Jewish Life In Kingston Town


Note: This is the first of two articles on Jamaica.

For those who complain that Caribbean resorts are too plastic, too generic or lacking in local culture, Kingston is the antidote.

“You’re going to Kingston?” asked a fellow passenger on the flight from Miami in disbelief. Like most people on the plane, he was part of the vast Miami Jamaican diaspora — and he wasn’t used to the idea of a tourist in his hometown, since most visitors head directly for the resorts of Montego Bay, Negril or Ocho Rios.

Kingston is not an easy city to love. It has a dodgy reputation in terms of safety, and its crumbling downtown is a sad shell of the grand colonial port that was, in the 19th century, among the New World’s richest. But it is impossible to really get to know Jamaica and its fascinating, multiethnic society without spending time in its capital.

I had come to explore the deep and compelling culture of Jamaican Jewry — a legacy that dates back nearly 500 years, to Iberian Sephardim who fled the Inquisition for New World opportunity. Joined over the centuries by European Ashkenazim, and later Israelis and a smattering of Americans, the Jewish merchant community flourished on an island rich with sugar, rum, coffee and bauxite.

Like the island itself, the Jamaican Jewish community has seen more prosperous days; as the post-colonial economy struggled, young Jews increasingly moved abroad to study and stayed.

But as I learned during several days mingling with the quirky, eclectic congregation at Shaare Shalom, the island’s only remaining synagogue, Jewish life remains a vital and singular facet of the country’s ethnic mosaic — and the focus of a new effort to revitalize the community by encouraging Jewish-heritage tourism.

As I discovered, Kingston offers an engaging roster of sights with deep, often surprising connections to Jewish culture. The obvious place to start is the synagogue itself — a graceful structure with an immaculate ivory façade and a soaring, sunlit interior with a white-sand floor.

On a Friday night, there were perhaps two to three dozen people at temple, an enthusiastic mix of ages and races. Over a post-service nosh of guava cake and Israeli salad the following day, many of these locals spoke of their pride at being part of a community that — while a tiny religious minority in an emphatically Christian land — is among the island’s oldest and most successful groups. Many seemed eager to grasp onto any Jewish heritage, however tenuous; as throughout the New World, assimilation and intermarriage are rampant, and the only practical way to marry Jewish is to import a spouse from abroad.

As I strolled around the well-kept cemetery and lawns outside, it was obvious why membership in this community is so appealing: the prosperity gap is severe between Jamaica’s well-to-do merchant class — of which Jews are historically prominent — and everyone else. Shaare Shalom is easily one of the best-maintained and most attractive buildings in Kingston, while the scene just across the street — a weed-choked vacant lot with prowling dogs, a shanty collapsing on itself — spoke of grinding island poverty.

George Stiebel, reportedly Jamaica’s first millionaire, embodied these contrasts: his father was a German Jew; his mother, a Jamaican housekeeper. Stiebel worked his way up from manual trades to gold mining in South America, and when he returned to Kingston, he commissioned a mansion that is now among the capital’s most beloved landmarks.

Devon House, built in the 1880s, was later the home of a succession of Sephardic-Jewish families whose black-and-white portraits still grace the walls. Today the grounds include formal gardens, a café and an ice-cream parlor. Costumed guides take visitors through the main house, whose graceful period furniture — including vintage toilets and hidden staircases – reveal a bygone way of life.

Stiebel may have been the first millionaire, but Bob Marley is surely Jamaica’s most successful export. Marley — the iconic reggae star whose songs define island culture — has been dead for nearly as long as he was alive, but his image, lyrics and memorabilia are ubiquitous throughout Kingston.

Never particularly a fan of reggae, I was surprised at how interesting I found the Bob Marley Museum, a two-story wooden house where Marley lived and recorded music. The tiny, airless rooms, creaky floorboards and makeshift kitchen seemed endearingly modest for such a major star.

Like Stiebel and so many Jamaicans, Marley came from a multiethnic family, the son of an African Jamaican and a British military officer. And here again was a Jewish tie: with album titles like “Exodus” and repeated references to Babylon, Israel and the Bible, Marley drew clear parallels between Israelite and African liberation.

Next up was the National Gallery, housed in a Brutalist building near the waterfront. That few tourists venture downtown is evident in the rundown blocks devoid of the restaurants and stores typical in other cities — yet the trip is worthwhile for this thoughtfully presented collection.

Well-lit galleries showcase island art all the way back to the indigenous Taínos and the brief period of Spanish rule. But the highlight, both artistically and Jewishly, is a second-floor exhibit of 19th-century art featuring the paintings of Isaac Mendes Belisario, a Jew born in Kingston in 1795. Belisario studied art in Britain before returning to Jamaica just as emancipation was roiling the island — the 1830s — and two rooms of lushly detailed landscapes and scenes of Jamaican folk life document a civilization in transition.

You can see all of these sights in a day or two, as I did, by hiring a driver or renting a car to navigate Kingston’s low-scale sprawl. Or you can contact a guide through the Jamaica Tourist Board; one is Anna Henriques, a local from a prominent Jewish family who operates a tour company called Jamaican Jewish Journeys.

Either way, while Jamaica is more luxurious elsewhere, Kingston makes for a culturally intriguing detour that’s worth the effort.