Quest to trace roots - a volunteer initiative catalogues Jewish graves
It was at The United Congregation of Israelites' cemetery at Orange St, the only Jewish cemetery in Jamaica where people are still being buried, where Arts and Education caught up with a group of volunteers from the United States on Sunday, January 18.
They were here for a week to catalogue Jewish graves. They have been coming to the island for the past seven years under the 'aegis' of Ainsley Henriques of The United Congregation of Israelites, and co-organiser, Rachel Frankel.
There were 14 volunteers this time around, including some who have been coming every year since, and some Jamaica-born.
The volunteers are provided by Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions, operated by Ann Hersh, whom Frankel approached in 1997 to get volunteers while she was documenting Jewish heritage sites in Suriname. Frankel, an eastern European Jew, is a licensed architect with her own practice in New York.
It was on her first paid vacation, in Suriname, that Frankel literally stumbled upon the remnants of a 17-century Jewish settlement site, including a synagogue and a cemetery. It was a serendipitous moment, which was to be the beginning of a decade-long project.
She set out to research and document that and others sites. While still documenting the site she met Henriques, who suggested that she do the same in Jamaica. Frankel liked the idea, and so cataloguing Jewish graves in Jamaica is now an ongoing project. They had already visited the Orange St cemetery, last year. But what are Frankel and the volunteers actually looking for, and why?
"It's interesting, sometimes when people do work, they are looking for something, other times, people are just finding what's there and then learning things ..., Frankel told Arts and Education, "We are documenting ... ; this is an outdoor archive."
In these outdoor archives in Suriname and Jamaica, Frankel has found that in Suriname, the Jews created a colony within a colony 'up the river'. "They were planters, they had their own government, they had their own militia ... their town was actually based on Jewish principles, Jewish town planning if you will," Frankel said, "Over time, the community moved to the capital city, and became a part of the urban fabric."
One of the glaring differences between the epitaphs in Jamaica and Suriname is that in Jamaica the very early ones were trilingual, written in English, Portuguese or Spanish and Hebrew on the same headstone. "Very early they [the Jews] were speaking English, and they recognised that their progeny and loved ones might not understand Hebrew or Portuguese and Spanish, and need to read English, and that their children and grandchildren would be English speaking," Frankel said.
The information which Frankel and the volunteers gather from this extensive research should be quite useful to people who want to trace their ancestry, and learn more about them. The data collected in Suriname is now a voluminous book. But those collected in Jamaica will be uploaded to a "digitised humanities website, a digital virtual archive/cemetery".
The data will also be used for conservation purposes. "We are creating the base inventory for conservation management, and we are creating this archive for descendants, for scholars ...; the hope is to do conservation ... ," Frankel said.
To achieve the objectives the volunteers are looking at types of grave markers - horizontal, companion horizontal base, vertical, companion foot marker, table tomb, obelisk/monument, above-ground tomb or vault; grave-marker material - marble, granite, slate, brick, plastered masonry, concrete; grave outlines - stones, shells, cast iron; the size of grave marker material upon which epitaph appears; the overall size of grave marker; design elements and carver signature.
The aesthetics of these grave and grave markers are also noted. The Jews, it seems, go all the way in marking the final homes of their loved ones, sometimes with markers which some people might say are ostentatious, but grave art is important to them.
The first set of Jews to arrive in Jamaica came in 1530. They were the Sephardics from Spain and Portugal who had fled the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition.
Many more, including the Ashkenazi from England and eastern Europe were to follow. Spanish Town, then called St Jago de la Vega, Port Royal and Kingston were the areas in which they first settled, in that particular order.
Over time, they constructed synagogues in many locations. Some were destroyed by fire and earthquake, and were rebuilt. Others merged to become one. They also had their own cemeteries, the first at Hunts Bay, established in the 16th century.
The Hunts Bay cemetery was the one used by the Port Royal Jews, who transported their dead by boat across Kingston Harbour.
Twenty-one Jewish cemeteries were eventually established in Jamaica.
Some, such as the first Kingston Jewish cemetery, were completely destroyed, and exist no more. This first Kingston cemetery was established in 1714 between North and Charles streets, and Love and Mark lanes.
After that burial ground was desecrated, over 200 of the elaborate horizontal grave markers were removed.
Some are lying on the ground in the memorial garden at The United Congregation of Israelites, at 32 Duke St, while others were placed along the walls of The United Congregation of Israelites' cemetery at Orange St. It is the only Jewish cemetery in Jamaica where people are still being buried.
The huge horizontal slabs that were removed from the first cemetery in Kingston were imported. Their trilingual stylish inscriptions are still very legible, telling the stories of people who died 200 years ago and more.
Cataloguing Jewish graves then is for ancestral, social history, conservation and aesthetic reasons. On this trip, the group also visited the Elletson Road cemetery, Port Royal, the Hunt's Bay cemetery, Black River and Alligator Pond, in St Elizabeth.