Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Growing Up Jewish Where the Amazon Jungle Reaches the Atlantic Ocean (Part 2)

I invite my readers to get to know my wife Miriam by having her share with you Part 2 of her article that began in the June 13, 2019 Times of Israel. See Part One.   

She writes about growing up Jewish in Suriname, the Dutch colony on the northern coast of South America, before her family’s aliyah to Israel when she was nine.

You know her as my partner in creating the “Bible Blog Your Life” blogart project  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

Growing Up Jewish in Suriname

By Miriam Benjamin Alexenberg

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.

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 1870s. 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 10 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 10th 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 10th birthday party.  It never happened.  We moved to Israel when I was 9.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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