Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Growing Up Jewish Where the Amazon Jungle Reaches the Atlantic Ocean

Our synagogue floor was covered with sand to remind us of the Israelites' trek across the desert to reach the Promised Land.

I invite my readers to get to know my wife Miriam by having her share with you the first part of the article she wrote 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. The second part will appear in next week’s Times of Israel.

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

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 rainforest 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 returned to the Paramaribo primary school. We stayed at home until we flew to New York with our two preschool 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 ear splitting 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.

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.

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.

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 gallbladder 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.

Photo of family in Suriname in 1943. On left is my mother and father with my sister Channa on his knee. I’m sitting on my Uncle Jacques’ knee. In the front row are my cousins Flip, Dekie and Judy.

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.

Click to read Part 2.

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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