I first met Professor Sarah Phillips Casteel in 2009 when the chair of the Carleton University English Department suggested she supervise my doctorate. After growing up in Ottawa and at Temple Israel, Casteel earned her PhD from Columbia University in New York. At Carleton, she teaches Caribbean literature, Diaspora literature and post-colonial literature.
“One of my ideas for the dissertation is to write about the trauma of slavery and the trauma of the Holocaust, and about how memory of trauma is inscribed in the body,” I said, eagerly. “How do I do this within Caribbean literature?”
Casteel nodded and cautioned me about the tensions between Jewish studies scholarship and black and African studies scholarship. I become her student as well as her research assistant for a manuscript that, I am proud to say, has just been published by Columbia University Press.
The research for Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination led the two of us on wild journeys to archives, museums, cemeteries, synagogues, mikvahs, and libraries in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Curaçao, the Netherlands, France, and Jamaica. And, when we couldn’t get there ourselves, my intrepid friend Ken Victor ventured into the Surinamese rainforest to collect interviews and photographs on our behalf.
I caught up with Casteel in advance of the book launch for Calypso Jews – Tuesday, March 8, 10 am, in Patterson Hall at Carleton University – and asked her to describe the book.
“Calypso Jews explores a pattern of imagery in which Caribbean writers persistently invoke two Jewish historical experiences: the 1492 expulsion from Spain and Portugal, and the Holocaust. The question is why? Why this pattern of referencing Jewish historical narratives? What does it mean for Jewish history but also for Caribbean literature and history?” she said.
In the book, Casteel discusses the two major arrivals of Jews to the Caribbean, those who arrived after 1492 in the aftermath of the expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula, and those who fled Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The phrase “Calypso Jews” refers to the Ashkenazi Jews who found refuge in Trinidad during the Holocaust.
Her research uncovered a deep and rich Jewish historical presence in the Caribbean. Casteel knew that Sephardic Jews had settled in the colonial Caribbean and that they had worked in the sugar industry, but the histories were more entangled than she had thought.
In what is now Suriname, for example, Sephardic Jews arriving via the Netherlands founded a “new Jerusalem” called the Jodensavanne, and they were a thriving presence in that colony’s plantation economy. Some Jewish families, including in Suriname, were slave owners and planters. But, elsewhere in the Caribbean, the number of Jewish planters was very small owing to the differing legal rights of Jews depending on whether they lived in a British, Dutch, French, Spanish, or Portuguese colony. But, whether as merchants, traders or planters, Jews were a real presence throughout the Caribbean.
The tricky question of Jewish involvement in slavery – which was relatively minor – is just as complicated as the lived experience of Jewish identity in the Caribbean. Although the current Jewish population is small due to migration to Israel and North America, there are also many Afro-Caribbean families with roots as old as the Sephardic arrival that still light candles on Friday evenings without fully knowing why, and Jewish surnames such as Levy, Cohen and Maduro are not uncommon. In a region where colonial interference, demographic shifts resulting from slavery and indentured labour, and the co-mingling of racial groups was inevitable, people are more used to cultural and racial complexity than in North America or Europe.
Casteel notes that a number of the Caribbean writers in her study have been themselves accused of not being Afro-Caribbean enough. Mixed-race writers like Derek Walcott and Michelle Cliff share a sense of in-betweeness. Connecting to Jewish historical or ancestral moments, and to a Jewish-outsider identification, is a portal for Caribbean writers to explore their own mixed identities, their own cross-cultural backgrounds, the lived experience of connected communities, and to call into question social and racial categories.
“Calypso Jews reveals how entangled, overlapping and intersecting the histories are,” she said.
Casteel’s book celebrates the cultural diversity already present in the Jewish World.
“I hope that by revealing overlapping experiences of diaspora and persecution, the book highlights cross-cultural experiences shared between diaspora groups. I hope it can be an antidote to the political rhetoric in society and in academic circles that can sometimes be so divisive.”
Visit www.tinyurl.com/Calypso-Jews for more information about Calypso Jews.