“I never met my grandfather.”
So said Joseph de Leon, of Queens, New York. He and his son (also called Joseph) were among a group of American Jewish volunteers working at the Jewish Cemetery in Orange Street, Kingston. The group, led by Rachel Frankel, visited Jamaica last month; this was their seventh consecutive annual visit to the island, to painstakingly record the rich Jewish heritage to be found not only in Kingston, but across the island.
Joseph Sr. discovered during his explorations that not only his grandfather, but his great-grandfather and grand-uncle also had their final place of rest at Orange Street. He and Joseph Jr. also found two infant graves. He was himself born in Jamaica; the de Leons were merchants. He started researching his family through the genealogical websites (and there are several excellent ones) and has not stopped.
The large cemetery is still not full. One half of the space is taken up with graves prior to 1880 – red brick tombs with marble slabs on top. Some of the bricks are tumbling down. Many of the beautifully inscribed marble tombstones have slipped. They lie cracked, in one, two, or several pieces, discarded. Some are propped up against the bricks. It’s like walking through lives that are now in pieces, and I felt the strong urge to straighten them all up and rebuild everything and make it new and neat and tidy. The newer half is white and shining and neat in the sunlight. The grass is neatly cut. There are no trees, but I met an old dog resting quietly in one corner, in the shade of the perimeter wall.
I met Amy Wachtel, from New York. She has long, thick brown hair and a warm and lively smile. Why is she volunteering in Jamaica? “Because I am a Jewess,” she said, “and because of my love of reggae music – I am in the music business!” This combination of factors was more than enough to bring her to Jamaica. She is familiar with the long-established music stores in Orange Street; she’s an expert and an enthusiast. Amy (aka“Night Nurse”) broadcasts a weekly show (Mondays from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m) on http://www.radiolily.com called “Rockers Arena.” The station broadcasts live from the front window of Miss Lily’s Variety (130 West Houston Street, if you are in New York) – a well-known store and restaurant. Amy concentrates on “classic” reggae – roots rockers and the like. Miss Lily’s website notes: “Amy believes that reggae is a soothing, healing, uplifting music.”
I know it’s a cliché, but it’s certainly a small world. We are more connected than we think; and music has a way of doing that.
A note on the children’s graves: These were in a separate section of the cemetery, and they made me feel sad. Of course, infant mortality was much higher in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of the children’s graves were of the red brick variety, but the clean and well-kept marble tomb of “our little pet” was most touching. Rudolph Jacob Salmon died on April 17, 1875 aged six months and five days.
There is a period of mourning in Jewish tradition, which reminded me of the Jamaican “Nine Night” or “Dead Yard,” an extended wake. “Sitting Shiva” is a seven-day period of mourning, during which relatives gather at the house of the deceased, say prayers and eat and drink. Nowadays, though – as with Jamaica’s Nine Night – it is not practical or economical, and only done for one night.
I had an interesting chat with Rachel Frankel, the group leader, on the Jamaican and Jewish people’s approach to history. Why, I asked myself afterwards, are Jamaicans so ambivalent about their history?
Well, history is unforgiving. You can’t rewrite it; it is what it is. And Jamaica’s history is especially brutal. For Jamaicans of African descent, family history was cruelly broken by the Middle Passage and further torn apart by the daily horrors of slavery. From then on, it became the history of an oppressed people. Colonial history is not palatable; Jamaicans bear the names of their slave-masters and it’s incredibly hard – well-nigh impossible – to trace your ancestors back more than a few generations.
But there are stories – individual stories – that can be salvaged. We can start, I firmly believe, by recording the histories of our ancestors – our own family members – both recent and more distant, as far as possible. There is archival material available. I would also suggest just sitting down and talking to elderly people that you know; whenever I have visited the Golden Age Home, too, I have become aware that the residents have so many – so many! – fascinating stories to tell.
Personally, because of my father’s great interest in genealogy, I grew up with family stories (some of them not very edifying, and some downright peculiar). But the stories anchor you. Your ancestors made you who you are. This is why I was particularly distressed to hear a recent conversation on radio with the former Mayor of Kingston Desmond McKenzie regarding the May Pen Cemetery in West Kingston. It is still used, but has become a kind of nightmarish wilderness, where criminals reputedly hide – a place of fear. I will refrain from telling some rather horrific stories about its condition and its use in recent history. If the government cannot afford the occasional “bushing,” whereby men with machetes clear the overgrown tangles of vines and “macka,” then couldn’t some of the residents keep the graves of their family members clean? Or are they just to be abandoned forever?
People move on, and the times move on. We must all create our own history, starting today. We owe it to our ancestors. And we owe it to our ancestors to preserve their memory. That’s just my view.
Postscript: Do you know which Jamaican Prime Minister has Jewish ancestry?
Very recently, the Spanish Government decided to offer Spanish citizenship to the Sephardic Jews that it persecuted and expelled centuries ago. This would presumably include those who fled to Jamaica. According to a Jewish website, “522 years after King Fernando II and Queen Isabella I signed an edict ordering the expulsion of Sephardic Jews, the government in Madrid approved a law permitting the descendants of those expelled to claim Spanish citizenship without conceding the citizenship of the country of their residency.” There may be huge bureaucratic challenges, but let us see how this works out. [Quite reminiscent of the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290; they were readmitted by Cromwell centuries later, in 1656. History is a funny old thing, isn’t it?]