It was Friday evening, and the sun was low in the sky as we parked in a space off a narrow lane behind the Shaare Shalom Synagogue on Duke Street, in downtown Kingston. We crossed the lane. A couple of dogs looked at us inquiringly. We felt a little awkward, I think.
Neither my husband nor I had ever set foot in a synagogue before. So, please forgive me (in advance) if my comments appear a little naïve. These are first impressions, as a newcomer.
“Shaare Shalom” means “Gates of Peace” in Hebrew. Duke Street itself was far from peaceful; the Friday evening rush hour was in full flow, and traffic rumbled and roared. Outside there was a gathering of people, talking before the service started – including the group of American volunteers I had met earlier in the week, as they conducted their inventory at the Orange Street cemetery.
We wandered around the small memorial garden, and I was immediately drawn to the pomegranate tree standing among the headstones. The fruit shone golden (not yet ripe) in the evening sun. Now, there is nothing especially unusual about seeing a pomegranate tree in Jamaica, although they are not as common as they used to be. But in the Jewish tradition, the fruit represents all things good: fruitfulness, knowledge, learning, and wisdom. It is also seen as a symbol of righteousness, and as such is often eaten at Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).
I examined some of the headstones, which I learned were transposed from the original Jewish cemetery in North/Church Street, a little further up the road. They were extraordinarily beautiful and elaborately carved. Depictions of an arm cutting down a tree indicated that the man had died young; if the carving was of a flower being picked, it signified that a woman had died before her time.
When the service was ready to get started, we were called inside. The first thing that surprised us was the sand floor. Yes, a layer of cool white sand on a wooden floor. I had been wondering if we should take our shoes off, but dismissed the thought immediately. I have since learned that there are only five synagogues with sand floors in the world – four of them in the Caribbean (the others being in Amsterdam, Suriname, Curaçao and St. Thomas). The sand needs replacing every few years, and the congregation was asked for contributions to purchase some more. Please see the fascinating article link below for much more information on this.
As we entered, all the men put on a yarmulke – the small round cap, to cover their heads – from a container just inside the door. Several men already wore more decorative ones. Women did not cover their heads, at all. I am rather used to it being the other way round, in church. In fact, Jamaican women love their “church hats.”
The proceedings were more relaxed and informal than I had experienced in church. No one declaimed loudly, or lectured, and there was no sermon. An organ played at times, and this reminded me a great deal of the Anglican Church that I grew up in. But the singing was rich and vibrant and slow – very different, both in form and in feeling, from the Christian hymns I was accustomed to. People did not sing in chorus, but followed the beautiful voices of the two solo singers along from time to time, quietly – or just listened with eyes half-closed. Much of the singing was in Hebrew, and as we tried to follow the ceremony, we realized that the prayer book went from back to front. But every now and again we were on completely familiar territory; in particular, with Psalm 23. That surprised us, too.
The interior of the synagogue was simple and painted white; it is due to be repainted, inside and out, soon. No paintings, no statues. An upstairs gallery holds the organ; from there a woman with a fine voice sang, sometimes in concert with the male singer, who sang equally beautifully in a rich bass. The windows and doors were thrown open, and ceiling fans spun. The rattling of trucks and blasting of car horns outside did not perturb anyone. I noticed the word “sanctuary” was used a few times to refer to this space, and it fitted perfectly. A safe place to retreat to, and a place in which to meditate.
This air of calm, and a kind of unpretentious ease and fellowship, was what struck me. There was ceremony, such as when the Ark was opened (it is like a closet with tall wooden doors, that were opened and closed very carefully and quietly) and the Torah scrolls revealed. There were also pauses.
As the prayers and song continued, I watched the sunlight’s withdrawal outside the entrance to the building. I could just see the pomegranate tree through the doorway. It faded, became a grey shadow of itself.
“Sabbat Shalom!” was the greeting we received at the end, with a handshake. This means “wishing you a peaceful Sabbath” – but I have read a bit about the meaning of the word “shalom” and it actually means more than simply “peace.” It actually means to “become complete and whole.” What makes us complete and whole, I wonder, in this world?
We gathered afterwards for refreshments, in a small museum, one of several buildings behind the synagogue. I had no idea such a museum existed. Photographs of all the leaders of the United Congregation of Israelites (Kahal Kadosh), as Jamaica’s Jewish community is called, stared down at us from high up on the walls. There were interesting historical displays that I would love to have spent more time looking at. But we were chatting and eating sandwiches and cake – after a small ceremony with tiny glasses of wine (I think it might have been port).
As we walked over to the car, I looked up at an old house with a cracked window. A light was burning upstairs. And as we drove slowly along the lane, the dogs who had been resting in the roadway reluctantly got up and moved out of the way.
The history, the past of the city had wrapped itself around us.
http://ucija.org The website of the United Congregation of Israelites, Jamaica is very bright, attractive and informative.
http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/a-synagogue-drawn-in-the-sand-1.457357 “A synagogue drawn in the sand” by Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan