About 6 years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to a Bar Mitzva in Barbados.
Landing at the airport, we were picked up by our host and promptly taken to their home, which turned out to be one of the the most exquisite Grand Mansions we have ever visited.
There was no need for air conditioning – The breeze from the ocean filled the place with fragrant fresh air. The well manicured gardens had several patios, all laid out with white sofas and cushy arm chairs, the sheer white curtains floating like veils in in the cross-wind, protecting us from the sun or the occasional sun shower.
While my young son gave the Bar Mitzva Boy his final tune up, I joined our hostess to a Jewish Women’s group soiree. To my surprise I met some amazing worldly women curious, sophisticated and before long we delved into deep philosophical conversations, lots of laughter and an afternoon filled with intellectual depth, and a bunch of new friends.
The next day we were invited out to the beach with the family and some of their close friends. As we went fly fishing, I kept asking questions about the island and it’s Jewish heritage.The party contained the president of the Temple, a brilliantly entertaining story teller. He had become a constant, inseparable fixture henceforth, and for our entire stay, he shared with passion and pride all that is Jewish on the island.
We were shown the most magical Jewish cemetery,dating back to the 17th century which according to all accounts is the oldest cemetery in the Americas. Many of the stones were overgrown with moss and so time worn, that it was hard to decipher the writing they bore. Yet on closer inspection I managed to figure out the descriptive text, many of very young children, mothers who died in childbirth, man and women whose story was told in such a way that one felt an emotional connection and empathy. The most outstanding stone belonged to the Mohel of the congregation, sporting a pair of scissors in the decaying moss covered stone, decipherable easily, and telling the story of a man who was amongst other things the dentist and medicine man of the congregation.
I was stunned to find out that the capital city of Bridgetown, was sanctuary of one of of the oldest synagogues in the Western hemisphere .the sun filtered in through the ornate windows, sparkling on the chandeliers and intricate wood lattice work on the balcony. I felt elated, connected to our roots and wanting to know more. I was captivated and determined to know more.
As it happened, the Jews arrived here from Spain and Portugal, escaping the Spanish Inquisition, which forced them to pose as Christians, while practicing their Judaism in secret.
They were Sephardics who, after Britain and Holland allowed these "New Christians", purveyors of wealth and culture, to settle in the colonies they wrested from the Spanish.
There was another influx when Portugal recaptured Brazil, and the now openly practicing Jews, who entered the sugar trade in a monumental way, were expelled from Brazil, ending up in Barbados. The Jewish population, although not large in number, became a very influential force, bringing with them technology for the sugar plantation from Brazil, and eventually becoming monied merchants and had a vast impact on the local scenery and industry. For instance, James Drax, an elite Barbadian planter who worked more than 700 acres in Barbados, visited the Sephardic colony in Brazil in 1640, and brought back with him two key innovations: a triple-roller sugar mill for crushing the sugar cane, and copper cauldrons for boiling the cane juice to get crystals, writes Ian Williams in his book Rum (Nation Books, 2005). Williams credits the Jews for transferring that technology to Barbados, which they likely did as investors in sugar plantations they did not own. Watson’s ledgers show both investments in sugar plantations and certainly, handling the trade in sugar and rum. They built a Mikvah, synagogues and left a monumental mark on the island.
At this point, most of the families in Barbados are Ashkenazi, fleeing the holocaust and creating the kind of magic we witnessed.
Somehow, the experience of having researched and then encountered today’s flourishing members of our tribe, makes me feel nostalgic, happy and proud.