Sunday, November 25, 2007

Recharging Batteries....

Tomorrow I am going to Curaçao! I can see everyone smiling. What else is new, she is going off into another tirade (too strong a word, maybe?) about her island paradise. Well, that might be so, but it's my first trip back this year and a welcome one. Since my mother's stroke last December, all I have done is travel back and forth to Panama. Necessary, for sure, but so stressful.

This time it's only for fun! My husband is going for work and I am tagging along. Go to the beach... a real beach.... Sit by the water and relax, have a couple of exotic drinks, watch the sunset. It will be heaven. I'll see my friends, play bridge on Wednesday again and hear all about the latest news: weddings, babies, trips. Even the sad news will be exchanged and it will seem like I never left. Can't wait!

I will make time to walk at least once along the path where I used to walk every day. See who's still walking, the new houses in the area, the gorgeous sunsets, the riot of color of the bougainvillea hedges. The air will be cool and the smell of salt; everything will be green because of the rains....

There will be the night out for drinks on Thursday, to see everyone I have not time to visit. What can I say. Just before the hectic Holiday Season, this trip will be perfect to recharge my batteries. When I get back, a bit sad and nostalgic, I'll have the energy to tackle what's coming.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The weather has turned...

Yes, I know it sounds a bit funny, but it is true. After months of humidity, heat and occasional rain, the weather has improved...or turned. The days are clear and significantly cooler. The sky can be so blue and there are no clouds.. or hardly any. It is so nice to walk around my small island...the breeze is delightful.

Now other things have happened too, like the iguanas are not as visible. Now when you approach their bougainvillea bush, you don't hear their chirping, or see them sunning themselves. Do iguanas hibernate? and does this milder weather count as winter? Really, it can be confusing.

Another sign is that you encounter so many more people walking and they seem so much friendlier.... or am I imagining things? Young couples, young women with their dogs, nannies with their charges, older couples just meandering, men jogging, everyone listening to their iPods, bigger dogs playing frisbee with their owners, children playing in the sandbox. People say hello, and smile... definitely this time of the year Miami is so much nicer!

Of course, this is the time that can bring water rationing..... as much rain as we had not much fell over Lake Ockeechobee, which is where we need it! Having lived in a desert-like island, I am not much bothered by all that. Besides, I have no garden or a yard that needs taken care of.... condo living has its advantages, especially this time of the year.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Someone just reminded me of SNOA!! how appropriate since this weekend I could have been there celebrating with the granddaughter of a dear friend. Where? I can hear that question. Let's start by telling everyone what is SNOA. The word is believed to be a contraction of esnoga a word used for the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. To the MikveIsrael-Emanuel Congregation, SNOA is the place of worship of a Sephardic Jewish congregation that has lived on the island of Curaçao for more than 350 years! It is the oldest synagogue in use in the Western Hemisphere. In April of this year, the present building was 275 years. It is absolutely beautiful and can inspire awe to people of any religion.

The building that you see now in Punda in a very aptly named street, Hanchi di Snoa or Synagogue Alley, is the fourth to be built on the site. Starting in 1674 when the congregation living in Punda was becoming too numerous and was living too far from the original place of worship outside the city. In 1690, it was necessary to built an even larger one and just 13 years later, in 1703, still another. The final building is similar to the great Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam that is only 57 years older.

First let's go back to the congregation. The first Jews came to the island from Holland. Actually, the first Jew came with Johan van Walbeeck, who conquered the island from the Spaniards in 1634. Before we get confused....... ancestors of the Sephardic Jews from Curaçao lived centuries ago in Spain and Portugal. There is proof that there were Jews there as early as the year 800 C.E. For centuries they lived and prospered and contributed to the glorious Golden Age when Spain was under Moor occupation.

All this came to an end when Isabella and Ferdinand won the lands and cities back from the Moors and unified the country in 1492. The Inquisition came into existence and it was ordered that all Jews and Muslims should convert to Catholicism. We know very well what that meant: convert or be burned at the stake! The great majority of Jews decided to leave and found refuge in distant lands: from Portugal to Muslims countries like Turkey, North Africa and also Italy. They went looking for freedom of religion. Some stayed in Spain and paid a high price. Called marranos by the Spaniards because they converted to survive, but secretly kept their customs, many were burned in Autos de Fe.

The ones that concern us here went to Portugal first. For more than a hundred years they lived and prospered there. The inquisition was not as well established then. By the end of the 16th century it was and they fled to Protestant Holland. The Netherlands had just become independent from Catholic Spain, and were very welcoming for these refugees. Amsterdam became the most important center of European Judaism. The congregation of Portuguese and Spanish Jews became a rich and influential part of the country.

Once independent of Spain, Holland had little use for Curaçao, but didn't want to abandon the island completely. Dutch subjects were offered lands, tax exemptions and other incentives to come and establish an agricultural colony on the island. In 1651 the first group of Jews arrived to try to do just that. How? I cannot understand...Curaçao has no sources of fresh water, so planting was not going to be easy. Still, they came. The second group came in 1659.... my husband's paternal side of the family came in this group. So the family has been there for almost 350 years!! How many people can say that?

The congregation grew and prospered in Curaçao. At one point, the Jewish community made up for more than half the white population of the island. Most of the buildings in Punda, now a UN World Heritage site, were built by them. In the countryside they also built landhuizen (plantation homes) some of which are still standing. Their contribution to the financial and commercial life on the island was very important.... remember they had family and religious connections all over Europe and the United States.

Their influence also was felt in the development of Papiamentu, the local language. It seems that because their mother tongue was Portuguese, or Spanish, the Jews of Curaçao had a great input. Many words still used are of Portuguese or Spanish origin, or even from the Hebrew! Besides, the Jews spoke Papiamentu as their language of choice long before it was recognized as a language!

Finally, the Jewish congregation of Mikve Israel-Emanuel has been the mother synagogue of the Western Hemisphere. This congregation gave financial assistance to other congregations from Newport, RI to New York City, from Kingston, Jamaica to Philadelphia, from Charleston, N.C., to Caracas,Venezuela, from Rio Hacha, Colombia to Paramaribo, Surinam, from Colon, Panama to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Some still pray for the congregation of Curaçao every year on Yom Kipur. How wonderful!

Now that I have told you as much as I know about the Jewish community on the island, I should tell you about SNOA. I have to use capital letters for this. This synagogue is 2/3 of the size of the one in Amsterdam, but just as magnificent. This is such a beautiful place, serene and warm and very welcoming. It has a yard and a sala where important documents are signed and where worshipers get together for kiddush after services. There is also a museum with important pieces of the life of this remarkable community, including the Torah given by the Portuguese congregation in Amsterdam to the first Jews to come to the island.

Inside of the synagogue itself, the high ceilings and blue glass windows give the building an airy look that can only serve to put you in touch with the Almighty....whichever your religion. The interior is all polished mahogany, dark and warm against the white walls. Four huge pillars sustain the women's galleries and are engraved with the names of four Matriarchs of the Old Testament: Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah. I love that: after all, women are the pillars of family and community. The brass 18th century chandeliers gleam in the Tropical light that comes into the enclosure. The floor is covered with white sand. It is said to be in remembrance of the Jews that lived secret lives in Spain and Portugal. You had to be very quiet if you were defying the Inquisition!! The huge organ covers the passageway between the two upper galleries and it sounds magnificently during services.

I am Catholic, and my husband was not brought up Jewish, but Catholic.. still I don't let my children forget who they are and where they come from..... and to be proud of their heritage. History and Tradition are very important to me. When we lived in Curaçao, SNOA was as much a part of our lives as it was for their ancestors. I was once told by the Rabbi that he would start charging us dues because our family was always there!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Holidays in the Tropics!

This time of the year, I miss Dushi Korsow more than ever. Not that it is not a good time of the year here in is just different. From Halloween to New Year's the island is on a party mood that is difficult to ignore. I mean, island wide, celebrating mood.

Come Halloween, even if it is not a local tradition, many people celebrate. From the American Women's Club children's party complete with trick or treat, to private costume parties, to celebrations at the different night spots, Curaçao starts the holiday season in style. I know, you are thinking it's an exaggeration, but it's not.

As in any part of the world where there is an American Women's Club, Halloween is celebrated with relish. It's one more way to keep in touch with traditions from home. These parties are well organized and so much fun. I remember making costumes for my children every year, baking cupcakes or making savory snacks for the parents. If you were coming to the States before the party, you were asked to bring candy or decorations. The committee will make sure that the houses around the party site were supplied with candy for our children to got trick or treating. This provided fun for our children and for the neighborhood... great public relations! Parents participate as well, even members without children attend the festivities.

We cannot forget the celebrations going on in the schools; not only the International School, but other private schools get into the spirit as do some local schools. This is a children's holiday, but adults also fall under the spell of the day. Many people hold private parties. If you have a birthday, anniversary or whatever reason to celebrate....why not have a costume party? For a people so involved in Carnival, another such party is a piece of cake.

Then there are the night spots around the island. Drinks are offered at special prices, snacks are free for customers and the places are decorated with all sorts of scary things: ghosts, spiderwebs, witches and brooms. Remember, everyone on the island sees no problem in going out for drinks during the week! Miss that too.....

As soon as Halloween is over, we get ready for Thanksgiving! Another American (and Canadian) tradition that has found a home in Curaçao. As I said, any reason for celebrating is a welcome thing in the Tropics! Once again, the American Women's Club holds the biggest party. Through the years, the members have organized this holiday as a club only affair or as a fundraiser involving the community. Either way, Thanksgiving has become part of island end of the year celebrations. Since it is not skipped by the merchants either, it gets more time than in the States where people are in such hurry to get to Christmas!

Now we are ready for Sinterklas. The Dutch St Nicholas is a big favorite of children and grown ups alike; the fact that he is a Christian saint doesn't seem to bother anyone. Everyone celebrates no matter their religion. I find this acceptance so refreshing! Anyway, some time by the middle of November, he appears on the island. His tall, stately figure can be seen standing on every sort of convertible vehicle available. He comes with his faithful helpers the Zwarte Pieten (literally Black Petes). For weeks until his actual birthday, December 6th, he can be seen everywhere. Each nigh children will put out water and grass for his horse, and the grateful saint will leave a small present in the child's shoe. On the night of the 5th, children get as many presents as their parents can afford, sort of like Christmas in other countries. My children loved it from the beginning.

Part of all this celebration is another very Dutch tradition: an exchange of chocolate letters. Just around the time that the saint appears on the island, supermarkets bring out these treats. You can get them in milk or dark chocolate flavors. Everyone gets them and they are exchanged as part of the celebrations of Sinterklas birthday. My husband and children looked forward to this every years. Even when my son and daughter went away to school in the States, I would buy the letters and mailed these treats to them! Never thought I was going to get sentimental about chocolate letters...

Once Sinterklas fades until next year, Christmas preparations start in earnest. Christmas in the Tropics is so much fun... and we shouldn't forget that the first Christmas was in the Middle East and not in the frigid lands of Europe or North America. Children don't get as many presents from Santa Claus, but they celebrate with gusto. The American Women's Club, again, goes all out to give the members and their children a grand party. The man playing Santa has been doing it for more than 50 years! It is part of the club's lore that he could fool his own children. I know my children never thought of accepting anyone else as Santa, and sat on his lap until they were teenagers! How is that for tradition?

The island dresses in Christmas decorations from colored lights to Nativity scenes, from Christmas trees to Santas. Everyone participate. There are whole neighborhoods that get together to decorate their homes; downtown Willemstad and the Queen Emma Bridge get decked in fairy lights. Big parties are organized. I don't mean private parties only, but huge affairs everyone wants to attend. Tickets are sold like hotcakes, well in advance. Anyone wanting to attend better be quick. These parties take place once the private parties and family reunions disperse after midnight. They last until well into Christmas Day. Then it's beach time!

Finally, before the year ends, New Year's Eve comes along. From about 12 o'clock everyone follows the pagaras. These are a Chinese tradition. Huge rolls of firecrackers packed into wooden crates are bought by business and by private citizens alike. The size depends on how much you are willing to spend. They are unrolled in front of the business or home and lit. The noise and smoke fill the air. People get as close to it as they dare, it is good luck. Food and drinks are offered to the guests and a good time is have by all. This continues until well into the late afternoon when we all go back home to rest.

The second part of the celebration is even better. You either go to a friend's home, or organize a party at your home. Either way, the ritual is the same. Everyone eats and drinks, and there are fireworks until midnight. At this time a canon shot from an old Dutch fort in the center of the city marks the arrival of the New Year. The island, literally, erupts into a frenzy of noise. The sky fills with beautiful multicolored lights, the air fills with smoke, everyone runs outside to receive the New Year in the open air. Champagne is served and we all drink to a prosperous and happy New Year. We continue to celebrate until the early hours....

The ones in the know, have purchased tickets for THE party. As in Christmas, this party has been planned for months, tickets are all sold out and after the last pagara everyone leaves for the party. Usually parents see their children go and then go home. Amazingly enough, we all sleep through the celebration. We figure that the children will be safe having been blessed by the gods with smoke and noise. Once the party is finished, the celebrants go to have breakfast at some restaurant or at someone's home. They then come home to change to hit the beach!

As I said, this is the time of the year when I really miss Curaçao. Celebrations already started. Halloween was a success again and everyone is planning Thanksgiving. There is not stopping now!