On the Historical Presence of Jews in the Americas

The AP has an interesting, if sad, story on the fading away of an historic Jewish cemetery in Curação. The cemetery has been there since the mid-1700s, but the impacts of human environmental policy have sped up the natural process of erosion, as an antiquated and polluting oil refinery nearby spews chemicals and byproducts into the air that are destroying the headstones and are painful on the eyes and lungs of visitors (as well as of the poor who live near the refinery).

Many unfamiliar with the region are unaware that Jews have lived in the Americas for centuries. As the article points out, many fled from Spain and Portugal (who expelled Jews in 1492 and 1497, respectively), superficially becoming “New Christians,” or Jews who converted to Christianity publicly but who continued their Jewish practices clandestinely. Relocation to the Americas provided greater distance from Church officials who persecuted Jews and a little more (though not total) flexibility and leeway to continue Judaic cultural traditions.

But those were not the only reasons Jewish people ended up in the Americas. There was a not-insignificant wave of Jewish migration to the western hemisphere in the 1600s, when the Dutch began to expand their empire. Between 1630 and 1654, the Dutch occupied Northeastern Brazil, where they hoped to produce their own sugar and expand their global commercial empire; they also demonstrated a greater degree of religious tolerance than the Portuguese in Brazil had, allowing freedom of religion. As a result, by the mid-1600s, the first synagogue in the Americas, the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, was operating in Recife. Although the Portuguese finally expelled the Dutch in 1654, they remained in the hemisphere, transplanting their recently-acquired knowledge of sugar production to the Caribbean in places like Suriname and islands like St. Maarten and Curação. As a result, Jewish peoples settled throughout the new Dutch territories in the western hemisphere; they even ended up in the city of New Amsterdam, where the investors of the Dutch West India Company overrode Director-General Peter Stuyvestant’s opposition to Jews in what by the end of the 1600s would be known as New York. Though often overlooked for the larger numbers of African slaves who were forced to migrate to the Americas, Jews played a not-insignificant role in colonial culture throughout the continents, making their marks on the landscape, economies, and cultures of the Americas. The cemetery in Curação is a powerful reminder of that presence and historical role in the colonial Americas, a reminder that is sadly but inextricably disappearing from the physical historical record.

The site of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue in Recife, Pernambuco. The synagogue was built during the Dutch occupation of Northeast Brazil from 1630-1654, and is believed to be the first synagogue in North or South America.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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