A few weeks ago, I was navigating a dusty, narrow stretch of Oranjestad, the bustling capital of the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, when I noticed a grouping of nondescript stone walls by the roadside. On top of the walls were wrought-iron Stars of David.
Naturally, I pulled over. Occupational habit.
“Could it be?” I wondered. “A Jewish graveyard in Aruba?” I knew there was a tiny Jewish community in Oranjestad, as well as a synagogue founded sometime in the early ’60s. (Incidentally, a nearly 300-year-old shul exists on the neighboring island of Curacao, Mikve Israel-Emanuel, which is the oldest synagogue in the Americas and features sand floors, in keeping with the old Sephardic custom.)
But a Jewish cemetery came as a bit of a surprise to me. I peered over the walls. Everything was still, not a soul in sight. While some of the gravestones looked new, others were rather ancient. Some engravings of names on the stones were faded and unreadable.
I wanted more information, so I stepped into a building adjacent to the cemetery, thinking it might be a Jewish community center. Turned out it was an administrative courts processing center.
“Excuse me,” I said to a young Aruban woman working behind a glass window. “Can you tell me anything about the Jewish cemetery next door?”
The woman’s befuddled expression made it clear she couldn’t figure out what I was saying. And since my mastery of Papiamento, the Creole language widely spoken in Aruba, is nonexistent, I could surmise I wasn’t going to get very far with her.
The woman called over a colleague, who seemed to know a smattering of English. “What you need, sir?” she asked. I explained I wanted to know more about the cemetery, but she seemed oblivious to its existence altogether.
Impulsively, I decided to switch gears. “Can you tell me where the synagogue is near here?” Again, my query was greeted with expressions of bewilderment. “It’s sort of like a Jewish church,” I explained, sheepishly, “but no crosses or Jesus.”
The two women conferred in their native patois and seemed to glean what I was referring to. “Ah, yes, we tell you how to get there,” said the woman who knew English. She proceeded to offer a detailed, 15-minute recitation of virtually all the side streets and thoroughfares in Aruba, most of which I could scarcely follow. I nodded politely, thanked her for the directions and bolted to my rental car, where my wife was patiently waiting.
As we started to pull away, the two women came out of the building and flagged us down. “We’re about to go for lunch,” the English speaker said. “If you want, follow us and we drive you by your synagogue.”
I thanked them profusely but didn’t want to impose any further. Plus, I figured my GPS would do the trick. They smiled radiantly and wished us a pleasant time on their island paradise, and we sped off.
Even with the benefits of a GPS, we never were quite sharp enough to locate that synagogue. I guess all of the haphazard, one-way streets in Oranjestad just don’t correspond with modern radio-navigational systems. Still, I won’t forget the kindness and friendliness extended by those Aruban ladies during our brief cultural encounter.
In this issue of Jmore, you won’t need a GPS to locate our fascinating annual Fall Arts Preview cover story by Associate Editor Simone Ellin, as well as our insightful special section on innovation in health care. Please enjoy, and L’Shana Tova!
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief
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