People are always itching to move. Especially Jews, who have always yearned for redemption and return to their ancestral home. Even before that hoped for day, as the years stretched on a new idea arose in many heads. Why not establish a halfway house, a place to rest our weary bones until the Moshiach’s shofar blast calls us home? These sorts of ideas were propagated not only by Jews, but also by non- Jewish nations with their own agendas and ambitions.
The idea of a home away from home was not all that earthshaking since sovereign Jewish kingdoms existed in the past. Besides the famous Khazar kingdom that retained its Jewish flavor for centuries, there was the smaller kingdom of Adiabene in Mesopotamia, whose Jewishness fizzled out after a handful of generations.
This was during the last decades of the second Temple when Queen Helena of Abiadene converted to Judaism, moved to Eretz Yisroel, and built palaces south of the Bais Hamikdash. People stepping off the bus to visit the Kosel are within a stone’s throw of the place. Two years ago, the Abiadene palaces hit the headlines when archeologists unearthed an ancient palace in the vicinity and speculated that this may well have been one of her multiple edifices.
During that same time, a lesser known and wilder sort of Jewish kingdom was rearing its ugly head. This private enterprise was run by two brothers, Asinai and Anilai, whose widowed mother had tried, unsuccessfully, to implement Chazal’s rule that whoever fails to teach his son a skill, teaches him banditry, by apprenticing them to a weaver. The restless youngsters found the work so deadly monotonous that they developed a preference for arriving late every morning and risking their boss’s strap.
To escape his heavy hand, they fled to a fertile marshland at a fork of the Euphrates River where fruit grew wild and cattle roamed, and for a while they simply enjoyed an idyllic existence, loafing from morning ‘till night. After a large number of loafers and drifters joined them, the brothers constructed a fort and set up a protection racket, instructing local herders that for a certain consideration they would be their “friends” and ensure that no harm came to their livestock…
Enraged at this state of anarchy, the governor of Bavel gathered a force of soldiers and cavalry and rode out to teach them a lesson, cunningly delaying his attack until Shabbos since who ever heard of the Jews desecrating their holy day of rest! Surely even the lowest Jews would never dare!
Sitting with his friends and enjoying the Shabbos quiet, Asinai suddenly remarked, “I hear the neighing of horses, not horses that are feeding but horses with men on their backs, and I hear the noise of bridles and fear that enemies are surrounding us. Let someone go to look out and see what is happening!”
The messengers returned in a panic.
“We are cunningly trapped like beasts,” he cried. “A large troop of cavalry is approaching and we cannot defend ourselves due to our halacha, which obligates us to rest!”
The governor of Bavel was right. Even this lowly robber was automatically willing to give up everything without a fight. But Asinai was of a different stripe. Seizing his weapons, he urged his men to attack and inflicted a stinging defeat on the governor’s forces. King Artabanus II of Parthia (Bavel was under Parthian rule) was so impressed at the extraordinary power of the brothers that he invited them to pay him a state visit. Not that he particularly liked them. His fear was that they might ally with rebellious satraps and topple him from his throne.
The lawless kingdom persisted for another fifteen years. After Asinai died under circumstances recorded by Josephus (Antiquities 18:9), Anilai continued on his own. In the end, he revealed that he too had a pintele Yid hidden inside when he once captured Mithridates, the king’s son-in-law, in battle.
When his comrades suggested he execute the prisoner, Anilai refused, reasoning that if they killed a member of the king’s royal family, the king would never rest until he made a great slaughter of the Jews of Bavel.
“We must have consideration for their safety,” he warned them. “They are our relatives and also, if anything happens to us, we have no other place to escape to.”
Mithridates utilized his lease of life to return with a vast army and permanently crush Anilai’s power base. To some extent, the bandit state had been good for the Jews as the Babylonians never dared to be too anti-Semitic due to fear of the brothers’ revenge. Now that Anilai was gone, however, their hatred whipped back like an unleashed spring and attacked the Jews, forcing many of them to flee.
One of the best known Jewish mini states arose centuries later in the middle of the parched Arabian desert 95 miles north of the Muslim city of Medina. Jews there prospered through date cultivation and trading, defending their holdings with a string of fortresses they built on the desert hills and crags. Soon after Mohamed captured the place in 4389/629, and its Jews were banished. Muslims have never forgotten this proto battle against the Jewish enemy. In recent times, if you listen carefully at anti-Israel demonstrations you may discern a popular chant, “Khaybr Khaybar ya Yahud, jaysh Muhamad saufa ya’ud,” “Jews, remember Khaybar. The army of Mohamed will return.”
LAND FOR WORK
A thousand years later, the new world was discovered, providing endless tracts of new land to work and exploit. A number of projects got under way to provide Jews with a new home. The first of these was conceived by the Dutch West India Company, which had two promising qualities. First, it had a number of Jews on its board of directors, and second, its main goal was to extract every cent possible out of newly discovered lands. Thus, during 5411/1651, the anti-Semitic Governor Pieter Stuyvesant in New York was shocked to receive a letter in connection with Curaçao, a small island on the topside of South America, captured by the Dutch from Spain 17 years earlier.
Curaçao’s problem was that few people wanted to live there and it was not producing enough for the company’s endless appetite. Consequently, it was necessary to come up with a daring plan, and this is the letter Stuyvesant held in his sweating fingers:
“Although we have once before written about the island of Curaçao, ‘that, if we should have no revenue whatever from there it might be advisable to abandon it …’ the enclosed contract made with a Jew, Jan de Illan will prove to you the contrary. He intends to bring a considerable number of people there to settle and cultivate, as he pretends, the land, but we begin to suspect that he and his associates have quite another object in view, namely to trade from there to the West Indies and the Main.
“Be that as it may, we are willing to make the experiment, and you must therefore charge Director Rodenborch to accommodate him within proper limits, and in conformity with the conditions of his contract.”
Jan de Illan had started his life in Portugal as Joao, a Portuguese Marrano and had experience trading with Brazil. Unfortunately, few Jews were willing to risk life and limb on his wildcat enterprise, and his guaranteed quota of fifty families dwindled down to twelve who, judging by their names, were all Spanish or Portuguese: De Meza, Aboab, Pereira, De Leon, La Parra, Touro, Cardoze, Jesurun, Marchena, Chaviz, Oleveira, and Henriquez Cutinho.
After settling on the “De Hoop (hope)” plantation on the island, these heroes discovered that there was more hope of success in trade than in farming and began logging the local forests. The Dutch promptly rapped them on the knuckles and ordered them to return to the plow and spade. Perhaps this contributed to the colony’s swift demise. Nowadays, the land once assigned to these astute pioneers is still known as the “Jodenwyk” (Jewish quarter). Many Jews came to live in Curaçao afterwards, and the Mikveh Yisroel shul built there in 5452/1692, is the oldest continuously used shul in the New World.
Meanwhile a similar experiment was taking place nearby for very similar motives. After seizing the colony of Surinam on the northern edge of South America from France, Britain discovered that for some reason, few people were interested in going there unless a giant carrot was dangled before their noses. The cheapest carrot available was to offer Jews from the Netherlands, Portugal, and Italy an unprecedented promise: Go to Surinam and we’ll give you full-fl edged British citizenship. These Jews were the first to receive the full citizenship of any country in modern times.
Various Jewish groups sailed in, one of them settling in 5412/1652 in an area known as Jodensavanne (Jews Savanna). Hopes ran high that the groups would coagulate and grow into an autonomous Jewish state. This goal was never realized, although the Jews did achieve a large degree of internal autonomy.
So where did the Jews hit the jackpot in the New World?
Not far from Surinam was the island of Cayenne where the Dutch needed people to get the place onto its feet, and who better than the Jews? In 5419/1659 the first group arrived from Brazil and created a Jewish settlement at Remire in the west side of the island, and a year later, they were joined by over 150 Italian Jews from Leghorn. For a while it seemed that the Jews had their own foothold in the New World when the hundreds of colonists built their own fort and organized a community based on halacha and minhag. Things seemed too good to be true and they were. The idyllic existence was shattered by a French invasion in 5423/1663 when most of the Jews left for nearby Jewish Savanna. Four years later, the English attacked Cayenne, destroyed the Jewish colony of Remire, and shipped its last 50 to 60 Jews to British colonies in Surinam and Barbados.
This was the end of the grand South America experiment. Bigger experiments were yet to come as Jews continued their patient wait for redemption.