Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti's Sephardi Jews help relief efforts

Haaretz spotlights Haiti's 25 Jews, most originating from Syria, Egypt and Lebanon: their help was key to the succes of Israel's relief effort following the disastrous earthquake. (With thanks: bh)

(Rudolph) Dana said he is not sure when he will return to the country where his grandparents settled at the turn of the 20th century, and where he was born and has lived for most of his life.

Dana's deep Haitian roots are part of the country's long Jewish history.

Back in 1492, Luis de Torres, Christopher Columbus's interpreter, was the first known Jew to step foot on what is now Haiti. Brazilian immigrants of Jewish ancestry settled there in the 17th century, though many perished in the slave revolts at the turn of the 19th century that ultimately established Haiti's independence from France.

Then came a small wave of Jewish immigration to Haiti from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt - the influx that brought Dana's grandparents - during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Many of these Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants made a living importing and selling textiles, and they sent their children to the local Catholic schools.

The island's Jews were joined during the 1930s by about 100 European Jews who came to Haiti fleeing the Nazis. The Haitian Jewish community peaked mid-century at about 300 members, many of whom left for larger, more established Jewish communities in the United States, Argentina and Panama.

Archaeologists have also found evidence of a Crypto-Jewish, or Marrano, community that once existed in the western Haitian city of J'amie.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Jews who grew up in and around Port-au-Prince remember how the community would import matzah for Passover and would gather together, 50 to 60 people strong, for High Holy Day services.

"Services were held in one of the largest homes; men sat in the front and women sat in the back," said Vivianne Esses, 76, who lived with her family in P'tionville until she was 13, before moving to Bogota, Colombia, and, later, to Brooklyn, N.Y.

In J'mie, where Marie Mizrahi grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, hers was one of only a couple of Jewish families in town. Although she and her family weren't particularly observant, they managed to observe Jewish traditions. ?We ate chicken and beef, but never shrimp or pork," she said. "I have five brothers, and they were all circumcised."

Both Esses and Mizrahi fondly recalled the sweetness of Haiti's mangos, the fruit that remains one of the country's main exports.

Today, Haiti - a country of 9 million people, where the dominant religions are Catholicism and Vodou - has an estimated 25 Jews. Most of them live in Petionville, a relatively affluent enclave situated in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Some of the country's Jews are among the wealthiest residents of the island nation, where about 80% of people live in poverty.

Haiti has no rabbi and no synagogue. Dana can't remember the last time local Jews were able to gather a minyan. There is a Torah, which is kept in the home of Dana's cousin Gilbert Bigio, the Haitian business magnate with interests in the steel, telecommunications, banking, petroleum, and food sectors.

One of Haiti's wealthiest citizens and the de facto leader of the island's Jewish community, Bigio owns the land on which Israel recently set up its military field hospital, according to Amos Radian, Israel's Dominican Republic-based ambassador to the nations of the eastern Caribbean.

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