A Jewish-Maican History of Passover – aish.com
How the Jews of Jamaica celebrate Passover as one big family, plus a delicious charoset recipe.
Jews and Jamaica. You might not think there are many similarities to these words or communities besides the fact that they both start with the letter “J”.
To many people’s surprise, the Jewish community has been an integral part of life in Jamaica since the first Jewish immigrants landed there around 1530. The first Jews to arrive in Jamaica were fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. They came to settle in Spanish Town, which was then the capital of Jamaica under Spanish control.
I sat down with Sarah Attias, a Jewish woman who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, to learn more about Jewish life on the island, her upbringing, and the holiday traditions that are practiced in this tropical Jewish community. Sarah’s family was part of this first group of Jewish immigrants to Jamaica. They are Jews of Sephardic descent and have been an integral part of Jamaican Jewry for centuries.
Now you might be wondering, why would Jews flee Spain to come to an island under Spanish control? Was life different under Spanish rule in Jamaica than it was in mainland Spain? I asked Sarah this question.
Sarah’s family were still forced to practice their religion in secret, but they had very little fear of being tortured or killed if discovered, which would have been a high probability had they remained in Spain. Life for Jamaica’s Jews remained secretive but stagnant until 1665, when the British took control of the island.
Aaron Matalon obm (Sarah’s grandfather) in Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston Jamaica (image credit Maria LaYacona)
With the Spanish government ousted from the island, the Jewish community was able to come out of hiding and practice their religion openly. The community began to build synagogues, Jewish schools and kosher markets and by 1720 about 18% of Jamaica’s population was Jewish, with synagogues even in pirate-controlled port towns. While only one synagogue remains on the island today, there are 21 Jewish cemeteries scattered across the country, a sign of an often forgotten Jewish history.
Today, the World Jewish Congress estimates Jamaica’s Jewish population to be between 200 and 400, with the majority living in Kingston and in a Chabad house in Montego Bay.
Sarah warmly recalled her childhood in Kingston, detailing how her family was so large that they made up a large part of the Jamaican Jewish community, and people not technically related to her were still treated as members of the family, especially during the holidays.
As Passover approached, I asked Sarah what vacationing on the island was like. She told me emphatically, “Passover was the best experience of my Jewish life in Jamaica. His whole family gathered at his uncle’s house in Stony Hill, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kingston. In total, nearly 150 people would be present, or about half of the Jewish population of Jamaica!
“We obviously wouldn’t be at a table, because how would you do for 150 people at a table?” Sarah asked with a laugh before describing the incredible setup of the seder tables. “He had this gigantic back porch and it was set up with these big round tables, kind of like you would have at a wedding…and they would be set up beautifully with good flowers and white tablecloths and there was a table for everyone. world. Sarah goes on to describe how the seders were always beautiful, led by her uncles at the table among the 150 people, but nothing could compare to her memories of the Jamaican Charoset.
“The defining moment of the seder has always been the charoset.” Sarah was kind enough to share her family’s charoset recipe with me. Filled with sweet tropical fruit, shaped into balls, then rolled in cinnamon, it’s unlike any charoset you’ve tasted before. After trying the recipe, I understand why Sarah associates such strong memories with it!
As we were chatting, I started thinking about traditional Jamaican food. Much of what they eat is island-fresh, natural, and (much) kosher for Passover! Fried plantainsjamaican curry, Jerk Chicken… all naturally kosher for Easter! Then I came across a recipe for traditional Jamaican bread called Bammy, made with cassava (yucca) flour that makes it kosher for Passover!
The bread is soaked in coconut milk before being fried or baked and has a delicious texture that stands in stark contrast to the dry, crispy matzah we are so used to.
I now have the chance to share with you all recipes for a Jamaican-inspired Passover meal! Wherever you celebrate Passover this year, may these recipes bring you warmth and connection to the islands.
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