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  • Daniel Santacruz

Professor delves into rarely known chapter of Sefardic and South American history

By Daniel Santacruz

The Berakha v'Shalom synagogue and the cemetery were part of a community that settled in Suriname.
The Berakha v'Shalom synagogue and the cemetery (below) were part of the Suriname community (Courtesy).

One of the least known countries in the world, which many can’t even find on a map, was the scene of a unique chapter in Jewish history.

Suriname, originally an English colony, then Dutch, was for almost two centuries home to a thriving Jewish community made up mostly of Dutch-Portuguese origin that left an imprint in the country.

The Guianas, located north of South America, was Indian territory initially claimed by the Spanish and then beginning in the 17th century populated by small groups of other European colonists. All these colonies eventually became Dutch, with the exception of French Cayenne, currently known as French Guiana.  In the late 18th century, British troops occupied three Dutch Guiana colonies—Berbice, Demerara, Essequibo —that were never returned to the Netherlands and became British Guyana. Starting in the 1590s, Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Portugal found a home in Holland. The first Sefardi settlers arrived in Suriname in 1650s. Others, both Sefardim and Ashkenazim, came later from Brazil, Central and Eastern Europe and France via Amsterdam. 

The community prospered, owned sugar plantations and mills, as well as hundreds of slaves, some of whom were converted to Judaism. 

But what’s more important is that the community gained equal footing with the Protestants, who ruled the colony, and had territorial autonomy, said professor Aviva Ben-Ur, associate professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is now working on a book titled Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society: Suriname, 1651-1825

Professor Aviva Ben-Ur.
Professor Aviva Ben-Ur (Courtesy).

The latter year is marker of the decline of the community as it lost its autonomy.Jews began to colonize the Surinam River in the 1600s and in 1685 established Jodensavanne, or “Jews’ savannah,” about 10 kilometers from the capital, Paramaribo. A cemetery, Bet Haim, was established in Jodensavanne in 1685, followed by a synagogue, Berakha v’Shalom. Today, both lay in ruins. “Jodensavanne and its surrounding plantations collectively formed the largest agrarian Jewish settlement at the time,” said professor Ben-Ur. She is the author of Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History (New York University Press, 2009), as well as Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries of Suriname: Epitaphs (Hebrew Union College Press, 2009), Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries and Synagogues of Suriname: Essays (Hebrew Union College Press, 2012), both co-authored with New York architect Rachel Frankel. Her articles and reviews have appeared in journals such as Immigrants and Minorities; Jewish Social Studies; American Jewish History; American Jewish Archives; Jewish History; and Studies in Bibliography and Booklore. Research for Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society has taken her to London, Amsterdam and Suriname. Here are excerpts from the interview with professor Ben-Ur: Kolsefardim: Your first books on Suriname, Remnant Stones, were a survey of Jewish and African cemeteries published in two volumes. What triggered your interest in the Jewish history of that country? Aviva Ben-Ur: The topic actually came to me, literally. In 1997, as I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, Rachel Frankel, a New York architect I had never met, asked me to join her in Suriname’s rainforest to participate in the first comprehensive documentation of the Jewish community’s oldest material remains. I came along as the transcriber and translator of cemetery epitaphs, which were incised mainly in Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish. KS: The research for your new book, based on Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, English and Hebrew sources, seeks to respond to three questions. One of them has to do with autonomy. How did the Jews of Suriname negotiate with the colonial authorities for the autonomy they enjoyed? ABU: They did so with the upper hand. Starting in the 1650s, English, and by 1667, Dutch, colonial leaders were in desperate need of whites to settle areas on the frontier in order to generate wealth through tropical agriculture. At the same time these leaders required white settlement to fend off attacks by Indians and Maroons, Africans who escaped slavery and founded autonomous villages in the rainforest interior. Jews were thus in a strong negotiating position to request not only protection of their religious freedom, but also the privilege of governing themselves with virtually no interference from the colonial government. KS: As you said in the book’s outline, in Suriname Portuguese Jews converted Black slaves or raised as Jews children born of Jews and slaves. Apparently, this practice had the blessing of the rabbis of that period (the late 1700s). Do you know of any opposition to that practice? ABU: There were competing interests and opinions in the Jewish community regarding the conversion of African-origin people to Judaism. The Jewish government, called the Mahamad, early on tried to discourage the inclusion of such individuals in the community, for example by socially demoting the person responsible for the circumcision. At the same time, the Jewish government understood that there was a vital economic necessity for inclusion, particularly in the early years when there was a dearth of white Jewish women in the colony. Once converted to Judaism, an African son or daughter could inherit his or her father’s property and ensure the longevity of the family wealth. This did not shield African-origin Jews from the stigma of a slave past, however. KS: What was the relationship between born Jews and mulatto Jews, also known as Eurafrican Jews? ABU: By the second half of the 18th century, most Eurafrican Jews were actually born Jews, since American slave societies practiced uterine slavery: a child born to an enslaved mother automatically acquired her enslaved status (the father’s legal status was irrelevant). Roman and Jewish law converged in this case. In other words, an enslaved girl of a Jewish owner who mamumitted and brought his daughter into the Jewish faith went on to give birth to children who were automatically Jewish. The relationship between white Jews and Eurafrican Jews changed considerably over time and varies according to context and time period. Until the mid-18th century, Eurafrican Jews seem not to have been excessively stigmatized and many enjoyed status as jehidim, a Hebrew term referring to tax-paying members of the Jewish community who had a white status. After that point, Eurafrican Jews seem to have been automatically accorded a second-class status as congregantes, a Portuguese word referring in this context to a member of the community who was not permitted to pay taxes due to his or her African ancestry, had to be buried at the margins of the Jewish cemetery, and could not receive synagogue honors. By the mid-18th century, Jewish legislation made it possible for Eurafrican families to restore their jahid status if they married white partners for two consecutive generations. It is highly probable that by the first decades of the 19th century, most of the colony’s leading Jewish families could trace their ancestry back to an enslaved African mother.  KS: And that leads me to the second question you are trying to answer in your research. How was the relationship between Jews and slaves in the colony? ABU: The relationship was no different than that between white Christians and enslaved Africans, with a few exceptions. Unlike white Christians, Jews imparted both their religion and their ethnicity to the progeny they wished to convert to Judaism. That meant that most Eurafrican Jews spoke Portuguese, not the Afro Creole language Sranan Tongo [spoken by descendants of slaves and very popular], as their strongest language and bore Portuguese Jewish first and last names. It also appears that Jews left a linguistic imprint on the general African population that does not find a white Christian parallel. Portuguese forms a significant part of Sranan Tongo and especially the Maroon language Saramakka. Dutch [the official language], by contrast, did not have as strong an imprint on these Afro-Creole languages. KS: Jewish autonomy in Suriname was a remarkable achievement in Jewish history. Why has its study been neglected by Jewish historians? ABU: There are some wonderful books on Suriname’s Jewish community, the pioneering one being Robert Cohen’s Jews in Another Environment (1991). Jonathan Schorsch (2004), Wieke Vink (2008), and Natalie Zemon Davis (2012) have also written archivally-grounded studies that focus, unlike Cohen, on the theme of slavery. The Jews’ relationship to slavery, namely the fact that they were permitted to convert their enslaved progeny to Judaism and mandate that their slaves rest on the Jewish Sabbath, is of course a reflection of the remarkable autonomy Jews enjoyed in the colony. But you are correct that autonomy has not been the focus of scholars preoccupied with Jewish Suriname, nor is Suriname considered among historians who have written on Jewish autonomy. A major reason, I think, is that there is not a strong historiographical tradition of early modern Jews in the Americas. Most scholars who deal with American Jews focus on the late 19th- or 20th century United States. Also, studies on Jewish autonomy have been country-specific, rather than comparative. This helps to explain why the remarkable examples of Suriname, and Curaçao [another former Dutch colony] as well, are absent from considerations of historic Jewish autonomy in Spain, Poland and in Hungary. KS: Do you already have a publisher? ABU: My book proposal is now under consideration for publication.

© Daniel Santacruz  August 2015

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