12 June 2019

Growing Up Jewish Where the Amazon Jungle Reaches the Atlantic Ocean

I invite my readers to get to know my wife Miriam by having her share with you this article she wrote about growing up Jewish in Suriname, the former Dutch colony on the northern coast of South America before her family’s aliyah to Israel when she was nine.

Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname

You know her as my partner in creating the “Bible Blog Your Life” blogart project http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com Each week for a year, we studied the Torah portion read in synagogue and documented how it reflects our life together with photographs and Tweet texts. These 52 articles published by The Times of Israel became the core of my latest book Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media http://throughabiblelens.blogspot.com.

Growing Up Jewish in Suriname    
By Miriam Benjamin Alexenberg

Paramaribo, Suriname

The trap-door in my school’s floor flung open to swallow Rieke into a black void.   Rieke screamed in horror.   She kicked and thrashed as our first-grade teacher dragged her by her arm toward the underground dungeon.  Another teacher grabbed Rieke’s other arm to help shove her into the pit that my classmates were sure was filled with snakes that slithered into our school from the jungle. My teacher slammed the trap-door shut. 
I returned to our classroom with the other children.  Our teacher closed the door to mute Rieke’s desperate cries while she resumed her teaching.  I avoided the dreaded dungeon during my year in primary school in Paramaribo, Suriname, where the Amazon jungle reaches the Atlantic Ocean. 
The teacher, a wooden ruler in her hand ready to strike, walked between the rows of seats to enforce silence.  She taught us to write words and numbers on slates with a chalk-like stylus that made an unnerving screeching sound.  If a stylus broke while one of my classmates was writing, the teacher hit him on the back of his hand with the ruler.
My worst punishment was being put in the corner in front of the classroom facing the wall.  I suddenly felt the sting of the teacher’s ruler striking my backside.  I shivered in pain.  The whole class laughed.  Raw sores that covered my body from my waist to my ankles magnified the pain.
I had suffered from the sores for months.  A yellow salve that our Chinese doctor prescribed didn’t help.  The gooey salve excluded me from family trips in my father’s open-top car to prevent me from staining the seats.  An African healer wrapped in lime green and pink striped cloth appeared at our house to sell remedies made from plants in the rain forest where she lived.  When she saw my sores, she told my mother to stop feeding me oatmeal and peanuts.  My mother took her advice.  The sores disappeared in a week.
The healer came to Paramaribo in a dugout canoe riding the rapids from her village deep in the jungle.  She told of how her ancestors from Africa were brought to Suriname as slaves to work on the sugar cane and coffee plantations.  They escaped into the jungle joining other runaway slaves in establishing a new and unique culture made up of people from diverse West African tribes.
Mommy liberated me and my left-handed sister Channa from school.  She could not tolerate that Channa was swatted with a ruler on her left hand every time she attempted to write with it.  All children had to write with their right hands.  No exceptions.
Channa was a year older than me.  We never return to the Paramaribo primary school.  We stayed at home until we flew to New York with our two pre-school brothers, Joop and Hans, on our way to Israel a year later.
Every Shabbat, my father locked his office door.  He was free to sit with Channa and me on the couch to tell us stories that came alive.  We found ourselves inside the scenes he painted with his words.   The rise and fall of his voice created tension and anticipation.  We loved listening to his storytelling. 
He told us about the evil people of Sodom who could not tolerate individual differences.  When a person came to their city, they forced him to fit into a single mold.  If he was too short, they devised a machine to stretch him.  If he was too tall, they cut off his feet.  It was clear to us that our teachers were descendants of the people of Sodom.
It wasn’t strange to me that my home became my school and my mother my teacher.  She taught me to read Dutch and used an abacus of red, blue, green and yellow beads to teach me arithmetic.  Our home was already Paramaribo’s Hebrew school.  Mommy taught Channa and me along with the other girls in our community to read the Hebrew prayer book.  We all sat around a large round table where we saw each other’s faces rather that the backs of our classmates’ heads.  We read aloud the Shema, the core of the Jewish liturgy, where Moses instructs parents:  “You shall teach Torah values to your children through discussions with them when you sit at home and by your actions when you walk on life’s pathways.”
My father had his business office in our house. I was never allowed to disturb him although I could see him working through the open door of his office.  I remember when he ran into the living room when he heard an earsplitting crash coupled with the sound of shattering glass.  He saw a hand-cut crystal bowl, a wedding present, on the floor in a hundred pieces.  Papa’s surprise look turned severe.  I stood facing him with a guilty look that said that I had knocked it off the credenza.  I said, “Can the bowl-breaker have a candy?”  He burst out laughing.  I don’t remember getting a candy.

 Neveh Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo

I loved when my father took me with him to the synagogue.  The entire floor was covered with sand to remind us of the trek of the Israelites across the desert to reach the Promised Land.  I rushed to be the first person in synagogue on Friday evenings after the sand floors were raked smooth so that my footprints would be the first to show.  On Shabbat mornings, my father often volunteered to chant the weekly portion from the Torah scroll in either the Ashkenazi synagogue Neveh Shalom or the Sephardi synagogue Tzedek Ve-Shalom.

Tzedek Ve-Shalom Synagogue, Paramaribo, reconstructed in The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

More than a half-century later in Jerusalem, I envisioned him on the raised bima in the center of the Tzedek Ve-Shalom synagogue that was dismantled, transported to Israel, and reconstructed on the campus of the Israel Museum in 2010.  I created an artwork My Synagogue Came on Aliyah that documents this story for the exhibition Silent Witnesses: Migration Stories through Synagogues Transformed, Rebuilt, or Left Behind in Detroit in 2012.
Every evening, Channa and I stood around mommy’s piano with our cousins, Flip and Dekie, as she played Dutch children’s songs and sang with us. Often Judy, a relative from Israel, joined us. We loved to sing the song, “Three little toddlers were sitting on a fence/On top of the fence/On a beautiful warm day in September.”  We also enjoyed a song about the ice cream man. The lyrics made sense to mommy who was born in Amsterdam and grew up in Holland.   They made no sense to us kids who grew up in the tropics where it is hot all year around and where we had no ice cream. 

On the left is my mother and father with my sister Channa on his knee.  I'm sitting on my uncle Jacques' knee.  In the front are my cousins Flip, Dekie and Judy.

When I was a year old, my cousins Flip and Dekie came to live with us after their mother Saar, mommy’s identical twin sister had died.  As little girls, mommy and Saar looked so much alike that on Shabbat when they went to their grandfather’s house for his blessing, he asked, “Who is Annie?  “Who is Saar?”   Since Saar was born minutes before mommy, he gave Saar the first blessing.  Mommy’s grandfather was Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dunner, the chief rabbi of Holland who had the foresight to see at the beginning of the 20th century the bleak future for the Jews of Europe.    
As Hitler rose to power in Germany, Saar’s recurring nightmares about the Nazis ripping her children away from her prompted her to settle with Flip, Dekie, and her husband Jacques in Aruba, a Dutch island in the Caribbean.  She died from a botched gall-bladder operation.  Jacques, a busy businessman, was not able to raise his children alone.  My parents were happy to have them live with us in Suriname.   Mommy told that when Dekie walked down the stairs from the airplane and saw her, she cried out in joy, “Oh mommy, you’re all better now.”  Her older brother Flip explained to her that it was their aunt Annie she was hugging, not their mother.
On my fourth birthday, mommy gave birth to my brother Joop in our house.  My father told me to sit and wait for my special birthday present.  My mother set my newborn brother in a wicker basket on the floor in front of me.  They said, “Here’s your birthday present.”  I leaned forward to take him out of the basket when I was stopped. I was angry that I couldn’t play with my birthday present.
Seven months later, my uncle Jacques came with his new wife to take Flip and Dekie back to their home in Aruba. I only knew Flip as my protective big brother and Dekie as my spirited older sister rather than as cousins since they had come to Suriname when I was a year old.  They were suddenly gone.  I was struck by the absence of their voices when only Channa and I were left to sing with mommy as she played piano that evening.  Seeing their empty beds made the somber reality cry out.
My father drove to the Port of Paramaribo when ships arrived from Europe to see if any Jewish refugees disembarked.  Hundreds of Jews found refuge in Suriname escaping from the Holocaust during the 1940’s.  He invited them to our home to tell them about kosher food, mikveh, the Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues, and other necessities for Jewish life in their new home at the edge of the jungle.  Mommy and papa invited some to stay with us until they were settled.
Mommy and papa put me and Channa to bed before they talked to their guests.  They did not want us to hear the stories that the refugees told about the horrors happening to the Jews in Europe.  My bed was up against a wooden wall that didn’t reach up to the ceiling.  There was a full-foot gap between the wall and the ceiling to let air circulate between the rooms in the humid heat of our house. We overheard the stories floating over the wall.
I had a recurring nightmare that I was running between scorched trees scattered through an endless field.  I was searching for a place to hide. Terrified.  Out-of-breath.  No place to hide.  I heard them running after me.  I quickly glanced back.  I saw five or six Nazis coming closer and closer.   I picked up speed, not losing hope of finding a place to hide in the barren wasteland before they caught and kill me.  I suddenly found myself a hiding place caged under tightly-woven netting hanging over me from the ceiling, tucked-in under my mattress on all four sides.  I woke up from my dream safe in my bed covered with netting to save me from the toxic tropical insects.
For years, I could not understand how my mother had the strength to play cheerful children’s songs on her piano as she joyously sang with us every day knowing the horrific fate of her parents Yehuda and Devora.  She learned from the refugees how the Dutch Police rounded up the Jews in Amsterdam and shipped them off to the gas chambers of Auschwitz on Dutch Railway trains.  Her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews were herded onto some of the 65 non-stop, one-way trains from Amsterdam to Auschwitz.  All were killed.  Recently, it was pointed out to me that her giving us a happy childhood was the right thing to do since she was helpless to do anything about the Holocaust.  It was a heroic thing to do.
It was clear to my parents that the Jewish future for their children would be in the Israel yet to be born.  Mommy’s brother Jo and her sister Fie had been living there since the early 1930’s.  Jo was a farmer in Hibat Tzion (Affection for Zion), a moshav near Netanya.  Fie lived in Bat Yam south of Tel Aviv where she was a singer with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  Papa’s mother came to live with us in Paramaribo and his brother Saul moved to New York before Hitler’s rise to power.  His brother Jules survived the Holocaust in hiding and moved to Paris.  His sister Devora and his other six siblings, their spouses, and all their children were murdered.  Devora was also mommy’s mother.  My mother married her favorite uncle, my father.
Our family’s active involvement in Zionism began four decades before Herzl organized the first Zionist Congress in 1897.  Mommy’s grandfather Yosef Tzvi Dunner wrote about his Zionist thoughts as a young yeshiva student in Krakow.  He was stabbed in the back by a fellow student, an anti-Zionist zealot typical of many yeshiva students in Europe. He was rushed from the hospital out of Poland in fear for his life.  He moved to Germany where he earned a doctorate in 1862 from the University of Bonn for his thesis on the philosophy and poetry of Abraham Ibn Ezra, one of the most distinguished biblical commentators born in Tudela, Spain, in 1089.
His creative ideas on the synthesis of Torah study and secular learning and of Judaism and Zionism prompted the Amsterdam Jewish community to invite him to head its rabbinical seminary.  He accepted the positon and was subsequently elected Chief Rabbi of Holland.  In his 1895 Rosh Hashanah sermon on the spiritual significance of the Zionist reawakening of the Jewish nation, he said: “Eventually the shofar will sound to the full return of those lost and dispersed to Israel, their homeland.”
Mommy realized her grandfather’s dream by beginning our journey to our homeland in February 1948, three months before the rebirth of the Jewish State after two thousand years of exile.  She was excited about joining her siblings Fie and Jo who she hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years.  Papa stayed behind to sell our house and move his business office to a rented space.  He drove us to the Paramaribo airfield where we boarded a propeller-driven KLM plane to New York where mommy was to arrange our passage on a ship to Israel.
When the plane landed at LaGuardia Airport, mommy hurried to dress us in alien long-sleeved garments and funny brown leggings that she had sewn for our trip.  I had never worn more than a thin cotton dress.  We were the last passengers to leave the plane.  I walked out of the plane onto the staircase with Channa.  Mommy followed us carrying Hans and holding Joop’s hand.  I was suddenly attacked all over my body by pins and needles piercing my skin.  I had never in my life felt cold.  I quickly turned pushing mommy aside to return to the plane.  Channa followed.  Mommy’s makeshift clothes were no protection against winter air blowing across the airfield.  Since the stewardess began closing the airplane’s door, we had no choice but to run down the stairs and race into the airport building.  The New York sky fooled me.   It was as blue and bright as a steaming Suriname sky.
I was so frightened and disoriented on the drive from the airport without papa that I don’t remember going over the Triborough Bridge or seeing the Manhattan skyline.  The taxi drove through dreary grey streets past naked trees stripped of their leaves.  There were no wooden houses painted in bright white surrounded by green foliage dotted with ripening mangos.  The driver dropped us off in front of a towering grey stone building.  We walked up wide steppingstones into a cavernous windowless lobby lined at one end with doors.  We clung to mommy as she searched for the door of our Dutch host family.  The family’s two children Leo and Blanch greeted us warmly.  The bright light coming through the high windows in their apartment added to the warmth of our temporary home on Riverside Drive.
Mommy arranged for Channa and me to go to the yeshiva elementary school where Leo and Blanche studied.  An unsympathetic teacher sat behind her desk babbling in Yiddish accented English.  She never smiled.  I didn’t understand one word of her non-stop chattering.  Mommy switched us to the local public school.  A soft-spoken woman with long blond curls greeted mommy in the school office.  She introduced herself to me, took my hand and led me to her classroom, offered me a seat near her desk, and introduced me to my new classmates.  Every day when I came to school, Mrs. McBride greeted me and made me feel that her classroom was mine.   I loved how she pranced around the room smiling as she spoke.  Her enthusiastic tone of voice often carried her message even when didn’t understand her words.
When I was in a store with mommy, I saw a barrette with two yellow doves facing each other with their wings spread upward.  They had tiny black eyes.  I loved it.  Mommy bought it for me.  The next morning, I gave it to Mrs. McBride.  She thanked me profusely as she clipped it into her curls in front of the class.  I was so proud and happy on every day she wore it to school.
We had planned to stay in New York for only a few weeks until we boarded a ship to Israel.  When Arab militias intensified their attacks against the Jews living in Israel, my parents changed our plans.  Hordes of local Arabs joined by the armies of surrounding Arab states battled to annihilate the Jewish State at the time of its rebirth.  When Israel’s War of Independence dragged on into the summer, papa arranged for us to return to Suriname.

Wooden houses in Paramaribo

I did not return to the Suriname that I had left.  Papa had sold our house with all our furniture in it.  We moved into a rented space on the top floor of a three-story wooden house. The two spinster landladies lived on the second floor.  Papa rented the ground floor for his offices.  He ran an import-export business that had been in his family for generations.  He said that his company sold everything except airplanes.  He also had offices in Amsterdam. 
I was sent to a new school since the primary school I left only went to the second grade.  My parents hoped it would better than the school with the dungeon.  When mommy was standing on the balcony of our third-floor apartment and saw children chasing and throwing stones at Channa and me, she took us out of that school, too.  She hired a private teacher, Miss Bulop, to teach us reading and writing Dutch and arithmetic.  We walked to her house every day except for Shabbat.  Hefty Miss Bulop was as wide as she was tall.  She was always dressed in a drab brown dress that matched her dour face that never smiled.       
One of the first of mommy’s old friends who came to visit was Visha.   She was of West African descent like the healer from the jungle who cured the painful sores covering my skin.  But her ancestors were not slaves who escaped into the jungle.  They were among those slaves freed by edict of the Dutch government in the 1870’s.  Mommy first found Visha as a young woman running away from an abusive household.  She was homeless and pregnant.  Mommy, also pregnant with her first child, took Visha into our home and set up a nursery with two cribs next to each other.  Channa and Visha’s daughter, both born in November 1939, were raised side by side.  Visha lived in our home until she married.  She continued to visit mommy until we left for Israel ten years later.
In the Amsterdam market a quarter of a century later, Visha saw Channa shopping and recognized her.  She called out her Dutch name “Hanake, Hanake” in her deep melodic voice.  When Channa heard a familiar voice, she turned and saw Visha’s cheerful face.  They ran to each other and hugged.  Both were living in Holland with their Dutch husbands and children.  When mommy was 90 in 1997, Visha visited her at Queen Julian Home for Parents in Israel.  Mommy drove Visha along the Route 5 high-speed freeway from Herzliya to Petah Tikva in her red Volva to visit Channa who also lived in Israel at the time. 
 Channa’s tenth birthday party stands out as a major event of my childhood.  We celebrated in a sundrenched clearing between cocoa bean trees and the dense growth of giant tropical trees flowing into our backyard from the Amazon jungle.  Channa and I sang with the girls from the Hebrew class that my mother taught.  In our colorful party dresses, we crowded around a block of ice waiting for paper cones filled with shaved ice smothered with red syrup.  I looked forward to my tenth birthday party.  It never happened.  We moved to Israel when I was nine.

About the writer Miriam Benjamin Alexenberg: I am an artist who has created Jewish ceremonial objects and clayscapes inspired by the forces of geology and erosion in the Negev desert. I also created Legacy Thrones, three monumental artworks made in collaboration with elders from different ethnic communities of Miami and art students in Jerusalem. My artwork has been exhibited in galleries and museums in New York, Miami, Washington D.C., Detroit and Honolulu. I studied at Columbia University, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, Arrowmont School of Crafts, Massachusetts College of Art, and earned my M.F.A. at Pratt Institute. I was artist-in-residence at the South Florida Art Center and have taught at colleges in Israel and New York.
This blog post appears in two parts at The Times of Israel and LinkedIn.

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