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!

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