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  • Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries and Synagogues of Suriname. Epitaphs, and: Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries and Synagogues of Suriname. Essays, and: Creole Jews: Negotiating Community in Colonial Suriname
  • Laura Leibman (bio)
Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries and Synagogues of Suriname. Epitaphs. Volume 1. By Aviva Ben-Ur and Rachel Frankel. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2009. 679 pp.
Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries and Synagogues of Suriname. Essays. Volume 2. By Aviva Ben-Ur with Rachel Frankel. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2012. 152 pp.
Creole Jews: Negotiating Community in Colonial Suriname. By Wieke Vink. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2010. xiv + 306 pp.

In 1667 the Dutch attacked the colony of Suriname, home to a hundred and twenty-nine sugar plantations, including several owned by Jews living near Cassipora Creek. Soon thereafter, the English officially ceded the colony to the Dutch in exchange for Nieuw Amsterdam. Although today this trade might seem to benefit the English, during the 1660s Suriname was quickly becoming one of the wealthiest and most influential colonies in the Americas. It would also become home to one of the largest, richest, and most vibrant early Jewish American communities. By 1730, Jews owned nearly 30% of the country’s plantations, and at its peak the colony had as many as 1500 Jewish residents, or about one half of the white population. During the 1790s, there were five times more Jews in Suriname than in all of North America; even as late as 1830, more Jews lived in Suriname than in New York. The main port of Paramaribo housed three congregations: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and an Afro-Jewish “brotherhood.” The community left an immense written and archeological record.

Recent scholarship on the colony has begun to shift the way we understand the origins of American Jewish history. Rather than playing a peripheral role in colonial affairs, Suriname’s Jews were central to the construction of early American notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Two decades after Robert Cohen’s ground-breaking Jews in Another Environment: Surinam in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century (1991), three volumes have emerged to enhance our understanding of Suriname’s importance for Jewish American studies: Aviva Ben-Ur and Rachel Frankel’s two-volume Remnant Stones (2009, 2012) and Wieke Vink’s Creole Jews (2010). [End Page 85]

Remnant Stones brings to light much of the untapped resources of Suriname’s colonial record. Volume I of Remnant Stones (2009) provides meticulous transcriptions and translations of the nearly seventeen hundred epitaphs found in Suriname’s four oldest Jewish cemeteries. In addition, the volume contains a wealth of images and data regarding the cemeteries’ iconography and spatial layouts. The monuments catalogued cover the era from 1666 to 1904 and embrace six languages (Portuguese, Hebrew, Dutch, Aramaic, French, and English). The second volume of Remnant Stones (2012) serves as an interpretative companion to the first volume and includes a historical overview of Suriname’s Jewish communities, an analysis of the four burial grounds, an interpretation of Jodensavanne’s Afro-Surinamese (“Creole”) cemetery, and a study of the country’s oldest synagogue.

The two volumes of Remnant Stones propose that material culture and architecture are as important for understanding Jewish religious life as textual evidence and thereby challenge traditional historiography of this era. For Ben-Ur and Frankel, cemeteries serve as “open air archives” that illuminate poetic traditions, racial assignment, religious identity, and communal boundaries. Although many studies of Jewish cemeteries ignore iconography in favor of epigraphs, Remnant Stones balances these two types of evidence. Moreover, the images provide insights into the visual vocabulary of Suriname’s Jewish community. Ben-Ur and Frankel explicate a wide range of symbols Surinamese Jews used to convey their religious beliefs, life stories, and social status. In the final chapter of Volume II, the writers turn their gaze to the ruins of one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas, Kahal Kados Beraha VeSalom (1685). The chapter argues for the influence of the Jerusalem Temple on the synagogue and the spatial layout of Jodensavanne and pays close attention to how women and Eurafrican Jews used the synagogue’s space.

Although the first volume of this set should become essential...


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