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Rabbi Reuven (Bobby) Silverman - B’chol Dor Va’dor

B'chol Dor Va'dor
Hodu Ladonai ki Tov
Order of Service

Rabbi Reuven Silverman“These tunes come from the island of Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles where I worked for two-and-a-half years from 1969. I brought a number of songs and customs back to the UK and the tunes are a mixture of Sephardi and Ashkenazi melodies, some of which come from the Wischnitz family of Curaçao who were originally from Romania.

I had wanted to be a rabbi since I was eight years old. My parents weren’t religious but I had an early sense of vocation. I went to cheder at Wembley United synagogue and at the age of ten transferred to West London (Reform) Synagogue when my father became Secretary there. The education at West London was second to none and I was inspired by my teachers, amongst them Rabbi Dov Marmur and the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

West London Synagogue was originally a breakaway community from the Sephardi Bevis Marks synagogue although throughout the 1930s Ashkenazi rabbis and scholars who had fled from Nazi Germany were welcomed into the community. In a sense I never left. At the age of fourteen I went to cheder teachers’ training college and later, Hugo Gryn, then a teacher there, gave me my first job. I was one-track minded and spent my ‘gap year’ at Leo Baeck College and then went to Leeds University where I read philosophy and history. At university I was programmes officer for the Jewish Society, president of Hillel House and conducted services in Reform synagogues across the North East.

After university I answered an advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle for an assistant rabbi, chazzan (which I wasn’t!) and teacher in Curaçao. I only knew where it was as I had been a stamp collector as a child! In 1969, at the age of twenty-one, I took up the post but after I’d been there for three months the rabbi went, leaving me to do everything, including being head teacher of the weekday Hebrew school.

Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Curacao, by Philip DicklandThe Mikve Israel Synagogue was founded in 1654 and is the oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere. In the 15th century 800 Sephardi families descended from the Marranos escaped the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions and went to Brazil. In 1624 Brazil was captured by the Dutch and the Jewish community experienced a period of tolerance which ended in 1654 with the recapture of the country by the Portuguese. At this point the Jews fled again, this time to New Amsterdam (later New York) and to the island of Curaçao, both Dutch territories.

In 1864, a third of the Jewish population started a breakaway congregation following Reform Ashkenazi tradition which was making a great impact in the United States and Germany. They built Temple Emanuel and brought in an organ to try to discourage people returning to the older synagogue. Unable to sustain two congregations, 100 years later the two congregations united to form Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the West. In order to preserve some of the customs of both congregations Mikvé Israel-Emanuel chose to follow join the Reconstructionist Movement. In 2001, in celebration of the synagogue’s 350th anniversary the Dutch crown paid for the refurbishment of the organ. This is the synagogue in which I worked.

Today 90% of Curaçaoans are Caribbean with the Jewish community making up approximately 1% of the population. The official language is Dutch although the native tongue is Papiamento, a cocktail of Portuguese, Dutch and Afro–Caribbean languages with a sprinkling of English and French. Many Jews also speak Hebrew and Yiddish and in fact Curaçao is one of the few places in the world where children still speak Yiddish. When I went to Curaçao I spoke some Dutch and learned Papiamento which I still remember. The Sephardi community speaks Spanish, which is regarded as rather upper-class and Portuguese is still used in synagogue services. The prayer for the Dutch Queen is said in Portuguese and Hebrew!

Although I initially felt very strange, especially as a white single man, the community were exceptionally welcoming, almost adopting me. The Jewish community were well-established and very successful in business. There was no real anti-Semitism and many people claimed to be of Jewish descent although some Ashkenazi Jewish businesses were burned down during anti-capitalist riots in 1991. People were curious about Jews and often looked into the open windows of the synagogue - there was no air-conditioning - during services. I became very well known on the island through broadcasting a weekly television programme called ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’.

The synagogue music was basically Sephardi of the Amsterdam tradition and there were rules forbidding any of it to be changed. However over the years it did gradually change with local melodies being influenced by organ music and a type of quick step dance music! I don’t use any of the Curaçao melodies in my synagogue in Manchester, only at home.”

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