Houses of Life: The Jewish Cemeteries of Jamaica
by Rachel Frankel, guest contributor
At the outskirts of Kingston lies Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery, Jamaica’s oldest burial ground still in use today. The cemetery has recently been inventoried and mapped, and is now a Jamaica National Heritage Trust Site. Inventory work continues this month on another cemetery in Jamaica, the Orange Street Jewish Cemetery, a 200-year-old bet haim (“house of life”).
Jamaica’s several Jewish cemeteries, which ring this Caribbean island, are not wholly preserved, accessible, or undisturbed, but they contain over three continuous centuries of gravestone imagery, epitaphic language, genealogy, burial patterns, and cemetery site design. Thanks in part to the United Congregation of Israelites Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Jamaica and Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions, these New World necropolises are undergoing inventory, analysis, and preservation.
The Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery is located across the harbor from Port Royal. Its oldest grave dates to 1672. The cemetery served the local colonial Sephardi community for well over one hundred years, and embodies Messianic theology. It also incorporates versatility as evidenced by multi-lingual epitaphs in Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, and English; Jewish and Christian calendar systems; and fused artistry.
The Orange Street Cemetery is one of the island’s newest Jewish cemeteries, established in the early 19th century by the Kingston congregation on what was then the northern fringes of the commercial capital. Today the burial ground continues to serve as the final resting place for the island’s Sephardim and more recently for its Ashkenazim (Jews of Western Europe) and Jewish progeny of European origin, as well as Jews and non-Jews of African descent. The Jewish cemeteries of Jamaica hold the remains and funerary monuments of important individuals and reflect almost 350 years of Israelite burial practice and Jewish identity in the specific context of Jamaica.
While co-religionists in Poland, Iberia, and elsewhere in Europe fled from anti-Semitic environments, Jews in Jamaica, and their co-religionists in other New World settlements in Suriname, Curacao, Barbados, St. Thomas, St. Eustatius, Nevis, and New York incorporated refugees into their nascent communities. In the early generations, themes of deliverance prevailed worldwide, as evidenced by Manasseh ben Israel’s book The Hope of Israel, about the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi and a renewed interest in the Hebrew bible among New World Puritans. Ezekielian skull and cross bone imagery on the gravestones of Hunts Bay’s first generation of interments and its relative disappearance after the calamitous earthquake of 1692 reflect Jamaican Sephardi responses to Messianism in its first decades of settlement. The cemetery’s southeast burial orientation — not toward the Land of Israel — suggests the primacy of something of the congregation’s own creation.
Jamaican Jewry is most evident on the compound of the United Congregation of Israelites Shaare Shalom on Duke Street in Kingston. In the beautiful century-old synagogue building under a magnificent barrel-vaulted ceiling, lay leaders conduct services attended by members of its 200-person congregation, which is ethnically but not culturally diverse. Not all of Jamaica’s Jews belong to this congregation. Some associate with rabbis and congregations in New York, Miami, and elsewhere. The expansive and wonderful Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center is also located within the compound. It boasts an interesting permanent exhibit and frequently hosts school trips and community events.
Hunts Bay Cemetery, and to some degree the 19th-century Falmouth Jewish Cemetery on the island’s north coast, both long closed and now preserved, bear witness to the time when Jamaica was an emerging and variant colony characterized by political tolerance and abundant undeveloped terrain. This was a period when Jamaica’s Jews adhered to their faith yet were distant if not isolated from rabbinical authority. Today, the ongoing use of the enormous centralized Orange Street Jewish Cemetery eludes the documentarians’ efforts to conclusively catalogue, the analysts’ to fully comprehend, and the preservationists’ to wholly determine the bet haim, but it testifies to the continuation and evolvement of Jewish life in Jamaica.
Rachel Frankel is an architect in New York. She serves as vice president for the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, is the co-author of Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries of Suriname, and currently leads the Jewish cemetery documentation work in Jamaica.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction on January 20, 2011:
An earlier version of this article misstated that the Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery is on the outskirts of Port au Prince. It is Kingston.