Monday, October 15, 2012

Rabbi's Houses in Colonial America

I have been thinking lately about Rabbi's houses in colonial America, in part because I will be speaking about early American Jewish houses at the AJS (Association for Jewish Studies) Conference in December, and in part because I have been transcribing a section of the minute books of Congregation Nidhe Israel in Barbados in which the Rabbi, his house, and his household keep getting mentioned.  Today the historical Rabbi's house in Curaçao is a tranquil oasis, but apparently during the colonial era the houses were vibrant places to visit or live.

In Curaçao, like in Barbados, Suriname, and Amsterdam, the Rabbi's house was part of the synagogue complex that also included a mikveh (ritual bath), school space, and the synagogue itself, called the “Snoa” in Curaçao and Esnoga in Amsterdam (Ladino: אסנוגה).  Although the house in Barbados has been destroyed, the Rabbi's house in Curaçao is still standing and is beautifully maintained as part of the exquisite Jewish Historical Museum.

Panorama of the Rabbi's House on Kuiperstraat (Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)

Detail (Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)

The Rabbi’s House was built in 1728 at 26-28 Kuiperstraat, in the heart of the older Punda neighborhood.  Although it became part of the a group of buildings that now form the synagogue complex, the house predated the placement of the synagogue: as the Jewish population on the island flourished, the congregation outgrew its initial space and moved in successively in 1671-75, 1681, 1690, 1703. In 1729 the fifth synagogue was destroyed in order to build the sixth (and final synagogue) adjacent to the Rabbi’s home.  Although early on a house was adapted to meet the congregation’s needs, both in 1703 and 1732, the community built a structure explicitly as a synagogue. The current house was likewise an extension of a predecessor.  In 1704 the Mahamad (Board of directors or council of elders of a Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue) bought a larger house for Rabbi Eliau (Elijah) Lopez and his successors.  This house was “revised” in 1728, the date it now bears (Emmanuel & Emmanuel, History, 51, 87-88, 93-95, 120-24, 143, 1163).  Unlike Merchant houses, which often housed offices or goods for sale and were located near the wharf, the “business” of the Rabbi’s house was primarily ritual and liturgical. By the 1730s the Snoa had to compete with a second synagogue and Jewish school in Otrobanda, though the Snoa complex still laid claim to being the house of the Island's Rabbi.

Panorama of the Rabbi's House (Photo by Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)
Architecturally the house shares many features with its neighbors, including the graceful balconies (shown above and below) that were so popular in the Punda neighborhood during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that helped keep residents cooler. Like Amsterdam’s canal houses, older houses in Curaçao were usually built with brick.  Unlike in Amsterdam, however, where the brick was left exposed, in Curaçao the brick was typically covered in plaster or stucco (Winkel-151-55).The plaster was then whitewashed or painted in a “bright bold palette” not favored in the Netherlands.  Allegedly houses began to be painted because an early governor found the white-washed buildings “fatiguing to the eye” due to the way the reflected the tropical sunlight.

Balcony of the Rabbi's House (Photo Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)
To visit this lovely historical house, pay the small entrance fee and enter through the main gates of the Snoa.

  • Emmanuel, Isaac S. and Emmanuel, Suzanne A., History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles (Cincinnati, OH: AJA, 1970). 
  • Winkel, Pauline Pruneti, Scharloo: A Nineteenth Century Quarter of Willemstad, Curaçao: Historical Architecture and its Background (Florence: Edizioni Poligrafico Fiorentino, 1987).


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