Exhibit based on book by ASU prof Stanley Mirvis, photographer Wyatt Gallery explores history of the Sephardic diaspora
Like many great collaborations, the one behind the 2016 photographic essay “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean” originated via serendipitous circumstances.
Stanley Mirvis, an assistant professor of history at Arizona State University and a scholar of the Sephardic diaspora, was doing archival research in Jamaica when he ran into Wyatt Gallery, a well-known photographer whose book “Tent Life: Haiti” had chronicled the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the region.
In addition to the millions of people affected by the quake, Gallery had witnessed the destruction of countless historical sites, including several Catholic cathedrals. With that experience fresh in his mind, and an awareness of the threat future natural disasters posed to remaining religious historic sites, Gallery was in Jamaica on a mission to document the many synagogues and cemeteries there that tell the arcane history of the earliest Jewish communities in the New World.
Together, he and Mirvis set out on an island-hopping journey of discovery that took them from Curacao, an island off the coast of Venezuela that at one time was the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean, to Barbados, where Jews fought for their right to free trade during the colonial period.
In “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean,” Gallery’s arresting photos are supplemented by Mirvis’ contextual essays. Now through March 26, those images and stories are on display as part of a free, public exhibit by the same name at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society in Phoenix.
As the Harold and Jean Grossman Chair in Jewish Studies at ASU, Mirvis believes public programming such as this is part of his civic responsibility.
“There is a really large Jewish community in the Valley, and they're very interested in exploring the Jewish experience in an academic way and looking at matters of Jewish identity in history,” he said. “The Center for Jewish Studies at ASU hopes to provide that through their robust public programming, which includes film screenings, continuing education programs and exhibits like this.”
The exhibit opened Jan. 12 with a short lecture and reception. The next related event will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, when Mirvis will lead a conversation about Edward Kritzler’s popular yet controversial book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Mirvis recently spoke with ASU Now about the lesser-known history of the Sephardic diaspora and how it changes our understanding of the origin of Jews in North America.
Q: What is a Sephardic Jew?
A: You may have heard that Jews are often referred to as either Ashkenazi or Sephardic, and that's sort of a false bifurcation, but generally speaking, Sephardic was the Hebrew terminology that Jews used to describe themselves as being Spanish, and Ashkenazi was this term that Jews used to describe German lands and northern France. So that is why there's this division now. It's not a true division, and there are many different subethnicities based on your language, and that manifests in the different traditions that you have. But Sephardic and Ashkenazi are kind of the big ones.
Q: What were the circumstances of the Sephardic diaspora that led so many Jews to settle in the Caribbean?
A: Somewhere around 200,000 Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. This was one of the largest upheavals of people up until that time. In late medieval/early modern standards, 200,000 people is an enormous dislocation of human beings. It's a major world event and it has extremely important ripples throughout history. Most of those Jews that left Spain went to Portugal and were forcibly converted to Catholicism but continued to practice Judaism in secret.
Then let's skip ahead a bit: In the 17th century, a lot of these Portuguese converts were leaving Portugal and settling in new communities in Western Europe that were now open to them to live openly as Jews; cities like Amsterdam, Hamburg and later London. Around the same time, the Dutch and the English were pushing their reach into the Caribbean. Then in 1630, the Dutch take part of northern Brazil from the Portuguese. So a lot of the Portuguese converts – those who were living in the Portuguese world in Brazil who couldn't openly be Jews – now ran to the Dutch to live openly as Jews. So in the community of Recife in northern Brazil, you have a really large Jewish community that emerges in the 1630s and '40s, and this ends up being the seed community for a whole Jewish population in the Americas. Where it all starts to become a Caribbean story is in 1656, when the Portuguese conquer the Dutch in northern Brazil and kick all the Jews out. Just like in Spain back in 1492. So some of them crossed the borders into what is today Suriname and Guyana.
Most of them do go back across the ocean to Amsterdam where they join other settlement schemes to come back. So a lot of these early settlers cross the Atlantic four or five times, and variously, they began to settle the Dutch and English islands, including Curacao, a small island off the coast of Venezuela, which becomes the biggest Caribbean Jewish community, and Jamaica in 1655 when the English take it from the Spanish and it becomes open to Jewish settlement. There’s a lot more to the story (the French expelled the Jews from the Caribbean in 1685, forcing them into the English and Dutch Caribbean regions) but that is the broader story of the Sephardic diaspora.