677. Curaçao’s Sephardic Sand Floor

Source: kosherlikeme.com.

Source: kosherlikeme.com.

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:

Source: en.wikipedia.org.

Source: en.wikipedia.org.

“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.

See also: 981. Curaçao’s Snoa is the Oldest Synanogue in the Western Hemisphere

Topics: Jewish Curaçao, Curaçao History

About 1000awesomethingsaboutcuracao

I'm Carolina Gomes-Casseres, the creator of 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao. I live in Manhattan but sometimes miss my first awesome island. Thanks for visiting!


  1. I was so touched to read about Curaçao’s Mikve Israel-Emanuel! This synagogue is an exact replica, though much smaller, of the Esnoga in Amsterdam. I was honored to perform there for the opening of the Jewish Music Festival there last year as well as to serve on the jury of their international music competition. I also felt so fortunate to have had the opportunity to perform at another historic synagogue, for the 300th anniversary of the Bevis-Marks Synagogue in London.

    The Esnoga is a magical place to perform and to pray. Yes, the floors are covered with sand and the place was completely lit by candles placed on gorgeous candelabras. I was watching the caretaker cap every candle after the concert and he must have spent at least an hour doing so. Lighting them all must have taken at least twice that long. Here are a few pictures of that wonderful evening. The synagogue was packed by an appreciative and enthusiastic audience as was the weeklong festival.
    In the article, I loved reading the phrase ‘Those sand covered floors leave you with a sense of all the silent history contained within its walls.’ The descriptions of why the sand came to be there in the first place also moved me and made me feel so connected to my ancestors. From the practical (drying muddy shoes) to the symbolic (Sinai desert) to the Biblical (God’s promise to Abraham), these interpretations are indeed replete with silent history.

    I hope I will have the opportunity to visit and to sing in these wonderful synagogues in the future.

    Kol Tuv,
    Gerard Edery

  2. Pingback: Lean Green Island Girl | Five Things I Love About Punda (Curacao)

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