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.

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.

Arrival in Santo Domingo

Jesus picked me up at the airport and drove me into Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. We zipped along a roadway with the Caribbean on our left and the city on our right. At some point the road jogged north and we couldn’t see the sea.

We passed by a mile-long row of car wash entrepreneurs. They had industrial-sized plastic water tanks as big as garden sheds, buckets with soapy water, and gasoline-fueled power washers. When cars heading toward us pulled over, whole families of car washers sprang into action. From the look of the finished product – Japanese cars with gleaming body panels and windshield wipers angled up like insect antennae – they did a hell of a job.

Jesus was driving like a cowboy, cutting and weaving and laying heavy on the horn, when a huge grey concrete hulk came into view. A prison, I thought. It was massive and had what looked like large windows, but were actually just blank rectangles recessed into the walls. The walls themselves tilted at a menacing angle. It looked like the kind of place the dictatorship would lock you up in and torture you til you begged to die.

“What’s that?” I asked Jesus. I was fearful of the answer.

“That’s the monument to Cristóbal Colón, Christopher Columbus,” he said. “Built for the five hundred years anniversary of him landing in Santo Domingo. It forms a cross when you look at it from an airplane.”

Maybe it’s beautiful from 10,000 feet with a vodka in your hand, but from the window’s of Jesus’s Toyota, it’s ugly and terrifying. Maybe that was the architect’s point. I didn’t get a picture of it, but it looks like this.

Jesus dropped me off at the Island Life Backpackers Hostel in the Zona Colonial. Schumacher the blue Great Dane gave me an enthusiastic greeting when I walked in. No – that’s not true at all. Schumacher barely registered my presence, even when I got down on the floor to take his picture.

The proprietor, Chris, was more convivial. English. From the south. Backpacked here years ago, fell in love with the place, bought some decaying 17th century buildings in the Zona Colonial, worked like a demon to rehab them. Three years later, he opened for business. I chose the bottom bunk in a four-bed room at $19 a night (breakfast included), locked up my satchel, and went down to the bar and ordered myself my first Presidente beer.

It’s the low season and the place was only one third full. I headed to the cool of the courtyard.

A Danish hippie sat at a table looking through a pile of paperbacks and a pretty girl in a long skirt made herself something to eat and sacked out in a hammock. I love hostels. And I was particularly glad to be in Santo Domingo. I was here:

My Travel Essays & Articles

In the last two years, I’ve had various articles and essays published by the Village Voice of Ottawa Hills, my hometown’s monthly newspaper. They have graciously permitted me to repost those pieces here.

Your Miserable Life Will Soon Be Over

Mom-and-Pop Businesses and BMWs

Where English is a Pose

High Standards and Student Rights

Elephant Unemployment in Northern Laos

Taking the Road to Fuxian Lake

Expatriate Year

Why Would You Want to Go There?

Tunisia: A New Democracy is Born

When American Values Collide with Tunisian Society

Copyright Village Voice of Ottawa Hills. Used by permission.

The Murals of Toledo’s Old South End

Toledo’s Central Union Station, where my sons and I have caught the Lake Shore Limited east many times, is situated in the city’s Old South End. I had gone down to the tracks there to photograph an antique steam locomotive as it chuffed through Toledo on its way to Youngstown for a special whoop-de-doo. Like many such events, there was about an hour of waiting and about a minute of what I’d really come to see. Since I was already in the neighborhood, I decided to explore.

This part of town now has a significant Hispanic population, a fact that’s reflected in the public artwork there. Many of the murals had been designed by Mario Acevedo Torero, a Peruvan artist who has an ongoing relationship with students of Bowling Green State University, a large state school about a half hour south of Toledo. The murals were in good condition, with very little overtagging or other defacing.

The murals were painted on the concrete supports for a large overhead highway. They made what might otherwise have been a grim (or even forbidding) environment feel loved, tended to, and peopled.

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The murals below adorned the exterior walls of Adelante, a Latino community organization.

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I liked the idea behind the two pieces below. The use of the blank faces encourages viewers to see themselves — or maybe their friends and family members — as the artist’s subjects. Fill in the blank: you, too, can be famous.

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The one institution that I remember from years back that’s still in operation is the Green Lantern, a classic burger café that’s been continuously operated at the same spot since 1927. I’ve never eaten there myself (I think I popped in for coffee once several years ago), but it gets rave reviews from the diner aficionados on Yelp.

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Outsized portraits of American heroes such as Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King graced the sides of several old buildings on Broadway. These, too, were painted by a BGSU group.

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It was encouraging to see that even on obviously decrepit and decaying buildings, someone had made an effort to make them look cheerier.

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Less lawful artwork could be found under the highway and atop a nearby water tower.

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Oh, and the steam train I came out to see? Here it is: The Nickel Plate Road No. 765. Quite a machine to behold.

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Fourth of July, Toledo, Ohio in Color

Red, white and blue for the holiday, plus assorted greens, yellows, angels, and a cat. Photos I shot today in my hometown.

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