Cemetery excavations reveal complicated Jamaican Jewish past
Marina Delfos is on a mission. Working with a group of people who come to Jamaica each year through Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions and a handful of local volunteers, she is helping to take inventory of the area’s Jewish gravestones, trying to make sense of the 360-year-old and oft-forgotten Jamaican Jewish past.
This past March, Delfos struck stone while she was on the Way Back When (Black River Heritage Tour) trip with Allison Morris.
“I knew there had to be a cemetery in [the town of] Black River,” said Delfos, who with Morris, a seventh-generation resident of Black River, began inquiring about where the historic Jewish community would have resided there. She asked one elderly man on a bicycle if he knew where they might have resided, and he took the group into the backyard of a neighboring home a few feet away, where there were three Jewish tombstones.
Delfos had to pull back the brush and shift a heavy bed of leaves to read the tombs’ inscriptions. But before leaving the backyard, she had photographs of what she assumes is likely just a corner of a once-larger plot. It’s common in Jamaica to find homes or other buildings built on Jewish cemeteries—marking island development, on the one hand, and Jewish assimilation, intermarriage, and migration on the other.
While in the 1800s there were as many as 3,000 Jews living in Jamaica, today there are under 400 at the highest count.
Among the Black River graves is a marker belonging to Hyman Cohen. His tomb has an intricate drawing of the hands of a kohen (high priest). The others belong to two young Friedeberg women, presumably a mother and daughter.
“It seems [the Friedebergs] died shortly after arriving on the island, as fever was rampant in Black River in those days, being that the town is located on the edge of mangroves and swamps,” explained Delfos.
In January 2015, a new team of volunteers led by New York architect Rachel Frankel will further excavate the Black River cemetery, so it can be measured and inventoried.
The Jamaican Jewish cemetery project started in 2007, a few years after Jamaican Jewish genealogist Ainsley Henriques approached Frankel, who had been documenting Jewish cemeteries in Suriname, about coming to Jamaica to carry out a similar project. Little had been done to protect Jamaica’s Jewish history. A series of natural disasters, coupled with rampant crime and political turmoil, had left its Jewish cemeteries in ill-repair.
The project has become a combination of data mining for human stories and literal mining for lost stones. The team has unearthed more than 1,000 gravestones and markers, an outdoor archive of the different cultures that tumble together to make up Jamaican Jewry.
In Jamaica’s oldest Jewish cemetery—located in Hunt’s Bay, across the harbor from Port Royal—tombs dating back to the mid-1600s have been discovered. The inscriptions there often have a combination of Hebrew, Spanish and/or Portuguese, and English writings. For markers that date later, the Portuguese is forgotten in favor of English.
At Hunt’s Bay, Henriques points out several tombstones with carvings of skulls and crossbones, explaining these likely belonged to “licensed maritime terrorists,” or the first Jewish pirates. The Jews came to Port Royal in the 1700s because they saw economic opportunity in working for and protecting Port Royal, which was then the seventh largest port in the world. The British made it a maritime base and had “pirates” capturing and attacking boats of gold and silver coming from Central America.
After Port Royal literally collapsed into the sea with the 1692 earthquake, Jews moved farther onto the island into areas like Spanish Town and Kingston, where cemeteries can also be found.
In Falmouth, about two hours from Hunt’s Bay, Delfos helps preserve the Jewish cemetery, which contains 113 gravesides and about 80 readable tombstones. The oldest belongs to Isaac Simon, who died in 1815 at age 60.
For the period between 1854 and 1859, there are 21 readable tombstones, and the average age of death is a low 19.8 years. Delfos believes this relates to the Asiatic cholera epidemic that spread through Falmouth at that time.
On average, however, Jewish tombstones reveal that Jews lived longer than many other Jamaicans. Henriques said this was likely because Jews did not imbibe as much as their British counterparts and that they had many children.
Also interesting is that most of the plots in the Falmouth cemetery, and those in the cemetery at Montego Bay, face east. This, explained Henriques, follows the Sephardic custom of facing toward Jerusalem so 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. Yet by 1890, the graves in Falmouth lacked any Hebrew writing.
In Hunt’s Bay, the tombstones face where the cemetery gate was likely located, which traditionally served a similar purpose.
Chronicling cemeteries is “repetitive” work, said Elizabeth Lorris Ritter of Washington Heights, N.Y., who has taken part in the Jamaican expeditions for the last three years.
First, the group picks a landmark or a cemetery corner and then records the location of each tomb in relation to that point. Next, they draw an image of each stone, marking any standout features and recording its epitaph. Then, they photograph each one and number them. Finally, they generate a map.
The findings, said Ritter, are “riveting.”
“One year, we found this woman’s grave and a small, obviously child’s grave, directly next to her,” she recalled. “And the woman was next to what was likely her husband’s grave, and there were some other familial relatives nearby. Then there were these stones of this very small grave, and all of the pieces were broken, and they were sitting on an adult-size grave that didn’t correspond to the child’s. … We were looking at the stones, and the graves and the names and it was clear the pieces were not where they should be. So we moved the stones of the little child’s grave to be on his mommy’s. … It was very powerful.”
With each new cemetery discovery, many questions are answered. Yet almost as many new questions arise. For example, researchers know that when slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1838, intermarriage between Jews and emancipated slaves occurred at a rapid rate. Yet there is little record of these non-Jewish wives or offspring in the Jewish cemeteries.
Rachel Frankel said during the volunteers’ excavation at Black Rose Corner, a young man descending from the prominent Jewish De Costa family accompanied them. But when they discovered his great-great-great-grandfather’s tombstone, his great-great-great-grandmother was not buried alongside him. His great-great-great-grandmother was a concubine of African heritage.
“The children that were buried there with the grandfather, did they consider themselves Jewish when they died? Was [the grandfather] Jewish?” asked Frankel. “There is this whole population of mixed people. Who were they? Where were they buried and how do their lives and their burials compare to the Jewish ones?”
There are also questions about what comes next. While the history is chronicled and the cemeteries cleaned, will they be maintained?
Delfos said it costs around $60 per month to maintain the Falmouth cemetery, and she raises the money, but she struggles to meet the budget month to month. With high levels of unemployment and a high cost of living, the Jamaican government hasn’t made the preservation of Jewish cemeteries—or any cemeteries—a national priority.
But Heidi Kaufman, an assistant professor at University of Oregon who twice participated in the Jamaican Jewish cemetery restoration project, is not willing to accept that.
“Cemeteries are not places of death. … [They] are places where writing, history, art, architecture, and landscape work together to narrate stories about the past,” Kaufman said. “If we wait to record them, they’ll be lost forever.”