Nov 23

Exotic history and cuisine of Caribbean Sephardic Jewry

This week I have the honor of hosting guest blogger Sophie Schiller. Ms. Schiller is the author of Spy Island, a historical novel set in the Danish West Indies. Her next novel, Race to Tibet, is due to be released soon. Visit her author page on Amazon.com.

A bit of Denmark in the New World: Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

A bit of Denmark in the New World: Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

The West Indies is steeped in history. Wandering down the side streets and cobblestoned alleyways of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, you feel as though you’ve been whisked back to the 17th or 18th  century. Gazing at the magnificent Fort Christian, the old barracks, and the Governor’s Mansion, you cannot help but admire her Danish colonial architecture, Danish street names, and plethora of ancient houses of worship.

Founded in 1681 as the capital of the Danish West Indies, Charlotte Amalie contains a wealth of structures that provide a glimpse into colonial life of centuries past. But what most people don’t realize is that Charlotte Amalie used to be a very Jewish city, comprised of enterprising Sephardic Jews who settled in this up-and-coming Caribbean entrepôt at the behest of the Danish kings.

Victorian-era Jews from Curaçao, 1905

Victorian-era Jews from Curaçao, 1905

After their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century, Spanish and Portuguese Jews migrated to Holland because of its tolerance toward Jews. After the Dutch established trading colonies in the New World, pockets of Jews began trickling into Dutch colonies such as Dutch Brazil (Recife), Suriname, Curaçao, and St. Eustacius, and British colonies such as Jamaica, Nevis, and Barbados. During this period, these former hidden Jews embraced their Jewish identity and began a religious revival of sorts.

By 1656, Sephardic Jews had established the Mikveh Israel Congregation in Willemstad, Curaçao, which still exists today and is considered the “mother” congregation of the Caribbean Sephardic Jews. Soon, synagogues, mikvehs, and cemeteries with Hebrew gravestones began popping up on most of the Caribbean islands, but sadly no yeshivas (Jewish institutes for religious studies). This contributed to the inevitable decline and ultimate disappearance of these New World Sephardic Jews by the beginning of the 20th century.

High up on Synagogue Hill sits the St. Thomas synagogue, founded by Sephardic Jews in the early 19th century. One of the remarkable features of the synagogue, as with all West Indian synagogues, is the use of sand-covered floors. So many aspects of the synagogue are steeped in meaning, such as the four prominent columns that symbolize the four matriarchs.

Historic St. Thomas synagogue. Founded in 1796, it is the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and the longest in continuous use under the US flag.

Historic St. Thomas synagogue. Founded in 1796, it is the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and the longest in continuous use under the US flag.

St. Thomas' most famous Sephardic Jew: Camille Pissarro

St. Thomas’ most famous Sephardic Jew: Camille Pissarro











Many interesting historical characters began to emerge from this community, including Camille Pissarro, the French Impressionist painter who was born in St. Thomas and is the island’s most famous Sephardic Jew. Another curious feature of the island of St. Thomas is the sheer number of natives with Spanish-sounding names like Robles, Maduro, De Castro, Monsanto, Henriques, Fidanque, and Hoheb. Much later I realized that these names were actually Sephardic Jewish names, and more questions began to swirl in my head. As a child I longed to read about life as it existed back then, back during Danish times, but no novels existed. That was when I decided to write my own novel to bring the old days of Charlotte Amalie back to life.

Today, there are almost no members left of the original Sephardic Jewish congregation. What happened to those Sephardim? Where did they go?

Everyday life for Caribbean Sephardic Jews involved playing musical instruments, sewing, embroidery, raising large families, and cooking meals that blended local ingredients with Sephardic traditional dishes.

Everyday life for Caribbean Sephardic Jews involved playing musical instruments, sewing, embroidery, raising large families, and cooking meals that blended local ingredients with Sephardic traditional dishes.

While researching this subject I tracked down and interviewed numerous descendants of these Caribbean Sephardic Jews. To my surprise, I discovered that almost the entire congregation picked up and left for Panama in the late 19th century during the building of the Panama Canal. Those who remained fell lax in their Jewish observance, adopted the Reform liturgy, stopped praying in their traditional Portuguese, stopped keeping kosher, and for the most part, stopped keeping Shabbat. By the time the islands were transferred to the United States in 1917, there were only about 50 or 60 Jews left on the island, down from about 800 during the 1850s.Nowadays, only a remnant of Sephardic Jews remain in the Caribbean region, with the bulk living in Panama and Curaçao, but the treasure trove of synagogues and history they left behind continues to fascinate tourists who flock to the region annually. Perhaps some day their stories will be told, so they can live again, if only in the pages of a book.

What was the cuisine of the Caribbean Sephardic Jews?

Research shows that they adapted local produce to fit their unique palate. They learned to eat okra, plantains, yams, mangoes, guava, and local fish. They added a dash of rum to cakes, lime juice to chicken and fish dishes, and tomatoes and green peppers to chicken soup. Here are some typical dishes adapted from the rich cuisine of Curaçao’s Jewish community:

Fried Red Snapper (Piska Hasa)

Juice of 3 limes
2 finely chopped scallions
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
2 pounds red snapper fillets
1/2 cup matzo meal
Oil for frying
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large red or orange bell pepper, cut in 1/2-inch dice
3 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp. chopped cilantro
2 tbsp. ketchup
2 to 3 tbsp. water

In a shallow nonmetal dish, combine lime juice, scallions, garlic and salt. Cut red snapper into appetizer serving pieces (2 to 3 ounces each). Add to lime-juice marinade, turning to coat. Refrigerate for 15 minutes. Remove snapper from marinade and toss in matzo meal to coat both sides.

Pour an inch of oil into a large nonstick skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Fry the snapper two to three minutes on each side until crisp and cooked through. (Flakes should be opaque when separated with point of a knife.) Drain on paper towels and transfer to a serving dish. Keep warm.

Add onion to the drippings in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until softened, about five minutes. Stir in bell pepper, tomatoes and cilantro, and cook until crisp-tender, two to three minutes longer. Add ketchup and enough water to make a thick sauce. Spoon over fried snapper. Makes 8 to 10 appetizer servings.

Spiced Almond Chicken

Spiced almond chicken

1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup finely ground almonds
1/4 cup matzo meal
2 fryer chickens (3 pounds each), cut in quarters
1/3 cup peanut oil
1/2 cup chicken broth or water

Preheat oven to 375º F (190º C) . In a shallow dish, mix cinnamon, ginger, garlic powder, salt, pepper, almonds, and matzo meal. Set aside.

Brush the chicken pieces generously with oil. Add to the matzo meal mixture and dredge to coat on all sides. Arrange in one layer in a large baking dish. Pour the chicken broth or water in at the side of the dish. Cover loosely with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking for 30 minutes longer or until chicken is cooked. (Juices should run clear when a fork is inserted into thickest part). Makes eight servings.

Baked Plantains

BakedPlantains3 tbsp. cinnamon sugar
2 tsp. grated lime peel
2 pounds ripe plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices
4 tbsp. margarine, melted
1/4 cup orange juice

Preheat oven to 350º F (180º C).  Spray a medium baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Combine cinnamon sugar and lime peel. Arrange plantains in a baking dish. Brush generously with margarine and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar mixture to cover all surfaces.

Pour orange juice in at one side of the dish, tilting to distribute juice evenly. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven until very tender, about 40 minutes. Makes eight servings.

West Indian Johnny Cake

These golden, fluffy, fried cakes of dough are a staple food in the West Indies.

West Indian Johnny Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
4 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. margarine at room temperature
Approximately 1/2 cup oil for frying
Extra flour

Note: To keep your dough from sticking too much to the mixing bowl, spray it with cooking spray or wipe it with a lightly greased paper towel.

In a large mixing bowl using a large fork, mix dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt). Work in margarine with your fingers, in the same way as you would make a pie crust. Add about 1 cup of water, stirring in with a fork. Add a little more water, about 1/4 cup at a time, stirring constantly, until mixture forms a soft dough. Sprinkle flour on the counter and transfer dough to it. Knead for a few minutes to allow the ingredients to blend and gluten to form. You may need to add a few sprinkles of flour at a time to keep the dough from becoming too tacky or sticky. If you under knead, the gluten will not have a chance to form a good dough.  If you over knead, the dough will be rubbery. Allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes.

Flour your hands and the countertop. Make about 12 to 15 round balls of dough and set aside. Heat oil for frying in a pot. While oil is heating, use a rolling pin to flatten out each ball. Do not flatten them too much or they will be like crackers. When a drop of water pops in the pot, it is ready for frying. Fry a few Johnny cakes at a time. Do not overcrowd the pot – that will make the Johnny Cakes greasy. When the underside of a Johnny cake is golden brown, flip it over. Do not flip each cake over more than once. Fry on each side until golden brown. Drain each cake on a cooling rack.

Sophie Schiller was born in Paterson, NJ, and grew up in the West Indies amid aging pirates and retired German spies. She was educated at American University, Washington, D.C., and spent many years working in International Business before becoming a writer. 

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