Recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I first came to Bonaire, a Dutch Caribbean island near Curacao, more than 30 years ago. I was treating myself to a vacation where no one knew me and I was far away from the stressful life in the “big city.”
It was love at first sight — sun, sea and a climate that could not compare to the one I left back in Connecticut. So I took the plunge and moved to my piece of paradise, 71 different nations peacefully coexisting on this tiny speck. Little did I know that for more than 30 years I would be sharing a seder with folks who could understand my joy at meeting Jews half a world away from home.
Being a Jew, I was anxious to see if there was a Jewish community on the island, which is off the coast of Venezuela. My first clue: two jewelry stores located on the main street, Spritzer and Furman (now closed), and Littman Jewelers, a high-end store. The owner of Littman’s was the “go to” person when it came to learning about the Jewish presence here.
I was able to locate a Philadelphia lawyer, a New York advertising exec, a retired grammar school principal, a few part-time snow bunny retirees, a native-born Jewish girl whose mother was from Surinam via Europe, a Moroccan French family, three Israeli families, a number of Dutch citizens whose parents hid them in Catholic monasteries and Protestant orphanages during the war … even a woman whose family was in an internment camp for Germans (Jewish and not-Jewish) on Bonaire during the war.
While many of Bonaire’s Jewish residents made holiday pilgrimages to Curacao, which boasts the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue in continual use (Mikve Israel-Emanuel), we decided to hold our own seder on Bonaire.
Two hurdles lay in my path. Problem one: where to have a seder; we needed a venue that could accommodate 25 plus. Problem two: how to get the traditional foods; many of them needed to be delivered from the U.S. Matzah balls do not grow on trees, and gefilte fish are not swimming around on our reef.
We decided to have the seder poolside at The Sand Dollar Condominium Resort, which had plenty of space and was very accommodating. The chef, Kirk Gosdon, a Brit, had experience in preparing a seder from his hotel background.
Three weeks to go — orders were confirmed with folks in the States who were travelling to Bonaire; arrangements were made for Alan Gross, our New York ad exec, to borrow a few seder plates and scout up some yarmulkes.
Where would we get Haggadahs? We had no Manischewitz or Maxwell House Haggadahs; for that matter we had no Google or the Internet. We relied on the age-old tradition of creating our own Bonaire edition — the task fell to Gross, who had a Desktop publishing setup.
Our chickens were halal; we had to kasher them to satisfy our Canadian Jewish contingent. We bought a bag of salt crystals from Akzo Nobel Salt works for that purpose.
Our seder plate was as unique as our Haggadah. No lamb shank was to be found, but a roasted goat shank served as a fine substitute. The egg was from a free-range chicken.
Our herbs were made from sopropo, a bitter-tasting vegetable native to Africa but used in many Surinam dishes. The charoset, known as the 7 Fruit charoset in Surinam, was prepared by a lady from that country who still remembered the recipe of more than 70 years in the past. The karpas was a piece of boiled yucca; the chazeret was either a local vegetable known as waramous or locally grown spinach.
We prevailed upon Alan, the New York ad exec, to lead the seder. So many accents collide at our seder table: Dutch, South American, Israeli, Moroccan, Surinamese, French, U.S., Canadian, and more.
We have continued to celebrate Passover in this way for 30-odd years, and we still use our makeshift Bonaire Hagaddah.
Michael Gaynor, a former resident of Connecticut, owned the Chat ’n Browse Internet café on the Caribbean island of Bonaire.