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Curacao's Curios of History

January 6, 2011 By:
Elyse Glickman, Jewish Exponent Feature
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When we traveled as a family, my parents never chose destinations like Hawaii or the Caribbean. Their explanation? Tropical destinations with fancy resorts were not "real" places.

However, Mom and Dad would find Curaçao -- located in the Caribbean's southern reaches -- quite agreeable. While it has its share of resorts, beaches and diving schools, capital city Willemstad also sparkles with museums, interesting architecture (Dutch with splashes of Caribbean color), excellent food and shopping -- and a landmark synagogue.

Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel, the oldest operational congregation in the Americas, is said to have taken root in 1651, when the directors of the Dutch West India Company made an appeal on behalf of Jan de Illan (or Joao d'Yllan), a successful Jewish businessman, to set up a trading post on the remote Caribbean island.

At the time, Amsterdam was a safe haven for educated, business-savvy Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition, and de Illan was part of a community that was transforming the Netherlands into a trade powerhouse worldwide.

De Illan, who was born in Portugal where he had been denounced for "Judaizing," flourished in the Netherlands by conducting commerce with relatives in Brazil. Seeing both the potential for commerce and community building, he had hoped to bring 50 families to build a small nation out of the island.

Though he only recruited 12 families, they steadfastly sailed to Curaçao in the summer of 1651 and put down roots for the first incarnation of Mikve Israel (translation: "The Hope of Israel"). However, new immigration from Holland, Portugal, France and even other Caribbean islands, expanded the community and the necessity for a larger temple.

Several rebuildings ensued to accommodate the influx between 1651 and 1732.

The inviting yellow building erected in 1732 housing the present day Mikve Israel-Emanuelwww.snoa.com is now widely touted as one of the island's "must do" attractions. Located in Willemstad's bustling Punda area, the architecture reflects Caribbean adaptations to 18th-century European architecture.

The main section of the temple is held up by four pillars named for Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Ruth. The spare but elegant site is also outfitted with a bimah, banca, seats and chandeliers from the 18th and 19th centuries, and covers the floor for symbolic reasons: a reminder of the great Exodus; God's message to Abraham to spread seed; and a means to muffle footsteps of those who practiced their Jewish faith in secret during the Inquisition.

While experiencing a Reconstructionist Shabbat service, wedding or Bar Mitzvah in this setting is unforgettable, the adjacent Jewish Historical Museum (est. 1970) reinforces feelings of pride with well-labeled items from Jewish life on the island and priceless artifacts from Europe.

Several of the 18 scrolls brought by Spanish and Portuguese Jews date back to the Middle Ages (the oldest from about 1320) --their Willemstad home rescuing them from a fate that met other artifacts in Europe during World War II.

In contrast, the recently erected Shaarei Tsedek Synagogue

(www.shaareitsedek curacao.com), an hour's walk from Willemstad, was brought to fruition under the leadership of 34-year-old Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun and serves a mainly Orthodox/ Ashkenazi community, though they often join forces with Mikve Israel for programs and religious services.

The shul and community center were 60 years in the making, starting with an influx of World War II survivors and continuing with the collaboration of local and expat congregation members sharing in the responsibility of preserving the island's unique Jewish legacy.

While Curaçao is now 80 percent Catholic, the island was 58 percent Jewish between 1730 and 1820. Indeed, Curaçao is a place of great meaning for Jews of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds.

Off the synagogue path, there is much to see and do, along with fine accommodations. At first glance, the Kura Hulanda Hotel (www.kurahulanda.com)resembles a 1950s Technicolor film set. After a good walk around, however, it opens out into lush courtyards, a waterfall, sculptures and tucked-away galleries.

The Kura Hulanda Museum, anchoring the property, is an enormously moving look at the Caribbean slave trade and African culture. It reminds visitors that this multicultural society was borne out of a past that should never be forgotten -- even with the knowledge the Dutch had been tolerant and even protective toward Jews through history.

Cocktail enthusiasts should not miss Mansion Chobolobo Distillery(www.curacaoliqueur.com), home of the original Blue Curacao liqueur -- which, by the way, also produces delectable rum raisin, coffee and chocolate spirits, and is in the process of becoming a certified kosher producer.

Curaçao's best -- and arguably most authentic cuisine -- is served up daily at Marshe Bieuw (a tented, open-air line of lunch counters) and Jaanchie's, in the island's rustic northwest, featuring a savory buffet of people-watching and local color.

Other dining options range from arty-trendy hotspots like Mundo Bizarro and Moon to waterfront surf-and-turf grills to far-above-average hotel dining, such as the Floris Suites Hotel, an uber-trendy boutique property across the road from the Marriott.

On the southeastern side of the island, the newly opened Hyatt Regency Curaçao(curacao.hyatt.com) is wowing guests with two solid, full-service themed restaurants (Medi and Shor) and an ingeniously designed spa that offers guests individual self-contained suites.

History, shopping and dining notwithstanding, the allure of the great outdoors remains Curaçao's top draw. Christoffelpark (www.christoffelpark.org), the largest national park, is rich in hiking trails, local flora, fauna and wildlife. More adventurous types will want to scope out rustic spots, such as the "Blue Room" sea cave and Santa Cruz beach, as well as numerous scuba-diving concessions that circle the island like a pearl choker.

The mysteries of the deep are now open to non-swimmers, not only thanks to the popular family attraction SeaQuarium (a compact, kitsch-free variation of SeaWorld), but also Substation Curacao (www. substation-curacao.com).

While many Caribbean islands can qualify as paradise, what makes Curaçao special is that it can support resorts, a diverse citizenry and a special regard for the Jewish people who shaped its life and times.

For more information, visit: www. curacao.com or www.ctb.an.

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