An astonishing exhibition of photographs at the Gershman Y brings Caribbean Jewish life to light.
Not that long after Columbus claimed it for Spain, and not long before the colonists cried out “The British are coming!” the Jews arrived in the New World as well.
More specifically, the Caribbean.
Driven out of parts of Europe by religious persecution — many of them by the Spanish Inquisition blessed by the same King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who funded Columbus’ expedition — these religious refugees found themselves in this new land. A melting pot of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and other cultures were able to establish themselves throughout the islands, including Jamaica, Barbados, Curacao, Suriname, St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Aruba.
Almost 500 years since the first Jewish settlers arrived in the Caribbean — dates are somewhat imprecise on individuals’ arrivals, but the first congregation was founded in Curacao in 1651 — the remnants of the synagogues they built, the cemeteries where they buried their loved ones and other Jewish artifacts that have survived the ravages of time have been put on display by photographer Wyatt Gallery. “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean,” the culmination of a six-year project, is open to the public seven days a week at no cost from now until Sept. 11 at the Gershman Y.
“I’ve been photographing spiritual and religious places in the Caribbean since 1999,” explained the 40-year-old Gallery, who stumbled upon the first of these treasures while on assignment for the New York Times in 2009. “It started when I came upon a synagogue in Curacao.
“When I went inside, it just floored me how majestic it was: the chandeliers, the mahogany wood, the high ceiling, the sand-covered floors. That made me curious: ‘Why is this here? What were the Jews doing here?’ ”
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Many of the Jews who came from Europe were people of means, which enabled them to establish and run successful businesses in their new communities. Later, some of these entrepreneurs allied themselves with the colonists to help fund the American Revolution, providing them not only with funding but goods and gunpowder as well.
But a small segment found a different niche. Some of these Jews became privateers, who would fight for the highest bidding country against other principalities. Others used their connections to sell the booty plundered by pirates from warships to those on nearby islands. It is believed that the legendary pirate Jean Laffite, in fact, was Jewish.
For the most part, though, the Jews of the Caribbean were not much different from their descendants. Their story inspired Gallery to not only put together this exhibit but a book he intends to publish next year.
“It definitely surprised me,” said Gallery, whose mother is Jewish, “how strong these Jewish communities of the Caribbean, which were around much longer than the ones in the United States, were. They were successful communities and there still are active Jewish congregations and local historians as well. They say the people there are still very dedicated to keep communities going. They’re just smaller than they were.”
Which means the manpower needed to maintain their synagogues and their graveyards at the same time simply isn’t there. One of the most powerful depictions in Gallery’s series is the deterioration of the headstones and the grounds surrounding them from neglect, coupled with natural forces. Considering that the custom was to bury the person below the earth, but to have a flat headstone rising above ground, only adds to the dilemma.
“I don’t want to compare them to disaster areas,” said Gallery, who has traversed the globe to photograph disaster areas like Haiti, Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami region. “But I will say the damage occurring to these cemeteries is every bit as serious and the information they contain and history is in jeopardy of being lost. The elements of nature, the sun beating down on it in different places, are part of the cause. Then there’s pollution, plus vandalism over the years.
“But another problem is money. Communities are dwindling rapidly and don’t have the finances or resources to keep up on their own.”
Gallery, who grew up in Philadelphia and attended Penn Charter, would like to do his part. He intends to use some of the proceeds from the exhibition, which will open in New York early next year, along with a portion of his book sales, to help defray some of those costs.
He is also hoping to attain sponsors to help out, along with those interested in making a donation. Copies of the photos in the exhibit are for sale, which can be purchased through his website, jewishtreasuresofthecaribbean.com.
For Gallery, this experience has touched him personally in a far deeper way than he could’ve possibly imagined and brought him closer to his Jewish identity. “For me to trace our history has been an amazing experience,” said Gallery, who now lives in Miami. “It made me have more respect for what Jews have gone through and have much more pride. My grandfather used to tell me, ‘Our history is everything. Know the history of your people.’ I was very honored to play my part to record this history, which is mostly unknown. I’m passing this down to everybody. I want the book and the exhibition to galvanize other people’s interest to be able to renovate the cemeteries. I’m trying to raise awareness.
“This is the story of the birth of Judaism in the New World. The first Jews in the U.S. came from these communities. It’s very important their history be preserved.”
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