The Caribbean, revisited in memory


Boys of my generation pretty much stayed put. We invented the idea of “staycation,” if not the word itself. Tires and gas were rationed, and even train travel was reserved for GIs.  We just journeyed around the block, or climbed the stairs, up and down, as if from cellar to attic were a voyage to an Alpine adventure. I’m only exaggerating a little. 

My true travels began as I was on the brink of turning 20. I reached my second decade of life on this planet in Paris!  From a Jewish perspective, I became a wondering, wandering person from that point onward.

In 1961, I went to Israel for its Bar Mitzvah, worked in a Galilean kibbutz, taught a bit in Tel Aviv, and wrote an opinion piece for The Providence Journal about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. 

Since that important milestone in my life, virtually all my pilgrimages have been a search for the secrets of Jewish survival and triumph over enormous odds.  

What stays with you after you get back to li’l Rhody and your intimate block in your native land? Very small details, mostly, like the salad breakfast on the kibbutz. 

But my purpose here is to review my multiple visits to the Caribbean in quest of the sites of the Sephardic footsteps that led toward our own Touro Synagogue, in Newport.

I went to Haiti, Guadeloupe (where very young girls, made up like 18th-century courtesans, dance to greet hotel guests) and Martinique, because I was teaching French to Peace Corps candidates at Brown and wanted to refresh my vocabulary and accent in the Gallic language of the European colonists. Count Rochambeau, so popular here, was not so acclaimed in Port au Prince, Haiti, where his family was seen as occupying oppressors, not liberators. 

On the other half of the Haitian island, of course, is the Dominican Republic, which welcomed German Jews in the Nazi era and still maintains an exquisite synagogue in Sosua. What do I picture of it in my memory? The splendid and cheerful stained glass windows depicting Torah scenes.

In no particular order, here are a few more snapshot recollections from ports among the islands and lands of turquoise tides, exotic as well as familiar birdsongs in the palms, perfumes, scents and tastes. 

Giant, silent blue butterflies crossing the rivers of Suriname. 

A divine quetzal bird in a hollow tree in Costa Rica. 

A giant statue of Christopher Columbus rising in Puerto Rico, a reverse dismemberment. 

St. Martin is half French and half Dutch, and you can spell it any way you choose or like better. There, I took a quick photo of a tombstone with a rose carved on it: a sign of Jewish presence under the tolerant influence of the Netherlands, where refugees from Portugal could find shelter during the infamous Inquisition.   

In Jamaica, the omnipresent hummingbird comes to you, even seeming to direct your hikes, like a soul incarnate and benevolent. 

St. Thomas was the birthplace of the Impressionist movement in French painting, because Camille Pissarro was born and bred there. Pissarro depicted the lives of the indigenous people and the exploited Africans without conventional or condescending pity, but quite straightforwardly, perhaps as a rebuke to the dominance of church and military. 

And Curaçao protects the golden beauty and pride of its synagogue, in the center of the city, and its culture.  

I suppose I should include the Bahamas and Barbados, so here’s one or two odd details from each:  

In the Bahamas, I was shown proud photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in full royal regalia. Despite their dreadful, fateful, disreputable flaws in judgment, they did in fact help to support tourism simply by the glamour of their costumes and the pathos of their lonely elopement ... something like that.   

From Barbados, frankly, I remember pathetic stray dogs daring to enter the luxurious poolside patio, and native parrots confined to decorative cages to amuse the tourist crowds.

I would like to add two other places, which I have not, in fact, as yet, set foot in. Guatemala, where the government chose to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Guatemala, which welcomed our local Betty Adler, escaping from Nazi Germany, and from which sojourn she keeps and shares gratitude and souvenirs galore. Guatemala, which uses that fabulous quetzal as its emblem, a symbol which I cherish.  

And finally, I would like to imagine a future trip to the island of St. Eustatius. Perhaps you may know of its importance to our entire United States of America, not just Roger Williams’ colony. The Jewish community there in the 18th century was prosperous, abundant and thriving. They supplied weapons to Gen. George Washington to support the War of Independence, for which noble gesture they suffered greatly and paid an enormous price.  British Adm. Lord Rodney robbed them, exiled them, and destroyed their synagogue and mikveh, even while the English government protested his excessive outrage. Their Jews scattered, with most settling in nearby St. Thomas. 

Stepping stones, skipping stones, mourning stones.

These pleasant sojourns in “resorts” have contributed to my inner discussion about what American Judaism has come to mean, now, to us.  

“We” are mostly connected to the Ashkenazic immigrant generations, derived from diverse conditions in Russia, East and Central Europe, Germany, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia .... But the first Rhode Island Hebrew congregations, as we know, were built by Sephardic refugees from Spain and Portugal, who followed the charts and logs of Columbus among those islands “occupied,” if you will, by Denmark, France, Spain, the Netherlands.   

And where are we heading in our own generations? Are we likewise vanishing, to leave behind just a few rocks that point to Jewish settlements that have, like many before, sunk or burned or been blown away?   

What do we believe?  What do we share?   

My questions have roots in my childhood and my “answers” come from my schools and nearby libraries, from itineraries in the Holy Land, from the awful sites of the death camps (I mean the Murder Camps), to the Iberian Peninsula and the Caribbean.   

The Caribbean is hardly just a region for rest and relaxation. Rather, it is a melancholy zone steeped in nuanced meanings. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, in 1943, in their underappreciated film masterpiece, “I Walked with a Zombie,” captured the tragic aspect of islands haunted by a history of slavery and exile.  Nightmare as well as dream. A different kind of beauty apart from ordinary tourism.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.