Middle of nowhere? There are probably Jews there
Bahrain, Haiti and Burma hardly sound like the kind of places one might go looking for Jewish roots. But all three still have tiny Jewish communities, and are among dozens of similar pockets of Jewish life that once had proud traditions, and still exist despite their populations dipping under 100.
Information on these communities – including their history, customs, traditions and current status – is being made available by the Institute of the World Jewish Congress, which has collected details about them in Jewish Communities of the World.
There are some definite surprises. Fiji, for example, has 40 Jews, the first of whom arrived in 1881. The community was founded by Henry Marks, who set up extensive commercial enterprises in the region. Later, more Jews came from India and the Middle East. Recently, the Fiji Jewish Association was organized, and an annual communal seder is still held there.
The 60 Jews of Namibia, some of whom first came there in 1924, get a great deal of help from the South African Jewish community, and have had to face antisemitism from the country’s large German minority. Nonetheless, their ties to Judaism remain, as exemplified by the story of a Jew who lived in an isolated area of the country and left instructions to his survivors to include something in Hebrew on his tombstone. According to the book, “His survivors found only one object with Hebrew letters, so the tombstone reads: “Here lies Peter Cohen, Kosher for Pessah.”
There are only some 10 Jews left in Afghanistan. Benjamin of Tudela found 80,000 Jews there in the 12th century, and there were still 40,000 Jews there in the second half of the 19th century. But most of the much smaller community that remained when Israel was founded made aliya in the 1950s. The remaining Jews today live in Kabul.
The remaining 30 Jews in Bahrain – who came in the late 19th century from Iraq, India and Iran – are wealthy and get along well with their Arab neighbors, according to the book. Synagogues were destroyed in antisemitic rioting in 1949 following the establishment of Israel, and most Jews left afterwards.
Fifty Jews still live on the island of Guadeloupe, where three shiploads of refugees from Brazil settled in 1654. Jews opened sugar cane plantations on the island, but were expelled by King Louis XIV in 1685.
In the second half of this century, Jews from North Africa and France settled there, and in 1988 the Or Sameah Synagogue was founded there, along with a Talmud Torah.
Twenty-five Jews live in Haiti. Most of the immigrants came from Brazil in the 17th century, but others were murdered or expelled with most of the white population in 1804, according to the book.
At the beginning of this century, Jews from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt settled in Haiti, bolstered by Jews escaping the Nazis in the 1930s. Today most Jews live in Port-Au-Prince, and services are held in private homes.