Jews of the Caribbean

A relatively small number of Jews have lived in the Caribbean since the time of the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. As refugees from fascist Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, they formed what has been called a Calypso shtetl. A new study from Columbia University Press, “Calypso Jews,” investigates how contemporary Caribbean authors have been inspired by this presence. Its author, Sarah Phillips Casteel, is associate professor of English at Carleton University, Ottawa. Recently, Casteel spoke with the Forward’s Benjamin Ivry about these cultural interchanges and identifications.

Benjamin Ivry: You discuss Derek Walcott’s book-length poem “Tiepolo’s Hound” as an example of a Nobel Prize-winning writer with roots in Saint Lucia and Trinidad identifying with a Jewish character, the French painter Camille Pissarro. Yet Walcott writes of Pissarro: “He wasn’t much of a Jew. He did not observe, as he had on the island, the tribal sorrow.” Why this lukewarm portrayal of a personality with whom the poet clearly identifies?

Sarah Phillips Casteel: I think he is more interested in Pissarro’s cultural Jewishness than his religiousness. One of the running themes of Walcott’s work is to make links between the European and Caribbean, so he is more interested in Pissarro as a figure who bridges cultures rather than in religious terms.

The Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff’s 1993 novel “Free Enterprise” explains that Caribbean synagogues have sand on the floor “because the Jews in Spain had secret gathering places, and they used the sand to muffle the sound of the services.” Why did Caribbean Jews need this reminder of past persecutions?

I understand there is quite a debate about what the sand on the floor of synagogues means. Cliff, in a romantic way, picks up one purpose of the sand, as a need to hide their identities and muffle the sound of the service. Whether this is strictly true or not, she addresses questions of whether cultural survival is possible in situations where it must be suppressed.

Even if well-meant, doesn’t stereotyping have its pitfalls, as when a character in Cliff’s 2010 novel “Into the Interior” mentions the “hook of her [grandmother’s] nose [as] evoking a Carib ancestor, Sephardic fugitive, who is to say?” The Cuban writer Oscar Hijuelos told The Jerusalem Report that he might have Jewish ancestors, since “there’s a whole side of my family that looks very Semitic.” Why would non-Jewish writers claim Jewish ancestry, embracing dubious criteria of appearance as proof?

That’s a good question, and I agree, and sort of worried about that quite a bit while working on this book. In some of the cases, although we think of people as Afro-Caribbean, they do have Jewish ancestry. It’s problematic, referring to physical characteristics. In the Caribbean it is quite common to look at physical characteristics because identities are so mixed.

The novel “I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem” by Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé, sympathetically describes Benjamin, a Jewish slave owner in a romantic relationship with one of his female slaves. Why does this Jewish slave owner get a free pass for behavior that elsewhere has been faulted in Thomas Jefferson and others?

That again is something that interested me a lot, because it seemed to me different from the way this narrative would have played out in North America. I found a kind of philosemitic way of identifying with Jewish characters, sympathizing even in the case of a Jewish slave owner. I think in the Caribbean that there is a more matter-of-fact acceptance of this than elsewhere.

In 2009, the writer Cynthia McLeod, whose novel “The Cost of Sugar” is set in Suriname on the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America, told the Forward that “every Surinamese has Jewish blood… American Jews don’t want to speak of this, but [Jews] did [have slaves] in Suriname; we can prove that.” Few Caucasians, or indeed people of color, like to admit that their ancestors owned slaves, not even Ben Affleck. Is it naive to be amazed that, centuries ago, some Jewish traders were slave owners?

I suppose so, but again, I think that North American Jews are quite invested in an understanding of ourselves as having a progressive politics. We should emphasize that Jews played a very minor role in the economic structure of slavery, but it is hard to reconcile that history with a more contemporary sense of Jewish history as a form of victimhood.

You conclude that positive feelings of identification with Jewish people outweigh negative emotions about Jews in Caribbean literature, yet insofar as today just a few dozen Jews remain in Trinidad and Tobago, for example. Is this a case of philosemitism without Jews?

Well, we should say that a number of these writers are now living in the United States and England, and Caribbean literature tends to be written in the diaspora, and these settings themselves tend to have an influence on the writers. This idea of blacks and Jews as separate categories of people doesn’t really hold up in the Caribbean. There are black people with Jewish identities and genealogies and last names.

Caryl Phillips, born in Saint Kitts, has written about his shock as a youngster on learning about the Holocaust, because “if white people could do that to white people, then what the hell would they do to me?” Phillips wrote in 2001 in “A New World Order” about how discovering that his grandfather was a Sephardic Caribbean Jew was another source for his interest in the destruction of European Jewry. Which of these was most important for him?

[Phillips] would say it was the former, not the revelation about his grandfather, that raised his interest in the subject. I argue that it is very much about this adolescent experience in Britain, of being in a situation where slavery is not taught but [Phillips] does have access to information about the Holocaust. There is a generation of writers who share that experience.

These depictions seem to echo real life, where among people of Jamaican origin, Gen. Colin Powell in his memoirs claims some Jewish ancestry and served as a Shabbos goy in an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx. Bob Marley reportedly had a Syrian Jewish ancestor. Yet Harry Belafonte referred cursorily to his Jewish grandfather in an autobiography, and later made controversial statements about Jews. Are any expressions of Caribbean Judaism in fiction or poetry as negative or ill at ease as Belafonte’s?

Not that I have come across. I have not found any literary examples of that, and again, that is striking. You would expect perhaps for there to be a variation. One of the things I argue is that these [Caribbean] writers belong to a generation who grew up during World War II or afterwards and are influenced by their awareness of the Holocaust, which serves as a substitute for them of a memory of slavery. It’s also an expression of discomfort, written about by Caryl Phillips, with African-American anti-Semitism.

You dedicated “Calypso Jews” to your grandparents Avie and Harry Phillips: “colonial Jews… whose lives were shaped by the struggle against racism in their native South Africa.” What kinds of racism did your grandparents battle?

They were both doctors and were very much against the apartheid regime, and for that reason, they made the difficult decision to leave South Africa. My interest in Postcolonial literature came from this family history of Jews occupying a singular status in society. [My grandparents] were also great readers and kept lots of African literature in the house, which also sparked my interest.

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