981. Our ‘Snoa’ is the oldest Synagogue in the Western Hemisphere (Part 1)

A visit to majestic Mikvé Israel-Emanuel (“The Hope of Israel”) should be on many bucket lists. Built in 1732 as a tropical replica of the oldest synagogue in Amsterdam built in 1670/71, its congregants’ ancestry dates back to 1651 when the first Portuguese Sephardic Jews settled on the island by way of Amsterdam — after being exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. This first installment on our awesome ‘Snoa’ covers its founding and lends from my grandfather, Charles Gomes Casseres’, extensive research; may he rest in peace and his legacy live on forever.

Curacao Synagogue

Our early Dutch settlers (led by Johan van Walbeeck in 1634) were frustrated when it came to cultivating our dry, arid land. Just as they were about to give up hope, the Directors of the Dutch West India Company stumbled upon ‘an offer they couldn’t refuse’, one that would allow them to outsource Curaçao’s cultivation… So they wrote their Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, on March 21, 1651: “Although we have once before written about the island of Curaçao, ‘that, if we should have no revenue whatever from there it might be advisable to abandon it …’ the enclosed contract made with a Jew, Jan de Illan, will prove to you the contrary. He intends to bring a considerable number of people there to settle and cultivate, as he pretends, the land but we begin to suspect that he and his associates have quite another object in view, namely to trade from there to the West Indies and the Main. Be that as it may, we are willing to make the experiment, and you must therefore charge Director Rodenborch to accommodate him within proper limits, and in conformity with the conditions of his contract.”

Jan de Illan (in reality, Joao d’Yllan) and his group of savvy Jews, all came from Amsterdam, at that time a blossoming center of Jewish life and culture in the newly independent Netherlands. Their roots, however, were unmistakably in Spain and Portugal. Where their ancestors had enjoyed peace and prosperity for 10+ centuries among Islamic and Christian civilizations…

… until the Spanish Inquisition.

By the end of the 15th century, this once vibrant Jewish community had either gone underground, as Marranos (‘New Christians’; ‘Conversos’) or into exile. Highly versatile particularly when it came to survival, the Marranos made some crucial life changes. Some crossed the border into (still tolerant) Portugal. Adapted their last names (presumably why we spell ours ‘GomeS CaSSeres’ as opposed to ‘Gomez Caceres’). They learned Portuguese. Things went well for a century. Until, once again, they had to flee when the Inquisitors set up their tribunals in Portugal.

Needless to say, safe havens of refuge were hard to come by in Europe.

Luckily the Spanish and Portuguese Jews were able to find refuge in religious-freedom-loving House of Orange Nassau at the turn of the 16th century, just as Protestant Holland was emerging victoriously from its Eighty Years’ War against Spain. They were able to bring their culture and religion and helped make Amsterdam the commercial and shipping center of Europe. As a testament of their chutzpah and commitment, they decided to construct a majestic Portuguese Synagogue on the Mr. Visserplein / Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, the ‘Esnoga’ or ‘Snoge’, in 1670/71 (once considered the largest synagogue in the world).

Well, that was the very chutzpah that led Portuguese-born Joao d’Yllan to petition the Dutch West India Company to bring a company of settlers to cultivate Curaçao. A prosperous member of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam (engaged in commerce with relatives in Brazil), d’Yllan promised to bring 50 families, but succeeded in recruiting 12: Aboab, Aboab Cardozo, Chaves, Henriquez Continho, Jesurun, De León, Marchena, De Meza, Oliveria, La Parra, Pereira and Touro (all Spanish and Portuguese names)

Whether they could cultivate dry land or not, the d’Yllan group set sail for Curaçao in the summer of 1651 and improvised a small Synagogue upon arrival. Maps show their Jewish Quarter comprised of a number of plantations: Blij en Heim (later Bleijenheim), Judio (Jew), Rozentak (alias Gasparito) and The Hope; we assume that they named their congregation, Mikvé Israel (The Hope of Israel) for this plantation.

Source: ‘Our Beginnings’ by Charles Gomes Casseres.

About 1000awesomethingsaboutcuracao

I'm Carolina Gomes-Casseres, the creator of 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao. I live in and love Manhattan, but sometimes miss my first Awesome island...

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