An American Abroad

The Oldest Synagogue in Continuous Use in the Americas

On the day before Yom Kippur, I skipped lunch and walked over to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue here in Willemstad, a temple which holds the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. It dates from 1732 and is actually the second synagogue to be consecrated on the same site. The first temple there was built in 1674.

The congregation dates from the 1650s and originally consisted of Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil. As the brochure I was given proudly claims, “Although Curaçao may now seem like a remote outpost of the Jewish world, Mikvé Israel is still known as ‘The Mother Congregation of the Americas.'”

The first thing I noticed when I entered the temple was that I needed to don a kippot (yarmulke). During my travels, I’ve had to put on white sarong to enter Buddhist temples and female friends of mine have been asked to cover their heads when entering Islamic mosques. Different strokes for different folks; this was no big deal to me.

The next thing I noticed was that the floor of the temple was covered with sand. According to the brochure, there are three reasons for this:

The first is that our synagogue, like many traditional Spanish/Portuguese synagogues, is modeled after the encampment, which our forefathers established in the Sinai desert during their forty years of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land. Our tebah in the middle is the Tabernacle and the congregants are like the twelve tribes surrounding it for its protection.

The second reason relates to the origins of our congregants whose ancestors were, for the most part, ‘secret’ Jews or ‘Conversos’ living in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition until their emigration to the Netherlands and other countries. After settling in Curaçao, our ancestors remembered how their forefathers put sand on the floor of the secret rooms in which they worshipped to help muffle the sounds during their services. If discovered they would have suffered lifelong imprisonment, loss of all property and often burning at the stake. The sand on the floor serves thus as a reminder of the remarkable faith and courage of these Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the face of such terror.

The third reason is to symbolize that God said unto Abraham: ‘I will multiply your seeds as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heavens’ (Genesis 13:16).”

The third thing I noticed was a stately pipe organ situated up in the balcony over the entrance. Though I’ve spent much of my life in the company of Jewish people, I have only been in a synagogue once before, so I can’t say whether this is typical – but it surprised me. The pipe organ was installed in 1866 and is in need of repair now, so it probably will not be used for Yom Kippur services.

And the final thing I noticed was that despite the Middle Eastern origins of Judaism, this old synagogue is at heart a very Caribbean building, with multiple windows on each floor that let the cooling sea breezes. The windows have blue-tinted half-rounds above them and the colored light makes the sanctuary look cooler than it probably is.

In preparations for the high holy day, the bulbs in most of the chandeliers and sconces had been replaced with tapers. This is done just once a year, I was told. I thought it would be nice to see this chamber lit by flickering candles.

The synagogue is just one of several buildings inside the walled compound. The others include a museum and a gift shop.

This was another first for me: I don’t recall the other places of worship I’ve visited as having gift shops. But then Mikvé Israel is more than a temple – it’s a tourist attraction of historical interest. The non-Jewish people in Curacao I’ve talked to about it seem very proud of it, almost sentimental. Curaçaoans, I have learned, are a very tolerant people who take pride in their heritage as a refuge for the oppressed.

The last thing I saw as I left the temple grounds was a brass plaque fixed to the exterior walls documenting a 1992 visit by Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus, “commemorating the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and expressing gratitude to the House of Orange for granting them four centuries of religious freedom.”

That’s a legacy to be proud of.

Santo Domingo: The Zona Colonial

My visit to the Dominican Republic was all too short. So as not to spread myself too thin or spend too much of my time in transit, I concentrated on the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first permanent European city in the New World and the only such city founded before 1500. It’s certainly a tourist spot, but it’s also a very real neighborhood that houses the rich, the poor, and those in between.

Since this part of the city was built by the Spanish colonists, it’s not surprising to find monuments and street names honoring Christopher Columbus. Columbus has fallen out of favor in the more developed world for being a plunderer, a colonizer, an initiator of genocide, and an all-around disagreeable person. So it’s ironic that he is still quite popular in the land where he committed the depredations he is so stridently accused of.

One of the things the Spaniards did in pretty quick order was to build fortifications around city to protect it — not from the native population, but from other colonial powers that might try to muscle in on their good thing. This watchtower overlooks the approach to the Santo Domingo harbor. On the day I was there, the watch was kept by a dog enjoying the relative cool of the shade.

The Spanish also brought Catholicism to Santo Domingo, a legacy that lives in the faith of its people and in the ancient churches that dot the Zona Colonial.

Where else could you see Job: The Musical but in a seriously religious country?

Even comparatively recent residential buildings bear a strong Spanish influence.

The Ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco

There are so many ancient churches, convents, and monasteries in Santo Domingo that it seems like the authorities have forgotten about half of them. One such unrestored site is the Monasterio de San Francisco and was located just a few blocks from the hostel. The 16th century ruins were gated and shuttered, but I was able to find my way in.

And then, while I was traipsing around the ruins while wearing nothing on my feet but Teva sandals, I glanced down . . . and every old-brain fight-or-flight neuron blazed on and time slowed to a turtle speed and my vision became sharper and narrower and every muscle in my body tensed and my heart slammed into overdrive. Only then did I realize it was an old shoe, not a snake.

Which raises interesting questions: what is a single woman’s shoe doing there?

Signs of Santo Domingo

I’m a sucker for the written word. At age ten, I went to summer sleep-away camp and quickly became noted (mocked) for reading books, newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes while other kids were out playing. The reading habit has stuck with me throughout my travels. I’ve posted photo essays about signs in Chefchaouen (Morocco), Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Fes (Morocco). I’ve also documented graffiti around the world.

So on my recent trip to Santo Domingo, I took pictures in the Zona Colonial of the written word.

Christianity is abundantly represented in Santo Domingo, from the city’s very name to the names of the streets to the abundance of 500 year old churches that dot the Zona Colonial. There are religious references in many of the city’s signs. But I was more interested in the informal religious signs, like this one that says, simply, “Believe in God.” And I was amused that next to this profound message was a sticker from the Geto Boys’ album “We Can’t Be Stopped.”

A more complex message is delivered by this one that says “If God does not assume it, the people will assume it.” The “it” in this case is presumably responsibility — or power.

Surprisingly, not all the religious signs I saw were Christian, such as this building with a Buddhist symbol (and a translation conveniently scrawled above it) .

Other messages were more political. This one articulates one of my own deepest convictions: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

And this one, which is a quote from Juan Pablo Duarte (1813 – 1876), of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic: “It has never been more necessary than today to have health, heart, and judgment. Today men without judgment and without heart conspire against the health of the country.” Appropriately enough, it was painted on a wall outside a health clinic. It sounds remarkably like some of the rhetoric that we hear in America today over healthcare policy.

I was pleased to see this sign on a second-floor balcony near where I was staying. The rainbow flag needs no translation; the caption on it reads “Normalizacion LGBTI Dominicana.”

This plaque above an old building on the Conde, Santo Domingo’s walking street, commemorates “intellectuals and artists” who were exiled from Spain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plaque anywhere in America honoring “intellectuals” as a class. It’s nice to see that in some parts of the world, the term is not a dirty word.

I was also glad to see that honest-to-goodness real newspapers and newspaper vendors still exist in the Dominican Republic. Their headlines are just as dramatic as those of US tabloids. The first paper’s headline reads, “Shocking Murder of Three Teenagers.” The second from a communist paper, says, “Corruption and Impunity Are Inherent in Capitalism.” And the third luridly announces, “Cruelty! Emily Perguero Was Beaten on the Head Until Her Skull Caved In and her Uterus Was Pierced to Induce an Abortion.”

In a residential area, I saw this sign marking the headquarters of the Board of Neighbors of St. Nicholas de Bari.

Nearby was a nice-looking little restaurant that, unfortunately, was closed each time I passed it.

Back at the pool at Island Life Backpackers Hostel, these signs conveyed perfectly the very British sensibilities of its proprietor.

Nicaragua 2008: La Catedral de Granada

The cathedral of Granada is surely the most photographed building in town. It’s impossible to miss. No matter where we were in Granada, we could see its cheery neoclassical yellow towers in the distance.

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The original church at this spot was built in 1583. But when the American filibuster and conqueror of Nicaragua, William Walker, came to town in 1855 and began his mad attempt to take control of all Central America. His troops destroyed that building and much of the rest of the city the following year. Construction of a new cathedral began in the late 19th century, but was halted several times due to lack of funds. It was finally finished in 1915.

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Because Holy Week preparations were going on, we were unable to get any further inside than the reception area just past the exterior doors. But there, taped to a wall, we spied this charming admonishment.

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Even with my kitchen Spanish, I was able to understand this and appreciate its gentle humor. It says:

When you come to the temple and bring your cell phone, turn it off, because here you don’t need it to talk to God. The only phone you need to speak with God is prayer. Thank you.

Nicaragua 2008: Good Friday Parade

As night fell on our first day in Granada, we heard the sounds of a crowd and the buzz of a small engine coming from the street. I grabbed my camera and went out to see. The streets were aswarm with people. Considering their numbers, though, it was a pretty quiet affair. A long line of people passed quietly by us.

We saw the focal point of the evening toward the end of the subdued parade line. A wood and glass coffin, surrounded by flowers, was being carried atop a cart. The coffin was lit by spotlights powered by a portable gasoline-powered generator, which was sitting on another cart riding behind. Inside the coffin was a female department store mannequin which had been, shall we say, repurposed to resemble the popular image of Jesus: soft features, long curly locks, beard, white skin, and an almost effeminate countenance. Compounding the androgynous appearance was the fact that the figure was wearing a white lacy skirt. His (her?) body was streaked with blood-red gashes. Behind the coffin were two angels and a large cross draped with white linen.

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Not having been raised in a Catholic neighborhood, I wasn’t sure what was going on at first. Then it clicked with me that this was Good Friday, a holiday about which I had only a dim secular humanist awareness and understanding. I soon figured out that this parade was a reenactment of Jesus’ burial. I wasn’t sure what was cool to do. Could I join in the parade? Could I take pictures? I didn’t want to piss anyone off on my first night in Nicaragua, so for the most part I stood curbside and watched.

I was struck by the immediacy of the proceedings. This was not the abstract American Jesus; this was a bloody, mutilated likeness. It was the barbarous act of crucifixion made real. It wasn’t a priest saying “Jesus suffered and died”; it was showing, not telling. My son and I appeared to be the only gringos in the crowd. I felt privileged to be there.

Later that evening, when Spencer and I ventured out for a beer, we saw this figure (Mary? a local saint?) apparently waiting to be seated at the café.

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Strange big-headed blow-up dolls also circulated among the throngs of Good Friday celebrants.

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The religious procession by this point had given way to more secular concerns of eating, drinking, and relaxing. Strolling musicians came by and parked at our table for awhile.

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Tired from our travels, but feeling delighted and welcomed by the parade we had just witnessed, we then returned to the hotel and a sound night’s sleep.

In Memory of Those Killed in Paris Today

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The right to free expression includes the right to satirize and make fun of religion. And for this basic principle, twelve people were slaughtered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine.

Sheep Everywhere

As Eid al-Adha approaches, sheep are everywhere in and around Sousse. Sacrificing a sheep or other animal is a symbolic acknowledgement of the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Ishmael because god commanded it, and god’s last minute provision of a lamb to slaughter instead.

As I walked to work the other day, I passed through a herd of about six dozen sheep, a dozen goats, some dogs, and three shepherds who were on their way into town. (I now have to mind the sheep dung as I walk through my neighborhood.) As I was driven south to Mahdia, I saw many enterprising shepherds selling their animals by the roadside. I also saw individual sheep in the back of trucks taking their last rides.

Sheep are expensive. A decent-sized one goes for between 500 and 700 TND ($275 to $390), an enormous sum in this developing country.

Even electronics stores try to cash in on the upcoming festivities. Check out this ad circular for televisions and laptops:

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As both an animal lover and a meat lover, I’m of two minds about slaughtering sheep. I feel sorry for the sheep patiently waiting by the side of the road to be purchased, brought home, and ritually slaughtered. It seems barbaric. But how hypocritical of me, a guy who likes his lamb chops as well as well as the next man. I’m used to buying them shrink-wrapped in a grocery store. At least Tunisians know what’s on the end of their forks.