We walked through the muggy jungle battling swarms of bizarre multicolored insects that had probably not yet been discovered by science. As I cleared the brush with a forceful swing of my machete, I wondered what it would have been like to live here 400 years ago when the first Jews arrived.
Wait, Jews in the jungle? What? Where did that happen?
The answer is Suriname, a tiny country on the northern coast of South America, tucked between Brazil, Guyana and French Guyana. In spite of having only 500,000 people, it has the most fascinating mix of cultures you will ever encounter. About 50% of the population is Chinese, Indian or Indonesian; 20% are “Maroons,” descendants of escaped slaves who centuries ago recreated forest communities and mixed with the Amerindians; and the final 30% describe themselves as “Creole” or “mixed.” Dutch Guyana before its independence in 1975, Suriname still calls Dutch its official language, along with Sranan Tongo, a pidgin English. With 96% of the country covered in unspoiled rainforest, eight types of monkeys, and 40 new species discovered here last year alone, the flora and fauna are even more diverse than the people.
As I prepared to visit a friend who had gotten a job in Suriname, I read up on the history of the country. I was surprised to learn that Suriname has four centuries of Jewish history. In the early 1600s, when the Jews were kicked out of Europe by the Dutch and Portuguese, the English allowed many Jews to settle in the Caribbean and northern South America. The earliest settlement was in Recife, Brazil, but the Portuguese again drove the Jews out and they came to Suriname. They resettled at Cassipora and later moved to Jodensavanne, literally “Jew’s Savannah.” This area was once home to 600 Jews who ran 40 sugar cane plantations with more than 10,000 slaves. In 1665 they built Beracha ve Shalom, one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. Alongside it was a cemetery, which subsequently replaced the original cemetery at Cassipora.
As the sugar trade declined, many Jews moved to the capital, Paramaribo, and in 1723 they established the Neveh Shalom Synagogue, which still stands today. After a slave revolt and fire in 1832, the remaining Jews moved to the city; Jodensavanne and Cassipora were essentially shuttered. For the last 85 years, the Paramaribo synagogue has been one of the only synagogues in the world to stand next to a mosque. Today the Jewish community of Suriname consists of about 200 members. Due to a lack of financial resources, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities had to merge and rent out one of their facilities. There is no rabbi; Shabbat services are led by a cantor.
My guide for the day was Jos, a Belgian man who moved to the jungle to pursue his dream of opening a bed-and-breakfast. We started in Jodensavanne, which receives a few thousand visitors a year and is well maintained. The highlights are the cemetery with graves from the 17th and 18th centuries covered in Portuguese and Hebrew writing, and the foundation of the old synagogue.
From Jodensavanne we set out for Cassipora to see the Sephardic Jewish cemetery that dates to the mid-1600s or earlier, potentially making it the oldest Jewish graveyard in the Western Hemisphere. We drove a mile or two to Redi Doti, a local Amerindian village on whose land Cassipora now sits. Jos took me to meet Eddy, the unofficial mayor of the town. This formality was to keep us safe as we trespassed through their fields and jungles searching for the abandoned cemetery.
We drove the Jeep through the savannah for a half hour, making it as far as we could before we had to leave the car and set out on foot. We hiked through fields of pineapples, where I was surprised to learn that pineapples don’t grow on trees. The path was covered with fallen trees and snaking vines, and it was clear that it had been a few years since any tourists had visited the site. The local Indians regularly use the path to get to the river, but these are people who walk through the jungle without making a sound or leaving any traces. As a Jew from the city, my jungle-walking skills were lacking, and it quickly became essential for me to use my machete to clear the overgrowth and make a path for myself.
An hour of machete practice later, we arrived at a large plastic sign that read “Cassipora Cemetery.” I was bewildered. It looked exactly like the jungle we had just trekked through: trees and vines, but no gravestones. After some further exploring, I realized that I was actually walking on the graves. Over the last 350 years, the jungle had slowly reclaimed the massive, flat, marble and granite stones that had been imported from Amsterdam. It was impossible to tell what was grave and what was ground.
I contemplated the experiences these Jews must have had in this place 400 years earlier, and was struck by how they have been essentially abandoned. Technically, it is the responsibility of their descendants to care for these graves, but so many generations have passed. Is anyone even aware that he or she has an ancestor buried in the Surinamese jungle? After an hour of clearing off the graves with my machete, I was moved to say the Kaddish for these dead who have long since been forgotten.
This abandoned cemetery in the jungle has been on my mind since I got home. I did some research and found out that in the late 1990s a cataloguing and restoration effort identified and cleaned 216 of the estimated 400 graves at the site. However, over the last 20 years the gravestones have once again become overgrown. While Cassipora will never be a heavily touristed site, it would not be particularly expensive to hire locals in Redi Doti to maintain the site and clean it up a few times each year. I feel like doing this would be a mitzvah, and if I don’t facilitate the restoration of the Cassipora cemetery, no one will. So I started a nonprofit organization to assist the restoration process.
But I’m conflicted as well. In Hebrew school, they don’t teach us about the Jews owning slaves. How did the Jews treat their slaves? What was it like to celebrate Passover in the jungle surrounded by 10,000 slaves? “Once we were slaves,” but now we’re the slave masters? What about the thousands of wooden graves of the slaves that have long since been reclaimed by the jungle? Who will remember them? Should these 400 Jews, who fled persecution only to enslave thousands, be remembered and memorialized for the hardships they overcame? Or, should they and their transgressions be forgotten into the depths of the murky jungle?
I believe that it is important to remember our history — all of it — regardless of whether it makes us look good or not. We learn of the expulsion of the European Jewry, but not that many went to South America. We learn of the Jewish role in industry and trade, but not of the Jewish role in the slave trade. We remember the times Jews were oppressed, but overlook the times Jews have been the oppressor. Much of this is uncomfortable but essential to understanding our shared history.
Judaism teaches teshuvah, forgiveness and redemption. Literally “return,” it is the concept of fixing and atoning for one’s mistakes. It is almost Rosh Hashanah, which on top of being the New Year also marks the start of Aseret Y’mai Teshuva, the 10 Days of Repentance. Perhaps being forgotten in the jungle for all these years has been penance enough for these Jews. Maybe in 5776 it is finally time to forgive these ancestors for their actions and allow them redemption and remembrance. We can still pay tribute to the hardship they suffered while acknowledging that a people who were oppressed for thousands of years allowed themselves to oppress others.
Ben Eisenberg is the president of Smarter Campaigns.