us know that if the left side is small, then the end of the Jewish year is approaching and it is time to send out your Rosh HaShanah cards.

Even our Shavuot readings remind us of the scroll’s circularity. On this holiday, many read the liturgical poem Akdamut, which pays poetic homage to the endlessness of Torah. The end of each line ends with the Hebrew letters tav-alef (image, right), the final and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reminding us that when we get to the end of the scroll we begin anew.

Our culture places high value on creating whole designed environments. In restaurants, hotels, theaters and homes, we surround ourselves with music, lighting, art and colors. We admire the seamless and the artful motif.

The scroll, the Torah, is a gateway to a whole environment as well. It unrolls in so many ways, and as it does, we can become enveloped by its words and texture, and understand that indeed everything is in it.

It is said that on the first night of Shavuot, at midnight, the heavens open.

This year, imagine they unroll.

Edmon J. Rodman, a book and toy designer, designed “Mitkadem” and “Jewish Holidays Building Blocks” and is the author of “Nomo, the Tornado Who Took America By Storm.” He is a Torah reader and occasional roller at the Movable Minyan. Rodman built a pyramid of matzah last Pesach

—Jewish Telegraphic Agency

On 27 May, 2007, 10 Sivan, 5767. The United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica, celebrated the arrival of a new sefer torah. The torah was carried by Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi from Jerusalem. They were met at the Tinson Pen airport in Kingston. The rabbi and the torah preceded the motorcade through the city to the Jewish Heritage Centre in Kingston. The scroll was then taken into the synagogue Shaare Shalom. Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi completed the writing of the torah. Then the sefrei torah were taken out of the ark and paraded in a semi-circle. The congregation exploded in joy with dancing and clapping of hands. This was followed by a service of thanksgiving.