This article about the Jewish community in Suriname incorrectly described an abandoned synagogue there as the oldest in the Americas. Beracha ve Shalom is among the oldest synagogues in the Americas, but not the oldest. The article also incorrectly referred to a street in Paramaribo, Suriname's capital, as "Jodenstraat." The correct name is "Jodenbreestraat."
Discovering Suriname's Jewish past - and present
Sunday, February 20, 2011
There's not much left of the oldest synagogue in the Americas: just a pile of crumbling bricks covered with moss and inhabited by a handful of speedy brown lizards that scamper into the underbrush as I walk around the remnants of Beracha ve Shalom, established on a hill along the Suriname River in 1685.
The only other visitors on this day, besides my guide and me, are some local Amerindian teenagers, who perch on a corner of the ruins, laughing, flirting and snapping digital photos of one another. In the background, the creeping vines and low-hanging branches of the Surinamese rain forest threaten to swallow up the remaining traces of this ancient place of worship. It's a sad afterlife for a spot that was once home to a vibrant and important Jewish community.
Suriname's Jewish culture forms the underpinnings of much of the country's history, but today, the Jewish community here isn't doing much better than Beracha ve Shalom. Depleted and abandoned, it has dwindled to a population of 200 or so, a tiny fragment of the once-bustling and innovative Jewish presence in this small South American nation. In Paramaribo, the capital, the Neveh Shalom synagogue still stands in the center of town, at the end of Jodenstraat (Dutch for "Jewish street"), but the tiny Jewish community struggles to maintain the traditions that have been passed down for more than 300 years.
Sephardic Jews, who trace their ancestry to the Iberian peninsula, were among the first European settlers of Suriname. After being banished from Portugal in the 15th century, many made their way to the Netherlands. From there, some traveled across the Atlantic and landed in Suriname, on the banks of the Suriname River, where they established sugar plantations. Suriname was an English colony then, and in 1665 the colonial government granted the Jewish community political autonomy, making it the only Diaspora community to be given such privileges until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
The English traded Suriname for New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1667, and Suriname became a Dutch colony. Two years later, a Jewish settlement called Jodensavanne (the Jewish savannah) was established about 50 miles from Paramaribo. The two small Jewish communities already in existence moved there and founded more plantations. Eventually, the settlement became known as Jerusalem on the River and was for some time the largest Jewish agricultural community in the world. Much of Suriname's economy was built on the fruits of the Jodensavanne, and the Jews grew wealthy, establishing the Beracha ve Shalom ("Blessing and Peace") synagogue, a ritual bath and a cemetery.
I'd read about Jodensavanne in a history book in grade school. More recently, at age 25, I happened to take an online geography quiz and saw Suriname on a map of South America. Remembering that long-ago reading, I suddenly became obsessed with the idea of visiting the site of such unusual Jewish independence. After a year of hoarding money and vacation days, I finally found myself in Paramaribo, hiring a guide and a driver for the roughly $95 day trip.
The journey to Jodensavanne is bumpy and interrupted by a brief pontoon-ferry ride across the river where a bridge has collapsed after being struck by a boat. The settlement is officially a tourist attraction, and there is a small guard post at the entrance where, in theory, one would pay admission. But when we arrive, there's no one there to collect my money, so we simply drive in and park.
From the car, it's a short hike to the cemetery, which slopes down the side of a hill, gradually receding into the rampaging greenery. Many of the grave markers, some as much as 300 years old, are cracked, broken, illegible or, in some cases, missing entirely, revealing empty graves overgrown with centuries of moss and gaping at the sky.
The gravestones that remain are large and feature lengthy epitaphs in Portuguese, Hebrew, Spanish and Dutch. Many also include iconography, most commonly an engraving of a tree being cut down by a hand holding a wand (or in some cases an axe). That image represents someone who died too young, and it's a depressingly common feature on the stones, although there are other images as well. Some indicate that the occupant of the grave had been a Kohen, a member of the priestly family, or a mohel, a ritual circumciser.
One fascinating grave features traditional Jewish imagery, a quote from the Torah - and a skull and crossbones. I happen to collect skull and crossbones jewelry and flags, and finding the grave with that engraving on it is both surreal and hilarious - it seems like a sign, that my crazy decision to come to a country that my friends had never heard of to look at an empty synagogue and a bunch of old graves was not so crazy after all.
From the cemetery, my guide and I head down the path toward the river and the remains of the synagogue. A sign provided by the Jodensavanne Foundation, with an illustration suggesting what the structure would have looked like in its heyday, gives some context to the bleak pile of bricks.