By Tamar Fox
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2011; 2:56 PM
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.
It says that 1,600 people gathered for the synagogue's 100th anniversary celebration in 1785. I squint at the foundation, trying to picture what that must have been like. I grew up in Chicago, and though I share a heritage with the community that built Beracha ve Shalom, it's hard to imagine that I have anything in common with those men and women.
But the sign from the Jodensavanne Foundation notes that at that centenary celebration, 300 dishes were served and 1,000 Chinese lanterns were lit to heighten the festive atmosphere. It reminds me of the independent synagogue my parents founded in 1981. At the 25th anniversary, we had a party, with members gathered from near and far. There weren't quite 300 dishes served, and I think the lighting was more fluorescent than lantern, but I still somehow felt a sudden kinship with this long-gone community, and the Jewish tradition of celebrating the fact that we still exist, despite an encroaching jungle, urban or otherwise.
After its description of the lavish celebration, the sign offers only one more note: "The last time the synagogue was used was in 1865." By then, I know, the Jews of Suriname had almost all moved back to Paramaribo, leaving the jungle to have its way with Beracha ve Shalom.
We wander around the grounds a bit, and then I dip my feet in the river. Another sign invites me to bathe in the water but warns of strong currents and piranhas. Maybe not, I think.
The Amerindian kids who have been lounging on the synagogue steps begin singing a song, and after a moment my guide looks up at them and laughs. "They're Carib kids," he explains, referring to the tribe they belong to. "But they're singing a Maroon song." The Maroon, one of the other major ethnic groups in Suriname, are descendants of runaway African slaves. He sighs and shakes his head. "I love this country," he says.
I look out over the water and into the jungle, thinking that I am beginning to love the country, too.
The sad remnants of Beracha ve Shalom are a stark contrast to its cosmopolitan cousin, Neveh Shalom. The synagogue that is at the heart of today's Surinamese Jewish community has a contentious history. It was founded in 1734 and was originally home to both Sephardic Jews who had left Jodensavanne and to Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jews who began coming to Suriname in the late 17th century.
But within months of the synagogue's founding, the community split in two, with Ashkenazim staying at Neveh Shalom and Sephardim founding a new structure, Sedek ve Shalom, a few blocks away. By 1999, however, as children grew up and left the country, heading to the Netherlands or the United States, there were no longer enough Jews in Suriname to maintain two congregations. So the communities reunited, back in Neveh Shalom. (The interior of Sedek ve Shalom was shipped to the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem, and the building now stands empty. The rabbi's home houses a computer shop).
On Saturday morning, I leave my hotel on the waterfront and walk into the center of town for services at Neveh Shalom. The building has managed to retain a staggering beauty despite having suffered centuries of damage and a devastating fire in 1833. White pillars and white wooden siding make for a simple yet grand facade. Inside, the floor is covered with a thick carpet of sand, a Sephardic tradition that recalls the many years the Jews spent wandering in the desert and may also serve as a reminder of the days of the Inquisition, when Jews met in secret and sprinkled the floor with sand to cover the sound of their footsteps.
The community sits in pews around the bimah, the raised platform where the Torah is read. People are fanning themselves with packets in which the Hebrew prayers are transliterated into Dutch. The services are conducted in a unique combination of Hebrew, Dutch and English. Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions mix. The Torah is paraded around the room, a small cadre of children marching happily behind it. Light floods in through the windows, rendering the enormous chandeliers irrelevant, and the ornate wooden ark where the scrolls are kept seems to glow.
No rabbi has lived in Suriname for 40 years - the community just isn't big enough to require one, and besides, a Dutch-speaking rabbi willing to move to Paramaribo isn't easy to come by. But at the time of my trip, the community has gathered some funds to bring an American rabbi to stay for a couple of months. On the day I visit Neveh Shalom, he speaks about Joseph's interpretations of Pharaoh's mysterious dreams. Joseph divined that there would be years of plenty followed by years of famine and that the people of Egypt would need to save up their abundance for the years when there would be very little to go around.
There had been so many years of abundance for the Jews of Suriname. As I look around at the community listening to the rabbi, I wonder whether it will be able to stave off the famine that threatens its traditions. Thinking of the gravestones in Jodensavanne, I hope, fervently, that it will.
Fox is an associate editor at the Web site MyJewishLearning.com.