The Jewish Community Of Curacao
In 1527 the Spanish took possession of Curacao. By the early 16th century they had determined that the island had little gold and not enough fresh water for the establishment of large farms; hence, they essentially abandoned it. It was therefore relatively easy for a Dutch fleet under the command of Johan van Walbeeck to conquer the island in 1634 for the Dutch West India Company, a quasi-private, government-backed company. Since Samuel Coheno served as an interpreter for van Walbeeck, he was most probably the first Jew in Curacao.
In 1651, Joao d’Ylan brought no more than 12 Jewish families from the Amsterdam Portuguese community to Curacao. Most of these settlers were originally from Spain and Portugal. They formed the initial nucleus of the Jewish community of Curacao. On February 22, 1652, the Dutch West India Company granted a considerable tract of land to Joseph Nunez da Fonseca, otherwise called David Nassi. As a result, the Jews lived on Plantation De Hoop (The Hope) and worked the land. This endeavor, however, was abandoned due to Curacao’s arid soil, and the Jews concentrated on trade.
It was only a matter of time before the Jewish community became so prosperous that almost the entire commerce of the island was in their hands.
When, in 1654, the Portuguese reconquered Brazil from the Dutch, all of those who openly practiced Judaism there left, fearing they would be persecuted by the Inquisition. Many of these refugees first returned to Amsterdam. In 1659 more than 70 of them[i]sailed for the New World to settle in Curacao. They brought with them considerable wealth. In addition, they brought with them a spiritual treasure – a sefer Torah from the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish Community.
In 1651 an improvised synagogue, named Congregation Mikve Israel (Hope of Israel), was set up in a small house. This first house of worship probably stood in the fields where the colonists had originally toiled. In 1692 the Jews were allowed to build a new synagogue. Thus, the Jews of Curacao were treated somewhat more liberally than the Jews residing in Curacao’s sister colony of New Netherland (New York). Services were held there in rented quarters until 1730, when Shearith Israel consecrated its first synagogue building on Mill Street in Lower Manhattan.
The first haham of this community was probably Rabbi Yeosiahu Pardo, son of David Pardo, haham of Amsterdam. Yeosiahu Pardo was a pupil of the famous Saul Levi Morteira, whose daughter he had married. In 1667 the younger Pardo became the first religious leader of the holy brotherhood Honen Dalim in Amsterdam. In (about) 1669 he became head of Yeshiva de Los Pinto, which had been founded in Rotterdam before being relocated to Amsterdam. In (about) 1674 he assumed leadership of Yeshiva Gemilut Hassadim, also located in the Amsterdam. That same year he was appointed haham of Curacao, remaining there until 1684 when he left to become haham of Jamaica.
Jewish Education In Curacao
Given that Haham Pardo had been educated at Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Amsterdam, it was not surprising that the yeshiva he oversaw in Curacao was conducted more or less along the lines of Etz Chaim. Both institutions stressed the teaching of halacha. There were six levels of classes, which in addition to Jewish law concentrated on the following subjects:
1. Introduction to reading (in Hebrew and Ladino) and berachot (benedictions);
2. Prayers with their respective melodies;
3. Parsha of the week with its translation into Ladino;
4. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), and Neviim (Prophets). These subjects were all translated into Ladino;
5. Rashi and writing;
6. Grammar, Gemara (Talmud)) and talmudic commentaries).
The Haham taught highest class. It’s noteworthy that students who came from poor homes received stipends from the community.
Religious Instruction Compulsory
The leaders of the Jewish community were strongly committed to making sure every Jewish boy received a Jewish education. As a result, in 1711 a regulation (haskamah) was passed requiring attendance at the medras, as the yeshiva classes were called, until age 16. Nonetheless, a number of parents decided to privately educate their sons. On the 21st of Sivan 5476 (1716) the executive committee of the congregation and its council attempted to put a stop to this practice by prohibiting members from conducting a private school during the hours the medras met. Anyone who did not follow this directive was to be punished by a minor form of excommunication and a fine of fifty pesos.
In 1716, when Joseph Abudiente neglected sending his son Yehudah to the medras, the haskamah of 1711 was invoked, with the result that both father and son were prohibited entry into the synagogue. Since Abudiente stubbornly refused to submit, he was dropped from the community rolls. But when this action did not bring about Abudiente’s compliance, community leaders went so far as to urge the governor of the island, Jonathan van Beuningen, to compel Yehudah’s attendance at the medras.
Duties And Obligations Of The Rubissim And Haham
The ruby, as a teacher in the medras was called, was required to regularly attend the medras. If a ruby was tardy, he had to pay a fine fixed at the discretion of thedirectors of the Talmud Torah which was deducted from his salary. Frequent absence on the part of a ruby could lead to his dismissal. The ruby accompanied his pupils to the tikun (the religious service conducted when a family moved into a new home), and he also was responsible for watching the boys in the synagogue.
In 5510 (1749-1750), during the rabbinate of Haham Samuel Mendes de Solas, there were at least five rubissim teaching in the yeshiva: Jeoshuah Touro, Guidon Mendes, Eliau Lopes, Jeoshua Hisquiao de Cordova, and Ishac, son of Haham de Solas. It is interesting to contrast the stress the Jewish community put on education with that of the gentile population. During 1762-1763 the Dutch West Indies Company maintained only one teacher in its service for the entire white non-Jewish population of the island.
Despite the tropical climate, the medras was in session year round. There was time off only on Fridays, Shabbosim, fast days, and for two or three days before each Yom Tov. No classes were held on Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed.
Girls received no formal instruction. Some wealthy families did hire tutors to teach their daughters reading, writing, arithmetic, and some religious subjects in their homes. Since these tutors were almost always men, instruction was given in the presence of a girl’s mother.
Adult Learning Organizations
Torah study did not end at 16 when a young man completed his course of instruction in medras. Following the example of their mother community in Amsterdam, the leaders of the Curacao Jewish community founded fraternal organizations known as hermandades. The members of these organizations regularly met, with the haham, on certain fixed days for Torah study. As a result, the hermandades were also referred to as “yeshibot.”
Records show that there were at least thirteen such yeshibot functioning at one time on the island. The hermandades were also involved in doing chesed work and they raised funds to assist the unfortunate and the poor. The community’s peak seems to have been reached in around 1800, when more than 2,000 Jews lived on the island.
It’s clear that the Jews who settled on this Caribbean island created a community that was committed to Torah, avodah, and gemilat chassadim.
This article is based in part on:
1) Notes on the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the United States, Guiana, and the Dutch and British West Indies During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Cardozo De Bethencourt, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1925.
2) The Jews in Curacao by G. Herbert Cone, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1902.
3) Jewish Education in Curacao (1692-1802) by Isaac Samuel Emmanuel, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1955.
These articles are available at http://ajhs.org/references/adaje.cfm.
Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at email@example.com.