THIS YEAR Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will have added poignance for the Sephardic Jewish community on the Caribbean island of Curacao. For them, 1982 marks the 250th anniversary of their synagogue, Mikva Isreal- Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
Many of the 300 members of Mikva Israel-Emanuel can trace their ancestry back to the 17th century. Last names such as da Costa Gomes or de Marchena are vivid reminders that the earliest Jewish settlers arrived in Curacao to escape the Spanish Inquisition.
But few went directly from Spain or Portugal to the Caribbean. Many Sephardic Jews (that is, those Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal) fled from their homes on the Iberian Peninsula for Holland, where they continued to practice Judaism secretly. Some were then lured by the Dutch West India Co. to the prospect of a better life in Recife, Brazil. By 1500, however, Portugal claimed Brazil as its own, and after a while a new wave of the Inquisition broke out in South America. The Jews were once again forced to flee, and this time many of them went to the relatively nearby Dutch island of Curacao. (By the time the United States gained independence in 1776, the 173-square-mile island of Curacao was home to almost 2,000 Jews, more than the number of Jews in all 13 original states put together.)
The Sephardic congregation of Mikva Israel-Emanuel is therefore a blend of Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch Jews plus a sizable contingent of Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan and Lebanese Jews who have been arriving in a fairly steady stream over the last century. Nowhere is the blend of Western European and Middle Eastern tradition more in evidence than in Curacao kitchens.
It was this culinary eclecticism that caused some temporary anxiety for Rabbi Aaron Peller and his wife Rivkah when they first arrived to head the congregation at Mikva Israel-Emanuel. Both had been brought up in the meat- and-potatoes tradition. The rabbi was born in Buffalo and his wife in Philadelphia, both of Ashkenazic or Eastern European Jewish ancestry. "To me, Jewish food was pot roast, gefilte fish, lox and bagels," said Rivkah Peller during a recent interview when the couple was visiting the United States. "I didn't like spicy foods and I was not a very adventurous eater before I went to Curacao."
"But," added the rabbi, "offering hospitality to guests is a high priority amongst the members of our congregation, and Rivkah and I were often invited out to dinner. The foods were strange to us at first, but we slowly got used to them and now we love everything . . . well, almost everything. I can't say I really like giambo , a very gooey kosher okra soup."
Rivkah Peller, the admittedly more squeamish of the two, nodded in agreement as her husband spoke. Kosher okra soup aside, she was so won over by the new and unusual flavors that she organized members of the congregation to compile a small cookbook, "Recipes from the Jewish Kitchens of Curacao," in honor of the 250th anniversary celebration.
Many of the names of the dishes in this volume are strikingly unusual, as they are written in Papiamento, a local language that combines Dutch, English and Spanish with African and Indian dialects (these two dialects having arrived with the slaves and indentured servants brought to the island in the 18th and 19th centuries). Bolo di maishi is the name for corn pudding; keshi yena is a Dutch edam cheese hollowed out and then stuffed with fish, tomatoes and seasoning; arepita di pampuna are pumpkin fritters and tabaquitos are guava-filled pastries.
"The spiciness of the food on the island," explained Rivkah Peller, "comes primarily from the Spanish and Middle Eastern influences, while the Dutch make excellent dishes with cheese. In any given meal, the menu may be derived from two or three different culinary traditions since it would not be uncommon for the wife of the family to be Dutch and the husband Spanish. Curacao is a very cosmopolitan place."
On Rosh Hashanah, which starts the evening of Sept. 17, Jews all over the world will be united by the sound of the shofar , the ram's horn trumpet blown to announce the beginning of the Jewish New Year and to remind listeners of the hopes and dangers that lie ahead.
Services in the Mikva Israel-Emanuel synagogue are conducted in Hebrew and English with some of the prayers sung in Spanish, Portuguese, Papiamento and Dutch, often to Sephardic melodies. Like the Curacao kitchen, the walls and furnishings of the synagogue draw diversity together under one roof and are resonant with echoes of a rich past.
The floor is covered with a thick carpet of sand, in part a reminder of the days of the Inquisition, when Jews arriving at their places of worship had to muffle their footsteps and pray in secrecy. Especially prized are the four brass chandeliers suspended from the high, arched ceiling, identical copies of the ones that hang in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, a synagogue that pre-dates Mikva Israel-Emanuel by 50 years. On Yom Kippur, 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, the 24 candles in each of these ancient chandeliers are lit, and many Jews fast in atonement.
Members of Mikva Israel-Emanuel break their fast at sunset in their own special way -- by sharing a glass of warm sangria. Following that, there is a hearty dinner that begi11561ns with sopa di galina , a Spanish-style chicken soup with the characteristic Caribbean tang of lime. A spicy meat pie often comes next, followed by the dessert table overflowing with sweet tarts and cookies. The meal is brought to a close with a steaming cup of strong island coffee crowned with a golden egg topping.
The recipes which follow have been adapted from "Recipes from the Jewish Kitchen of Curacao." The 88-page paperback volume may be ordered from Mikva Israel-Emanuel, P.O. Box 322, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles for $10 postpaid. (The high cost of the slim volume is attributed to the cost of printing in Curacao). WARM SANGRIA (Makes 8 small or 4 large drinks) 3/4 cup sugar 2 sticks cinnamon, halved 1 bottle (750 ml) claret or burgundy 3 limes 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
In a large, enameled pot, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Stir in sugar and cinnamon and boil gently for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
When cool, add the wine. Cut two of the limes in half and add them and the nugmet. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 hours.
Just before serving, add the juice of the third lime. Adjust for sweetness, adding a bit more water if the flavors are too concentrated. Heat, but do not boil. Remove the limes before serving. SOPA DI GALINA (Chicken Soup) (8 to 10 servings)
For optimum taste, cook this soup until the stage when you strain the broth. Refrigerate overnight, then remove the chicken fat. Heat the soup to boiling and proceed with the recipe. 2 1/2-to 3-pound chicken 2 limes 8 ounces canned, peeled tomatoes in their juice 3 stalks celery, finely minced 1 green pepper, finely minced 1 medium onion, thinly sliced 1 large clove garlic, minced 2 scallions, finely minced 8 peppercorns 4 to 5 carrots, sliced 3 medium potatoes, peeled, diced Worcestershire sauce to taste (optional) Salt and pepper to taste 3 ears corn on the cob, each cut into 3 pieces 1/4 box (4 ounces) vermicelli
Place the chicken in a very large soup pot. Halve limes and squeeze their juice over the chicken. Add 2 1/2 quarts (10 cups) water. Add tomatoes and their juice, celery, green pepper, onion, garlic, scallions and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 45 minutes.
Remove chicken to a large plate. Cut meat from the bones and dice it; set aside. Strain soup and discard the vegetables. Return soup to the large pot, bring to a boil, and add the carrots and potatoes. Cook until they are almost done, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season with worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Add the minced chicken, corn and vermicelli and cook until the vermicelli are done, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve in deep bowls. PASTECHI DE KARNI (Meat Pie) (4 to 5 servings) 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 green pepper, chopped 1 stalk celery, chopped 1 tablespoon minced parsley 1 large tomato, peeled and chopped 1 slice hot chili pepper or few drops hot pepper sauce 1 pound ground beef Salt, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg to taste 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, coarsely crushed 2 tablespoons tomato paste 2 tablespoons capers 1/4 cup chopped stuffed olives 1/3 cup raisins 1 to 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce Pastry for 9-inch pie lid
Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion, garlic, pepper, celery and parsley and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the tomato, chili pepper and beef and cook until the meat turns brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add seasonings and remaining ingredients except pastry. Mound the mixture in a 9-inch pie plate and let it cook to room temperature.
Roll out pastry and set the lid in place, crimping the edges and pricking the top in 5 to 6 places. Set the pie on a cookie sheet to catch drippings and bake in the center of a 375-degree oven until the top is lightly browned, about 45 to 50 minutes. Serve with a large spoon as the filling does not hold together. WEBU BATI (Egg Topping for Coffee) (8 servings) 2 large eggs plus 3 yolks 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups sugar Pinch of salt 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 teaspoon fresh lime juice (optional)
With an electric beater, beat the eggs at high speed for about 3 minutes. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the mixture is creamy and pale lemon colored. Beat in the reamining ingredients.
Serve a heaping tablespoon or more in each cup of strong, black coffee.