Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2017
Wyatt Gallery Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean: The Legacy of Judaism in the New World Atglen: Schiffer, 2016. 240 pp.; 233 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780764350955)

Wyatt Gallery’s beautiful collection of photos documenting Jewish artifacts in the Caribbean elegantly eliminates people as it dwells in an elegiac past. It should, as a result, continue vigorous debates on the meaning and ethics of human representation in sites prone to romanticization. Do the islands, long the subject of colonial gazing, continue to serve as a place of others’ historical imaginations (as Krista A. Thompson suggests in her 2007 book An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque [Durham: Duke University Press]) or as a site of human presence in its own complex terms? Gallery’s book falls decidedly on the colonializing side, resembling the well-intentioned work of an explorer discovering an abandoned yet familiar civilization and then justifying his eschewal of the society by embracing an all-too-hasty extinction narrative. This approach produces a visually stunning book that I, as a historian of Caribbean Jewish life and one-time resident of St. Thomas, admire for its aesthetic detail; but it also frustrates me for yet again rendering contemporary Caribbean Jewry fairly invisible.

Portrayals of Jewish life in the Caribbean present their own angle on the islands-as-fantasyland narrative. One could arguably go back to the work of Camille Pissarro, whose upbringing in St. Thomas’s Jewish community produced a number of sketches and full paintings—some of which might have included (anonymous) Jewish islanders. Jamaican Jewish painter Isaac M. Belisario’s (1795–1849) character sketches and his landscapes included human subjects, perhaps some incidentally Jewish, others formerly enslaved African people. Furthermore, a number of well-to-do residents in both Jamaica and St. Thomas commissioned portraits for their own walls. As photographic images gained currency in the first half of the twentieth century and the islands again became a place of “discovery” after decades of economic depression, the gaze appeared to shift to a more populist anthropocentric mode. American Jewish photographer Alexander Alland (1902–1989), for example, included Jews in his photographic explorations of ethnic groups in the Virgin Islands—leading to his 1940 New School/Schomburg Center exhibition, The Social Scene in the Virgin Islands; and his four-part account of Jewish life in The American Hebrew the same year featured both portraits of prominent residents and in situ scenes.

After World War II, as islands increasingly looked to tourism as a source of income and self-significance, some residents began to generate their own exotic imagery. One clear vestige of this change appears in the 1959 pamphlet Jewish Historical Developments in the Virgin Islands, 1665–1959. Produced for both tourists and a new generation of American Jewish residents, the short account of the island’s Jewish history juxtaposed text by local amateur historian/merchant Isidor Paiewonsky with gray-scale images by Miami-based commercial photographer Robert A. Gelberg (1927–2007). Gelberg’s photos presage Gallery’s images, treating the St. Thomas synagogue as a holy artifact and evoking heritage by picturing contemporary icons of Jewish tradition (prayer books, a prayer shawl) in an intentionally empty sanctuary. The pamphlet’s final image, titled End of the Service, featured a prayer shawl draped over one of the congregation’s mahogany benches, implying a departed worshiper from the ambiguously distant past. Other images, including a panoramic view from the pulpit and a shadowy close-up image of a prayer shawl’s fringes dangling over the synagogue’s sand-covered floor, would become defining elements of this human-less modality, generating variations in later color postcard images by Alan Batt and others.

A 1981 exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Diaspora titled “La Nacion”: The Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the Caribbean utilized both “empty” architectural and ethnographic modes. Its featured images, created by photographer Micha Bar-Am during a museum-sponsored expedition to the region, implied a narrative of eventual extinction that reflected the exhibition’s broader view of diaspora communities. The most “live” of Bar-Am’s photographs included a service in Colon, Panama (the “youngest” of the Caribbean communities portrayed, founded in 1876), portraits of congregational elders (including photographs of older painted portraits), and casual images of local residents sitting in front of synagogue facades or appearing in street scenes; but he also included several deeply shaded images of building interiors, as well as close-ups of tombstones. These latter images, which projected abandonment, loss, age, and shadow, gave the exhibition an air of inevitability as it toured internationally through Jewish museums over the next two years.

Jewish communities of the Caribbean, in the meantime, cultivated their own contrapuntal modes of imagery. Individual members of these active populations took and shared photographs of their gala dinners, Passover seders, rituals, and cultural events, all of which added to the congregational record. As but one example: to celebrate its 1996 bicentennial, the St. Thomas congregation released a publicity video that primarily included scenes of members using the sanctuary, observing holidays on the beach, and taking part in social life. These images of Judaism-as-lived emulated modes of self-fashioning popular among contemporary American synagogue populations, differing mainly in their Caribbean setting; they foreground humanity over architecture, and value life over the relics themselves.

By way of contrast, it is hard to find any people at all in Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean, many of whose images might be seen to present hermetic, colonialist tropes of preservation in which the rare tiny human figures ostensibly infect the frame despite actually living there. Gallery presents these people as inconsequential to his larger drive to preserve, drawing at least in part on the urgency he experienced when photographing the aftermaths of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He appears to make this choice out of respect for the places themselves; a similar people-free approach pervades Gallery’s previous work on Sacred Sites. Yet the images of buildings and monuments standing alone, their spiritual presence emphasized through their aloofness, only presents a partial portrait.

Here these images become symbols of a personal connection to history and tradition. “I felt it was my calling,” Gallery claims, citing his Jewish ancestry, “to photographically document these modern-day treasures of the Jewish experience to ensure that future generations will be able to visually experience this exceptional story of Jewish survival and the birth of Judaism in the New World” (9). He wraps this perspective in a pair of supporting scholarly essays, both highlighting the past as a kind of golden age. A brief introduction by prominent American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna presents the photos as “an opportunity to be drawn back into the Caribbean Jewish world of yesterday, in all of its now-faded glory” (7). Historian Stanley Mirvis, in a longer historical overview, presents a similar greatness-to-loss narrative; yet he acknowledges at the end that several of these sites still have active Jewish communities, while hoping (optimistically perhaps) that Gallery’s work could help to revitalize them (16).

To his credit, Gallery crafts a more complete Caribbean Jewish topography than past efforts. While Suriname, Curaçao, Jamaica, St. Eustatius, St. Thomas and Barbados are no strangers to photo documentation, the additions of Aruba, St. Croix, and Nevis to the book, as well as Gallery’s travels to less visited Jewish cemeteries, offer a welcome expanded catalog of the region’s Jewish sites. And while many of the images directly resemble the work of Batt and Bar-Am in their angles and composition, they are gorgeous updates: projecting wide-eyed wonder with a rich color palette, beautiful lighting, and exquisite detail. I was particularly taken by the images of the Surinam cemetery, whose jumble of crumbling stones glistened in mottled shadows, deep in a forest dripping with vines and humidity.

Gallery’s images also evince a human presence in their own margins. Many of the sites he documents underwent recent restorations, either by Jewish populations who continue to use the spaces or by interested governmental and private organizations: even the St. Eustatius synagogue, a shell of a building on an island with no significant Jewish population, had its exterior walls rebuilt and stabilized in 2001. Synagogue sand floors contain clear imprints of modern footwear; several cemetery stone inscriptions are enhanced by water or flour to make them more readable; and cemetery landscapes often include rebuilt walls and gates. In explanatory notes throughout the book, Mirvis mentions some of these alterations, and Gallery’s acknowledgements credit his interactions with islanders. But the images themselves relegate these details to the indefinite past—replicating, in its sense of completion, Gelberg’s End of the Service image.

Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean ultimately renews historical engagement with its subject, both drawing from and extending existing representational tropes in another effort to preserve threatened (if, often, still used) structures. When it comes to physical “remains,” the book is the best of its kind, presented with a keen eye for architectural beauty. But I am torn. I have participated in services in the St. Thomas synagogue during four different decades, and become invested in its future; I have seen video of friends reenacting Jewish rituals in the St. Eustatius synagogue; and I have had meaningful interactions with the Jewish populations of St. Croix and Jamaica. The recent devastation of these islands by hurricanes Irma and Maria only emphasizes to me the urgent need to bring humans to the foreground as creators, users, and keepers of these resources. It takes effort to remove these people from the picture, even while acknowledging that such populations have themselves promoted a similar aesthetic to enhance their outward image at times. Wyatt Gallery’s collection will satisfy readers who see the Jewish Caribbean as a collection of beautiful aging objects. Yet how much more vibrant his book might have been had he treated these sites with greater attention to the trademarked motto on his own website: “a person, not a place.”

Judah M. Cohen
Associate Professor of Musicology, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture, Borns Jewish Studies Program, Indiana University Bloomington