Recording our Ancestors: Part 1

“He gave up the ghost and died and was gathered unto his people at an old age and full of years.”

I found this fascinating inscription as I wandered in the Jewish Cemetery in Orange Street, downtown Kingston recently. There I met with a group from Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions, which has been documenting Jamaica’s Jewish heritage in painstaking detail for some years now.  Headed by New York-based architect Rachel Frankel, the ten volunteers from Boston, Washington, New Orleans, Colorado and New York were part of an annual trip to Jamaica that began in 2007 in Falmouth. Volunteers then started to investigate the Hunt’s Bay Jewish Cemetery in 2008. Ainsley Henriques, a leading member of the Jamaican Jewish community, told me this had been derelict for nearly 100 years, but has now been cleaned up. Since 2009, volunteers moved on to an inventory of Orange Street. This year they were to complete the documentation of graves before 1880, when the government mandated the systematic registration of deaths.

A view across the Orange Street Jewish Cemetery from the older side.
A view across the Orange Street Jewish Cemetery from the older side.

The Jewish community in Jamaica is over 350 years old. Only five countries in the world have had a continuous, uninterrupted open Jewish practice, without being suppressed. Jamaica has a pretty strong record of religious tolerance through the centuries. The Spanish Inquisition never took root in the island – due to the influence of Christopher Columbus and his family – but was exported to nearby countries such as Mexico and Cuba. Jews were never allowed in the Spanish New World. The Sephardic Jews who began to arrive in Jamaica from the mid seventeenth century from Spain and Portugal were fleeing the horrors of the Inquisition. They first settled in Port Royal, and then in the capital, Spanish Town, and finally in Kingston. But their civil rights (including their ability to vote) were restricted until 1831, like those of free people of color. Other, smaller waves of Jewish immigrants followed centuries later: in the early twentieth century (from the Middle East – the Matalon brothers arrived from Damascus, for example), and in 1941, when the British government arranged for Jews threatened by Hitler’s Germany to seek refuge in Jamaica.

Not all the gravestones are intact. Many have Hebrew inscriptions, as seen in this fragment.
Not all the gravestones are intact. Many have Hebrew inscriptions, as seen in this fragment.

Ms. Frankel told me about the work of Philip Wright, author of “Monumental Inscriptions of Jamaica.” In the 1960s Wright collaborated with Richard Barnett, a classicist and Keeper of Records, on a book called “The Jews of Jamaica: Tombstone Inscriptions.” The book is out of print; but the University of Florida has digitized it. Here is the link for this book: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00001365/00001

David London and Tulane University student Michelle at work.
David London and Tulane University student Michelle at work.

I met with Michelle, a student of Preservation Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans – famous for its cemeteries and funeral traditions – who told me that in that city every family is responsible for the upkeep of graves. Here in Orange Street, the cemetery was well-kept; the grass was cut and the lovely old brick wall surrounding it is in good condition. The condition of the older graves varies considerably. Some of the nineteenth-century ones, built of red brick with a marble covering, are falling down; other tombs, though numbered, were in bad repair, and some graves were marked out in conch shells.

David London, of Colorado, showed me the detailed sheet on which each grave is recorded.
David London, of Boulder, Colorado showed me the detailed sheet on which each grave is recorded.
Rachel Frankel measures the grave of "Isaac Espedes, Esq., Late Merchant of this City."
Rachel Frankel measures the grave of “Isaac Cespedes, Esq., Late Merchant of this City.”
One of the fine marble graves in an unusual shape, being recorded by Rachel Frankel and David London.
One of the fine marble graves in an unusual shape, being recorded by Rachel Frankel and David London. I noticed how many of the graves noted the ages of the departed not only in years, but also months, and even days. Many inscriptions also included the date in the Hebrew calendar; for example, “14th Nisan 5648” (26th March, 1888)

Isn’t it a bit morbid to poke around gravestones all day, you might ask? I don’t believe so, and nor did the volunteers, who stooped over the gravestones, measured, photographed and carefully recorded every detail of each resting-place. This historical record helps people who are researching their early ancestors (yes, genealogy is extremely popular these days). A gravestone may be the only record of a family member from centuries ago.

And it is about remembrance. It is about honoring the past and those individuals – men, women and children – who lived and breathed in that past. They were husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. In a sense, I believe, this is giving the ancestors a voice, allowing them to speak again.

Telling their stories. And our ancestors do have extraordinary stories to tell.

I did not see any flowers or offerings on the graves; but many had a stone placed on them, in memory.
I did not see any flowers or offerings on the graves; but many had a stone placed on them, in memory.

18 thoughts on “Recording our Ancestors: Part 1

  1. Hello, I traced my Portuguese Jewish ancestors up to Jamaica in 1700.

    I’m trying to locate more information about Phineas Nunes Vaz, death in 1844 and his wife Leah Nunes Vaz. Specifically birth place/date of Phineas.

    Where in Jamaica Could I request this kind of info?any advise?

    Regards
    Freddy

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    1. Hi Freddy, nice to hear from you. I could put you in touch with Rachel Frankel, who has been leading the volunteer group that is recording all the graves. Perhaps Mr. Ainsley Henriques might also be able to help. Have you looked at the link in my article? This book published by the University of Florida includes tombstone inscriptions. All the best!

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      1. Hi Petchary, Thanks.

        I read the book completely, and the only reference I found for Phineas Nunes Vaz was Page 60. #382 where it states Esther Nunes Vaz was mother of Phineas Nunes Vaz.

        I am trying to find the following:
        – Birth date of Phineas Nunes Vaz. (He dies in Philladelphia in 1844, at 41 or 44 years old)
        – Name of Father of Phineas Nunes Vaz (husband of Esther Nunes Vaz); and his birth and death dates.

        I contacted Mr. Ainsley but probably he is very busy person.

        Do not know which other sources in Jamaica I could use to try to find this information.

        Regards
        Freddy

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      2. OK. I will try to put some feelers out, and could perhaps start by asking Rachel. I will get back to you. Have you visited the Orange Street cemetery by the way?

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      3. Hi Freddy: I am told that you should inquire with Congregation Mikveh Israel, the Spanish Portuguese Jewish congregation in Philidelphia: http://www.mikvehisrael.org/ about Phineas Nunes Vaz. Regarding the name of the Father of Phineas Nunes Vaz (husband of Esther Nunes Vaz) and his birth and death dates, Rachel Frankel says they found no trace of him. Esther’s grave is included in Barnett and Wright’s publication but by the time they commenced documenting the Orange Street Cemetery, they found no trace of her grave marker. I hope this helps! All the best, Emma

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  2. HI Petchary,

    While I usually read your posts, the ones on Jamaican Jews are of special interest because of my father’s Jewish heritage and the role that it plays in my life today. Thanks for these articles because they enlighten many persons.

    Herman.

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    1. Thanks, Herman. I really do have a strong feeling that I saw an Alvaranga in the old part of Orange Street cemetery. I am so glad that your father’s influence remains – and it’s so important to recognize our roots and absorb them into one’s own being, in some way. I hope these posts will be informative. Jamaica’s history is so rich. Please keep reading, thanks!

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  3. Absolutely beautiful piece of Jamaica’s history. Thank you to these generous volunteers who have given of their time to document our collective history. It is an important part of who we are.

    There is/was small Jewish cemetery on Hagley Park Road in Kingston. I wonder if the volunteers plan to make a record of that cemetery as well.

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    1. Thanks so much, Donna! The volunteers are all so committed to their work and they consider it important, for so many different reasons. I’m not sure if they are aware of a cemetery on Hagley Park Road. It’s quite a long road – do you know which part? I will let them know about this, however. Thank you so much for your comments!

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      1. Hello, the small Jewish cemetery on Hagley Park Road is between Lewis Villa Road and Omara Road, on the opposite side of the road from these streets. I don’t think it was a family plot, bit it was/is quite small.

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      2. Thank you for telling me about this! I have passed the information on to Rachel Frankel, who I think will be back next year with more volunteers… Large or small, it’s of great interest! Another exploratory expedition is on the cards, I think!

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      3. Very cool! Hopefully, they’ll be able document those as well.Thanks for forardin the suggestion to the volunteers.

        Like

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