One reason I love my emails of headlines from the Times of Israel is that every once in a while there’s something so ridiculously cool I don’t quite know what to do with myself.
Of course, I generally feel like I’m the only one who thinks it’s so cool, but I try not to let that small factor affect my overall enjoyment learning about something new. One of my favorite topics to read about is what can be dubbed “Jews from Unexpected Places,” i.e. not places we often associate with Jewish communities, such as the US, Israel, or Europe, which appears every so often at the bottom of the headlines.
Today I was clicking my way through the ToI website and found an article about the Jewish community of Jamaica. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Jewish history, including the Jewish migrations to the Western Hemisphere, but I had no clue there was ever a Jewish community in Jamaica, let alone one that is active today in Congregation Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom, the island’s only remaining synagogue. Given the long history of Judaism and roles Jews have played as merchants over the centuries, Jewish communities in other places shouldn’t be, well, surprising.
So much of American-Jewish culture (which often means Ashkenazic culture) is focused on Europe and Israel that I think we often forget how much of a global reach Judaism has had. Most of the Jewish-American traditions I know best come from Eastern Europe and New York; and like a lot of American Jews, those are my personal family traditions.
But our knowledge of Judaism should be wider. Last year while in Israel I met a Jew from Kenya, a place I had no idea has a Jewish community at all, let alone a strong one. I read an article in September about the Jewish community of Uruguay. A few months ago I had dinner with a woman who works with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and with a Jewish Community Center in India. A Jewish man from Uganda is studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem this year, and every time I go to the Israel Museum I find at least one object I never would have dreamed of, especially in the Costumes and Jewelry exhibit. And the Washington Jewish Film Festival will be screening a documentary about the Jews of Nigeria. These places have their own traditions, histories, and, of course, food, all made unique by the combination of Judaism and other local customs.
There’s a whole world of Judaism out there to explore, Jewish communities in all parts of the world, and we can honor those communities when we remember:
1) that Jews are found in cultures all over the world, and speak be’chol lashon – in every tongue!
2) that Jews come in every color!
3) not to ask Jews of color if they have converted, or other exclusionary questions.
Though Jews have been living on Jamaica since 1577, maybe even since Columbus’ first trip in 1492, the community is getting smaller; it’s down to about 200 people. But it is a strong, diverse group of Jews by birth and Jews by choice, many of whom have converted back to their family’s Jewish roots. They are maintaining what is possibly the oldest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere, and a wonderful reminder of the beauty that is the multi-faceted Jewish culture.