Nidhe Israel Synagogue
In the last four months I have been to Barbados twice. I know that sounds a bit excessive; especially when it's not yet winter in Canada; but as a destination wedding planner who also books travel that's my job. I'm lucky enough to be allowed to go there on business; but the truth is Barbados holds a very special place in my heart.
Why does it hold a special place in my heart? Well it's because I'm Jewish. For almost 400 years Barbados has been a bit of a safe haven for Jews. In return the Jews have thanked the tiny island by being a huge part in helping Barbados become the prosperous epicenter of the Caribbean that it is.
Officially the Jews arrived in Barbados one year after the British in 1628. Unofficially, we were there much longer in the form of Marrano Jews. A Marrano Jew is a Spanish Jew that had been forcibly converted to Christianity by threat of death; but who secretly still practiced Judaism when the authorities weren't watching. In this case the Marrano Jews had arrived from Portugal after determining that life really wasn't that much safer for them after their conversions. That's the problem with threatening to kill someone unless they do what you want. The authorities knew the Jews had only converted because they didn't want to die and not because they believed in the Church. So off to Barbados the Marrano Jews went.
Barbados is named after the bearded fig tree which reminded the British of the Portuguese (Jews) they met upon landing on the island. Like the tree's the Portuguese men sported beards (sounds kind of Jewy of them, doesn't it?). Outside of Israel I can't think of another country in the world that derives it's name from Jews. Even with Israel it's more the other way around. We derive our name from the country; so as a Jew I have to say "Barbados I really love your name".
Equipment used to distill Rum
Now back to 1628 the year after the British arrived and the arrival of the first "official" Jewish community. These Jews were from Brazil and were themselves seeking refuge from people who would have preferred to see them dead. They brought with them skills, agricultural knowledge and technological advances that were at the time unique to Brazil. Specifically, sugarcane, coffee, and the technology that would later be used to distill a new product called rum. Yes, that's right; the three major products that were instrumental in creating an entire economy for Barbados; and eventually the Caribbean as a whole; came about because of the Jews. I think that's really neat.
The sad part of the story is that in order to maintain a viable sugarcane industry it required a huge workforce. That's when the British imported a workforce of slaves. Barbados was a British territory so Jews were not allowed to own slaves; which means thankfully they can't be accused of participating in this aspect of the sugarcane industry; but introducing an industry to Barbados that contributed to the slave trade is not an outcome the Jews could have anticipated or desired. There is no way the Jews could have competed against the Brit's massive "slave" workforce so they did what Jews do best; they adapted. They became the merchants, bankers and they were the leaders in the developing the spice trade. They encountered Anti-Semitism and persecution from the British; but all in all they thrived as successful businesspeople and contributed greatly to making Barbados what it was and is today.
During my last trip to Barbados a native Bajan remarked to me his displeasure regarding how the Jews were treated during Barbados early history. I was stunned. This kind and gentle man is the descendant of slaves. He was remarking on the injustice of Jews being taxed to high, occasionally being physically attacked, and having lies told about them. This mans ancestors were forcibly taken from their homeland, sold like a piece of meat, regularly beaten, and generally treated as inhumane. Compared to that the Jews of Barbados had everything to be thankful for. It's this type of dignity and compassion for people regardless of how much better off they are then them that makes me love the Bajan people. It's a mutual thing that we both have in common. He was thinking of the Jews while I was thinking of his ancestors. That's why together both cultures have created such a fabulous country.
Nidhe Israel Museum (Jewish Musuem)
Years later Barbados came to the rescue of Jews again. During World War II Barbados became a safe haven for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. The Jews felt comfortable there. By that time with the mix of Jews who had married outside their religion and Marrano Jews many native Bajans had Jewish last names. It's a fact that I've found noticeable 70 years later during my visits.
Not only are the Jews a vital part of Barbados history and culture; but Barbados has it's place in Jewish history as well. The oldest Synagogue in the America's and the Western Hemispheres first Mikvah can both be found in Bridgetown on a street often called Synagogue Lane. The Synagogue has been commemorated by the government of Barbados on a stamp. It's also proudly featured on the Barbados Tourism Authorities web site. When I first stopped people on the street to ask directions to Synagogue Lane I was thanked by huge smiles of excitement. Not every Bajan fully knows the history of the Bajan Jews; but they sure do seem to like them. This is not an island where an Anti-Semite would do well.
I highly recommend that anyone who visits Barbados visit the Jewish Museum. It doesn't matter if someone is Jewish because the museum holds fascinating gems of history that will touch many souls. In speaking with the manager of the museum, who is Catholic, I was told about many spiritual and miraculous happenings that have taken place on the property. There were stories of non-Jews who upon walking into the Mikvah building experienced such a dose of spirituality they instinctively asked to be Baptised in the water. There were stories of people discovering long lost relatives who happened to walk in off the street. There bigger miraculous stories that would take way to much space to write about. There were also many smaller stories exactly like the one I told the museums manager. The story is that my father who never enters a synagogue here at home used to religiously attend services in Barbados while on business trips there. It's a small story; but one that has always made me feel close to both the synagogues there. I was happy to learn it's not an unusual story. It seems that many people who would never think to attend services in their own city are drawn to the services held in Barbados.
The clean water of the Mikvah
The Mikvah was reopened in 2008. The water is very well taken care of. It has a clean, crisp look to it. The community doesn't use it as a working Mikvah. They have no intention to start using it; but I've been challenged to find the first bride willing to immerse herself in it. I make this plea to anyone reading. If you are Halachically Jewish, engaged, will let me book the travel, want to get married in the Bridgetown Synagogue, and are willing to be the first bride to immerse herself in the Western Hemisphere's oldest Mikvah I will donate my destination wedding planning services to you as a gift.
If you are interested in being this lucky bride please email me at sandra@mindlessSophistication.com so we can begin planning your Jewish destination wedding in Barbados.