After a week of attending a Jewish conference here, I’m starting to feel like everybody in Jamaica has some kind of connection to Judaism.
Ainsley Henriques, the don of the local community, says thousands of Jamaicans have Jewish backgrounds, though they don’t identify as Jews. A scan of the local telephone directory seems to confirm his claim: Thousands of Cohens, Levys and Gabays are listed. But the local Jewish congregation numbers a mere 200 members.
Take Jamaican dance-hall musician Sean Paul, for example. His paternal grandfather was a Jew whose surname was Henriques, the same as Ainsley’s.
Another famous islander with Jewish roots is Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records who made a fortune signing and promoting the likes of Bob Marley, U2 and Oasis. Blackwell’s mother’s maiden name was Lindo, which is one of the prominent Jewish families on the island.
Henriques believes there is strong evidence that Harry Belafonte has ties to Judaism, too. He says the famous calypso singer’s father was born in Jamaica and his surname is a corruption of Delevante, one of the island’s Jewish clans.
Perhaps the most surprising claim of Jewish ties may be from Louis Farrakhan. Henriques said that on a tour of the synagogue in Kingston, the Nation of Islam leader told him that he believed he had Jewish Portuguese ancestors on his paternal side who were Jamaican. No inquiries have been made to confirm the claim, however.
With so many people from Jamaica having Jewish connections, one cannot help but ask about Marley. But Henriques is quick to dismiss such speculation about the reggae king.
“No, I know the family quite well and they’re not Jewish,” Henriques said. “One of his sons is married to an Israeli, but he himself has no Jewish ancestry.”