Friendly island of Nevis has Jewish history

While most Caribbean islands describe themselves as “warm and friendly,” the sister islands of St. Kitts (Christopher) and Nevis truly exemplify that culture. Visitors to St. Kitts and Nevis will find locals willing to drop whatever they are doing if the perceive a guest is in need of help or directions.

While some islands use “friendly” as an advertising slogan to draw tourists, St. Kitts and Nevis exemplify the word. Perhaps the reasons for this go back to the early days of their history.

In the 1600s as many were fleeing religious persecution in Europe and heading for the British colonies of the new world, many fleeing religious persecution found opportunities on the chain of islands making up the Caribbean. This was especially true for Jews who had been expelled from Spain.

Most brought skills that were indispensible to the nascent economies of islands beginning to develop trade between the Old and New Worlds. The Jews became planters, shippers and merchants and found a warm welcome into society, especially on Nevis.

While the earliest known reference to Jews on the island was a document dated 1677 naming several residents identified as “Jewes,” it’s more likely that the first ones to arrive on the island came in 1654 from Europe and through Brazil.

Visitors today can see the artifacts of that community, primarily on Nevis where the “Jewes Cemetery” headstones and small, above ground burial plots lie in a neatly preserved and walled area. Names, relationships and dates are still readable on many of the stones and the government is meticulous in insuring the preservation and the history here.

The cemetery lies at the end of a narrow weedy path even today called the “Jews Walk.”

Surrounding the walk are more artifacts of Jewish life on the island. A stone building used over the centuries as a storeroom and for various other government functions has been determined to have served as a mikvah for the indigenous Jewish population of the island with the Sephardim hewing to law that required ritual bathing.

As the building became an accepted part of the landscape over the centuries, its original use faded from memory until about 30 some odd years ago a passerby noticed the door was unlocked and opened. Peering in, he observed the unique structure and sunken floor. The ceiling was similar to Byzantine architecture found in Spain and Portugal, especially in many synagogues.

Government sponsored archeological digs, aided by students and volunteers, determined that the building was indeed a mikvah, a ritual bath, used by the early Jewish residents. But more surprising, just beyond that and also off Jews Walk, they found the foundation of a building no one remembered had ever existed.

The archeologists, encouraged by the Nevisian government, began a further exploration of the ruins in an effort to determine what function they had served. Because of its location at Jews Walk and in proximity to the cemetery and the mikvah, it was felt with considerable certainty that this was a synagogue built to serve the religious and cultural needs of the burgeoning Jewish community.

Its roots were traced back to the 1650s when the Jewish community would have needed a gathering place and a building in which to worship. This would make the site the earliest known synagogue in the New World, predating Mikvah Israel-Emanuel in Curacao (1674) by perhaps 20 years. It also made its appearance well before Monen Dalim in St. Eustatius (1739) and the Sephardic shul in St. Thomas (1833).

While Jews remain on the island today as hotel and resort owners and merchants, there is no active synagogue to service their needs. One hotelier held a Passover seder years ago for her own family and one or two friends. The event took on a life of its own and today is an annual event that the Jews of the island look forward to.

But perhaps nothing about the Jewish history of Nevis is more intriguing than the pedigree of a hero of our own American revolution and the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Fawcette Levine, was of French Huguenot lineage and of mixed African and Caucasian blood. She was married to a Dane from St. Croix named John Michael Levine.

Rachel split from Levine and in 1759 he divorced her. In the meanwhile she had taken up with James Hamilton, a Scottish merchant who is presumed to be Alexander’s father. Alexander was born January 11, 1755, four years before Levine divorced Rachel.

Speculation here is rampant and points to both Hamilton and Levine as possible sires. There is also some speculation that Rachel herself had Jewish blood, although that has never been proven.

Under Danish law Rachel was forbidden to ever remarry and, therefore, Alexander was considered to be an illegitimate birth. Because of that fact the Anglican school on the island refused to permit him to register. Hungry for knowledge and education, young Alexander was adopted by members of the Jewish community and educated in a school presumed to be at the site of the suspected synagogue archeological dig.

Alexander became fluent in Hebrew and French, an odd combination for anyone who was not Jewish. Hamilton’s son later recalled that his father “…rarely alluded…” to his personal history, adding another layer of mystery.

But Hamilton had an obvious affinity for the Jews. His son noted that Hamilton “…perhaps from this exposure at an impressionable age, he harbored a lifelong reverence for Jews.”

In later years Hamilton wrote: “The progress of the Jews, from their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. It is not then a fair conclusion that the cause is also an extraordinary one…in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?”

In a legal case he challenged an opposing attorney, saying: “Why distrust the Jews? Discredit them and you destroy the Christian religion.”

Interesting commentary at a time in the young United States when such thoughts were out of the ordinary for other than Jews themselves. In fact, when Aaron Burr and Hamilton fought their deadly duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, it was reported that Burr referred to Hamilton as a “Jew bastard.”

Much of the Jewish history of Nevis might have never been discovered by anyone beyond the island itself had it not been for an American historian, Malcolm Stern who visited the island with his wife on the first cruise ship ever to sail into Charlestown, Nevis’s main city. Stern asked if he could see the local synagogue after one of the locals mentioned that Hamilton had been born on the island and knowing that he was educated in a Jewish school.

The Sterns were shown the ruins and the cemetery, which was then an open field with goats grazing on it. Stern wrote an article on what he had found and Philadelphia philanthropists Florence and Robert Abrahams established a fund to refurbish the cemetery.

Today Hamilton House stands near the ferry port in Charlestown and houses a museum chronicling the life of Hamilton. Although the house is touted as “the birthplace” of Alexander Hamilton, it is of recent construction, but is believed to be on the site where he was born.

Nevis today has managed to maintain the look and feel of old Caribbean, eschewing any high-rise resorts that have taken over many of the other islands. The most modern facility on the island is the five star Four Seasons Resort and Golf Course.

But throughout the island are comfortable smaller hotels and resorts that fully reflect the ambiance of the Caribbean.

Tourists will have a field day at the base of an abandoned barracks dating to colonial times where the soldiers, for whatever reason, threw Blue Delft plates and cups out of the windows. The remnants of this discarded dinnerware are there for the taking and make a unique souvenir.

High atop the mountains at the far end of the island is the fortress of Brimstone Hill, an impenetrable castle easily accessible by car. The view of almost the entire island is amazing.

The waters around Nevis are a mecca for scuba divers with warm temperatures and visibility of more than 100 feet, giving excellent views of fish life and coral. A must see is the post office in Charlestown where some of the most beautiful commemorative stamps are produced for St. Kitts and Nevis and other countries as well.

A ferry makes regular round trips between the two islands, affording visitors an opportunity to shop on the bigger island and sample some of its excellent restaurants.

Flights connect through Miami and into the international airport on St. Kitts. Nevis’ airport consists of a single runway that can only accommodate small aircraft.

While nothing in the Caribbean ranks as an inexpensive location, St. Kitts and Nevis are two of the more affordable destinations with populations that will truly make you feel at home.

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