Paramaribo’s oasis of peace

Jonathan Ali on the European Jews who found refuge in Suriname four centuries ago

Detail of the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark), showing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Photograph by Roy TijnInside Neve Shalom. Photograph by Roy TijnNeve Shalom, with relocated tombstones from one of Paramaribo’s two Jewish cemeteries in the foreground. Photograph by Roy Tijn

It is a typically heat-charged weekday morning in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. The streets are buzzing with the sounds of traffic, as the city’s inhabitants go about their business. Yet in the Neve Shalom synagogue on Keizerstraat, in the heart of the city, the hurly-burly of the workaday world falls away, and is replaced by a startling, awe-inducing silence.

Houses of worship are often designed to instill feelings of awe and wonder, of being in the humbling presence of the divine. I am not normally given to such feelings. Here, however, in the silence and stillness, with the sun tumbling dazzlingly through the windows upon a floor carpeted thickly with white sand, it is not difficult to believe I have stumbled upon, if not God, then – to translate Neve Shalom literally from Hebrew into English – an oasis of peace.

The Neve Shalom synagogue was constructed between 1835 and 1837. It replaced a smaller synagogue, built on the same spot in 1719, as the place of worship for Paramaribo’s Ashkenazi Jews. The nearby Zedek v’ Shalom (Justice and Peace) synagogue, served the city’s Sephardic community. (Sephardis are Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent; Ashkenazis claim central or eastern European heritage.)

With its austere beauty, Neve Shalom exemplifies the historical architecture that characterises much of Paramaribo. The doorway features imposing Ionic columns; similar columns are repeated inside. The aron kodesh (the holy ark, containing the centuries-old scrolls of a copy of the Torah) and the bimah (the reader’s dais) are of elegant wood construction, while curving candelabras, dangle from the high ceiling. An upper landing, accessible only via an exterior staircase, bears further witness to a previous time, when women were not allowed to set foot in Neve Shalom.

The most remarkable feature of Neve Shalom, however, is its sand-covered floor. The sand serves as a dual reminder of the past: of the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering the desert after the exodus from Egypt, and of the Spanish Inquisition, when practising the Jewish faith in Spain and Portugal was punishable by death. During that time, the Marranos – Jews who had converted to Christianity but continued to practise Judaism in secret – would meet clandestinely in cellars to worship, covering the floor with sand so as to muffle the sounds of their prayers.

It is to this history of persecution that the Jews of Suriname – as well as a number of other Jewish communities in the Americas – owe their existence. In 1492, the year Christopher Columbus made the first of his fateful voyages, the Inquisition intensified. Many Jews were expelled from or fled Spain and Portugal. In the early seventeenth century they began to cross the Atlantic, heading first to Brazil.

The first Jews arrived in Suriname, then a British colony, around 1640. In 1654, another group, having been expelled from the French colony of Cayenne (French Guiana), made their way next door to Suriname.

They brought to their new home the knowledge of the cultivation of sugar cane. The Jews, whose ancestors once were a people in bondage, were now the owners of slaves themselves. The plantations flourished, and the savannah eventually became known as Jodensavanne: the Jews’ Savannah.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the Jewish population was close to 1,000 people. They possessed some 9,000 enslaved Africans, and owned around a quarter – just over 100 – of all the plantations in Suriname.

The sugar industry would soon go into decline, however. Prices began to fall, and the once-rich soils of Jodensavanne became depleted. The plantations were also under constant threat of attack by various tribes of Maroons, the runaway slaves who were themselves now a significant presence in the colony. Gradually, the Jews began leaving Jodensavanne for the quickly growing Paramaribo on the coast, trading agriculture to become merchants, shopkeepers and professionals.

In Paramaribo the Jews continued to prosper, and many became highly influential in Surinamese life. A discrete mixed-race Jewish community also emerged. The anti-Semitism that reared its head in Europe, leading to the horrors that took place during World War II, left Suriname’s Jews untouched. And although Suriname has the world’s largest minority Muslim population, Jewish-Islamic relations in the country have never been strained. In fact, the mosque of the Surinamese Islamic Society stands next to the Neve Shalom synagogue, striking testament to the cordiality that exists between the two religions.

Upheavals were to come, however. In 1975 Suriname parted ways with the Dutch, becoming an independent nation. Much of the population, including many of the better-off Jews, fearing economic collapse, migrated to Holland. This migration continued steadily throughout the 1980s, during the civil war that tore through the nation. In the space of just a few decades, a thriving community that had been built over the course of almost 350 years was reduced to an echo of its former self.

The dwindling of the Jewish community has prompted significant changes. The Ashkenazi, Sephardic and mixed-race congregations have all merged, and the community has switched from Orthodox to Liberal. The Zedek v’ Shalom synagogue was deconsecrated and rented out, becoming an Internet café. There are now roughly 200 Jews left in Suriname, most of whom are over 60.

Aspects of the Jewish presence in the country will undoubtedly remain – in certain surnames and street names; in the popular chicken dish pom; in the words of Hebrew origin that have slipped into Sranan Tongo, Suriname’s creole tongue and the country’s lingua franca, words such as abuda kaba (hard work) and treef (forbidden food). But the future of the Jews themselves is, to say the least, uncertain. And what will become of the oasis of peace on Keizerstraat? Only time will tell.