2001-04-06: Barbados synagogue
Donald H. Harrison
Bridgetown, Barbados (special) --In just a glance, a visitor may see evidence of the decline and subsequent rise of the tiny Jewish community of Barbados.
The 17th-century cemetery is adjacent to the synagogue, which recently has been restored in large measure thanks to the efforts of Paul Altman.
In 1925, Edmund Baeza, who then was considered the Caribbean island's last Jewish resident, sold the synagogue which had been capable of accommodating 300 congregants. Baeza donated the proceeds of the sale, amounting to 500 British pounds, to the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, England.
There had been a longstanding relationship between Bevis Marks Synagogue--which follows the Sephardic rite--and the synagogue in Barbados, which was established approximately in 1654 by Sephardic immigrants from Brazil. While the exact date that the first Jewish settlers arrived in Barbados is not known, it is believed it was as early as 1628--one year after British settlement on this Caribbean island began.
Among them was an inscription on the tomb of Benjamin Massiah, extolling him for having been "a reader of the Jews' Synagogue for many years without a fee or reward and performed the office of Circumciser with great applause and dexterity..."
Moses Altman supported himself as a peddlar, gradually working himself up to a shop keeper. In 1932, his son Henry, followed him over, and eventually a new Jewish settlement of approximately 40 families took root in Barbados. They built themselves a small synagogue, which they named Shaare Tzedek, in a neighborhood of Bridgetown called Rockley. They continued to use the Jewish cemetery adjacent to the old synagogue building for their burials, however.
So matters stood until the late 1970s, when the government of Barbados acquired the old synagogue building by condemnation and made plans to level it so that the lot it stood on could be used for the expansion of the nearby Supreme Court building.
Historical preservation was far from a governmental priority at the time. In fact, Barbados' original Parliament Building once had stood next to the synagogue, and it was destroyed to make room for expansion. Known as Codd's House, it was a building which had housed some important history. It was there, for example, that the Emancipation Bill had been signed during the 1800s, forever outlawing slavery in Barbados.
As destruction came to Codd's House, so too was it planned for what once had been God's house.
Henry Altman became concerned, however, when the government proposed not only to destroy the former synagogue building, but also to take about 10 feet of the Jewish cemetery, which would require the relocation of some of the bodies buried there.
The Altman family immediately began a campaign to preserve both the synagogue and the cemetery.
"Where were we going to get $1 million U.S. currency to restore an old broken down building which no one might ever use?" Altman asked rhetorically. "We set about our task by simply putting one worker to chip away at the building, because that was all that we had funds for at the time. We told him to tell anyone who came and asked what he was doing to say that he was just getting some facts because a major restoration was starting, and that they could contribute to that."
The preservationist eventually attracted contributions from the Commonwealth Jewish Council in Britian, the American Jewish Congress the Canadian Jewish Congress, and individual donors.
The Barbados Museum had a few pieces from the synagogue, like an original bench, and other pieces were located both on the island and elsewhere. Last year, for example, "a lady from the Winterthur Museum came here ... because she wanted to discuss the original chandeliers. But they wouldn't give them back, and I went as far as speaking with Mr. Shapiro, who was then president or chairman of Dupont (which underwrote the museum).
"He happened to be a Jewish man, whom I thought I could appeal to in terms of the cause, but he said it would be up to the curator of the museum and he couldn't impose his wishes on her," Altman recalled. "The feeling was that if you returned artifacts such as those chandeliers to their places of origin, then the museum would cease to have a reason to exist. I argued differently of course. I said this was one opportunity that presented itself, whereas many wouldn't."
Even though the synagogue couldn't recover its original chandeliers, it was able to commission artisans to make replicas, which were installed in the old sanctuary.
Altman was more successful with the "Ten Commandments" which originally had been placed over the aron kodesh. It turned out the tablets "were hanging over the swimming pool in the former residence of an ex governor general of Barbados." Known as Illaro Court, the house later had become the residence of the Prime Minister of Barbados. (I couldn't help but wonder if anyone had posted near the tablets, an 11th Commandment saying "Thou shalt not run near the pool.")
"When we were assembling the (synagogue) building, the Prime Minister at the time was Bernard St. John, who is now Sir Bernard St. John, and his wife, Stella," continued Altman, waving off my dive into humor. "Stella had a particular link with a man called Teddy Reitman, who was the honorary consul of Barbados in Israel. He had befriended the St. John family in Israel, and in fact,they had visited his house near Tel Aviv. Teddy Reitman approached Stella, and Stella was immediately willing. She said 'Come and take them,' and we put them back here."
Local artisans were commissioned to reproduce the old wood bima as well as the reader's table, which faced each other in the configuration typical of Sephardic shuls.
"We have superb craftsmen in Barbados, just like the ones who would have made the original ones back in the 1600's," Altman said. "These were done by a very talented man by the name of Andy Tempro-- our families have known each other for many years. He builds furniture. In fact, he is connected with Princess Margaret's son, Lindsey, who is in the area, and they have a common interest in the reproduction of antique furniture and that type of thing."
Altman said although there were always monetary pressures, he insisted upon quality. "For example, someone said they could do these moldings a lot cheaper if they did them out of fiber glass, and I said 'absolutely not. What was here was wood.' We used mahogany. I suppose because of my National Trust hat and links that I don't believe in synthetics when it comes to doing a restoration of an old building."
During the winter months, the Jewish community holds its services in the old synagogue building, which, as in days of old, has no air conditioning. But during the hot months of summer, they retreat to the smaller, but air conditioned, Shaare Tzedek for their services.
Besides restoration of the old synagogue, Altman has arranged for the repair of the cemetery and plans a Jewish museum in a nearby school house following renovation.
The cemetery project started only after "we had someone we could have 100 percent confidence in. We found that person in Evan Mielner-- a British fellow, who has a degree in stone work, and has experience as a hobby in archeology. ... He has done a tremendous amount of research. He belongs to the Bevis Marks Synagogue...so he understands all the religious requirements that attaches to that type of Spanish graveyard."
Restoration of the cemetery "is a slow process, and he has left instructions for the gentlemen who are here. He (Mielner) comes three months a year and works on his hands and knees with them doing the work and then leaves a detailed set of instructions, and they continue. We have two men who slowly, laboriously, piece by piece, are doing it. If it takes ten years, it will take ten years, but it will be done right and that is my concern."
One of the local artisans is Charles Leslie, "who must be given full credit for what he has done," Altman said. "He has put years of his life into this work, and although he is not Jewish, he considers this his purpose in life to continue this job. He is so committed to it."
Besides repairing broken stones, the team has chiseled onto the stones lost letters, using for guidance inscriptions from Shilstone's book--as well as some records found at the Bevis Marks Synagogue.
I asked Altman to try to put in words what motivates him.
"I will tell you what is in my heart," he replied. "When I walked into this building for the first time, people walked me around and said that these tiles here were the original tiles, although at the time they were so dirty you could hardly see them, and that under the fake ceiling there was another ceiling. As I looked around, I saw the graveyard and I recognized the significance and the history, and I felt a part of it for whatever reason...
"Barbados has something special," Altman added. "It has that history; it has that attachment to the Jewish presence here, the African presence here, the British presence here. "
According to legend, the name " Las Barbados," meaning "the bearded ones," in Portuguese, refers to a type of fig tree found on the island by explorers. While he can't disprove the legend, Altman prefers his alternative explanation for the island's name.
"If you check anywhere in Barbados, the only Portuguese names that are in Barbados, and the ones which are from the original settlement, are in this graveyard," he said. "So I suggest that 'Las Barbados' really referred to those bearded Jewish settlers who came here..."
Who'd have thought? A Jewish island!