Cemetery excavations reveal complicated Jamaican Jewish past

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Click photo to download. Caption: Pictured are headstones recovered from lost Jewish cemeteries that were relocated to the front of Jamaica's only active synagogue, Shaare Shalom in Kingston. Credit: Maayan Jaffe.

Click photo to download. Caption: Pictured are headstones recovered from lost Jewish cemeteries that were relocated to the front of Jamaica’s only active synagogue, Shaare Shalom in Kingston. Credit: Maayan Jaffe.

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

Marina Delfos is on a mission. Working with a group of people who come to Jamaica each year through Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions and a handful of local volunteers, she is helping to take inventory of the area’s Jewish gravestones, trying to make sense of the 360-year-old and oft-forgotten Jamaican Jewish past.

This past March, Delfos struck stone while she was on the Way Back When (Black River Heritage Tour) trip with Allison Morris.

“I knew there had to be a cemetery in [the town of] Black River,” said Delfos, who with Morris, a seventh-generation resident of Black River, began inquiring about where the historic Jewish community would have resided there. She asked one elderly man on a bicycle if he knew where they might have resided, and he took the group into the backyard of a neighboring home a few feet away, where there were three Jewish tombstones.

Delfos had to pull back the brush and shift a heavy bed of leaves to read the tombs’ inscriptions. But before leaving the backyard, she had photographs of what she assumes is likely just a corner of a once-larger plot. It’s common in Jamaica to find homes or other buildings built on Jewish cemeteries—marking island development, on the one hand, and Jewish assimilation, intermarriage, and migration on the other.

Click photo to download. Caption: The newest Jewish cemetery discovered in Jamaica is in the town of Black River. Here, one graver maker, belonging to Hyman Cohen, has a pair of hands making the symbol of the kohen (Jewish high priest). Credit: Nicole Ryan.

Click photo to download. Caption: The newest Jewish cemetery discovered in Jamaica is in the town of Black River. Here, one graver maker, belonging to Hyman Cohen, has a pair of hands making the symbol of the kohen (Jewish high priest). Credit: Nicole Ryan.

While in the 1800s there were as many as 3,000 Jews living in Jamaica, today there are under 400 at the highest count.

Among the Black River graves is a marker belonging to Hyman Cohen. His tomb has an intricate drawing of the hands of a kohen (high priest). The others belong to two young Friedeberg women, presumably a mother and daughter.

“It seems [the Friedebergs] died shortly after arriving on the island, as fever was rampant in Black River in those days, being that the town is located on the edge of mangroves and swamps,” explained Delfos.

In January 2015, a new team of volunteers led by New York architect Rachel Frankel will further excavate the Black River cemetery, so it can be measured and inventoried.

The Jamaican Jewish cemetery project started in 2007, a few years after Jamaican Jewish genealogist Ainsley Henriques approached Frankel, who had been documenting Jewish cemeteries in Suriname, about coming to …read more
Source: JNS.org

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