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Who knew there is a Jewish cemetery in Jamaica's Montego Bay?

by Rhonda Spivak January 9, 2018

Most Jewish tourists go to Jamaica to soak up the sun and enjoy the pristine Caribbean water, not to find any cemeteries.

But a few years back,I was touring Jamaica's Montego Bay, when I asked my driver if he knew how to find an old Jewish cemetery that I had read about on the internet, which is on the city's outskirts.

It was a small cemetery that would be very easy to miss unless you knew its whereabouts, which is on Gloucester avenue, near Royal Decameron Cornwall beach (someone had chosen a nice location for the cemetery) . It was a jarring feeling walking through a cemetery, knowing there was no living Jewish community there anymore. As such, the cemetery recorded the long forgotten Jewish past in Jamaica. But the grass was not overgrown, such that I surmised that someone was tending to the cemetery.

Montego Bay is Jamaica's second largest city and at one time had a vibrant Jewish community which no longer exists, and the the older of the two cemeteries has disappeared altogether.

Why did Jews first come to Jamaica? Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, mainly Portugal, fled to Jamaica in order to avoid the Spanish Inquisition about 1530 C.E. since at this time, the the beautiful island was a Spanish territory. In Jamaica, Jews professed to being Catholic, but they were able to practice their Jewish observances in secret more easily than they were able to do so in the Iberian Peninsula.The British navy sailed into in 1655, Jamaica, led by a Crypto-Jewish pilot, Campoe Sabbatha. When the British conquered the island from Spain, the Jews began to openly practiced their religion, and over time the number of Jews on the island grew as Jews from other Spanish colonies came to Jamaica.(This history is outlined in http://www.kulanu.org/jamaica/jews-of-jamaica.php)

I meandered about the small cemetery, noticing that the tombstones in it faced east. Facing east followed the Sephardic custom of facing toward Jerusalem such that that when the Messiah comes, the dead will be able to rise from their plots and head to the Holy Land without having to turn around.

But the Jewish community of Montego Bay disappeared since most of Jamaica's Jews left for Britain, the USA and Canada between 1962, when Jamaica became independent, and the 1970s, when there was a lot of political unrest. By 1978 there were only 350 remaining Jews in all of Jamaica.

I noticed that the approximately 10 readable headstones at the cemetery were in English only, without any Hebrew writing ( One example was the tombstone of Edmund Hart who was born in 1974 and died in 1946). The lack of Hebrew writing showed that the knowledge of Hebrew was weak and had disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century, as assimilation increased.

Research has shown that when slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1838, Jews intermarried with emancipated slaves at a rapid rate, but one can find little record of non-Jewish wives or offspring in the Jewish cemeteries. http://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2014/7/4/cemetery-excavations-reveal-complicated-jamaican-jewish-past#.WjVqj9-nGUk=

While Jews of Jamaica did not own plantations, they did own slaves. Irwin Berg has written in an article about Jamaica's Jews that " After 1835 intermarriage and other unions became so common that Dr. Lewis Ashenheim in 1844 predicted that the Jewish community of Jamaica was headed into extinction. John Bigelow, who traveled to Jamaica in 1850, a bare 15 years after slavery was abolished, had never before seen a black Jew. In his travelogue he wrote of his astonishment at the proportion of Jews who were 'of all colors.' " http://www.kulanu.org/jamaica/jews-of-jamaica.php

Walking around the cemetery, I wondered if there had been a synagogue in Montego Bay. Apparently, there had been one built in 1845, which was destroyed in 1912, but never rebuilt, another sign that the community was rapidly assimilating.

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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