Jews survived for almost 2,000 years without a homeland. They maintained their ethnicity while living as minority groups in lands of different cultures. When rejected or rebuffed, the usual tendency of minorities is to acculturate and assimilate. Most adherents of Judaism withstood the blandishments of greater personal freedom and opportunity which might have come through apostasy.
There are two major divisions in Judaism: Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The former stemmed from Slavic countries, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. The latter originally emanated from the Iberian Peninsula and then spread throughout the Mediterranean area after the expulsions from Castile and Aragon (1492), Portugal (1497) and Navarre (1498). Without assaying a detailed explanation of the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, it suffices to state that the Sephardi was an integrationist and worldly. He was intrepid and proud of his faith, and a conquistador along with Spanish Catholics. During the inquisition period, however, he observed his religion secretely.
The Ashkenazim were ghettoized to a greater extent and were more introverted. Since 1500, they were the great Talmudists. Writers of Jewish history, with rare exception, have been Ashkenazim. Their writings frequently contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes of the Jews as cringing and subservient people whose principal function was money-lending and who never turned to farming, military and naval careers or other activities of the Christian world. Actually, Sephardim did engage in all these fields.
Isaac S. and Suzanne A. Emmanuel, Sephardim, have made a major contribution to history by their two-volume work. It is the result of more than thirty years of research in archives in three continents and in original documents. The second volume consists of thirty-one appendices containing lists of Jewish ship-owners, captains and crews, plantation owners, marriages, income tax payers, homesteaders, as well as rules and regulations of the synagogues of Curaçao. There is ample grist for the mills of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and theologians.
The first volume is a detailed chronological account of the history of the Sephardim who founded the Jewish settlement in Curaçao in 1651. Interspersed in the narration is considerable interpretation with which one can only infrequently find fault. The account benefits by the empathy that the historians have for the people of whom they write. The history of the Jews of St. Eustatius is also recorded in some detail. One has to go back to the American Historical Review, 8:4 (July 1903) to read in J. F. Jameson’s “St. Eustatius in the American Revolution” of the role of Stasian Jews in our war for independence, and the calamities visited upon them by Sir Admiral Rodney in 1781 in retaliation. These events are undeservedly omitted from textbook accounts of the war.
Ashkenazim did not arrive in the Netherlands Antilles in numbers until 1926. For three centuries prior thereto, Jews from Curaçao had spread north to the entire Caribbean and the United States, and south and west to South and Central America. Many towns in Venezuela and Colombia, during the colonial period, had among their early settlers crypto-Jews who made important contributions to their growth and development. The Emmanuels’ detailed account presents the social, economic, religious and political facets of a people who, while fraternizing with their Christian neighbors and participating in every aspect of civil life, survived as Jews.