New Developments in Caribbean Jewish Studies

When I first began looking at Jewish themes in Caribbean literature some 15 years ago, the scholarly context for this research wasn’t entirely clear to me. A rich historiography of Caribbean Jewry had begun to emerge in the work of scholars such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Jonathan Schorsch, building on earlier studies by Robert Cohen and others. However, the idea of Caribbean Jewish studies as a broader field of research—one that extended beyond the early modern period and the discipline of history—had not yet crystallized. Even now, it may be somewhat aspirational for me to identify Caribbean Jewish Studies as a field in its own right (it’s often subsumed under rubrics such as Atlantic Jewish studies and Latin American Jewish studies). But Caribbean Jewish scholarship does seem to have gained a new visibility lately.

Several recent major publications and symposia attest to how the field is consolidating itself and also diversifying. 2020 saw the publication of two major new works of Caribbean Jewish historiography: Stan Mirvis’ The Jews of Eighteenth-Century Jamaica: A Testamentary History of a Diaspora in Transition and Aviva Ben-Ur’s Jewish Autonomy in a Slave Society: Suriname in the Atlantic World, 1651-1825. Mirvis’ and Ben-Ur’s books address key sites of Jewish colonial settlement in the British and Dutch Caribbean respectively. Drawing on wills as its primary source base, Mirvis’ excellent microhistory of the Jamaican Jewish community examines eighteenth-century Jamaica as a site of “rejudaization” for former conversos. At the same time, Mirvis offers important new insights into varieties of whiteness in Jamaica and the place of Jewishness in the history of Jamaican creolization. While Jamaica’s eighteenth-century Jewish communal records were destroyed by a fire and earthquake, Suriname’s communal documents have survived. Drawing on this rich archive, Ben-Ur’s Jewish Autonomy resituates the Surinamese Jewish community’s colonial formation within an Atlantic history model that emphasizes contact and exchange and the deepening entanglement of Jewish and African-descended populations amid sharply asymmetrical relations of power.

In what I take to be a sign of the maturation of the field, Ben-Ur positions her study less as a defense of the field’s legitimacy—an attempt to rescue the Caribbean from its marginal position within Jewish studies—than as a corrective to previous Caribbean and Atlantic Jewish scholarship. She is critical of earlier work that has tended to focus on Jewish perspectives while relegating enslaved people to the position of passive observes of Jewish life. Centering the perspectives of enslaved people and Eurafrican Jews, Ben-Ur offers what I believe to be a really important conceptual and methodological model for future Caribbean Jewish scholarship—one that speaks to our current moment of reckoning with the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Among the key questions that Ben-Ur encourages us to grapple with are: What does it mean to understand Jews as settler colonists? What can Jewish studies contribute to the study of African diaspora experience? And how might the Caribbean theoretical paradigm of creolization help us to nuance and complicate our understanding of Jewish identities?

These last two questions will undoubtedly be taken up in powerful ways in Laura Leibman’s forthcoming book Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multi-Racial Jewish Family (due to be published in August), which I am excited to read. Adopting a material culture approach, Leibman’s account of a Barbadian family of African and Jewish ancestry aims to open up a larger story of multiracial Jews that until now has mostly been hidden from view. Caribbean Jewish creolization is also a central theme of a 2019 essay collection that I co-edited with Heidi Kaufman, Caribbean Jewish Crossings: Literary History and Creative Practice. Our collection expands the study of Caribbean Jewry both temporally and in terms of discipline by tracing the emergence of a Caribbean Jewish literary culture from the late eighteenth century through the twentieth century. The collection includes not only scholarship but also creative writing and essays by contemporary Caribbean authors.

Alongside these publications, two recent (April 2021) symposia confirmed some of these new directions in the field. A decade after the seminal conference “Jews in the Caribbean” (Kingston, Jamaica, 2010), the Katz Center’s “Atlantic Jewish Worlds 1500-1900” aimed to “explore what the study of Jewish history can contribute to our understanding of early American history beyond national frames of reference” (conference website). The symposium featured a keynote address by Aviva Ben-Ur on Jews’ sexual relations with enslaved people in Barbados and panels devoted to such topics as “Centering Africa and Its Diasporas” and “Parallel and Intersecting Emancipations,” suggesting a growing research emphasis on Jews’ entanglements with African-descended populations. Papers in the former panel examined the lives of enslaved people within Jewish households, emphasizing the need to try to overcome gaps and silences in archives. The latter panel considered dynamics of both connection and competition between abolitionist movements and the struggle for Jewish emancipation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The symposium “Next Year in the Caribbean: Race, Religion, and Roots in the Jewish Atlantic World,”organized by the Program in Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, similarly identified the Caribbean as an incubator of the convergence of Jewishness and Afro-Creole cultures. This symposium, in which I participated, not only addressed the colonial period but also moved into the post-emancipation period. It was also innovative in adopting an interdisciplinary framing that brought together historical scholarship with visual culture, literature, and music. The symposium included a keynote by Stan Mirvis on Jamaican Jewry and papers by Dana Rabin (on Jamaican Jewish suffrage), Dara Goldman (on contemporary Cuban literature and cultural production), Laura Leibman (on early 20th century Surinamese photography), and myself (on the World War II internment art of Surinamese painter Josef Nassy). Mirvis and Rabin addressed parallels and intersections between Jewish Jamaican and free people of color’s struggles for emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries while Laura Leibman and I focused on twentieth-century visual culture and self-fashioning by Surinamers of African and Sephardic Jewish ancestry. An Ashkenazi dimension was introduced into the discussion by Goldman through her analysis of Oskar Pinis’ 1931 Cuban Yiddish poem “Hatueyand its recent operatic adaptation. Through her reading of a Yiddish epic devoted to an Indigenous Taino leader and recited by Cuban schoolchildren in its Spanish translation, Goldman showed the need to recover Jewish presences in Cuban literary history and national narrative.

Increasingly, as Heidi Kaufman’s and my co-edited book and my earlier work attests, literary, aesthetic, and cultural dimensions of the Jewish Caribbean are being explored alongside historical questions regarding Jewish slaveholding, emancipation, communal governance, and religious observance. Methodological terms that are emerging as key to these discussions include entanglement, creolization, relationality and intersectionality. Central also to Caribbean Jewish studies is the relationship between Jewishness and race. Such research reveals the complex and unstable relationship of Jewishness to whiteness and Blackness in the Caribbean and the ways in which Jewish/Afro-Creole convergences have translated—or more often failed to translate—into solidarities and coalitions at different historical moments.

Perhaps the next stage in the Caribbean Jewish discussion will be to address not only how the boundaries of Jewish studies can be expanded but also how this scholarship can contribute to Caribbean studies. My sense is that it’s time to think not only about how we can decenter and decolonize Jewish studies but also how an analysis of Caribbean Jewishness can enrich discussions of creolization and Caribbean whiteness. As well, continuing to expand the temporal frame, we need to investigate further 19th and 20th century Caribbean Jewish cultural formations and also consider the particular forms that Jewishness takes on today in the 21st century Caribbean. This requires us to move away from Halachic definitions of Jewishness that have tended to obscure, or even discount, Caribbean Jewishness.



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Sarah Phillips Casteel is a Professor of English at Carleton University with co-appointments in the Institute of African Studies, the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, and the Bachelor in Global and International Studies. She is also a founding member of CTCA: the Centre for Transnational Cultural Analysis and MDS: Migration and Diaspora Studies.