My understanding of the ‘Spanish and Portuguese’ Jewish diaspora is now far more nuanced, having recently visited the S&P communities of London, Amsterdam and Paris, coupled with my intimate familiarity with New York’s community. Experiencing these communities first hand has provided me with an insight I may have otherwise missed. Similar to my visit to Portugal, I learned a great deal from physically visiting these places, beyond what I could have learnt from solely reading about them.
Amsterdam is considered the ‘mother’ community of the ‘Spanish and Portuguese’ Jews, as it was there in the 17th century that so many Portuguese conversos returned to open Judaism. From Amsterdam, Portuguese Jews would end up in London, Brazil, the Caribbean and North America. I was therefore surprised when I discovered that the prayer melodies that I know from New York were so different from those in Amsterdam, so similar to those in London, and that they were all different from those that I heard in Paris.
It therefore dawned on me the significant role that political, linguistic and economic ties and differences must have played on the S&P diaspora. While the Portuguese Jewish communities all share a common heritage, they have also evolved along geopolitical lines. England, France and he Netherlands all had holdings in the New World (though who held what wasn’t always a constant). Naturally, Jews also went along with others to help settle these colonies and reap the rewards of new opportunities. However, as a result of lines of communication, and familial ties, these satellite Jewish communities tended to interact to a higher degree with the Jews living in their allied colonial power than with Portuguese Jews living in other places. So the Jews of New York and Jamaica naturally communicated with each other and with the Jews of London with higher frequency than they did with other S&P communities, similar to the Jews of Suriname and Curaçao with the Jews of Amsterdam.
This is an important insight for properly evaluating trends and mentalities within these various communities. I’ve previously spoken of the problem of assessing any colonial era Portuguese Jewish community in isolation from the others. They interacted so much with each other, and their populations were generally in flux, with residents regularly moving between them. However, it would also be a mistake to simply lump all Portuguese Jewish communities into one pile too. Rather, the individual communities should also be considered along their colonial alliances if they are to be properly understood.