La Nacion – The Spanish and Portuguese Jews of the Caribbean (1981) [CLOSED]

Friday Evening Service in "Kol Shearit Israel" synagogue, Panama City, Panama, 1980Friday Evening service in "Kol Shearit Israel" Synagogue, Panama City, Panama, 1980 Today Panama has the largest community of descendants of the 'La Nacion' in Central America. Its members occupy important positions in the government and in the general community Photo: Micha Bar-Am, Israel (The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Mordechai Arbell, Israel)

Friday Evening Service in “Kol Shearit Israel” synagogue, Panama City, Panama, 1980Friday Evening service in “Kol Shearit Israel” Synagogue, Panama City, Panama, 1980 Today Panama has the largest community of descendants of the ‘La Nacion’ in Central America. Its members occupy important positions in the government and in the general community Photo: Micha Bar-Am, Israel (The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Mordechai Arbell, Israel)

1981: Several centuries ago, Jewish life in the Caribbean thrived with activity. Descendants of the Conversos from Spain and Portugal came to the region in the 17th century and established a chain of flourishing settlements. They played important roles in the lands where they lived, participating in the political and military struggles, and saw themselves as part of what they called “The Portuguese Hebrew Nation,” or the “Nacion.”

Today, only a few remnants of this “Nacion” survive. Jewish communal life is limited to a few centers. Elsewhere, all that remains are ruins, tombstones, and memorial tablets, most of which are neglected. The jungle is slowly taking over the sites of ancient synagogues; poisonous fumes from refineries erode the ancient gravestones and the inscriptions are fading; houses of prayer have become cinemas, warehouses and, in one case, a fish restaurant.

Beit Hatfutsot sent out a small expedition to the region to locate these remains, document them, and preserve the record for future generations. The project was initiated by Mordechai Arbell, who has studied the history of the Jews of the Caribbean. He was accompanied by the well-known photographer Micha Bar-Am and, for part of the time, by David Silber, a senior member of the Beit Hatfutsot staff. Under the direction of Mr. Arbell, Micha Bar-Am photographed the remains of the Jewish communities in Surinam, Curacao, Coro (Venezuela), Barranquilla (Colombia), Panama, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Thomas, and St. Eustatius. Some 240 of his pictures are displayed in this exhibition.

We would like to express our thanks to all who have helped make this exhibition possible; first and foremost, Mr. Shoul N. Eisenberg, Honorary President of the Association of Friends of Beit Hatfutsot in Israel, who financed the expedition, the exhibition, and the catalog. Special thanks are also due to Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder for his assistance in compiling the catalog and to Orna Bar-Am who helped with the editing and the presentation of the exhibition. We also express thanks to Ernst de Souza from Kingston, Jamaica, who contributed some photographs from his collection to the exhibition.