A small sign hangs on the corner of the light yellow building directing tourists to the entrance of Mikve Israel – Emanuel synagogue and museum, the oldest continuously used synagogue in the Western hemisphere.
Visitors traipse through the doors to the complex under a Hebrew sign which reads “Blessed may you be in your coming.” On the right hand side of the black-and-white tiled courtyard is the historic synagogue building, where every Shabbat and major simcha has been celebrated since 1732.
Sephardic Dutch Jews settled in Curaçao, part of the ‘ABC’ islands near Venezuela, in 1651. They earned their livings as merchants, primarily, and built a soaring Sephardic-style “snoa” or synagogue set with rich wooden pews anchored with four tall white columns inscribed with the names of the matriarchs and three giant chandeliers that can hold 144 candles hanging high above.
Past the entrance to the much-chronicled synagogue, whose floors are covered in white sand imported from Suriname, is an iron gate which leads into a smaller courtyard flanked by two smaller houses, which once served as the rabbi’s residence and mikvah house. Here is the entrance to the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum and the woman at its helm, Myrna Moreno.
Since she took over as museum curator in 2002, Moreno has ensured that the brainchild of Jessy Jesurun, a member of a prominent local Jewish family, preserves the past and tells the story of the Jews who remain on the island, most of whom attend the snoa, now affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement.
Walking through the two floors of the museum, dedicated in November 1970, she points to improvements she’s made during her 13-year tenure. She has added new exhibit labels in Dutch and English, restored paintings and reformatted and expanded displays — her favorite is a deer skin Torah scroll from 1320, carefully stored upright in its own glass cabinet.
The biggest challenge, she explains, is coaxing locals to explore this aspect of Curaçao history.
“The cruise ship tourists, they come to the museum, but the local people you have to inspire, you have to teach them. There is a threshold — they’re scared,” said Moreno. “They say, ‘What are they doing in there? A church with sand on the floor? They must be doing strange things in there!’”
“I say, ‘no!’” Moreno said with a chuckle. “By catering the right things to them, the locals enjoy it and the tourists, too.”
A notable exhibit, she said, was one on the nannies of Jewish children, known as “yayas.” A yaya was a black slave or ex-slave who looked after the children of wealthy Jewish households. Yayas were second mothers to the children. A yaya taught her charges the local Creole language Papiamento, taught them about local wildlife and attended to the children’s daily needs.
Some members of the Jewish community worried about the controversy such an exhibit might attract, but Moreno found the response to be overwhelmingly positive.
“I was getting people from 80 to 85-years old coming with grandchildren,” said Moreno. “One lady said, ‘I was a seamstress for all these Jewish people, can I touch this fabric?’” referring to a yaya uniform displayed on a mannequin.
“Then another lady came and said, ‘I used to be a proud silver polisher for the Jewish families!’ That is the link I am trying to get,” said Moreno.
Clarita Hagenaar, an expert tour guide, directs tourists’ attention to the grand mansions of Scharlooweg in Willemstad which was once home to wealthy Jewish families like the Maduros and Penhas, whose names are still emblazoned on the sides of buildings in the capital city.
On the way to a stand that sells handmade local sweets, Hagenaar gestures to the corner of a busy intersection not far from the floating market where Venezuelans sell fish and fresh produce. There, she recalls from her childhood, tourists would come to town and make huge purchases from the Jewish-owned jewelry stores. So safe was the island that porters would carry the diamond-laden bags down the street to the ships without security escort.
During the Jewish High Holidays, Hagenaar continues, so many of the shops were closed that it was as if the non-Jewish locals were treated to an extra holiday.
These days, Hagenaar said, a new wave of immigrants from China and India operate many of the shops downtown.
But the museum is far from a dusty reliquary. Ritual objects are routinely used by the congregation. In a glass cabinet near the reception desk are ornate silver breast plates used for the High Holidays and Rosh Chodesh. A silver chanukkiah from 1716 is lit with olive oil during the week of Chanukkah. Glass goblets are still smashed against a 300-year old wedding tray at the conclusion of nuptials celebrated in the synagogue.
Every Friday night and Saturday morning, the synagogue is filled with worshipers and the sounds of the grand pipe organ first built in 1866 and restored shortly after the congregation’s 350 anniversary. A local from the Adventist church plays on the Sabbath so the congregants do not have to violate that aspect of Halacha.
Though the number of Jews on the island is dwindling — Moreno estimates just 300 Jews between Mikve Israel-Emanuel and the Ashkenazi Orthodox Shaarei Tsedek — those who remain are committed to Jewish life. There is a Hebrew school and an active BBYO chapter. Extended families routinely share Shabbat dinners together. All take pride in the long history of their beloved snoa.