“In the name of God Amen I Judith Baruh Alvares of the parish of Port Royal in the island of Jamaica widow being in an ill state of health but of sound mind… do make this my last will and testament.”
Jamaica was once home to a thriving Jewish community, and its citizens have been given new life by scholar Stanley Mirvis. As detailed in his The Jews of Eighteenth-Century Jamaica: A Testamentary History of a Diaspora in Transition, Jamaica’s Jews led lives that were both starkly different and yet similar to those of more well-known Diaspora communities. Largely built upon information gleaned from last wills and testaments between 1673 and 1815, Mirvis documents how the Jews of Jamaica achieved great heights economically, but were not perceived to be fully white or fully free; they were subject to suspicion and virulent antisemitism from various strata within the Jamaican social hierarchy.
Mirvis utilizes documentary history to overcome the devastation wrought by earthquakes and fires that had destroyed the major synagogues in Kingston, Port Royal, and St. Jago de la Vega in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He vividly portrays the community members, their family dynamics, economic practices, and ancestral customs. Many originally hailed from Portugal, some from Dutch Brazil, others from Europe (possibly from London’s Portuguese Jewish community), while others had already been living on the island under Spanish rule, before it had been conquered by England in 1655. Though they did not receive voting rights until 1831 after an extensive lobbying effort, many of the Jews of Jamaica utilized its relatively tolerant environment to reclaim their previously lost Jewish identity, transitioning from crypto-Jews to rabbinic Jews, free from the Inquisition’s grasp. However, despite efforts at full integration, both within Judaism and within Jamaican society, they remained, in Mirvis’ words: “Being at one and the same time diasporic and localized, both embedded and transcendent.”
The Jewish men of Jamaica served the required military service in defense of the island. A minority of them owned plantations and bequeathed their slaves to their descendants, though more typically Jews and free people of color formed a political bloc against white plantation owners. At the same time, they also sought to preserve their unique traditions, often led by a hakham who had arrived from more Jewishly robust locales such as Amsterdam. Despite the claims of a recent work attempting to profile “Jewish pirates of the Caribbean,” Mirvis argues only one Jamaican Jew, an Ashkenazi diamond merchant named Benjamin Franks, is known to have joined a pirate crew (though he later disavowed participating in any illegal activity).
There were baseless accusations of malfeasance, a thin veneer for Jew hatred. Groups of merchants, Mirvis informs us, pushed to exclude Jewish traders from full economic participation, stating that “Jews eat us and our children out of all trade … we do not want them at Port Royal … they have made Port Royal their Goshen,” an allusion to the Jewish enclave in biblical Egypt. For decades, despite an official policy of religious tolerance, ultimately unsuccessful efforts had been undertaken to install a tax solely on the Jewish community. And in 1783, a drunken non-Jewish mob had to be dispersed outside of Yom Kippur services in Kingston. Like in so many other times and places, Mirvis shows, the Jews of Jamaica fought for faith, freedom, and family in the face of constant challenges.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.