A visit to Curaçao’s majestic Mikvé Israel-Emanuel (“The Hope of Israel”) should be on many bucket lists. Built in 1732 as a tropical replica of the Esnoga (Amsterdam’s oldest synagogue, 1670/71) congregants’ ancestry dates back to 1651 when the first Portuguese Sephardic Jews settled in Curaçao by way of Amsterdam — after being exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere and its sand covered floor is particularly ubiquitous, so much so that the vast majority of visitors tend to refer to it as “Curaçao’s old synagogue with the sand covered floors!”
In fact, Curaçao’s synagogue is one of five Sephardic synagogues with sand covered floors. . . in the world. The Esnoga’s floor in Amsterdam is also covered in sand, but interestingly enough, the rest of the synagogues are located in the Caribbean: Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, Jamaica; Beracha VeShalom Vegimulth Hasidim Synagogue in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands and Zedek ve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname.
Dr. Aviva Ben-Ur sums it up quite beautifully:
“Even the casual visitor to the Mikvé Israel synagogue cannot help but feel an instant sense of serenity upon entering the quiet courtyard that leads to the sanctuary. The azure stained glass windows come into view as you walk across a sand covered floor, like a thick carpet, toward a holy ark fashioned of carved mahogany. By the time you have visited the adjacent museum, with its relics and scrolls of medieval Spain, the afternoon has slipped by and only too soon the doors of the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere close for the day. Those sand covered floors leave you with a sense of all the silent history contained within its walls. Most of the forebears of today’s Sephardic congregants were secret Jews or “marranos,” from Spain and Portugal who fled the terrors of the Inquisition established in the 15th century. The floors of sand serve to remind the congregation of how its Jewish ancestors on the Iberian peninsula covered the floors of their makeshift prayer houses so that their footsteps would be muffled and the suspicion of potential denouncers would not be aroused.”
Granted, this is but one explanation for the Sephardic sand covered floor phenomenon… other explanations include:
– The Practical: the Esnoga, built near the edge of (rainy) Amsterdam where most roads were unpaved, introduced sand covered floors to dry mud on congregants’ shoes. (Not that far-fetched as there are a bunch of churches and taverns in the Netherlands dating to the 17th century with sand floors)
– The Symbolic: the sand serves as a reminder of the Sinai Desert, through which exiled Jews wandered for 40 years.
– The Biblical: the sand symbolizes God’s promise to Abraham to make the Jews as populous as the sands of the sea: “I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore.” (Genesis 22:17). This theme recurs throughout the Tanakh, like the verse in Hosea that says, “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered” (Hosea 2:1).
Maybe the original builders were trying to save money.
Maybe they wanted to feel like they’re worshiping on a Curaçao beach.
Take your pick!
One thing is certain: the Spanish-Portuguese Diaspora community in Curaçao, Amsterdam, Jamaica, Suriname and St. Thomas are faithfully committed to ‘refreshing’ their sand floors every 6-8 years (no small task!)… permanently embedding these floors in Jewish life… connecting each generation to Abraham, the Exodus and the Inquisition.
On a more personal note, I grew up playing in Curaçao’s Mikvé Israel-Emanuel‘s sand, building castles with my tiny little girl feet while singing Adon Olam, sand seeping through my “Shabbat-best” Mary Janes. Now, as a grown woman, my high heels dig deep into Mikvé Israel-Emanuel‘s sand, knocking me down to size, making me feel most Jewish.
Attending services in sand-less synagogues is simply not the same.
Source: http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/a-synagogue-drawn-in-the-sand-1.457357 by Dana Evan Kaplan, by way of Peter Jordens.
Topics: Jewish Curaçao, Curaçao History