The Jewish Community of Suriname
(This article first appeared in WorldView Magazine, published by the National Peace Corps Association. It was written by the author in 2007 while he was serving as a peace corps volunteer in Suriname. The article was revised for Kulanu’s Fall 2008 newsletter. After additional research and input, it has been revised again for Kulanu’s Suriname community page.)
As a new Peace Corps volunteer, I learned I would be living within the confines of the Amazon rainforest in Suriname in a village comprised of descendents of runaway African slaves, known as Maroons in English and Busnengre or Bosnegers (Bush Negroes) locally. When I arrived in the village, one of the first questions asked of me was whether or not I had a woman. Creativity and instinct failed me. I contemplated lying about a beautiful fictitious woman. Who would check my background? In any case, I tried to be honest. I said that I was not in a relationship, but did not plan to take a wife back with me to the States. I explained that I was Jewish, and that my family insisted that I marry another Jew.
“We are Jews,” was the response.
‘What?!” I asked incredulously.
“You are a White Jew and we are Black Jews. You do not want to marry a Black Jew?”
“It’s not like that,” I replied. An awkward silence soon followed, as I failed to explain myself.
When I was invited to serve in Suriname, I knew very little about the country. Initial research showed me that Suriname was not in Africa or Southeast Asia, but in South America. I learned that it has a diverse population and an abundance of languages, that it is mostly covered by a tropical rain forest and has a low population density. I also found out that it had been both a Dutch and an English colony.
What particularly surprised me, however, was finding out about the history of the Jewish presence in Suriname. In the early years of the colony, Jews comprised a significant portion of the population and maintained a level of autonomy with little precedent in modern times. In fact, the Suriname Jewish community is one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the Americas. Though their numbers have dwindled, I wondered why I had never heard anything about this community.
While still in the States, I did some basic research. Additional surprises greeted me. I found out that many Jews were successful landowners and read conflicting texts about slave labor on Jewish plantations. After I arrived, a lecturer on local Suriname history described the Jews of Suriname as slave owners. I assumed that it was just a few isolated families. The information did not resonate with me. Historically, I was taught that we Jews were the persecuted, not the persecutors.
There are six ethnic groups of Maroons in Suriname and the largest two groups are the Saramaccans and Aukans. I lived with the latter, who are also known as Ndjukas. During my training and integration into the three Ndjuka communities, I continued to discover information about the history of the Jews in Suriname.
Today, there are 12 different tribes, or clans, of Ndjukas that formed when slaves escaped from the plantations by fleeing into the bush and building communities. One of the twelve tribes is called the Dyu (pronounced Jew) clan, and the members of the village that I lived in happen to be of that clan. Another group of Maroons called the Boni, or Aluku, also have twelve clans, one of which is a Ayu clan. Several villages comprised of Dyu People are located on the Cottica, Marowijne, Tapanahoni, and Lawa rivers in Eastern Suriname, as well as by the man-made Brokopondo Dam, which displaced approximately 5,000 Maroons in the center of the country along the Suriname River. Later on, I discovered another Aukan clan with a connection to Jews. This group is called the Pinasi clan, apparently named after an Espinoza Jewish family. Although the names of some clans seemed to show a direct connection to Jewish residents of Suriname, other connections were more subtle.
Within my first few months, I visited a village along the river, deeper and more isolated in the rainforest. The village, which sat atop an oasis of white sand, had been interested in having a Peace Corps volunteer. In order to build a relationship and set the stages for contact with our office, I visited with several of the village elders and the head of the women’s group. Her last name: Dyu.
The more I heard, the more uncomfortable I felt. A widely used derogatory term for the Ndjukas, and actually all Maroons, is Juka. Many believe the translation is “Jew feces” and is a reference to the slaves that disposed of the Jews’ excrement. Later, I heard another theory of the etymology of the word Juka, i.e., that it is derived from an Igbo word. The Igbo are one of many ethnic groups that were brought as slaves to Suriname from Central and West Africa.
Since I left Suriname in July 2008, I have been able to research the connection between Maroons and Jews in more depth (there is still much work that needs to be done). I now know that the Aukan ethnic group of Maroons is named after a Jewish plantation called Auka, located near Jodensavanne, an important Jewish historical site.
I had heard that Aukuns, who now number over 50,000 in and outside of Suriname, were named after the Auka plantation, but I did not know the plantation was a Jewish one until I returned to the United States. One theory is that the group was called Aukans because of the signing of the first peace treaty there in 1760 between the government of Suriname and the maroons. Another theory is that the group was named after the Auka plantation because a number of them had escaped from there in the preceding years. My sources for the origin of the name of Aukan Maroons are the Historical Essay on the Colony Surinam, 1788, written by members of the Jewish community, and Jan Jacob Hartsinck’s Beschryving van Guiana published in 1770.
The legacy of the Jews is clearly not limited to Aukan Maroons. The Saramaccan Maroon ethnic group, which also numbers more than 50,000 in and outside of Suriname, is believed to have more of a connection to the Jewish community. (See below.) Many Saramaccan forefathers also escaped from Portuguese Jewish plantations.
Sephardic Jews were the largest group of Jews in Suriname, compared to later Ashkenazi immigrants. In total, Jews comprised one-third or more of the White population by the end of the 17th and into the 18th century. The simplified version of the migration of the main group of Jews to Suriname, made more complex and complicated by converso and exconverso periods, begins with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Many Spanish Jews then went to Portugal where there were subsequent orders of expulsion. In 1497, Jews in Portugal were forcibly converted to Catholicism or emigrated. Those who emigrated scattered to many parts of the world. One important destination for Jewish settlement was Dutch Brazil. However, when the Portuguese took control of Dutch Brazil in 1654, Jews were once again imperiled. A large number left for the Netherlands. In 1659, some of Brazil’s Jewish refugees were given the right to settle in Cayenne, where they lived until 1664. In that year, the French conquered Cayenne and the group resettled in Suriname.
The Saramaccan language, called Saramacca Tongo, appears to be heavily influenced by Portuguese, the mother tongue of many of the Jewish residents. In fact, on the plantation, Saramacca Tongo was known as Dyu Tongo, meaning Jew language. Five out of their twelve clans are named after Jewish families: Biitu clan – Britto family, Kadosu clan – Cardoso family, Kasitu clan – Castilho family, and Nasi clan – Nassy family.
I first came across information regarding the Saramaccan clan names from books by Richard Price, a renowned anthropologist and historian who has done groundbreaking work on Saramaccans and Maroons as well as in the fields of anthropology and history. Price also documented many Saramaccan slave rebellions taking place at Jewish plantations, which he had found in colonial written and Maroon oral histories. In addition to Price, I would also like to call attention to another important source of information regarding Jews and relations with Blacks in Suriname. Jonathan Schorsch’s impressive book Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World, published in 2004, is a wonderful source of information.
It is of interest that a small percentage of mulatto slaves who ran away from Jewish-owned plantations had Jewish fathers. It is also of interest to know that some runaway slaves from these plantations became Maroon leaders, both for Aukans and Saramaccans. In Price’s Alabi’s World, he includes information about a mulatto runaway slave named Paanza, the daughter of Moses Nunez Henriquez, who escaped from the Castilho Plantation and became the matriarch of the Kasitu Saramaccan clan. Her brother was a distinguished Aukan leader. From discussion with another Maroon historian, I was told that, according to oral history, two prominent leaders of the Dyu clan had Jewish fathers. During the early years of the colony, a Jewish militia was formed to protect the plantations.
In my limited research among Maroon communities, none of the residents ever shared with me any oral histories that detailed interaction between Maroons and Jews. However, when I lived among Dyu People, they did tell me that their ancestors were slaves in Jewish plantations. Nevertheless, based on oral histories documented by Maroon historians, I believe there are oral histories that describe interactions between Maroons and Jews. Although the communities where I lived and worked with were very welcoming, there is still a deep distrust of foreigners. As a result, it is unlikely that those stories would be shared with outsiders, even with someone like me who spent over two years living and working in a Maroon community. I also must add that the connections between Jews and Maroons in Suriname are a very small part of Maroons’ rich Afro-American culture, and well below the surface.
While living in an Aukan community, I was often surprised by the similarities of traditions between Maroons and Jews. For instance, the mourning process for Aukans reminds me of the Jewish mourning process of sitting shiva. In Jewish custom, we don’t mourn the life of the dead with all-night parties, but they do in Maroon communities and call the events broko deis, or break the days. Jews share with them the custom of having visitors, eating well, and not doing work for a given period of time. The mourners in both cultures sit on distinctly low stools and, originally, all Aukan mourners were forbidden to look at mirrors and men forbidden to shave, just like shiva.
The day after burial, there is traditional drumming, singing, and dancing all night. On nights like that, I felt like I was in Africa, not South America. On the eighth day after a person’s death, there is once again traditional music, but powerful speaker systems are usually brought in to blast contemporary dance music as well.
Though similarities in the mourning process may be coincidental, there seem to be dietary references that appeared to be influenced by Jewish custom. The word treif, pronounced teefu in Aukan, is commonly used in the local languages to indicate a food allergy. Many Aukans say that pig is a treif because it makes their skin break out into white splotches. A word related to kosher, kaseri, is used with less frequency. Kaseri indicates the rules of conduct, including diet, one must abide by when undergoing bush medical treatment. The matrilineal head of the village that I lived in is a bush doctor. Maroons in Suriname, by the way, are matrilineal societies like Jews.
Aukan and other Suriname Maroon customs surrounding menstruation also may imply a Jewish influence. When a Maroon adult woman “receives moon sickness” she does not enter her home, must not touch men, does not cook, sleeps in a special building with others who are menstruating, and ritually cleanses herself when she “comes outside.”
Regardless of the unnerving information on Jewish slave ownership that I discovered, I did my best to represent the United States and my own heritage as a secular Jew and the son of kibbutz founders in a positive light. During my tenure in Suriname, I believe I accomplished many good works. I worked with the villagers to complete a large-scale water project enabling three villages to have access to cleaner rain water as opposed to drinking from the local river. When researching the purchase of rain-collecting durotanks, I eventually found the main distributor of durotanks in Suriname. When I heard his last name and began negotiating on the phone, I began to wonder if he was Jewish. When we eventually met at his warehouse, I found out that he was in fact Jewish and had previously been the president of the local synagogue. We exchanged words in Hebrew, listened to classical music, discussed Israeli politics, and the importance of Shabbat and family. During our conversations we found out that we had the same birthday on the following day. The prices for the durotanks and his help throughout the project ensured its success.
In addition to the water project, I taught English; worked at a local boarding school; led a preschool; promoted health, such as HIV/AIDS awareness, and facilitated a women’s income-generating cassava mill project.
When I left the bush and was able to go to the capital of Paramaribo, I attended services at the Neve Shalom Synagogue. The other synagogue in Paramaribo, called Zedek Ve Shalom, is now used as an internet cafe’, its furnishings currently located at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Some of the existing members of the Suriname Jewish community, those who have not left or completely assimilated into the local population, go to synagogue Saturday morning and Friday nights two times a month. They fill a few rows of the majestic synagogue, which one can imagine used to be filled with hundreds of Jews observing holidays and spiritedly praying, as small children played on the sand floor and mothers looked on from the balcony.
The Jewish community of Suriname was incredibly kind to me during my stay in their country, inviting me to become a member of their community from day one. Certain leaders of the congregation are descendents of the Abarbanel family, one of the most esteemed Jewish families from Spain. The Abarbanels believe they are descended from King David. The family chose to emigrate from Spain during the Inquisition rather than to convert to Catholicism.
It is clear that the Jewish history of Suriname is one of the most important and unique in the Americas. With the research efforts of Jewish community members in Suriname and Jews abroad, as well as the upcoming release of several historical books, I am hopeful that this remarkable country and its Jewish community will be better known.
As noted above, I revised this article since its publication in Kulanu’s Fall 2008 newsletter. What spurred the revisions, which especially impacted the following paragraphs, was a letter-to-the-editor from Rachel Frankel, who has co-authored a book with Aviva Ben-Ur, entitled Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries and Synagogue of Suriname, due out in March 2009. The book is being published by Hebrew Union College Press. In addition to Ms. Frank’s letter were comments by Jacob Steinberg, a Kulanu board member, an active contributor to the Suriname Jewish community and founder of the Chai Membership Program, a fundraising source for the community. My own research has come a long way since March of 2008 and has also impacted this revision.
In my earlier version of this article, I had written that the first Jewish settlers in Suriname arrived in the early 1600s and began life in Torarica, the first capital of Suriname. Torarica, Portuguese meaning “rich Torah,” is no longer inhabited, though the name is used by the most prestigious hotel in Paramaribo.
Frankel writes, “The first Jews of Suriname settled predominantly on the banks of the Suriname River within the Division of Thorarica. Mr. Fierst, like many others before him, confuses the Division of Thorarica with the important seventeenth century Suriname town of Thorarica. Jews did not settle in the town of Thorarica nor did Thorarica mean “rich Torah” to Suriname’s Portuguese speaking Sephardim.” Shortly after writing the article in March 2007, based on discussions in Suriname, I also began questioning the definition of Thorarica. The debate, however, is not over.
There are still those who believe that the word Thorarica does in fact mean “rich in Torah” and there does not seem to be sufficient evidence to provide definitive proof either way. In an email discussion we have been having, Steinberg wrote that “from the Encyclopedia of the West Indies … the name Torarica is probably in the Arowakse Indian language ‘The place where the whites live.’ Many of the nearby plantations were named after biblical locations such as Goshen, Machnaim, Carmel, Sukkot etc., and there is strong reason to believe that the name Torarica is related to ‘rich Torah.'”
Nowadays at Jodensavanne, which means Jews Savanna and was also known as “Jerusalem by the river-side,” amidst the bush spilling into the river, a dock and steps lead up to the remains of a large red brick synagogue. Behind the synagogue are hills of Jewish graves surrounded by the rain forest. Estimates are that by the end of the 17th century, Jodensavanne was home to 40 plantations, 600 Jews, and more than 9000 slaves.
Frankel writes that, “Also incorrect are the slave population statistics for late 17th century Jodensavanne; in 1684 Suriname’s Jews owned 1,298 slaves (not 9,000).” I am inclined to agree with Frankel. Many websites and documents use the number 9,000. I believe the source of this figure is the Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam 1788, page 44, written by several members of the Portuguese Jewish community. Based on further readings in reliable academic works, I now understand that the numbers in the 1788 text were likely an exaggeration.
Although the Jewish community of Suriname had many years of economic success, the decline of the sugar cane industry, slave rebellions, an economic crash, and a substantial fire all contributed to the end of the Jodensavanne settlement. Members of a nearby Amerindian village now maintain the grounds.
Frankel also writes, “Stichting Jodensavanne is the organization having jurisdiction since 1971 over the cemeteries and synagogue remains at Jodensavanne. Over the last decade Stichting Jodensavanne, working with the semi-governmental STINASU, non-profit organizations including CVE (Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions) and ISJM (International Survey of Jewish Monuments), as well as individual Surinamers dedicated to the preservation of their cultural legacy, has shepherded the field work that has produced documentation of four historic Jewish cemeteries and the remains of the town of Jodensavanne. In addition Stichting Jodensavanne made Jodensavanne accessible to visitors by building a pier and installing signage as well as to contribute to the cost of publishing field documentation of Suriname’s historic Jewish cemeteries.”
This article is an introduction to the Jewish history of and legacy in Suriname. I endorse the idea that the Jewish community should be supported with visits, documentation, and funds. Suriname Jews would love for you to become a member of their community and stay at an apartment next to the synagogue; and they will even show you around the country. The Suriname Jews’ place in Jewish history must not be forgotten, even if their legacy is controversial.
If you are interested in supporting the Jewish community in Suriname, such as becoming a Chai member, please contact Jacob Steinberg. In the future, the Jewish community would like to be involved in Jewish tours to the country, which would likely include visits with community members, religious festivities, and tours to pertinent historical sites, like Jodensavanne. A tour might also include a visit to the interior rain forest.