Wed | Dec 7, 2016

Quest to trace roots - A volunteer initiative catalogues Jewish graves

Published:Sunday | January 25, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Paul H. Williams, Contributor

It was at The United Congregation of Israelites' cemetery at Orange Street, 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.

GRAVE MARKERS

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 Hunts Bay cemetery, Black River and
Alligator Pond in St
Elizabeth.

Photos by Paul H.
Williams