Blending Caribbean sun and Jewish history in Curacao

(Erika Pfeifer Leviant photo)

In which sunny, warm foreign country can you speak English and Yiddish to most of the Jewish residents?

No, it’s not Israel we speak of, it’s Curacao, a Caribbean island that features beaches, azure water, cool breezes for sailing and beautiful weather, that’s only a five-hour flight from Toronto. Located just atop the northern tip of South America, Curacao is basically flat with some rocky hills scattered here and there.

It is on this island that one will find a small Jewish community of 350 that dates back almost 400 years.

The first Jewish immigrants began to arrive in Curacao in the mid-1650s. They came mostly from the Netherlands, where they had settled after being persecuted and expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal several years later. Those Sephardic Jews founded Congregation Mikve Israel in the capital city, Willemstad, and built a synagogue in 1732, the oldest shul in the Western Hemisphere that’s been in continuous use.

In the beautiful Sephardic synagogue, services are held every Friday night at 6:30 and Saturday morning at 10. The building’s floor is made of sand, which serves as a reminder of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forced to pray in secret and had to muffle their footfalls on a floor of sand.

An old Jewish custom at the synagogue is to light the hundreds of candles on four large chandeliers on Yom Kippur; the board members and others in the congregation wear top hats and tails during the service.

Mikve Israel, which doesn’t have a rabbi, is served by a cantor who acts as its spiritual leader. To attend Shabbat services at Mikve Israel, it is best to call ahead, as one man who had walked half an hour on Shabbat morning to pray at the shul was apparently denied entry by a guard, something that’s virtually unheard of in the Jewish world.

The synagogue is now more of a tourist attraction. With the younger generation going to study abroad and rarely returning, the Sephardic community is dwindling.

It was not until the early 20th century that migrants from Poland, Romania and other eastern European countries arrived in Curacao and formed the current Ashkenazic community. They pray in a residential area of Willemstad, in the stunning, modern, glass-domed synagogue, Shaarei Tsedek.


The Ashkenazim had been without a rabbi for a few years and congregants  now say that they are fortunate to have Refoel Silver, a young Chabad rabbi who has energized the community. Although most of the members of this congregation are not observant, they do want to have a traditional shul.

Inside the Mikveh Israel (Erika Pfeifer Leviant photo)

On Friday nights, Rabbi Silver’s wife, Chani Silver, prepares a dinner at their home and usually host at least 15 guests. It is here that we discovered quite a number of Yiddish speakers. After morning services on Shabbat, there is a munificent Kiddush for all the worshippers. We experienced all this thanks to the Silvers’ warmth and hospitality, for as soon as Rabbi Silver heard that we were coming, he immediately invited us to spend Shabbat at his home.

No kosher meat is available on the island, but many supermarkets carry an array of kosher packaged and canned goods. In view of this, Rabbi Silver and a few other people are exploring the feasibility of opening a vegetarian restaurant.

Curacaoans speak four languages: English, Dutch, Spanish and the local language, Papiemento, which has elements of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and Afro-Caribbean. Almost everyone is fluent in English. White descendants of the Dutch colonizers make up 10 per cent of the population and 90 per cent of the residents are black descendants of African slaves.

Since blacks had such close proximity to Jews – women working in Jewish kitchens, men working as assistants in the shops – we wondered if any Jewish expressions had filtered into Papiamento. So we consulted our friend, David Serphos, whose family has a long history in Curacao, and who kindly showed us around the island. He said that some Jewish words have indeed found their way into the local language, such as “horban” (“destruction” in Hebrew) for “calamity,” or “bad situation”; “ganap” (from the Hebrew, ganav) meaning “to steal”; “goy” (no translation needed); and “panim” (Hebrew for “face”) – as in, “I don’t like his panim,” meaning, “I don’t trust him.”

Since the black population had such close ties to the Jewish community, they unwittingly picked up some Jewish customs. For instance, when someone in the community dies, many black people change their dishes for eight days. They also light an eight-day candle and, on the anniversary of the death, they light a nine-day memorial candle.

These customs were obviously influenced by Jewish practices, but after three or four generations of use, many locals thought these traditions stemmed from Africa.

For three days during our stay, we were fortunate to have veteran tour leader Emlyn Pietersz as our guide. He himself encapsulates some of Curacao’s multi-ethnic diversity: his father was a black Anglican from New York and his mother was a Polish Jew.

He told us about a fascinating “Jewish” custom that he had observed a number of times: when a Jew knowingly violates the Sabbath, or a Jewish holiday, and goes into his shop, he opens the door, turns around and enters backwards, symbolically confirming that he has turned a day of rest into a day of labour. Although Jews have varying customs regarding opening their stores on Rosh Hashanah, when it came to Yom Kippur, every single shop was closed.

Willemstad, the capital city of Curacao, with its colourful pastel houses, is one of the marvels of the island, which is rightly designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As one explores the city, one is never far from water. Occasionally, huge cruise ships can be seen in the harbour. Up until recently, one of the city’s major tourist attractions was a floating market run by Venezuelans who would travel the 75 kilometres by boat from Caracas to sell fresh produce. But in January, Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro halted all trade, stranding the poor fruit and vegetable vendors in Curacao.

For a week in February, Willemstad sizzles with a colourful and lively Carnival. Men, women and children dress in costumes, while music and marching bands fill the streets, creating a joyous atmosphere that’s similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

One of the island’s beaches. (Erika Pfeifer Leviant photo)

Wherever one looks in Curacao, there is a beach. There are beaches for snorkeling, diving, sunbathing and swimming. One of the marvels of the island’s climate is that it generally stays within the 27-30 C range. And Curacao is so perfectly located that it does not suffer the ravages of hurricanes, as other islands in the Caribbean do.

Yet its greatest asset is its people. They are warm, happy, helpful and have a natural grace and amicability.

Curt Leviant is the author of the critically acclaimed novels King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son. Erika Pfeifer Leviant writes frequently about travel.